Ideologically bankrupt

The South African Communist Party has published a new version of its programme. Peter Manson analyses 'The South African road to socialism'

The South African Communist Party is undoubtedly the largest and most influential ‘official communist’ party in the west. Now claiming just under 150,000 members and seven positions in the South African government, the SACP was a key player within the ruling African National Congress in the move to recall Thabo Mbeki from the presidency and replace him by Jacob Zuma in 2008.

Of course, the claimed membership figures are grossly exaggerated - 150,000 is more like the number of SACP contacts or supporters. But the party is clearly continuing to recruit: it claimed 19,000 members 10 years ago and in 2007 the official figure hit 50,000 for the first time. So, even if we assume that the number of dues-paying activists is around 10% of the total (a proportion that has previously been admitted in private), a party of 15,000 activists is still a considerable force.

That is why we need to take the SACP seriously. Its leadership played a key role in defusing the revolutionary situation that arose during the last years of apartheid and helping ensure the masses were won to accept capitalism with a black face. The SACP remains central in containing their anger despite the mass unemployment and grinding poverty, and perpetuating the illusion that capitalism under the ANC can deliver them economic emancipation.

It does this by appealing to the politically conscious minority - the message is: ‘The working class is winning the class war and we are on the road to socialism.’ That explains why the SACP has not gone the way of so many ‘official communists’ before it - ditching the formal commitment to socialism and workers’ power. If it can continue to keep this militant minority on board, capitalism will remain safe in ANC hands.

In order to fulfil this role the latest draft of the SACP programme, The South African road to socialism (SARS), required skilful crafting, but fortunately the SACP has someone at hand who is renowned for his creative talents: Jeremy Cronin, the author, poet, government minister, ANC executive member and SACP deputy general secretary. The draft is supposed to be the work of a committee, but there is no doubt who the brain behind it is.

So the SARS bears careful study. Published at the beginning of the month and due to be adopted at the party’s 13th Congress in July, this document is subtitled the “draft political programme of the SACP, 2012-2017” or the “SACP’s five-year plan”.[1] Obviously a “five-year plan” is not the same thing as a political programme for communism - and indeed the draft contains no section on communism (or even socialism). Instead it claims to give a “broad Marxist-Leninist overview” of the current situation, which is one of “advancing the struggle through a national democratic revolution in alliance with our tripartite partners as the most direct road to socialism in our country” (p4). The slogan on the front cover proclaims that the current task is to “Advance and deepen working class power and hegemony in all key sites of struggle”.


‘Hegemony’ is a key word that pops up throughout. For example, it is explained in the introduction that the SACP’s “Medium Term Vision” is to “build working class hegemony in every site of power” (p5). However, if the current task is to advance and deepen such hegemony, that implies that the project is well underway: presumably the working class already enjoys a degree of hegemony.

The problem is that this is directly contradicted over and over again within The South African road to socialism. For example, part of the economic legacy of what the SACP calls “colonialism of a special type”, which lasted until the fall of apartheid, was, according to the party, a “dual labour market” - whereby there was, on the one hand, a small minority of skilled and semi-skilled workers and, on the other, “a mass of marginalised workers”. This is one of the features that “persist into the present”, states the SACP (p22). I suppose the mass of workers are experiencing a kind of marginalised hegemony then.

The political legacy of apartheid - “white citizens endowed with rights” alongside “black non-citizens” - produced “other forms of stark duality - administrative, economic, social and spatial”. The SACP correctly states that the results of this duality “remain deeply embedded and are continuously reproduced in our present reality” (p23). However, once again one must ask, if the mass of blacks (the overwhelming majority of whom are workers) effectively remain “non-citizens”, in what way is their “hegemony” being advanced?

Perhaps they now enjoy a greater share of the country’s wealth? The SACP bluntly states the opposite: “In 2007 … profit growth was averaging 20% a year … But labour’s share of GDP has been falling. In 1996 labour’s share was 55%. By 2006 it had fallen to 48%” (p40).

But this is hardly unexpected, since an “ideological current” which the SACP dubs the “1996 class project” dominated the ANC for most of the early post-apartheid years and implemented a thoroughly neoliberal agenda of privatisation and ‘marketisation’. This current “succeeded … in achieving a contested dominance and unstable hegemony within the ANC and the democratic state from around 1996 to at least 2007” (p61).

The result was devastating for workers: “The net effect of neoliberal restructuring of the workplace is the intensification of the rate of exploitation of labour and … an increasing fragmentation of the working class”. There has been “increased unilateral managerial power” (p46). In fact, “The neoliberal free market … has increasingly eroded whatever job security the working class might still have had” (p49). There is large-scale “contractualisation” (p45) and “labour-brokering” - the increased hiring of short-contract workers with next to no rights (p46).What is more, South Africa still retains the “racialised, gendered and hierarchical features of the apartheid workplace” (p45). Not much sign of “working class hegemony” there either.

How about in rural areas? Unfortunately, the “processes underway in our own countryside” include “mass farmworker retrenchments, forced removals off farms, the closure of many productive farms or their conversion into game farms”. The SACP notes that “these local realities reflect the impact of a neoliberal approach” (p7). The countryside is also remarkable for its “untransformed justice system that often does not take up cases that are reported to them against white farmers” (p52). Meanwhile, in the former ‘Bantustans’, which contain the “vast majority of the rural population”, the SACP observes that “our people are subjected to the rule, authority and patronage networks of the system of traditional leadership” - not to mention “extreme levels of poverty” (p53).

I am sure the reader will agree from all this that “working class power”, either in the town or countryside, is largely notable for its absence. It is true that South African trade unions are relatively powerful bodies - with, ironically, SACP comrades often at the head of militant struggles in defence of jobs, pay and conditions - but SACP union leaders and rank-and-file workers frequently come up against a state apparatus determined to further the interests of South African and international capital. And SACP members have been, since the start of the post-apartheid democratic order in 1994, part and parcel of that state. The role of the party itself has often been to mediate between these two sections of its membership.

But how does the SACP say working class “hegemony” is being, or ought to be, advanced? Well, the draft cannot speak too highly of “the semi-spontaneous development of localised organs of popular power” in the battle against apartheid - it mentions “street committees, self-defence units, mechanisms for popular justice …” (the last being a euphemism for the execution of traitors). This was the beginning of the implementation of the ANC Freedom Charter’s vision of “democratic organs of self-government”, asserts the document. And thankfully this vision has been “carried forward into the post-1994 period with a range of institutions intended to advance popular participation in governance”. Now what might they be? Well, “They include community policing forums, school governing bodies and ward committees” (p28).

No, that is not meant to be a joke. These bureaucratic, largely powerless bodies are a far cry from “street committees, self-defence units, mechanisms for popular justice”, as the SACP well knows. Perhaps that is why the document adds wistfully: “The degree to which any of these have lived up to the possibilities of being active institutions for the consolidation of people’s power needs to be assessed” (p28). It does indeed!

It is the same when the draft declares that “… building working class power in the workplace is a key dimension of building working class hegemony in the whole of society” (p45). One waits expectantly for a list of measures that have been implemented, or are proposed, in order to deliver such power. Organs of workers’ control with the ability to veto all workplace decisions? Workers’ direct management of production? Well, “increasing worker democracy on the shop floor” appears on a list of possible measures (p30). But, leaving aside such vague and non-specific platitudes, it is clear what the SACP thinks is really needed: a “bold state” to “drive the developmental transformation for both the public and private workplaces” (p49).

SACP ‘governance’

“Since the democratic breakthrough of 1994 the SACP has been a ‘party of governance’ - but not a governing party as such,” declares the leadership (p36).

What it means by that is that the hundreds of SACP members who have served in national, regional and local government, either as elected representatives or appointed officials, do so as ANC members - the ANC, of course, is the “party of governance”. Following the June 12 government reshuffle, for example, there are now seven SACP ministers - and in by no means minor posts.

Rob Davies retains the key trade and industry portfolio, while Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula has just been appointed minister of defence. SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande has been the minister for higher education and training since 2009 - the year both he and his deputy, Jeremy Cronin, decided, after being MPs for well over a decade, that they should put “governance” before their party tasks. Cronin is now the deputy minister for public works, serving under another SACP ‘comrade’, Thulas Nxesi, who was appointed public works minister last year (before that he was secretary general of the main teachers’ union).[2] Then there is Jeff Radebe, the minister of justice and constitutional development (formerly in charge of public works, then public enterprises). The final SACP minister is Ben Martins, who has just been handed the transport portfolio.

The party would have you believe that, with the defeat of Mbeki, the “national democratic revolution” is back on track. It claims that “since 2007 there has been important if contested progress within our broad liberation movement, and in the evolution of government policy” (p4). That is because the “provisional displacement of the 1996 class project has seen the considerable strengthening of the left’s ideological positions on government economic and social policies and programmes” (p62).

The big problem for the SACP is that its members continued to serve in the government during the period of the “hegemony” of the “1996 class project” from the mid-90s to 2007. Not only did these ‘communists’ fail to criticise the neoliberal anti-working class assault: they helped drive it forward. For instance, SACP ministers played important roles in the last Mbeki administration: eg, Sydney Mufamadi, the provincial and local government minister, had been responsible for implementing cutbacks locally; Charles Nqakula, as minister for safety and security, had sent in state forces to break the huge public services strike in 2007, while Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi (public service and administration) threatened to sack strikers; and Alec Erwin (public enterprises) was central in driving forward privatisation.

Often they were quietly dropped from the party leadership, but they were never confronted or publicly criticised. In fact this whole period was hardly characterised at the time as one of retreat or defeats by the SACP leadership. The draft claims: “At the SACP’s 12th National Congress in 2007, the party programme was centrally focused on a sustained critique of a reformist tendency then dominant in the leadership of both the state and the ANC itself” (p23). The critique was actually rather tame and the figurehead of the “1996 class project”, Thabo Mbeki, was referred to as “comrade”.

Even today the SACP likes to stress the positive: “These neoliberal tendencies were always partially mitigated by attempts to simultaneously fashion a ‘caring’ state focused on redistribution by way of ‘delivery’. Indeed the years since the democratic breakthrough have seen a very significant expansion of social grants, and millions of low-cost houses, water, electricity and telephone connections” (p33).

‘Most direct route’

As I have said, the SACP insists that South Africa is in the midst of an ill-defined “national democratic revolution” (NDR).

According to the SARS, “The NDR is not a ‘stage’ in which capitalism has to be ‘completed’ (or merely ‘managed according to its own internal logic’). The NDR is a struggle to overcome deep-seated and persisting racialised inequality and poverty in our society” (p25).

However, the NDR is not just applicable in South Africa, with its apartheid legacy of “racialised inequality”, but to the whole continent, as the section entitled ‘The African revolution’ makes clear: “The African revolution of the 21st century has to be a national democratic revolution. This means consolidating democratic national sovereignty and nation building (including the infrastructure that is the objective underpinning for any national consolidation)” (p16).

So the NDR is to be a process “of the 21st century” - one that appears destined to last some considerable time. However, “The NDR is not a ‘stage’ that must first be traversed prior to a second, socialist ‘stage’. The NDR is not a detour or a delay: it is the most direct route to socialism in South African reality. The NDR is also not the ‘postponement’ of the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the working class. How could it be? That class struggle is a daily reality embedded in the very nature of capitalism itself” (p30).

This is a fine example of Cronin’s craft. Administering the capitalist state most certainly does not mean postponing the class struggle, he would have us believe (in fact it represents its complete abandonment). The draft continues to pose left when it talks about “an emergent bourgeois endeavour”, whereby the NDR is “presented implicitly, and often explicitly, as the ‘bourgeois’ ‘stage’ of the revolution. The capitalist revolution, we are told, must first be ‘completed’. But the capitalist revolution in South Africa has long been made!” (p25)

We are informed that the NDR is “revolutionary nationalism” in the best tradition of Lenin, “who first comprehensively analysed the revolutionary character of the nationalism of colonially oppressed peoples” (p26). So is the SACP saying that South Africa still remains a “colonially oppressed” country? We are not told. Suffice it to say that this “revolutionary nationalism must be … drawn upon in the struggle for a socialism that is both patriotic and internationalist” (p27).

So what does the NDR boil down to? Firstly, it is about transforming the unbalanced nature of the South African economy, which results from “colonialism of a special type”. CST produced an “excessive reliance on primary product exports” and the import of “capital goods and manufactured consumer goods”. There was, and remains, a “relatively weak national market”, and this is characterised by the “dominance of the mineral-energy-finance complex, to the relative disadvantage of other sectors (eg, manufacturing)” (p22).

According to the draft SARS, “This excessive reliance on primary product exports still locks us into a dependent-developmental growth plan”, which has “skewed our economy”. This means that “our economic growth and development is exceedingly vulnerable to global fluctuations, a reality over which we have little control” (p38).

So the SACP believes (or appears to) that the South African capitalist economy can be made relatively immune from global fluctuations. It is a belief that appears to stand in sharp contrast to the statement contained in the section entitled ‘Why socialism?’ This reads: “… the simple rejection of austerity packages without advancing a post-capitalist alternative - in short a socialist alternative - will not enable the current global economy to surpass its current turbulent and threatening dead end” (p12). That is true, although it has to be said that such a “socialist alternative” must also be global - something the draft does not discuss at all.

To sum up: “The NDR in our present conjuncture has, in essence, to be a struggle to transform the dependent-development accumulation path of our economy, and the chronic underdevelopment that this accumulation path still daily reproduces.” And, although the NDR represents the “most direct route to socialism”, it is a route that “unites, in action, a range of classes and social strata” (p25).

The SARS explains: “Emerging strata of capital, and even established capital, must be actively mobilised into the transformational agenda .... The mobilisation of private capital into an NDR struggle should be based on clear objectives, which should include a priority on job-creating investment, skills training, appropriate and sustainable development of the forces of production …” (p29).

One is left wondering why those foolish capitalists would agree to be “mobilised” behind an “NDR agenda” - under “working class hegemony” - that is taking us to socialism. There again, if in reality it is about “job-creating investment, skills training” and the “development of the forces of production”, etc, then you can understand why they might be prepared to go along with that.

But let us not dwell on such niceties. Since the defeat of the “1996 class project” the “bold state” has begun to make itself felt. Did you know that “Over the past few years there have been increasing efforts to assert a different strategic agenda for the transversal coordination of the state apparatus”? This has included the “establishment of ministerial clusters, a National Planning Commission in the presidency, a presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission and the adoption of multi-sectoral policies like the Industrial Policy Action Programme and the New Growth Plan” (p35). There’s working class power in action for you.


The second aim of the NDR is “deracialisation”, which, for the SACP, is very much connected to the “‘transformation’ of the apartheid economy”. But it complains that the latter is “too often reduced to ‘deracialising’ boardrooms, shareholdings and senior management structures through the promotion of ‘representative’ blacks or women, without addressing the underlying systemic features of an economy that those very boardrooms, shareholdings and management structures daily promote and reproduce” (p29).

It is here that the draft is at its strongest, highlighting the absurdities and outright corruption involved in the “affirmative action” programme of the ANC which is supposed to facilitate “black economic empowerment” (BEE). What this means in practice is that quotas are set for the promotion of members of the “previously disadvantaged” majority by state departments. Companies competing for government tenders are also expected to comply with such quotas in respect of their shareholders, directors and managers. As the SARS notes, “Affirmative action is essentially an elitist process that benefits those in managerial levels, with deteriorating conditions for the working class” (p49).

For example, how was private capital to meet those targets, particularly in relation to ownership? After all, part of the legacy of apartheid is that most owners of capital, and people with sufficient wealth to buy large shareholdings, are white. The solution was to subsidise black proto-capitalists: “Considerable public funds … were diverted into leveraging a 25% shareholding target for blacks” (p40).

The “beneficiaries” were “capitalists without capital who were allocated shares on loan, on the assumption that, with dividends and share price rises, the debt would be repaid within a matter of years”. And “The beneficiaries were often drawn into deals by established capital on the basis of their actual or perceived connections to the ruling party.”

The draft correctly observes that “Established capital played along with this game, happy to ‘pay the rent’, and preferring this to any serious transformational agenda.” But “This model of BEE has resulted in high levels of indebtedness amongst the BEE ‘beneficiaries’ … Hence calls from sections of the black bourgeois stratum for the nationalisation of mines, essentially to rescue them from their indebtedness at public expense” (p41).

Another by-product of the wondrously misnamed “black economic empowerment” is the emergence of what the SACP labels “tenderpreneurs” - “those who use their positions of leadership in the ANC-led alliance or the state to get government tenders, often in a corrupt way” (p41). Many other black beneficiaries at the earliest opportunity sold off the shares kindly provided to them by the state as the easiest route to self-enrichment. That in turn left the companies concerned with problems fulfilling their shareholding quotas.

In short, the whole thing has been a dismal failure, for the reasons so clearly explained by the SARS. But what alternative “model of BEE” does the SACP propose? Well, it complains that this “‘deracialisation’ without class content” means that “there are no national democratic strategic guidelines provided to those who are promoted to boardrooms and senior management positions” (p29). Obviously, even in terms of the party’s own agenda, that would solve nothing. In fact the only concrete measure the draft comes up with is that there should be a “major review” of BEE (p43).

But it is little wonder that Cronin and co are at a loss. Just how can “deracialisation” be enforced under a market-based system without risking overt corruption? Most blacks are poor and most whites are not, which in turn means that whites in general continue to enjoy far better education, contacts, employment opportunities and business prospects than blacks.

I am afraid that the inequalities exacerbated by the apartheid legacy can only be removed by seriously challenging the system that perpetuates them. And that will require more than rhetoric.


But unfortunately rhetoric is all we get from the SACP. Typical is the slogan, “Socialism is the future. Build it now!” (p32). As we have seen, the SACP claims that socialism is actually being built “now” through an NDR that in reality proposes (1) a more ‘balanced’ economy via state intervention; and (2) greater racial equality through some as yet undisclosed means.

The subsection headed ‘Build socialism now’ (within the section on the NDR) attempts to expand upon this, but in a totally abstract way. We are told that the process of building socialism involves “socialising the economy” (“The socialised economy is that part of the economy premised on meeting social needs and not private profits” - p30). We read that the SACP is for a “predominant and varied public sector”, a “significant and growing cooperative sector” and the “active use of social capital”, such as “worker-controlled pension and provident funds”. But no concrete measures are put forward. For example, in “the struggle to “‘decommodify’ basic needs”, what specific demands for “socialisation” should be raised right now?

It is the same when it comes to “expanding workers’ real ability to impact on workplace decisions” (p30); and “expanding workers’ power over decisions around the allocation of social surplus, including investment policies, budgetary priorities, etc” (p31). Since this is supposed to be happening “now”, it is strange that there are no actual proposals which would result in workers being able to take such decisions. All we are told is that “empowering workers on the shopfloor, rolling back the capitalist market by decommodifying basic needs, advancing a wide array of socially owned and regulated entities, and placing a premium on sustainability - none of these measures requires waiting for the NDR to be first ‘completed’” (p32).

Despite the sometimes powerful indictment of global capitalism in the section entitled ‘Why socialism?’, it goes without saying that there is no mention of the necessary global response. Not just a more balanced capitalist economy, but socialism too, can see the light of day in South Africa alone, it is implied. Of course, there is much talk of “international solidarity”, but this is not discussed in terms of working class power. Rather, “There is a wide array of broadly progressive forces in the world”, taking up issues such as “environmental sustainability, peace, human rights, women’s rights, the third world debt …” (p14). The SACP should “make conscious and practical linkages” with them, with the aim of “rescuing human civilisation and the natural world from the depredations of capitalism” (p15).

Similarly, we need to aim for “the consolidation of a vibrant, democratic and developmentally orientated southern African regional community” (p26). But there is no talk of striving for socialist unity across the continent or the fight for a workers’ Africa. Quite the opposite, in fact. According to the SARS, “Our 1994 democratic breakthrough and our government’s regional and continental initiatives have … opened up many new investment possibilities for South African private capital. While South African investment in the continent can, potentially, play a progressive role, there is a grave danger that South African capital will simply constitute itself as a sub-imperial power …” (p17).

So, while South African private capital will play a “progressive role” elsewhere on the continent (but without developing into “a sub-imperial power”, of course), South African workers will be busy building “socialism now” back home.

But what does the SACP mean by socialism? As you might expect from ‘official communists’, we do have the former “socialist bloc” in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe to look back to. There are the usual phrases about the “many important gains and progressive advances achieved”, notwithstanding the “grievous systemic errors and mistakes”: for instance, “millions of communists were among the victims of Stalin’s purges” (p13).

However, “A socialism of the 21st century will need to think and act differently.” And fortunately we have the “Cuban revolution” to serve as an example. After all, Cuba is “combining the most modern scientific and technological interventions with non-motorised transport, like bicycles and even ox-drawn ploughs. These should not be seen only as emergency measures in a particular situation. Nor should they be seen as a step back into the past. They are, in many respects, a step forward into the only sustainable future” (p32).

If this is the SACP’s glowing example of the socialist “future”, perhaps it is little wonder that in practice the party contents itself with a programme for a more democratic, responsive capitalism. There must be a “state-led industrial policy” to ensure that manufacturing is “built into a much more vibrant and dynamic sector”; the “increasing socialisation of the finance sector” (by supporting current efforts to ‘transform’ existing state developmental finance institutions); a “major state-led infrastructure programme”; etc (p43). That is the long and short of SACP ‘socialism’.

SACP ‘revolution’

It should be absolutely clear to readers that the leadership of the South African Communist Party is ideologically bankrupt. But it has yet to face any serious internal challenge - either from the right, through Eurocommunist-type calls to abandon the ‘outdated’ Marxist jargon and openly embrace liberalism; or from the left, through the key demand for working class independence and a break with the bourgeois ANC.

The leadership has been forced by the pressure from below to concede that the tripartite alliance (ANC, SACP and the Congress of South African Trade Unions) is not necessarily permanent. For example, it writes: “As an independent political party the SACP has every right to contest elections in its own right - should it so choose.” But it immediately goes on to contradict this by implying that it would need permission from the ANC to do so: “Whether the party does this and how it does it are entirely subject to conjunctural realities and indeed to engagement with our strategic allies” (p37).

However, more and more, the SACP rank and file is coming to the realisation that all is not well with the current strategy. The demand should be for the party’s ministers to resign immediately (either that or face expulsion) and for the SACP and Cosatu to break from the cross-class alliance now. Most of all there needs to be a totally different sort of ‘revolution’ from the one proposed by the leadership. There needs to be a revolution within the SACP itself, to rid it of its treacherous leaders and win it to a genuinely democratic, genuinely internationalist, independent working class programme.



1 . www.sacp.org.za/docs/docs/2012/draftpol2012.pdf.

2 . Back in 1993, before the election of the first ANC government, Cronin proclaimed that the real fight would continue to take place “on the street”, not in parliament. But by the end of the decade he had changed his mind and agreed to stand as an MP himself. He told a journalist that he was “tired”.