SACP looks to new Zuma era

With the April 22 election looming and Jacob Zuma finally free of criminal charges, things seem to be going to plan for the South African Communist Party leadership, writes Peter Manson

The dropping of all criminal charges against African National Congress president Jacob Zuma just two weeks before the April 22 South African general election has been greeted by the ANC left, including the South African Communist Party, as a great victory.

The ANC is expected to be re-elected with a slightly reduced majority - perhaps it will fall below the two-thirds needed to implement constitutional changes. The national assembly will see the election of 400 members by proportional representation - half directly and half from provincial lists. Amongst the ANC contingent in the new parliament will be the usual sizable bloc of SACP comrades - general secretary Blade Nzimande, his deputy Jeremy Cronin and transport minister Jeff Radebe are all near the top of the ANC slate of candidates.

The national assembly will then proceed to elect Zuma as state president, replacing the current standby and former SACP member, Kgalema Motlanthe. Zuma’s election is regarded as a substantial step forward by the SACP leadership, which claims to believe that it will mark the end of the era of cuts, privatisation and attacks on the working class under Thabo Mbeki, who dutifully followed ANC instructions to resign the presidency in September 2008.

However, South African and international capital think otherwise - the Johannesburg stock market remained steady when Zuma was given the final all-clear by director of public prosecutions Mokotedi Mpshe on April 6. Zuma has been at pains to reassure business that its interests will be protected and advanced under his presidency.

This is the third time that charges of fraud and corruption against him have been dropped. The offences were allegedly committed over an 11-year period and arose from his dealings with jailed businessman and fraudster Schabir Shaik (who is now on parole, having served his time in prison). Zuma had faced 16 charges linked to a multi-billion-rand government arms deal - one of racketeering, one of money-laundering, two of corruption and 12 of fraud.

Shaik was jailed precisely as a result of what the judge called a “corrupt relationship” with Zuma. The latter allegedly received R4 million (£300,000) in bribes in 783 separate payments from Shaik. These were all laid out in the indictment and included his children’s school fees and gifts for his wives. What is more, none of them seem to have been disputed - Zuma said they were just gifts, not bribes.

He was charged for the first time in 2005, but the case was struck off on a technicality in 2006. He was charged again in December 2007, but in September 2008, a judge ruled that the previous decision had been unlawful because, firstly, the director of public prosecutions had not sought representations from Zuma beforehand and, secondly, a prima facie case could be established for direct political interference in the judicial process, involving Mbeki and some of his cabinet members.

In January this year, however, the supreme court upheld an appeal by the director of public prosecutions against the ruling and the criminal charges against Zuma were reinstated. Finally, this week, the national prosecuting authority (NPA) announced a definitive closure. Not because there was no case to answer, but because there had been an “abuse of process” by the former head of the directorate of special operations, Leonard McCarthy.

Speaking at the press conference called to confirm the end of the case, Mpshe read out a transcript of a telephone conversation between McCarthy and the head of the NPA, in which the two agreed to reinstate the charges just after Zuma had been elected ANC leader in December 2007. The transcripts reveal that McCarthy had admitted to being a “Thabo man” and had said: “Saw the man on Friday evening and we are planning a comeback strategy.” However, the DPP claimed that there was no evidence of Mbeki being personally involved.

Nevertheless, the whole case has revealed the attempts of both sides in the Mbeki-Zuma power battle to use state agencies, including the intelligence services, to gain an advantage over the other. Zuma will forever be tainted by these corruption allegations, but his supporters, including the SACP leadership, insist that the charges had been politically driven from the start (sometimes it is stated openly that they were “trumped up”). For these comrades it is obviously quite acceptable for politicians to accept £300,000 in ‘gifts’ from fraudsters.

Mass discontent

Whatever the precise truth, communists must ask what on earth the SACP is doing in giving uncritical support to a man who has clearly engaged in dubious business deals, irrespective of whether they are deemed illegal. A man who, although acquitted of rape in a high-profile case in 2006, has, shall we say, a dubious attitude towards women and thinks you can avoid contracting Aids by taking a shower after sex. More importantly, why does the SACP enthusiastically back a man who is tied body and soul to the system of capital?

The answer lies in the fact that under Mbeki the suffering of the poor had intensified and the ANC was losing support. 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.

Discontent has dramatically increased - in 2007 there were over 10,000 “unrest incidents” officially recorded, ranging from minor disturbances to full-scale riots. The ANC was losing support and SACP positions of influence within it and within the government and state would eventually be jeopardised.

What is more, the actions of SACP government ministers had been deeply resented and this was affecting the standing of the party itself. For example, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, the public service and administration minister, notoriously led the assault against public sector workers in the July 2007 public sector strike, while safety and security minister Charles Nqakula sent in the police against strikers. Sydney Mufamadi (provincial and local government minister) had been responsible for implementing cutbacks locally and Alec Erwin (public enterprises) had been central in driving forward privatisation.

All these ‘comrades’ had become deeply implicated in Mbeki’s neoliberal policies and met with opposition from both SACP and ANC cadre, resulting in their removal from the leaderships of both organisation. Of the SACP members of government only transport minister Radebe seems to have maintained his standing.

At the same time, recent years have seen increased calls from the SACP left effectively to end the alliance with the ANC and for the party to stand independently in elections.

The Nzimande-Cronin leadership responded in two ways. First by turning against Mbeki and throwing the SACP’s not inconsiderable weight behind Zuma, seizing on his populist statements and actions to portray him as a leftwinger and democrat.

In reality it was the SACP that ensured the defeat of Mbeki at the December 2007 Polokwane conference of the ANC.

Secondly, the party leadership agreed in principle to a “reconfigured alliance”. While the standing of separate SACP lists was rejected, the 2008 special conference agreed to a vague call for “increased visibility of communists” on ANC lists. It also demanded that “in all legislatures there should be a delegated contingent of elected representatives who, on appropriate occasions, speak directly for the SACP, so that the ANC in legislatures presents itself as an alliance, and so that working class interests are given an undiluted articulation”.

Although this went nowhere near as far as the SACP left had wanted, it still represented a loosening of the ANC-led alliance. If the call for a “delegated contingent of elected representatives” were accepted, for the first time SACP MPs would no longer be bound exclusively by the ANC whip. However, it remains to be seen whether this SACP resolution will be acted upon in the new parliament.

Cope split

Of course, the leadership’s hand has been considerably strengthened by last year’s split in the ANC following Mbeki’s recall from the presidency. The Congress of the People (Cope), led by former defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa, ex-premier of the Gauteng region, could be portrayed as presenting the first real challenge to the ANC since it was first elected in 1994.

Undoubtedly Cope is to the right of the ANC. While former SACP treasurer Philip Dexter and ex-Cosatu president and SACP central committee member Willie Madisha are now leading figures in Cope, the new party lacks any kind of organisational left pull. Unlike the ANC, of course, which is officially an alliance with the Communist Party and Cosatu, the main trade union centre.

Paradoxically, however, the Cope split to a certain extent expressed discontent from below, albeit in a distorted form. Madisha is not just a union maverick - a number of Cosatu activists, particularly in the Western Cape, saw the possibility of a left split arising out of the Mbeki-Zuma battle and thought they might be able to influence the opposition around Lekota-Shilowa along pro-worker social democratic lines.

In reality it seems more likely that Cope will eventually join forces with one or more of the rightwing opposition parties - maybe even the Democratic Alliance (which contains within it the born-again anti-racists of the ex-National Party). The DA, Cope and Patricia de Lille’s Independent Democrats are all expressing outrage at the dropping of charges against Zuma. De Lille said opposition parties were considering whether to work together in possible legal action against the decision.

As for the April 22 election, polls show Cope hovering at around 15%, neck and neck with the DA, while the ANC is at 60%-plus. Cope could turn out to be the official opposition in three or four provinces.

Far left

While the SACP left seems to have gone on the back foot as a result of the Cope split and impending election, the non-SACP far left is virtually nowhere to be seen.

The orthodox Trotskyist Workers International Vanguard League insisted it would contest until very recently, but it failed to raise the deposit necessary. The soft-left Socialist Green Coalition - formed by a handful of revolutionary groups and a couple of single-issue campaigns - had considered standing, but it too could not raise the deposit and decided instead to launch a campaign for a change in electoral law.

The deposit required for a party to contest the national assembly election is R180,000 (£13,000). In addition a further R40,000 (£3,000) must be paid for each of the nine provinces where it wishes to stand - the provinces provide half of the 400 national assembly members, remember.

So a party that intends to compete everywhere would have to find a total of R540,000 (£40,000) - an increase of R120,000 (£9,000) since the 2004 elections. Clearly in a country like South Africa these are huge sums for small working class organisations to raise - especially when you consider that in the first post-apartheid elections there was no deposit: each party had to collect the signatures of 10,000 electors in order to stand.

Although the above sums are intended to be prohibitive and are therefore utterly anti-democratic, it has to be said that they ought not to be completely beyond the reach of a determined working class organisation. Especially when you consider what there is to play for. There is no artificially high threshold of votes to be attained in South Africa’s proportional representation system. A party that contests the national assembly therefore needs to obtain just 0.5% of the vote to pick up one of the 200 seats on offer. If all the provinces are contested as well, the proportion needed falls to 0.25% for one of the 400 seats overall (final party representation from the national lists is determined after taking into account the proportion elected by the provinces).

What is more, the entire deposit is returned to any party that wins a seat. In addition, substantial state funding is available for parties represented in the national assembly. In other words, if you raise the necessary cash and are not completely humiliated in the election, you stand to get back much more than you originally put in. And it is often said that an organisation with ‘communist’ or ‘socialist’ in its name would expect to pick up a good deal of votes in South Africa, irrespective of its lack of campaigning and profile.

But the South African far left is in the same state as elsewhere - dire. In addition to its SACP-phobic sectarianism, its tiny fragments are incapable of uniting - they are especially incapable of doing so on the basis of Marxism. So, instead of aiming first and foremost for communist political organisation and planning ahead for an adequately funded, united, principled working class electoral campaign, what we get is a combination of single-issue movementism and electoral abstentionism.

The left-led Anti-Eviction Campaign, for example, said it would launch a national campaign to boycott the poll - its slogan was to be “No land, no house, no job - no vote” (Cape Times January 5). Needless to say, virtually nothing has been heard of this campaign.

How could it be otherwise? An organisation capable of mobilising tens of thousands for a boycott would also be able to mobilise sufficient resources for a positive alternative electoral programme.