Spot the difference

Some people cannot distinguish a revolutionary alliance from class collaboration. Peter Manson looks at the South African Communist Party’s contradictions

The South African Communist Party, whose leading members continue to play important roles in the African National Congress government, is coming under increasing pressure as a result of the seething discontent amongst the country’s workers, unemployed and poor.

So much so that now, for the first time in many years, the SACP leadership has felt obliged to go into print against the “ultra-left”. Not that it is under threat from the South African far left, which 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.

No, the leadership is well aware, that, despite its protestations to the contrary, its stageist, gradualist strategy is totally discredited. The masses may still vote ANC in huge numbers, but that vote is ever more grudging and made in the knowledge that there is no viable alternative. And the impatience of the SACP rank and file is growing in direct proportion, causing the leadership to fear that the pressure on the party to advocate independent working class politics in place of class collaboration - in effect to break with the ANC-led alliance - will become more difficult to resist.

In recent weeks, this pressure has been increased by the furore over the luxury cars purchased by government ministers for their official duties. Much of this focused on SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande, who for the first time has taken up government office as minister for higher education, alongside his number two, Jeremy Cronin, who is the new deputy minister of transport. Previously the two principal SACP leaders had steered clear of government office, but were appointed by president Jacob Zuma after their election to the national assembly in April.

The opposition Democratic Alliance made Nzimande a particular target when it was revealed that he had chosen a top-of-the-range BMW, worth R1.1 million (£91,000) in which to be driven from his office on official visits to colleges, universities and so on. The Congress of South African Trade Unions issued a statement calling on Nzimande and other ministers to exchange their vehicles for something more modest. After all, as the DA delighted in pointing out, Nzimande’s luxurious lifestyle contrasts graphically with that of the country’s millions of shack-dwellers and low-paid workers, whose interests the SACP is supposed to represent.

Previously there were claims that Nzimande, who lives in a plush Johannesburg suburb, has up to four luxury cars of his own parked in his garage. His SACP salary is said to be R750,000 (£62,000), but it is unclear whether he has taken a pay cut now that he is in receipt of a ministerial salary of around the same size. According to the SACP constitution, the post of general secretary is a full-time job.

The many ordinary SACPers who echoed Cosatu’s call to Nzimande to trade in his BMW must have been surprised when the party came out with its own statement defending the general secretary’s choice of vehicle, quoting security considerations. The SACP and Cosatu (many of whose officials are party members anyway) were then forced to deny a rift.


It is against this background that the central committee published a discussion document “in preparation for the second special national congress” in December. The special congress is due to take decisions on the party’s relationship with the ANC, including the thorny question of whether in future elections the SACP should stand candidates in its own right (rather than as members of ANC lists, as has been the case since 1994).

The first special conference in 2008 agreed a vague call for “increased visibility of communists” on such 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”.

However, the party’s polite request for its 37 members of the 400-strong national assembly elected on ANC lists to be allowed to answer to an SACP mandate was, not unexpectedly, rejected out of hand and the leadership seems to have meekly accepted the status quo. This exposes once more the contradiction of SACP representatives voting for, and SACP ministers implementing, policies to which the party is formally opposed.

However, the CC document, ‘Building working class hegemony on the terrain of a national democratic struggle’, warns the SACP left of its responsibility to honour the organisation’s “refusal, collectively, to be hijacked into a media-sponsored campaign to provoke a crisis within the party around the tactical question of whether we should contest elections in our own right, or not” (September 2009).

It continues: “It is important to remember this, because, once again, the media (but obviously backed by other ideological interests) is seeking to turn our forthcoming special national conference into a divisive showdown around the same tactical electoral question, or a similar divisive showdown on the deployment of party leaders.

“While not outlawing any debate or discussion, it is imperative that we do not allow the huge strategic possibilities and responsibilities of the party … to be drowned out and undermined by a lack of strategic focus at our special national conference in December.”

In other words, stop quibbling - the strategic relationship with the ANC actually precludes any significant tactical shift. What matters is “the consolidation and defence of our democratic dispensation”, over which the SACP claims to be waging a struggle for “working class hegemony”. That is why “the sectarian ultra-left (who reject the present democratic dispensation as inherently ‘bourgeois’ and ‘reactionary’”) have got it so wrong, according to the CC document.

It is easy enough for the leadership to mock the pathetic demand by sections of the far left for a boycott of the April 22 elections, but it is on much less firm ground when, for example, it criticises expelled SACP member Dale McKinley for calling the existing South African state “the ‘public arm’ of a slowly deracialising capitalist ruling class (both bureaucratic and corporate)” and when it slams the “ultra-left” for suggesting that the ANC “is ‘inherently’ ‘pre-determined’ to be bourgeois”.

For any genuine communist it is pretty fundamental that no state can be class-neutral. In South Africa, as in all capitalist countries, the state must oversee existing social relationships, which, by definition, means broadly upholding what exists. How can it be otherwise? Similarly a party such as the ANC whose members take responsibility for staffing and organising the state, self-defines as bourgeois.

In fact this is implicitly recognised by the SACP leadership when it defends “the multi-class character of our national democratic struggle”: as everyone knows, the SACP represents the working class, while the ANC represents the ‘progressive bourgeoisie’. One of the party’s key tasks is to “provide a consistent strategic leadership … to the broader mass of urban and rural poor, to a wide range of middle strata and, in South African conditions, to many sectors of non-monopoly capital”.

So where does “working class hegemony” come into it? Apparently such hegemony is “not an alternative to” the “multi-class character” of the movement. Unfortunately, however, it is the bourgeoisie that still leads the “national democratic revolution” (NDR), which explains the “current capitalist accumulation path”. Despite the fact that 15 years have elapsed since the final end of apartheid, the CC argues that the NDR is far from complete. And the problem with the “sectarian left” is that it is “in denial that capitalism’s hegemony continues to be secured in South Africa fundamentally through the reproduction of racialised inequality (ie, through persisting, essentially market-driven, national oppression). For this reason they alternatively label the strategy of an NDR as ‘bourgeois’ or ‘Stalinist’.”

The problem is that “national oppression”, when it is defined in this way as “racialised inequality”, is likely to continue indefinitely under capitalism (which in turn means that we will never get past the NDR stage). The gross inequalities inherited from apartheid cannot be abolished by piecemeal reforms under the market. No wonder so many rank and file party members are implicitly challenging the whole strategy by demanding a break from the ANC.

So how does the CC counter this? It argues that the situation under the previous ANC leadership of Thabo Mbeki was an example of “when reformist opportunism comes to dominate popular organisations”. According to the CC, the ANC trend that Mbeki represented began to gain dominance way back (this trend is labelled the “1996 class project”) - although it was only in the last year or so of Mbeki’s presidency that the party began to criticise him openly. The SACP leadership explains that under such circumstances it was understandable that people began to turn to “left sectarian ideas” (it means ideas like the working class organising independently of the bourgeoisie) and these “can also have a resonance within mainstream left formations, including the SACP’s own ranks”.

That is why the CC anticipates “a minor regrouping of left sectarian currents”. They will “celebrate (and play an entryist game within) the current popular ‘township delivery’ protests. But, because of their rejectionist tendencies in regard to the present ‘bourgeois’ state, and the ANC alliance, they will be unable to effectively develop a radical politics of transformation that is both mass-driven and state-led

“Both mass-driven and state-led” - that will be a difficult one to pull off. But the leadership is not complacent: although last year saw “the political and organisational defeat of the leading cadre behind the ‘1996 class project’”, this “has not (yet) changed the objective power of capital”. So the task of the SACP is “both to defend this democratic space and to use it to wage an untiring struggle to consolidate working class hegemony in all sites of power”.

‘Massive delivery’

The CC refers to “the truly massive ‘delivery’ that has actually happened on many fronts since 1994 - 13 million social grants, 3.1million subsidised houses (2.7 million of them free), access for 88% of the population to running water (up from 62% in 1996); 80% of the population now with access to electricity (up from 58% in 1996). By international standards, these are extremely impressive achievements.”

However, it goes on to admit that “at best, this massive ‘delivery’ has ameliorated but not transformed the key structural realities that continue to reproduce crisis-levels of underdevelopment in SA”.

For example, “the housing backlog remains more or less where it was when we began, and the crisis of overcrowding, of backyard shacks and informal settlements has increased”. In education, “15 years into our post-apartheid democracy we have become increasingly aware that the formal creation of a single educational dispensation masks the material reality of a highly unequal and inequitable system that actively reproduces enormous race, class and (to some extent) gendered inequalities.”

Then there is healthcare, where “racial, class and gendered inequality are also massively reproduced”. On the one hand, the private sector “uses 60% of financial and medical personnel resources, but services a mere 14% of our population … On the other hand, we have an underfunded, and overwhelmed, public health system, further burdened by the HIV/Aids and TB pandemics … the number of South Africans covered by medical aids [health insurance] is now 14% down, from 25% in 1994.”

And what about the whole crisis around “service delivery”, which has seen mass protests answered by state repression over recent weeks? “Municipal budgets are under-resourced, and key planning decisions are often taken far away by other spheres of government … many township-based ward councillors feel completely disempowered. Typically, they might begin by making commitments and trying their best, but within a year or so of taking up office they have given up and do their best to avoid the community …. While some township-based ward councillors might be more effective than others, it is little wonder that nearly all of them are now the objects of popular condemnation.”

In reality, despite the “massive” achievements the SACP boasts of (attained by the “1996 class project”, don’t forget), all this stands as an indictment of the party’s entire strategy for one and a half decades. Not much “working class hegemony” there. But the leadership intends to soldier on along the same path.

It has now identified four areas that “require radical transformation” (within the current capitalist order, of course). First, economic growth, which “remains locked largely into the same, century-long trajectory, previously associated with white minority rule”. It is “excessively dependent” on the export of primary commodities and the import of luxury and capital goods. This has produced a “weak national (and regional) market” and an “underdeveloped light manufacturing sector”. Instead, what is required is “a state-led industrial policy programme that prioritises job creation”, more “state planning” and the “progressive transformation of the critical financial sector to ensure developmental investment”.

Moving on from this Keynesian package, the second area that needs “radical transformation” is comrade Nzimande’s own sphere - education and training. But on this the CC is reduced to platitudes: the “need to increase post-school options for our youth”, the “intensification of adult education and training, including workplace training”, “increased access to and success in higher education” … Even “monopoly capital” could sign up to that lot.

Thirdly, there is what the SACP calls the “spatial reproduction of racialised (and class and gendered) underdevelopment and inequality”, and on this the CC does at least address the theoretical question of the “antithesis between town and country”. However, it commends, as partial steps forward, the “establishment of a new Department of Rural Development”, the “renaming of the old Housing Department as the Human Settlement Department” and the “establishment of a planning ministry with a key mandate to consider the ‘spatial economy’”. Hmm.

But it goes without saying that more is needed: the CC returns once more to the main theme of the document - to “ensure a working class hegemony” over “an accelerated and integrated rural development process”. Concretely, however, what is proposed is: “Ban the sale of publicly owned land to property speculators” (good); and “use much more aggressively property rates, local business taxes and other fiscal means to ensure better cross-subsidisation of municipal public services” (not so good).

The final area of “radical transformation” is in healthcare. Here the SACP basically contents itself with supporting the ANC’s “commitment to rolling out a national health insurance system (NHI)”, which “will mark a significant step in the direction of basing healthcare provision (as the ANC NEC NHI briefing document puts it) on the basis of ‘from each according to their ability (to pay); to each according to their need’” - although, of course, this advance will need the active participation of healthworkers.

‘Hegemony’ in the state

For the CC, such “transformation” depends on the success of the “struggle for working class hegemony in the state”. What does this mean? Its takeover by workers’ soviets, backed up by a popular militia? Afraid not. The SACP is to keep plugging away at the notion of the “developmental state”, which, unfortunately, is “a perspective that remains largely aspirational”.

In practice “working class hegemony over the state” is reduced to the “struggle to introduce a progressive, strategic discipline across all three spheres of government”, combined with the “struggle against corruption and … patronage networks”. With this in mind, the SACP calls for “an urgent discussion within our movement and within government” over its own list of truly pathetic administrational reforms.

But, if all this seems to you rather remote from the idea of working class hegemony, you are probably overlooking the fact that it will all be backed up and reinforced by “popular mobilisation and participation” through, for instance, “community policing forums” and “street committees”.

The SACP leadership is at pains to reassure the membership that “This kind of hegemonic ability is different from a ‘balancing’ act ... so beloved by centrist reformism.” Of course it is. There will be no need to ‘balance’ between the interests of the working class and “non-monopoly capital”, will there? And “monopoly capital” will just have to put up with it (although it has to be said that the bourgeois media show little sign of quaking in its boots when it reports the latest SACP statement or press release).

You might assume from the above description that there is nothing at all of worth in this SACP document. Surprisingly, you would be wrong.

The introductory sections on the capitalist financial and environmental crisis make some sound points. For instance: “There are no solutions within capitalism for these crises of capitalism. The crises are not the result of the failure of capitalism, but of its very successes! The crises are not ‘abnormal’: they are systemic and inevitable … as long as we remain imprisoned within a capitalist system.”

The document goes on to point out: “It is also important for us to remember that even in the ‘good’ times of capitalist boom, life is crisis-ridden for hundreds of millions of the world’s workers and poor. Here in South Africa, the much vaunted ‘unprecedented and sustained growth’ between 1994 and 2007 only managed (eventually) to bring unemployment back down to the crisis levels at which we had begun in 1994 (over 20%).

“In the same period, even in the midst of our democratic breakthrough, there was a huge shift of surplus from the South African working class majority to the tiny minority of capitalist exploiters and speculators - compensation to employees was 51% of GDP in 1994, while net operating surplus (profits for bosses) was 25% of GDP. By 2008 worker share of South Africa’s GDP had dropped to 42%, while the bosses’ share had risen to 33%.” (Clearly, these statistics speak volumes about the ‘success’ to date of the SACP’s “transformation” strategy.)

Similarly on the environment and climate change: “The capitalist accumulation process is premised on ever-expanding growth and the illusion of limitless resources ... Capitalism (unfortunately like much of formerly existing socialism) assumes limitless natural resources available for ever-expanding exploitation.” The document is scathing about the idea that “somehow techno-geeks and the hidden hand of the market will find a solution” and concludes: “Without a critique of the systemic nature of global capitalism, hopelessly inadequate piecemeal environmental reforms, at best, will remain the order of the day.”

The CC starts with this global context because, it says, it wants to site the South African struggle within global realities. Although it did leave me asking how it is that neither the SACP’s strategy nor the tactics that flow from it seem to have been affected in the slightest by the huge changes that have occurred since it adopted its current trajectory two decades ago.

‘Revolutionary alliance’

As I say, this whole trajectory is increasingly being called into question by sections of the party’s rank and file. This can be seen to some extent on the Young Communist League internet discussion list, which is open to non-members.

The list is run by SACP veteran Dominic Tweedie (who I suspect no longer qualifies for YCL membership himself). Comrade Tweedie often intercedes with his fatherly advice to the less experienced members and does his best to answer questions - such as when one comrade enquired as to the difference between an alliance and a coalition.

Comrade Tweedie gave his explanation, but went on to warn against class collaboration, which is “when you unite with the bosses, on the bosses’ unilateral terms. That’s not good, comrades.”

Normally I do not intervene in such exchanges, but this time I could not resist: “I have another question. Isn’t it also class collaboration to unite with pro-business forces in a capitalist government? Imagine, for example, communists taking up ministerial posts in a government whose policy has been to privatise public services and resist workers’ demands for better wages and conditions in order to protect profits. Imagine them speaking out against strikes and even sending in the state’s forces to defeat them. Imagine them actually fronting the privatisation drive. Imagine them heading the bourgeoisie’s intelligence services. In short, isn’t it class collaboration to help run capitalism?”

This provoked a furious response from comrade Tweedie, the leadership’s most dedicated apologist: “Peter Manson, you anarchist … you petty-bourgeois London trouble-maker”, who has “come bursting in here with your premature Trotskyist ‘revolution betrayed’ ejaculations. Yours is only an infantile disorder.”

According to comrade Tweedie, “anarchists” like myself and opportunists are “twins” and “one of the consequences of this is that both the anarchists and the opportunists end up with the same slogan, which is the same as yours here: Isolate the working class!”

As a member of a group that used to call itself The Leninist, said comrade Tweedie, I ought to know about Lenin’s advocacy of alliances: “The difference between our successful practice of unity-in-action class alliance and collaboration is not that one component may be a fraction of the bourgeoisie. On the contrary, it is necessary to split the bourgeoisie and therefore to have part of the bourgeoisie in our alliance, just as Lenin’s Bolsheviks of old allied with the peasantry.

“Alliance is the very spirit of the communists, as expressed in their hammer-and-sickle emblem. Alliance has a unity in action programme that is not a bourgeois programme, but it is a revolutionary programme; and a revolutionary programme cannot be achieved without alliance.”

Comrade Tweedie, along with the SACP leadership, pretends not to know that the Bolshevik alliance with the peasantry and their representatives was aimed against both tsarism and the bourgeoisie (of which there is no ‘progressive’ wing). They also pretend that the SACP’s governmental alliance with the bourgeoisie is not “on the bosses’ unilateral terms”.

I am sure that he will need no reminding, but perhaps it is worthwhile looking back at the record of the SACP ‘comrades’ who have been appointed government ministers to date.

And now we have comrades Nzimande and Cronin in their (rather less prominent) posts. They are joined by Rob Davies, previously regarded as a bit of a nonentity during his period as an ANC MP, which began in 1994. In May this year he was appointed minister of trade and industry from nowhere and is no doubt expected to take over where ‘comrade’ Erwin left off in 2004.

Like Erwin, Davies has the advantage of being white, which apparently helps to provide psychological reassurance to South African and international capital. It goes without saying that nobody is alarmed by his ‘communism’.

After the experience of the last 15 years, however, I doubt that many South Africans will expect Nzimande, Cronin and Davies to advance either “working class hegemony” or the “revolutionary programme”.