As South Africa's public sector strike continues to escalate, the crisis besetting the South African Communist Party can only deepen. Peter Manson looks at the SACP's contradictory role
On June 1 a huge mass action began in South Africa - "the mother of all strikes", according to the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu). Up to a million public sector workers walked out of hospitals, schools and other government institutions on an indefinite stayaway.
Nehawu is just one of 19 public service unions - including eight affiliated to the main union centre, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) - taking part in this coordinated action for "a living wage, better working conditions and for a fully staffed and adequately funded public service" (Cosatu Today June 1). Though some of the unions involved are successors of the white-only apartheid-era bodies, most were forged in the heat of the anti-apartheid struggle.
The strike is developing into a major class battle that will yet again call into question the tripartite alliance between the ruling African National Congress and its junior partners, Cosatu and the South African Communist Party. It will further expose and exacerbate the irreconcilable contradictions wracking the SACP, as it makes final preparations for next month's 12th Congress, where relations with the ANC will be the key issue on the agenda.
As Business Day warned of the "dire effects on the economy" (June 5) if the strike continues, hundreds of thousands of workers turned out on demonstrations and pickets across the country, while the state began to deploy a number of weapons in its anti-working class armoury.
Before the strike began, the government had made it clear that it intended to enforce clauses in its anti-union legislation which bans strikes in "essential services" and, true to its word, last week obtained an order from the Labour Court prohibiting healthworkers from participating in the action.
The health department issued a statement saying information was being gathered from every hospital and clinic in order to identify who had joined the strike. Health department director-general Thamsanqa Mseleku said: "If they are not at their workplace by tomorrow, then we will be instituting a process of terminating their services."
Police turned out in force at a number of schools and hospitals and used stun grenades against striking healthworkers in Durban and Cape Town. A spokesperson said those arrested are to be charged with violating the Labour Court ban as well as contravening the Public Gatherings Act.
Simultaneously, the government announced a marginally improved package, increasing the overall pay offer from 6% to 6.5%. But this still represents a wage cut and is nowhere near the unions' demand for 12%. In that classic divide-and-rule tactic, the government also proposed a 'reallocation' to certain 'more deserving' groups within the overall package. While this caused a couple of the smaller unions to waver, the response from Cosatu was contemptuously dismissive.
President Willie Madisha declared: "Until such time as we get 12% we are not going back." Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven demanded the release of all those arrested and condemned police violence. Cosatu would boycott the latest round of talks if the threat to discipline striking members in essential services was not withdrawn.
At a mass rally in Johannesburg on June 1, comrade Madisha, a member of the SACP central committee and politburo, called on miners, transport and steelworkers to join the stoppage. Responding on June 5, the National Union of Mineworkers announced it was consulting its 280,000 members on possible strike action, while the South African Municipal Workers Union (Samwu) said it was also discussing a ballot.
Meeting the weekend before the strike began, the SACP central committee issued a statement: "The CC discussed the public sector workers' mass actions and impending strike. The CC fully endorsed the SACP consistent support for the entirely legitimate demands of public sector workers" (statement, May 28). General secretary Blade Nzimande said it was "better to get behind workers rather than hang on the apron strings of the bourgeoisie".
So obviously, then, the SACP and all its members are fully behind the strikers. Or are they? What about Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, for example, a CC member and SACP deputy chair until 2002? It was Fraser-Moleketi who, as public service and administration minister, issued the interdict preventing nurses and other healthworkers from striking.
On the eve of the action she demanded the unions "desist" from going on strike, as "sufficient progress" had been made in wage talks. The strikers' demands would mean the public service wage bill would reach "unsustainable" heights of 20% of South Africa's gross domestic product.
However, she warned of "contingency plans" and of action against trade unions and their members who did not "respect the right of employees to work". Fraser-Moleketi said security services, including police, were on standby to deal with any "situation of intimidation".
What will be the reaction of the SACP leadership to this despicable scab? Surely national chair Charles Nqakula will convene an emergency CC meeting to instigate immediate disciplinary measures against this leading member of the party?
Don't hold your breath. Nqakula himself sits alongside Fraser-Moleketi in president Thabo Mbeki's government. Not in some nominal post, but as minister of safety and security. It is Nqakula who heads the state's armed bodies of men. It is he who was responsible for the police assault on strikers last week! "We shall be demanding an urgent meeting with the minister of safety and security [Charles Nqakula] to find ways to prevent any more confrontations like these," said comrade Craven of Cosatu.
But these are not the only open class traitors amongst the SACP leadership. Indeed two other SACP 'comrades' are members of Mbeki's cabinet. One is Ronnie Kasrils, who heads the intelligence services. No doubt he will be very busy mobilising the secret state agencies to combat 'subversive' activities over the coming period - for example, there has been talk of the police union actually joining the strike. At the June 1 Johannesburg rally, union official Vukile Pambo told demonstrators: "You will see some of us working today, but you will not see that forever. We are not government dogs." Surely the security services under Kasrils will have to find ways of ensuring that his dogs are kept on a tight leash.
The second SACP cabinet minister is Sydney Mufamadi, the provincial and local government minister. He will clearly become more closely embroiled in the dispute if Samwu, the municipal workers' union, joins the strike. Both Kasrils and Mufamadi are members of the SACP central committee. Then there is Jeff Radebe, formerly the public enterprises minister and now minister for transport. What measures will he implement if transport workers answer the call of comrade Madisha to come out in solidarity? Radebe, like Fraser-Moleketi, was a CC member until 2002.
Another former CC member is Alec Erwin, the current minister for public enterprises. Radebe, Fraser-Moleketi and Mufamadi, he has been at the forefront of the drive to implement the ANC's neoliberal agenda of cuts, casualisation and privatisation.
Thankfully, though, it appears that Erwin has finally parted company with the SACP. His long association with the party has been expunged from the official government website, although his previous posts in the ANC and Cosatu are still listed.
At one level all this seems like a fantasy world, but it is deadly serious. What sort of discussions take place on the SACP central committee? Or on its politburo, where the main leader of the current strike, Willie Madisha, sits alongside direct representatives of class enemy in the shape of Kasrils and Nqakula?
This situation derives directly from the putting into practice of SACP 'theory'. Following the dismantling of apartheid the job of communists, according to the SACP leadership, is to "deepen and extend" the 'national democratic revolution' (NDR), which means building a "progressive developmental state". That means playing a full role in every part of society, from leading the unions and other grassroots bodies to taking up government posts. SACP ministers are supposedly a moderating, pro-working class force within the government.
Unfortunately, however, things do not quite seemed to have turned out that way. But how could they? As a matter of principle genuine communists do not participate in reformist or similar governments as a minority, where they will inevitably be forced, however unwillingly, to follow through the logic of running the bourgeois state in the interests of capital. For us it is a workers' government or nothing.
Unsurprisingly the ANC has not accepted the SACP's advice that the best way of building a "progressive developmental state" is through a large public sector and Keynesian economic measures to stimulate growth. Nevertheless, the SACP leadership likes to pretend that the ANC tops are just about to see the light.
So when an ANC discussion paper (entitled 'Economic transformation for a national democratic society') commits itself to a list of platitudes, the leadership responds: "Fundamentally, the SACP welcomes all of these key strategic orientations. They mark progressive shifts that can help to consolidate unity in both strategy and action within the state, across the alliance and, indeed, across a very wide range of South African society, including key sectors of productive capital" (my emphasis Bua Komanisi May 2007).
In other words, crises like the current mass strike may come and go, but the SACP leadership is sticking to its class-collaborationist guns. Not only does the party contain out and out government scabs in its very highest echelons, but thousands and thousands of militants in the unions, workplaces and localities. But how has it been able to get away with it and even continue to grow? According to the central committee, "Since our 11th National Congress in July 2002, SACP membership has more than doubled from just under 25,000 to the present 51,000 members" (statement, May 28).
Well, the leadership can thank the likes of Jeremy Cronin, the deputy general secretary and leading 'theorist', for his ability to sell class-collaborationism using Marxist jargon. For example, in a major article serialised in two editions of the party paper Umsebenzi in 2005-06, Cronin wrote about the "progressive" nature of the process that has led to the post-apartheid "restoration of capitalist accumulation" in South Africa.
Here is an example of his use of Marxist categories: "One useful entry-point, I would suggest, for carrying forward an analysis of this new state is the concept of 'Bonapartism' "¦. It tends to arise as a state form in a situation in which there is no clear-cut class victor, in which there is a certain contested and unstable 'equilibrium" ('Class struggles and the post-1994 South African state' Umsebenzi November-December 2005).
Quoting Gramsci, Cronin asserts that "there can be both progressive and reactionary forms of Bonapartism" and under Nelson Mandela what we had was "an overwhelmingly progressive Bonapartism". He goes on to explain how the "equilibrium "¦ between antagonistic class forces locked in struggle can always only be, precisely, temporary. The inherently antagonistic relation of these forces will simply break out again in further crises, unless the breathing space offered by the initial Bonapartist moment (in our case the 'rainbow' period of national 'reconciliation') begins to be actively shaped in one of two basic directions."
These are: either "a restoration of the conditions for capitalist profit accumulation on a new and supposedly more sustainable basis"; or "a revolutionary/systemic transformation of society that begins to resolve the inherent contradiction in favour of the working class and its popular allies".
Cronin concludes: "The central project of the Mbeki presidency has been the former - to drive a process of restoration of capitalist accumulation."
It seems pretty conclusive then. Thabo Mbeki and the ANC leadership are now siding openly with the forces of capital in this life and death battle "between antagonistic class forces locked in struggle". Clearly, even Cronin must now draw the obvious conclusion: at long last he must recognise the futility of the SACP's current course and break with the ANC and its own class-collaborationism.
Not a bit of it. You see, "This restoration project is "¦ a modernising, not a conservative, agenda. Relative to the pre-1994 reality, the restoration project is progressive." Sure, "relative to the transformational potential of the 1994 conjuncture, this project represents a serious strategic setback for the working class", but it seems that even a "strategic setback" - or the negative resolution of a temporary Bonapartism - can simultaneously be an advance.
And the conclusion? The SACP must remain firmly part of the ANC-led alliance in order to pull it in the direction of working class interests.
Of course, this kind of sophistry is of little use in the face of a full-blown class struggle like the current mass strike. The contradictions cannot be contained within the party indefinitely and an eventual break with the ANC seems inevitable. There is a growing groundswell within the party for a change of course, affecting whole branches and even regions.
Last year the SACP published a Young Communist League discussion document, 'The relationship of the SACP to state power', presumably written by YCL general secretary Buti Manemela, in African Communist.
The document begins with two quotes from Lenin: ""¦ whenever there is any serious aggravation of the class struggle "¦ there can be no alternative but the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie or the dictatorship of the proletariat. Dreams of some third way are reactionary, petty bourgeois limitations" (March 1919).
"Marx and Engels "¦ considered it necessary to specifically warn the workers that the proletariat cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made (that is, the bourgeois) state machine and wield it for their own purpose, but that they must smash it, break it up" (December 1918).
The document continues: "The intention of communists should not be to seize the current state "¦ but to smash it. We ask the question, is it possible to smash the capitalist state through parliamentarism, electoralism? Should we not be careful as communists that we do not lock ourselves in the parliamentary power such that we cannot proceed towards socialism?"
The YCL comrades are clearly frustrated by the inability of the rank and file to control the likes of Nqakula, Fraser-Moleketi, Radebe, Mufamadi and Kasrils: "Representatives are elected regularly but cannot be recalled immediately if they dishonour their obligations or implement reactionary policies." In this way "representation obliterates participatory democracy" and "leads to the alienation of power from the people".
The YCL welcomed the decision taken at the April 2005 SACP special congress to set up a commission to review the party's relations with the ANC and investigate the possibility, among others, of standing separate SACP candidates under SACP discipline, rather than the current situation where SACP members are part of ANC slates and expected to toe the ANC line.
There are various interpretations of what separate candidates would mean. For the leadership it would mean an electoral pact with the ANC, whereby some SACP candidates would be given a clear run, while for others it would mean the SACP opposing ANC candidates.
The Gauteng region of the party has come out for the latter course. SACP Gauteng secretary Zico Tamela explains: "The leadership of the democratic revolution is not something that is cast in stone, that forever must be a question of ANC leadership. We are saying the Communist Party is as much a leader of the democratic revolution as the ANC is "¦ the SACP must "¦ not lead only the socialist revolution: it must also lead the national democratic revolution" (South African Sunday Times May 27).
However, comrade Tamela naively believes this imagined SACP takeover, combined with electoral opposition, would not break the alliance with the ANC: "What we are saying is that the SACP must lead, not must leave, the alliance. The alliance now must be an SACP-led alliance."
A similar process of review is also being undergone in Cosatu, which has just put out a document laying out the alternatives. While the bureaucracy's preference would be for union members to join the ANC in large numbers in order to steer it in the direction envisaged in the anti-apartheid Freedom Charter, the document does not rule out abandoning the alliance altogether and backing the SACP to stand in elections (Cosatu, 'Possibilities for fundamental social change', May 2007).
The SACP 12th Congress in July is due to hear the report of the commission set up two years ago. The leadership will attempt to delay any decision for at least another year and hope to minimise any change of policy.
But events may overtake it. The longer the public sector strike continues and escalates, the more the strains will be felt in the SACP. It is not only a break with the ANC that is on the cards, but a split within the Communist Party itself. Other ministers could follow the lead of Alec Erwin and simply abandon ship, or there could be an organised move from either the left or right.
General secretary Blade Nzimande will try to keep the damage to a minimum - which might mean attempting to establish the SACP as a safe, social democratic opposition party. Genuine communists must aim not only for the expulsion of the pro-government right, but the defeat of the conciliators.
South Africa needs a Marxist party at the head of an independent working class movement, in alliance not with national capital, but with the international proletariat