Delivering the masses
In the second of three articles on South Africa Peter Manson looks at the role of the South African Communist Party
During the revolutionary upheavals of the 1980s when the African National Congress strove to make the country “ungovernable”, the South African Communist Party was unquestionably the ANC’s most important component. Primarily as a result of the SACP’s influence, the language of class struggle dominated the anti-apartheid movement. There was talk of an “uninterrupted revolution” that would proceed immediately to socialist tasks, and the Party actively promoted the idea that it was necessary to prepare for insurrection.
A decade on, such language is condemned as “ultra-left”, and those who criticise the ANC administration and call for an independent working class agenda risk being smeared as belonging to the same camp as the “old ruling class”. While the government implements its blatantly Thatcherite economic policy (the misnamed ‘growth, employment and redistribution’ programme - Gear), the SACP continues to give the ANC its full support. Party members Ronnie Casrils, Alec Erwin, Dullah Omar, Geraldine Fraser-Molekedi and national chairman Blade Nzimande are prominent members of the government, and the SACP’s Gwede Mantashe is general secretary of the ANC itself.
When the government released details of Gear in June 1996, its anti-working class nature - underwritten by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank - was manifestly clear. With its central aim of slashing the budget deficit to three percent of the gross domestic product, it foresaw widespread privatisation, thousands of redundancies, cuts in services, a clampdown on wage rises and compulsory arbitration for industrial disputes. Alongside these attacks were reductions in corporate taxation and tax ‘holidays’ for certain investments. It is little wonder that the ANC administration has won wide acclaim, both from South African capital and the international bourgeoisie (see ‘Capital backs Mandela’ Weekly Worker April 30).
Yet, far from condemning such measures, the SACP preferred to highlight Gear’s wishful phrases in favour of job creation and greater equity. It commended the “consistent endeavour to integrate different elements of policy” and Gear’s “clear framework within which monetary and interest rate policy must work” (quoted in SA Labour Bulletin August 1996). Its strongest complaints were reserved for the ANC’s refusal to consult with its ‘equal’ alliance partners - the main trade union centre, Cosatu, and the SACP itself. According to Umsebenzi, the SACP’s increasingly infrequentsingle-sheet ‘newspaper’, the party had been “especially unhappy with the declaration that the policy was ‘non-negotiable’” (Umsebenzi July 1997).
The paper reported that, a year after the introduction of Gear, the central committee had called for “a thoroughgoing review of macroeconomic policy” and “greater emphasis on progressive taxation”, in view of the fact that “there are signs that Gear is failing to deliver”.
While Cosatu leaders were in general much more forthright in attacking Gear, the SACP prevailed upon them to delay publication of the South African version of the ‘alternative economic policy’ - a study which the union leaders had commissioned. Many Cosatu tops hold party cards themselves of course.
Occasional mild rebukes notwithstanding, the SACP and Cosatu remain loyal members of the ANC-led alliance. The two junior partners recently agreed in a joint meeting to “work to strengthen the ANC’s election campaign in 1999”, according to the latest issue of Umsebenzi. However, that does not prevent them from simultaneously considering “initiatives around socialising the economy”: namely, “practical work around the cooperative movement”, and “the more strategic use of worker-investment initiatives” (Umsebenzi March 1998). Needless to say, such “socialising” measures do not conflict in any way with the government’s capitalist policies; indeed they meet with the full approval of the ruling class.
In effect the SACP delivers unconditional support to the ANC government. This is by no means a negligible factor in its attempt to create a new capitalist stability. The SACP is a mass party, holding key positions in the ANC. In many townships and working class areas the SACP is the ANC. There are around 75,000 SACP card-holders although only an estimated 12,000-15,000 pay party dues. The SACP’s influence within the Cosatu leadership, as well as over its 1.7 million affiliates, is considerable. At the September 1997 Cosatu congress a resolution proposed by the National Union of Mineworkers, encouraging every trade union to support the SACP financially, was passed overwhelmingly. A further call to “build the party” (the SACP not the ANC) was passed by acclaim without a vote.
So how do SACP leaders theorise their support for a bourgeois reformist government? Indeed how are they are able to sell this support to their own members, and to the revolutionary masses themselves?
Earlier this month I attended two SACP rallies around Cape Town, both called to commemorate the sixth anniversary of the assassination of Chris Hani, the now lionised SACP leader. A remarkable feature of such events is the spontaneous singing of militant revolutionary songs by the audience, in stark contrast to the flaccid content of the speeches.
Speaking at the Langa township rally, Shepherd Umhlanga MP commented that if comrade Hani had still been alive, South Africa would not now be facing so many difficulties. The main thrust of his speech, however, was to stress that for the SACP the main task was the “strengthening and consolidation” of the ‘national democratic revolution’ (NDR). The SACP contends that the defeat of the old apartheid system is by no means complete.
Last month’s widely publicised killing of a black baby is used to support this argument. Nicholas Steyn, a white farmer, shot at children who were ‘trespassing’ across ‘his’ land, using a well worn footpath. It was not just the murderous actions of a drunken farmer that caused such outrage, but the events that followed. The local Afrikaner police chief, still living in the apartheid past, did not see any need to arrest Steyn. National Party spokesperson Daryll Swanepoel defended the actions of the local police. “After I talked to the investigating officer, he assured me that the accused had cooperated with the police in the investigation and had taken the children to the fire station,” said Swanepoel. “He told me that he did not deem it fit for the farmer to be arrested. It appears to me that he used the discretion he felt fit and was convinced the accused would not escape justice” (Cape Times April 15).
After direct intervention from provincial police headquarters, Steyn was arrested and held in custody. The mass media descended on the farm in droves, as local ANC officials, Winnie Madikizela Mandela and even the president himself appeared on the scene. Most of the English-speaking press expressed dismay. Nevertheless the incident demonstrated how apartheid ‘custom and practice’ still holds sway over large areas of the countryside, particularly within the police. The army too undoubtedly still contains senior personnel loyal to an Afrikaner ideology.
In other words, despite the wide backing the ANC has won from capital and the bourgeois establishment, it may still be possible for die-hard reactionaries to launch an armed coup against the new order. Of course such an event would be extremely unlikely, in view of the consensus that Mandela has succeeded in building up around his policies. If it occurred under present conditions, it would almost certainly meet with near unanimous condemnation and concerted action by international capital in order to defeat it.
On the other hand, a genuine “national democratic revolution” would rely on the mobilisation of millions to finally defeat reactionary apartheid forces and ensure that the people’s will prevailed everywhere, including in countryside backwaters. It would be impelled by its own momentum to create new organs of state power and would incur the hatred of the bourgeoisie. It could only advance in concert with the forces of international working class revolution. In contrast the SACP’s NDR now has the backing of the international bourgeoisie.
Nevertheless the defence of the NDR is the SACP’s excuse for refusing to promote working class independence. Instead, comrade Umhlana stressed at the Langa meeting, it was necessary to emphasise, in accordance with the ANC’s Freedom Charter, “the unity of all the people, especially the Africans”. This formula is actually a call for class peace and an apology for black ‘economic empowerment’ (ie, the creation of a black bourgeoisie).
In answer to those who now call for a break with the ANC, Umhlana said that the alliance could be ended “maybe in 10 or 20 years”. Besides, he added, the constitution prescribed a ‘government of national unity’ until 1999 and it was therefore impossible to exclude any forces before then. He told the rally that he had recently been privileged to go to “socialist Cuba”, where he maintained that the people there were defending “their own national democratic revolution”. He added that he hoped to see socialism “one day” in South Africa too.
As Umhlana was speaking, a member of the audience began heckling. “What has the ANC done for us?” he demanded. The comrade next to me whispered that the heckler was clearly a supporter of the newly formed United Democratic Movement who had been sent in “to disrupt the meeting”. The UDM is jointly led by Bantu Holomisa, a charismatic figure who was expelled from the ANC for exposing corruption within the organisation, and Roelf Meyer, a former ‘leftwing’ National Party minister. It has managed to build up a certain populist support and points to the kind of safe opposition party the ruling class would like to see.
At the second rally, held in the sprawling shack township of Khayelitsha, the star SACP speaker was Tony Yengeni, former Western Cape commander of Umkhonto weSizwe, the ANC’s armed wing, and now chairman of the parliamentary portfolio committee on defence. Five years ago comrade Yengeni was one of the bourgeois press’s favourite bogeymen, pushing for direct action by the masses to achieve their goals.
At the rally he likened the NDR to the World War II alliance between the western bourgeois powers and the Soviet Union: “The only way Hitler could be defeated was through a united democratic front,” he said. “We must defend our revolutionary and democratic gains. The alliance must do everything to strengthen the government. We must do nothing, say nothing, to weaken the alliance.”
Quite a contrast to comrade Yengeni’s views expressed to the Weekly Worker in an interview with me in December 1993. At that time he was clear that the SACP could not continue in alliance with the ANC once it began to adopt unambiguous capitalist policies in government: “The people will see that the ANC is not delivering. Then they will rebel - and the Party will have no option but to oppose the ANC” (Weekly Worker January 13 1994).
At that time he warned against “our superior morality ... being polluted ..., leading to the empowerment of an elite who are not interested in the role of the masses”. Today Tony’s slightly portly image adorns the window of an expensive men’s boutique, Fabiani, in St George’s Mall, Cape Town. A full-size photograph shows comrade Yengeni modelling an Italian suit. “He’s a regular customer here,” said Fabiani’s manager. “He represents the powerful politician in our window synergy ... Mr Yengeni was not paid for the modelling - we gave him the suit” (Cape Argus April 18 1998).
Also speaking in Khayelitsha was Randy Pieterse, who addressed the audience on behalf of Cosatu. Himself an SACP member, comrade Pieterse appeared to have a difference of nuance with Yengeni, claiming that mass action by workers in defence of their rights was “not in opposition” to political support for the government.
However, Pieterse reserved his most controversial comments for the section of his speech dealing with crime. “Are we ready to hand over our child to the police when they commit a crime?” he asked. “If not, we are not serious about fighting crime.”
This disgraceful remark is actually in full accord with SACP policy. At present the only campaign the Party appears to be organising in the townships is known as the Triple H - ‘hunger, homes, health’. As comrade Vusikaya Mvuyisi, chair of the 700-strong Khayelitsha SACP district with its 14 branches, later explained to me, defeating crime was linked to the fight against hunger.
Around 80% of Khayelitsha’s 300,000, mainly unemployed, residents inhabit self-built shacks, most of which are now supplied with electricity via overhead cables, and have access to standpipes and basic sanitation. For these services residents are charged a rent by the council. Not surprisingly very few can afford to pay and do not do so. The SACP has not yet condemned this ‘crime’.
Nevertheless an electrified shack is regarded by many as an advance. The SACP relies on such meagre ‘improvements’ and a fear of a return to the apartheid past to keep the masses tied to the ANC.