Politically correct Thatcherites

The South African Communist Party's Blade Nzimande is the Communist Party of Britain's main attraction at its weekend school. Peter Manson examines the SACP's role

South Africa is one of ‘official’ communism’s few success stories. A light amid the gloom of collapse and disintegration. With its six cabinet seats, the South African Communist Party is pursuing its own particular version of the national road to ‘socialism’, artificial stages and all. With the SACP as guide, the so-called ‘national democratic revolution’ which replaced apartheid is in safe hands and, as sure as day follows night, the South African working class will advance, taking careful, reformist steps, further and further along the road towards a glorious future.

Well, not quite. Far from the SACP opening up the way to working class power, it has played a key part in attempting to ensure that the post-apartheid transformation has been carried through in a way that leads to an outcome favourable to the interests of capital: ie, a stable bourgeois regime with a duped, easily exploited working class.

Before examining the SACP’s role let us briefly look at the social conditions that the South African masses are forced to endure. For, as we shall see, in the nine years since the first African National Congress government of Nelson Mandela, they have actually worsened.


South Africa is the world’s third most unequal society, after Brazil and Guatemala, according to UN figures. How has this situation changed since 1994? For the answer we can turn to the SACP’s own newspaper:

“The average family became poorer between October 1995 and October 2000. The income share of the poorest 20% dropped from a miserly 1.9% in 1995 to an even more shocking 1.6% in 2000. Even more sobering is the fact that, while the average white household improved its income by 15%, the average African household suffered a 19% fall” (Umsebenzi November 2002).

What does this actually mean in real terms? About 45% of South Africans live in households officially recognised as “poor” - ie, families whose adults bring in on average a pitiful 352.53 rand (£28.20) per month. Partly this is due to the sharp rise in unemployment - in 1994 it was 24%; now it stand at somewhere between 29% and 40%, depending on whose figures you believe.

Meanwhile, double-figure inflation continues to wreak havoc with the spending power of the impoverished masses. For example, the price of maize meal - the staple diet of millions - more than doubled between June 2001 and October 2002. The government’s own statistics show that two million households reported members going hungry, with a steady increase in child malnourishment since 1996.

According to official figures, three million people do not have a proper roof over their head. The South African Human Rights Commission talks of a “mushrooming of more than 1,088 informal settlements throughout the country”. Almost 30% of the population do not have “formal housing”: ie, they inhabit shacks.

Over seven million people lack access to running water and 18-21 million are without sanitation - a statistic which says a lot about the standard even of “formal housing”. Only two percent of land has been redistributed. Eighty percent is still owned by white commercial farmers and between 13 and 14 million rural inhabitants are landless.

Then there is the Aids epidemic - between four and five million are infected by HIV. Not surprisingly life expectancy has dropped markedly. The opposition Democratic Alliance claims that, whereas in 1994 it was well over 60, today it is down to just 52.

Of course, the ANC can hardly be blamed for introducing Aids, although the complacency of president Thabo Mbeki is well known when it comes to prevention. But much of the deterioration noted above can be laid at the door of the government - including its six SACP cabinet members.

For example, the period 1996-2000 was one of swingeing, across-the-board budget cuts, while many price rises - including those of maize meal - resulted from deregulation and removal of market controls. According to the People’s Budget Coalition, the slashing of welfare in the late 90s means that, “At the current rate we will only return to 1996 levels of spending per person around 2005”. In fact welfare spending is “expected to grow at best at the rate of inflation in the coming year, and no faster than the population over the whole medium-term period” (ibid). Not much chance of any improvement then.

It is truly remarkable that, despite publishing such details itself, the SACP can persuade itself that, on balance, the ‘national democratic revolution’ is on course. Overall, “… we have had a tangible transformational impact on the apartheid socio-economic legacy”. What is more, there are “heartening indications” of better access to resources such as water, electricity and healthcare (Umsebenzi September 2002).

On healthcare, for example, the government’s information department paints a picture of steady improvement. In 1995 only 67.8% of households had access to public healthcare; by 1998 this had increased to … 69.4%. At this rate of improvement every South African might have a chance of seeing a doctor by the year 2055.

To sum up the last nine years, let me quote radical commentators Sean Jacobs and Jonathan Faull: “Since 1994 the size of the African elite has expanded rapidly, but that has not made a dent in the disparity between white and African disposable income, resulting in even greater disparity among black people …

“In pursuing broadly neoliberal macroeconomic policies, the ANC has failed to deal with the structural legacy of the apartheid economy. Consequently the transition from apartheid to post-apartheid is characterised, in economic and geographical terms, by continuity rather than transformation” (Johannesburg Sunday Times April 27).

In both the 1994 and 1999 election campaigns the ANC promised “a better life for all”. In reality it has delivered a better life for a tiny minority.

SACP in government

On April 15 of this year Business Report featured two government ministers on an inside page. Trade and industry minister Alec Erwin’s reply to the debate on the 2003-04 budget was extensively and approvingly quoted for his rejection of any measures leading to the stimulation of demand and his commitment to “promote existing competitive industries”.

A separate article reported the promise of public enterprise minister Jeff Radebe to push ahead with “vigorous restructuring activity”: ie, further large-scale privatisations. “There is a high level of interest from the business community in the opportunities that this programme presents,” said Radebe. I bet there is.

As you might have guessed, Erwin and Radebe are both members of the South African Communist Party (many ordinary SACP members simply refuse to believe this). Erwin, the grey-suited, softly-spoken white man, has played a reassuring role that this image is meant to promote for capital and middle class whites. Equally despicable is Radebe, whose department has overseen no fewer than 27 big privatisation ventures since 1997, bringing in a total of 35.5 billion rand (£2.84 billion) to the government’s coffers. Every one of them has led to thousands of job losses and have been fiercely resisted by the unions.

Until July 2002 both ‘comrades’ were members of the SACP central committee, but, in an inchoate rebellion by rank and file delegates, Radebe was unceremoniously booted off the leadership, against the wishes of general secretary Blade Nzimande. For reasons that escape me, Erwin was not targeted by the rebels.

Officially the SACP is against privatisation. But it places its commitment to the ANC-led tripartite alliance (which is, after all, pursuing the ‘national democratic revolution’ with a vengeance) way above the interests of the working class. This is how it described the government’s decision to attempt to raise R40 billion (£3.2 billion) from privatisation sales over three years from 2001:

“This was not an irrational decision, or a sell-out, or a betrayal of the … objectives that hold us together. It was a prioritisation that was based on the conviction that there were no other feasible options … rational but inappropriate economic policy choices have been made” (my emphasis African Communist 1st quarter, 2002).

But Cosatu, the main trade union centre, did not quite see it that way - it was its members’ jobs that were at stake. The unions - many of them led by SACP members - organised a series of protest strikes last October. The SACP congress was gathering in July, just as preparations for the industrial action were being finalised. Faced with an insoluble conflict of interest, with its own members fronting opposite sides of the class battle lines, the SACP leadership took the only sensible course: compromise and conciliation.

It proposed a motion to congress that meekly asked the government to call a moratorium on the “restructuring of public enterprises that impact negatively on the working class”, and suggested an “alliance task team” to facilitate discussion “in a way that makes the proposed general strike unnecessary”. In this way it hoped to be able to maintain its anti-privatisation face for the benefit of its mass base, while dampening down working class militancy. This plan was spoiled by a successful amendment, tagged on to the end of the motion, which simply read: “That the SACP throws its weight behind the strike”.

Fronting privatisation

In the aftermath of the strikes and yet another deterioration in ANC-SACP relations they provoked, the leadership set about trying to repair the damage. It tried to pretend that the workers’ actions were entirely unconnected to any antipathy toward the government. The central committee declared: “The defensive activities of the unions are misguidedly portrayed as ‘offensive’ strategies designed to ‘attack government or the ANC’. Obviously, we need to assess to what extent particular forms of mobilisation or even agitation might contribute to this false portrayal” (SACP CC statement, November 2002). The CC called on both SACP and ANC members “not to be provoked into mutually destructive activities”.

For the SACP leadership, then, the neoliberal assault on workers, fronted by leading party members, is merely “inappropriate”. But calling strikes to ward off such attacks is “destructive”. It warned that it was impossible to “manage the alliance in such a reckless way … only the enemies of the national democratic revolution would benefit” (African Communist 2nd-3rd quarter, 2002).

The same edition of the SACP’s increasingly infrequent ‘quarterly’ (there were only two issues last year, as there were for the ‘monthly’ Umsebenzi) noted that: “… all alliance partners have … agreed that, at least on paper, there are no fundamental, principled disagreements on our approach to restructuring state assets”. Both the SACP and Cosatu are, it seems, “comfortable with the ANC and government’s more open-ended ‘balance of evidence’, ‘case by case’ approach”.

What? Cosatu is happy with the “restructuring” it had just tried to block through mass strikes? It turns out that “restructuring” per se is fine, since “the ANC reaffirmed its perspective that restructuring should not simply be equated with privatisation. Restructuring could involve extending the scope of public ownership, the setting up of new public entities, nationalisation, and partial or total privatisation.”

Yes, it “could” mean any of those things, but in practice it has involved only the latter (except in one or two cases, when the government has been forced to buy back its former assets after failed privatisation attempts.

In the November issue of Umsebenzi another SACP member of the government, water and forestry affairs minister Ronnie Kasrils, was given space to openly argue against the Cosatu anti-privatisation strike. In view of the fact that he had himself overseen the partial privatisation of water, it was something of a self-justification exercise. Sounding exactly like a New Labour Blairite, Kasrils wrote: “It is the inescapable duty of government to ensure that all our people have access to safe and affordable water. However, there are a number of tools that can be used to achieve this mandate. The partial involvement of the private sector is one tool. If it delivers the results, we should be flexible enough to use it.” (Umsebenzi November 2002).

Black ‘empowerment’

While the initials and practice of PPP are just as common in Thabo Mbeki’s South Africa as they are in Tony Blair’s Britain, in Cape Town and Johannesburg they go hand in hand with another widely employed abbreviation: BEE, or ‘black economic empowerment’.

In view of what has been discussed so far, you might be forgiven for assuming that very little ‘empowerment’ has come the way of the black majority. You would be right. The term is a euphemism for the creation of a black bourgeoisie and the enrichment of a whole swathe of middle class blacks.

Targets are set for the employment and promotion of the “historically disadvantaged communities” - ie, blacks, women and the disabled (at least the ANC’s Thatcherism is politically correct) in all companies over a certain size. Despite government complaints that companies are not doing enough and threats to impose fines of up to 500,000 rands (£40,000), by July 2002, 25% of top managers were black, compared to 13% a year earlier.

When it comes to purchasers of privatised assets and applicants for government contracts, companies are judged on BEE according to a points system relating to ownership as well as employment. During a recent visit, I met a white businessman who was confident of winning a lucrative contract with Ronnie Kasrils’ ministry. The chair of his company was a former leader of the MK guerrillas, who had  persuaded the MK veterans’ association to take out a good number of shares. When another shareholding in the name of his black wife was added, that easily exceeded 50% ownership for the “disadvantaged”!

Earlier this year the state-owned transport company, Transnet, South Africa’s largest consumer of petroleum products, announced that 60% of its fuel needs would be supplied by seven ‘black empowerment’ companies for the next three years. The names of these companies? BP South Africa, Shell SA/Tepco, Exel Petroleum, Caltex Oil, Calulo Investments, KZN Oils and Engen/Afric Oil.

Take BP. According to Business Report (April 24), it “ceded 25% equity to empowerment partners in August 2001” - 17.5% had been sold off to the trade union-owned Mineworkers’ Investment Company and a further 7.5% to the Women’s Development Bank (founded by Zanele Mbeki, wife of Thabo). This 25% was enough to qualify for the ‘empowerment’ tag.

So it is with all the other transnationals. Frequently such companies are little more than subsidiaries of established white-owned firms or are funded by loans from established finance houses.

Clearly such partnerships are considered perfectly splendid by all involved, although some people had their doubts about the Transnet contracts: “When asked about the concern that many of the beneficiaries of the deal were foreign firms that would repatriate profits”, Colin McClelland, director of the SA Petroleum Industry Association, said: “… the profit will go to both their foreign and empowerment shareholders” (Business Report April 24).

As with its recognition that inequality has increased since apartheid, the SACP is disarmingly open about the true meaning of ‘empowerment’, especially when viewed alongside the headlong rush to privatisation: “… the emerging or aspiring black bourgeoisie … has little capital, and privatisation involving a designated percentage for the ‘historically disadvantaged’ is increasingly a major means to securing capital (by plundering public resources).

“The fact that this emergent stratum is close to, even within, our movement impacts very directly on policy-making processes. There are often strong ideological and even personal links between this stratum and a senior layer of government and parastatal managers, and this can blur the boundary between perhaps problematic but still legal behaviour and plain corruption” (African Communist 2nd-3rd quarter, 2002).

The obvious question then is, what on earth is the SACP doing in a “movement” that not only tolerates, but encourages the sometimes corrupt self-aggrandisement of a section of the bourgeoisie? Similarly with the SACP central committee statement of August 2002: “… eight years into our new democratic dispensation, we have notched up enormous gains. However, our country remains on an accumulation path that is, fundamentally, unfavourable to the poor.” So why does the SACP continue doggedly on that path?

The party has theorised itself into a neoliberal corner. The ‘national democratic revolution’ (NDR) is, according to the SACP, a process of post-apartheid democratisation and deracialisation that must of necessity go on for some considerable time. It is openly class-collaborationist:

“The NDR requires the broad unity of a multi-class popular bloc of forces, rooted among the historically oppressed [ie, blacks] … Amongst other things, it is the responsibility of the SACP to convince working class and socialist forces of the centrality of the NDR and of its necessary multi-class character” (African Communist 1st quarter, 2002).

What about workers?

But where does socialism fit into all this? After all, the party has its working class membership and base to consider. The SACP won mass support during the anti-apartheid struggle and, if it is to be of any use to Mbeki and the ANC in channelling the revolutionary sentiment behind the new establishment, it must ensure that the militant traditions of the mass movement are kept under control. But to do that the SACP must continue to mouth Marxist jargon and revolutionary-sounding slogans.

Thus the SACP continues to proclaim: “Socialism is the future - build it now!” But this slogan has caused problems for its relationship with the ANC: “… if the task of socialists today is to ‘build socialism now’,” pondered an ANC discussion document early last year, “then … it could mean that the moment of divergence among the allies may have arrived. Socialists would then position themselves as left critics of the ANC” (input to ANC-Cosatu bilateral, February 2002).

The SACP rushed to reassure the senior alliance partner that it did not really mean it. The slogan “is not a call to make a socialist transition now - such a transition lies in the future” (African Communist 1st quarter, 2002). The very distant future, obviously. For, right now, “Key strategic preconditions … for an effective and sustainable socialist advance are, generally, not present.” Phew!

Of course the SACP’s understanding of socialism, shared in just about every last detail with the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, is of course of the national variety and would be more accurately described as a cross between social democracy and state capitalism. According to African Communist, “Socialism is, we believe, characterised by a mixed economy, in which social ownership is, both in strategic capacity and in actual GDP terms, the preponderant (but not exclusive) form of economic ownership …” (1st quarter, 2002). The phrase, “with political power in the hands of the working class”, is added on as an afterthought.

The definition continues: “The socialist sector [sic] will engage with privately owned capital on the market, in joint ventures, and in a variety of other ways”. Well, under SACP-type mixed economy ‘socialism’ capital may retain a central role, but, the anonymous author notes, “Speculative and short-term profit-seeking behaviour” would be “reduced” (ibid).

In the meantime comrade Blade Nzimande exhorts SACP cadre to continue the task of “building people’s power through mass mobilisation … our most crucial weapon in deepening and consolidating the national democratic revolution” (Umsebenzi September 2002). In the same issue of the paper his central committee specifically listed “community policing forums, ward committees, school governing bodies, strengthening party branches and districts, etc” as examples of “building people’s power”.


The SACP has played a crucial role in delivering a stable, post-apartheid South Africa, where conditions for the extraction of surplus value have admirably consolidated (last year, while the masses remained mired in poverty, the value of remuneration packages for company directors increased by no less than 40%). Its role is largely hidden, often unspoken - cabinet ministers such as Erwin, Radebe and Kasrils are much more likely to have their affiliation publicly described as ANC than SACP (they are members of both, of course). Nevertheless, SACP presence is visible in the townships - complete with red flags, hammer and sickles and revolutionary songs.

The South African Communist Party is a living contradiction, as demonstrated by last year’s anti-privatisation debacle. Like the Labour Party in Britain, it can accurately be described as a bourgeois workers’ party - with one significant difference. The SACP’s base is considerably to the left of New Labour’s. Just as in Britain the central strategic task for communists is to win Labour’s working class base away from Labourism, so in South Africa genuine communists must seek to split the SACP.

The rebellion at the 2002 congress, when arch-privatiser Radebe was kicked off the leadership, clearly demonstrated that much of the raw material for a revolutionary workers’ party is to be found among the SACP base.

As for the likes of Nzimande, his current course is untenable: he must take sides in the class struggle - with Radebe and Erwin or with the working class.