Battle of the soul of SACP

Whether or not newly elected ANC president Jacob Zuma is a criminal, just what is the South African Communist Party playing at in supporting him? Peter Manson reports from South Africa

So Jacob Zuma is set to have his “day in court” in August, when he will once more face charges of fraud and corruption, some of which were previously struck off by the judge in Zuma’s original trial in 2006. To these are added three batches of new charges - relating to tax evasion, money laundering and accepting bribes - allegedly committed over an 11-year period and arising from his dealings with jailed businessman and fraudster Schabir Shaik. There are in all 18 counts.

When the new indictment was announced, the rumpus following Zuma’s ousting of Thabo Mbeki as president of the African National Congress intensified. While a Zuma victory had been expected, the routing of state president Mbeki by 2,329 votes to 1,505 - deposed as leader of his own party - was nonetheless sensational. And by a man who, although acquitted of rape in a high-profile case in 2006, has, shall we say, a dubious attitude towards women and who thinks you can avoid contracting Aids by taking a shower after sex.

Despite the striking off of the original corruption case in 2006, there was never any doubt that Zuma would eventually have to face trial - Shaik was jailed precisely as a result of what the judge called a “corrupt relationship” with the new ANC leader. After his election at the ANC conference in mid-December, there was wild talk about South Africa becoming a new Zimbabwe if Zuma is appointed state president in 2009. Ironically SACP deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin had referred to the party regime under Mbeki as “Zanufication” - a state of affairs that Zuma would reverse, with his allegedly open, honest style.

Zuma and the ANC left - consisting of, amongst others, the South African Communist Party, Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the Youth League - reacted to the indictment by crying foul. Zuma’s lawyer issued a statement claiming that it had been timed - just a few days after his triumph at the Polokwane conference - to “redress the popular support and call to leadership by the ANC”. The national prosecuting authority (NPA) was accused by Zuma of being “influenced” and the prosecution “informed” by “political considerations” - ie, to ensure that he could play “no leadership role in the political future of our country”.

The SACP pointed to irregularities in the way the indictment was announced, with the NPA first informing the press it had sufficient evidence to charge Zuma and then going public with the indictment before actually serving the summons. In addition, Mbeki had apparently previously discussed how to handle the case with the NPA (he was also accused by the SACP of suspending the director of public prosecutions and installing a more amenable temporary substitute prior to the indictment). Somewhat melodramatically the SACP declared: “It is for this reason that the charging of comrade Zuma might as well go down as the first political trial of the post-apartheid era”. Because every detail of the indictment had been revealed to the media in advance, “Comrade Zuma can never have a fair trial under these circumstances” (statement, December 29).

SACP member Gwede Mantashe, the ANC’s new secretary general, had earlier warned that “state or political manipulation” that resulted in new charges could produce a “mass resistance movement”. He said the “sequence of events” - the fact that the indictment was announced only days after Zuma was elected ANC leader - needed to be “looked at very carefully”.

ANC Youth League president Fikile Mbalula, for his part, said: “The decision to charge Jacob Zuma is not a decision of the judiciary; it is a decision of the state, and the state is led by Thabo Mbeki.” He accused Mbeki of “a blatant and desperate attempt to block Zuma’s ascendancy to the highest office of the land”.

Adding further to the accusations, Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven stated that the indictment’s timing had “all the hallmarks of vengeance, deep-seated anger and frustration”. It was “personal”, he declared.

In truth there is more than a ring of conspiracy theory to all this. It is true that there has been bitter rivalry between Mbeki and Zuma, and the former is, rather obviously, hardly delighted at being dumped by his own party. But he is constitutionally obliged to step down as state president next year in any case, so it is not as if he would have been able to retain his office but for Zuma’s challenge (the president is not directly elected, but appointed by parliament after the general election, due in 2009).

As for the notion that Mbeki actually put forward proposals relating to the indictment’s contents the day before it was issued, as claimed by some Zuma supporters, that really is taking things too far. The document consists of more than 80 pages and had obviously been many months in preparation.

More to the point, are these comrades suggesting that such serious charges should not be brought to court? Zuma allegedly received R4 million (£308,000) in bribes in 783 separate payments from Shaik. These are all laid out in the indictment and include his children’s school fees and gifts for his wives. What is more, none of them seem to be disputed - Zuma says they were just gifts, not bribes.

More pertinently still, Zuma’s business and financial dealings with Shaik are also public knowledge. So why does the SACP imply that this self-interested careerist is some kind of progressive leader and that his election symbolises a new period of pro-working class policies?

Why Zuma?

According to SACP member Dominic Tweedie, writing in the Morning Star, the left, including the Communist Party, backed Zuma because they “sensed that this could be the best and possibly last chance to fight arbitrary rule” (December 21). Note that Mbeki is not accused of exceeding his constitutional powers in any major way - “arbitrary rule” is part of the job description, yet the SACP does not demand the abolition of the executive presidency itself and would be quite happy, it seems, to have Zuma occupy that post.

What of Zuma’s politics? Comrade Tweedie does not say what they are. Instead, we are informed that he has “two outstanding personal characteristics - persistent courage and calm politeness”. Not to mention a “good sense of humour”. For that reason, “Few South Africans are expecting the Zuma team to solve all their problems for them at once. They do, however, expect their politics to be conducted in a more relaxed, open and good-humoured style …”

I am sure that will come as a relief to the disempowered working class and impoverished South African masses. Around 40% of the adult population is unemployed and, according to the South African Institute of Race Relations, 4.2 million people are categorised as suffering from “severe poverty” (an income of less than $1 a day). This figure has more than doubled since the ending of apartheid. An estimated 5.3 million South Africans are HIV-positive.

Like comrade Tweedie, Cosatu does not make pro-working class claims for Zuma. Its January 1 statement, which wishes everyone “a very happy, successful and revolutionary new year”, puts it this way: “Comrade Jacob Zuma became the symbol of a mass movement. His victory was a victory for the people of South Africa and a triumph for democracy.”

But Zuma does not appear to have a leftwing bone in his body. In his first speech after his election he went out of his way to reassure capital that there was “no reason why the business or international community … should be uneasy”. Sure, Zuma comes out with platitudes about a ‘better life’, and appeals to the memory of the revolutionary struggle against apartheid by leading his supporters in singing Umshini wami (‘Bring me my machine gun’). But, when it comes to strategic policy, all the indications are that he will continue along Mbeki’s neoliberal road if elected president.

So why did the SACP back him? At a meeting of its cadres held in Lusaka in 1990, a decision was made that a number of party members would not ‘come out’ and declare their membership. It is known that Zuma attended that meeting and some say he may be one of the few closet SACPers who still have not admitted their party affiliation. This is so unlikely as to be discounted. After all, there are quite a few former SACP members in prominent places, not least Mbeki himself.

However, if, as seems more than possible, Zuma is disbarred from standing for state president in 2009, or does not take up office because of ongoing court proceedings, then the ANC’s new deputy president, Kgelema Motlanthe (who most certainly is an SACP member), is in the box seat to win the ANC nomination.

The SACP decision to fall in behind Zuma (although it did not issue a formal public statement backing him against Mbeki) was a tactical move designed to win points of influence for itself within the ANC and state.

Jumping on the Zuma bandwagon made sense in view of the huge discontent - not to say burning anger - within the ANC and the country at large, provoked by Mbeki’s neoliberal agenda. The number of official “unrest incidents” (ranging from minor public disorder to full-scale riots) almost doubled in 2005-06, with around 10,000 officially recorded by police.

The fact that Zuma himself does not represent any kind of alternative was a secondary question for the SACP. The anti-Mbeki mood was personified by Zuma and by promoting him the party hoped to pull the ANC away from neoliberalism and back to social democracy, gaining a larger power base for itself in the process.

During 2007 the SACP took the lead in winning recruits to the ANC and can claim some credit for its increased membership, which stands officially at 637,000. SACP comrades, together with Cosatu activists (often the two are the same thing) took responsibility for reinvigorating defunct ANC branches and creating new ones.


At the SACP’s 12th congress in July the leadership was able to defeat a move for the party to stand its own separate candidates in the 2009 general election on the promise of procuring a new ANC leadership at Polokwane. Why give up on the ANC while we may be just about to win it to our policies? That was the argument. The objective of a “reconfigured alliance” was deferred to the 2011 local elections at the earliest.

And now the leadership can claim vindication. Several hundred of the almost 4,000 ANC delegates were SACP members (some estimates put the proportion as high as 15%-20%). Not only was Mbeki replaced by Zuma, but the ANC left (broadly defined) swept the board for all leading positions - and SACP members now occupy the influential posts of secretary general (Mantashe) and deputy president (Motlanthe).

In addition to boasting two of the six ANC national officers, at least 12 SACP members plus a number of close supporters were voted onto the 80-strong ANC executive. Transport minister Jeff Radebe was elected in second place (behind Winnie Madikizela-Mandela). SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande and his deputy, Jeremy Cronin, were elected in 12th and fifth place respectively, while Nzimande’s partner, Joyce Moloi-Moropa, occupied 70th place (on being elected to the SACP politburo, Moloi stated she had given up her substantial business interests and shareholdings). Other successful SACP candidates include the former leftwing bogeyman who was later jailed for corruption, Tony Yengeni, along with his wife, Lumka.

None of Mbeki’s neoliberal ministers were re-elected apart from finance minister Trevor Manuel - in a lowly 57th place. In the past Manuel has topped the list. But the left-right divide is hardly clear-cut, since the casualties also include SACP cabinet members who have in fact been closely associated with the neoliberal drive.

Among them is ex-SACP chair Charles Nqakula, who as minister for safety and security sent in state forces to break the huge public services strike last year. Then there is Sydney Mufamadi (provincial and local government minister), who has been responsible for implementing cutbacks locally, and Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi (public service and administration), who fronted the assault on public sector workers by threatening to sack strikers. Alec Erwin (public enterprises) has been central in driving forward privatisation, as had Jeff Radebe, who occupied that cabinet post before him.

However, Radebe is now transport minister and is less clearly part of Mbeki’s neoliberal team. That, together with his canny display at Polokwane, where he managed to play the conciliator while simultaneously backing Zuma, led to his re-election to the NEC with a big vote. The other SACP cabinet members are Ronnie Kasrils (intelligence) and Essop Pahad (minister in the presidency).

No SACP ministers, then, apart from Radebe and deputy health minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, were elected to the ANC executive. But this is hardly surprising, since they have all - with the exception of Nqakula, but including Radebe - been booted off the SACP central committee over the last two congresses precisely because of their association with the government’s privatising, anti-working class drive.

Other leading SACPers, particularly Nzimande and Cronin, have managed to retain their popularity, within both the ANC and the SACP, by refusing government office. These two will no doubt be especially pleased with the ANC conference outcome. According to South African socialist Terry Bell, “The SACP and Cosatu have … apparently achieved their long-expressed goal of seizing control of the ANC. This, they maintained, was the prerequisite to dump the liberal economic policies pursued by government since 1996” (Business Report January 8).

This is an exaggeration. The SACP and Cosatu went with the pro-Zuma flow, and the SACP is more prominent within the new leadership as a result. But, as we have seen with the actions of its government ministers, the election of such SACP ‘communists’ does not constitute any kind of advance. So do not expect a return even to the short-lived Reconstruction and Development Programme, the social democratic strategy document adopted by the ANC in 1994. It was replaced by the equally progressive-sounding, but thoroughly neoliberal, Growth, Employment and Redistribution strategy (Gear) in 1996.

For one thing, the Mbeki neoliberal team, complete with SACP ministers, is still in charge of government and many things can happen before Zuma becomes state president (if he becomes state president). Reports of the first meeting of the ANC executive held on January 7 do not indicate the likelihood of any immediate showdown with Mbeki. Indeed, understandably, it seems to have been dominated by the Zuma indictment.

For comrade Tweedie, though, Polokwane represented a step along the road to “popular power”. He writes: “… the strategic goal of socialism will most likely be recognised and adopted by the ANC in some form” (Morning Star December 21). It is certainly possible, but by no means certain, that the ANC will adopt some kind of meaningless ‘clause four’. However, comrade Tweedie is optimistic. The “road to socialism”, which he is convinced the ANC has now embarked upon, will be “a conscious, deliberate and semi-permanent dual power, in which organs of popular power will coexist with parliamentary representation and where an independent SACP will remain an ally of the ANC”.

Site for struggle

Others are less convinced. Many on the non-SACP left believe that, while millions will place their trust in Zuma, dashed hopes will produce a ‘crisis of expectations’.

Comrade Bell writes: “… it is a left alternative that is sought: the demand is for a more interventionist state, for the scrapping of an economic policy that prioritises growth over redistribution” (Business Report January 8). However, there can be no social democracy in a single country and neither a left-led ANC nor some as yet non-existent party/alliance can bring it about.

Although elements among the revolutionary left see an opportunity looming, as in Britain (and elsewhere), the alterative posed is not the fight for a genuinely revolutionary, internationalist Communist Party in the here and now, but a new broad alliance, incorporating disaffected members of the ANC and SACP, the unions and the ‘new social movements’.

In my opinion, there is no new broad mass party or even electoral alliance on the horizon. There can be no short cuts to what is necessary - the fight must be waged within that key site of struggle, the South African Communist Party. The SACP, for all its betrayals, is the party of the fight against apartheid, the party of workers and militant trade unionists. Its comrades are in the leadership at all levels in Cosatu and all the main unions, not least the three largest and most important: the National Union of Mineworkers, the South African Democratic Teachers Union and the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union. For good or bad, the SACP was central in the ousting of Mbeki and his replacement by Zuma.

True, the SACP’s membership figures are grossly inflated - it claimed 51,874 comrades in the run-up to its 12th Congress in July. But the overwhelming majority of these are not members in any real sense - most of them are more like party contacts (assuming the figure is based on something tangible in the first place). I am reliably informed that only 11,000 pay regular dues and a further 4,000 or so occasionally do so. This last figure includes a good number of prominent members, including MPs and union leaders.

True, also, the SACP is beset with financial problems, leading to the kind of alleged improprieties described by comrade Bell (see ‘Shaky SACP tries to steer ANC’, December 13 2007).

Nevertheless, only the SACP has the organisational coherence (however limited and inefficient) capable of mounting a real challenge. Thousands of disillusioned and angry workers are still drawn to it and indeed regard it as the alternative to Mbeki’s attacks. This is reflected in the ditching by the rank and file of Mbeki’s collaborators - from both the SACP and ANC leaderships.

But the SACP’s proposals for a social democratic “developmental state” are a dead end, inevitably leading to more betrayals and disillusionment. If he gets the chance Zuma will follow in Mbeki’s political footsteps and even some members of the SACP politburo are known to be unhappy with the tactic of associating the party so closely with such a maverick individual.

The militant South African masses need principled leadership - and they will not get that from the likes of Nzimande and Cronin. These conciliators must be defeated and the class traitors who have gone over to Mbeki’s neoliberalism and the interests of capital expelled from the party.

But that battle cannot be waged from outside. The SACP left, especially in the Young Communist League, has grown in size and become more confident - recently it has begun to engage with tiny far-left groups outside the party in its search for answers. While at present it has no serious politics to combat its misleaders, the very existence of this SACP left speaks volumes about the folly of those who have consistently rejected the South African Communist Party as a vital site for struggle.