Peter Manson reports on the SACP’s December 9-12 special national congress.
The South African Communist Party’s special national congress (SNC) is just about to come to a close. The SNC was supposed to act as a “mid-term review” following the last official national congress in July 2017 - the job of the 800 delegates gathering at Ekurhuleni, near Johannesburg, was to assess work done on the 2017 resolutions.
So what about the decision made back then for the SACP to stand in elections under its own name, independently of the ruling African National Congress and under a “reconfigured alliance”? Although it did contest one municipal by-election shortly after that congress, the policy was quietly dropped, once Cyril Ramaphosa replaced Jacob Zuma as president the following year. The SACP had, of course, mobilised against Zuma, condemning his nepotism and corruption, and claiming that his presidency had resulted in “state capture” by privileged capitalists.
But, with Ramaphosa at the helm, things now look different and it was a case of ‘as you were’ in this year’s general election, with SACP members contesting as ANC candidates. As usual, leading SACP figures were appointed to the new government - for example, general secretary Blade Nzimande is once again minister of higher education.
Beforehand there was speculation that oppositionists at the SNC would challenge the leadership’s departure from the 2017 decision, but that does not seem to have happened. If anyone objected to Nzimande’s statement - “The central committee says to you that one of the primary tasks of the period is to build the ANC” - they seem to have been very quiet about it.
After all, according to Nzimande, things have changed since the 2017 congress: “We met at a time when there was huge political uncertainty, even among ourselves as the SACP.” And, in case you were wondering, “We are not retreating from any resolution of ours: yes, we will contest elections”. However, he added, “we need to reconfigure the alliance”, which means contesting “as part of an ANC list” (my emphasis). He did not explain what that would mean - how would that be any different from what has happened up to now?
The South African electoral system is completely proportional, with each party gaining one MP for every 0.25% it gains of the total national vote. So, if SACP members are elected, they would have to be amongst those on the official ANC list - they would be ANC MPs, just as they are now.
As a concession to those who now think it is time for the party to go it alone - and perhaps join the ANC in a subsequent coalition government - Nzimande said: “We would still like to contest under one list.” But “If that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen”: the SACP was “not scared of going at it alone”.
There is ever growing dissatisfaction with the ANC among the majority of South Africans, whose dire economic situation has hardly improved, if at all, since the final demise of apartheid in 1994. On top of that, the basic failings of the ANC could not be clearer. In addition to the recent water rationing, we are now seeing a series of daily power cuts across the country, following the dismal neglect of the country’s basic infrastructure. This dissatisfaction is reflected in the continual growth in official membership of the SACP, which is seen as a radical voice by large numbers of the poverty-stricken population.
As SACP deputy general secretary Solly Mapaila has admitted, “There is a constituency; it needs an appropriate party that is able to articulate its concerns.”1 Yes, he continued, the current situation had been a “big talking point” in the party, and “the possibility of contesting independently from the ANC”, while “still maintaining the alliance”, was “on the table”. Mapaila conceded that there were many South Africans who would vote for the SACP if it were to contest elections independently.
But the furthest Nzimande was prepared to go was to repeat the party’s call for “a change in the manner in which the tripartite alliance operates”.2 Of course, the SACP “must not hand the ANC a blank cheque”, when it comes to elections: “We need to make it clear that there must be an agreement on the manifesto for the elections and that we would not accept imposed and unpopular candidates that represent factional interests.” Well, that’s not going very far, is it, Blade?
As part of its press coverage, the party referred journalists to the online version of its publication, Bua Komanisi, which carries the leadership’s proposals for the SNC.3 Here it is claimed that the 2017 congress resolution “did not commit the SACP to contest elections on its own” (my emphasis), although “it did not explicitly exclude this option”. However, it then quotes the actual resolution, which states: “The SACP must actively contest elections.” True, “the modality through which we contest elections may or may not be within the umbrella of a reconfigured alliance”, but that was generally understood to mean that, either way, the SACP would contest under its own name.
In his political report delivered on December 10, Nzimande said that delegates should not fool themselves that “any organisation within the alliance could be replaced”. After all, “The SACP can never be a mass organisation like the ANC - and it should not”, he said.
How does that tie in with the official SACP aim to reach a membership target of 580,000 - in other words, one percent of the population of South Africa? The current figure stands officially at just over 300,000, but, according to the general secretary, most members are unemployed. What is more, in the words of Mapaila, “The majority … are on the verge of suspension or even lapsing.” Apparently, this is “a sign of inactive branches or districts, where leaders are isolated from members”.
In other words, it is a situation that will be familiar to members of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain (albeit on a much larger scale, obviously): a huge proportion of ‘members’ have done no more than fill in an application form - they pay no regular dues and are rarely, if ever, seen at party events.
Another highly pertinent question is raised in the same issue of Bua Komanisi: what about the progress of the “national democratic revolution” (NDR)? It is worth quoting how the SACP ‘official communists’ saw this unfolding:
From 1928 until fairly recently, the SACP tended to think of the NDR as a ‘first stage’, to be followed by a ‘second’, socialist ‘stage’. For as long as our national democratic breakthrough remained relatively distant, this rather undialectical stagism didn’t constitute a major barrier to an effective strategy and tactics. Moreover, in the period, late 1960s to mid-1980s, the rapid advances of national liberation movements in which Marxist leaderships emerged as key, and the unstinting solidarity of the Soviet bloc, meant that Marxist ideas were broadly hegemonic within the ANC leadership and key cadre. A fairly smooth transition from national liberation towards socialism appeared assured.
They go on to say:
In 1995 the SACP formally took this position further by arguing for the deep, dialectical interconnection between the national democratic and socialist struggles. The NDR could not be advanced, deepened and defended without a significant advance towards socialism. This was encapsulated in the slogan, ‘Socialism is the future … build it now!’ Programmatically, the party argued that “build it now” meant building momentum towards, capacity for, and elements of socialism in the present.
However, we have not really succeeded in giving content and campaigning substance to this approach to socialism, with an overemphasis on work within the executive, legislature and the administration. This becomes a key strategic task in the current conjuncture if we are to avoid the Ramaphosa breakthrough becoming little more than a futile return to 1996.
First of all, what is this “Ramaphosa breakthrough”? The current president is a former union leader turned billionaire capitalist. He notoriously called on state forces to take “concomitant action” on the very eve of the slaughter of 34 striking miners in the 2012 Marikana massacre. But, more centrally, how on earth is even the ‘official communist’ version of ‘socialism’ supposed to be attained following the collapse of the USSR?
The SACP is trapped within a highly contradictory impasse. On the one hand, it continues to build support through its radical talk about a completely new social order. On the other hand, not only is it one that cannot be attained, but South Africa is clearly moving in a totally different direction. How long will the leadership be able to maintain its pretence of being able to “build socialism”, while at the same time upholding the sanctity of the anti-working class popular front that is the alliance with the ANC?
More importantly, how long will it be before we see a principled opposition developing amongst the SACP cadre?
Blade Nzimande and Cyril Ramaphosa: not about to split↩︎