Analysis: Blade Nzimande's fight for relevance needs renewed urgency
What is going on in the South African Communist Party? From the Vanguard of the Left to the “Who Cares” of our politics in just one simple move? Why, and what is really going on? Is it all about Blade Nzimande? Perhaps. Should we care? Yes. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
Six months ago we asked if the SACP had become lost in SA's political space-time continuum. We couldn’t find it. In fact the only thing it produced that was interesting was Jeremy Cronin’s sometimes-thoughtful pieces in its newsletter, Umsebenzi, that arrived from time to time. Otherwise, the party seemed to have disappeared.
Well, now we know why. It seems to be fighting with itself. Over the weekend the Sunday Independent reported there was an organised campaign against the party’s general secretary Blade Nzimande. It said part of this was because of his decision (well, technically the decision of the party’s central committee) a while back that he join Zuma's cabinet. The official response to the report from the SACP, through its national spokesman Malesela Maleka included the phrase “witch-hunt”, and suggested this was all about the race within the SACP for 2012 (we forget that it too has a national conference next year).
In South Africa, if a political party says something like that, you know it’s serious. Firstly, don’t forget a party’s spokesman is usually very close to its leader (the ANC may be a slightly different case). So Nzimande must be seriously pissed off with what’s happening. Secondly, to actually claim that people are moving against you within your own party just isn’t done here.
Then on Monday, the party announced it had decided to dissolve the provincial executive council in Limpopo. Remember what happened to the ANC in Western Cape and North West? It’s pretty much the same process. And dissolving a provincial leadership in any party is a bit like a re-shuffle. You may get what you want in the short-term, but hell there’s nothing like it to create some serious enemies.
It’s too early to know why exactly the party’s central committee (we don’t call it a politburo anymore… sadly) made this decision. Usually when something like this happens it’s either because the provincial leadership is simply fighting within itself to the point where it cannot function, or because that leadership is opposing the national leaders. It could well be a mixture of the two here.
Nzimande does seem to be at the centre of some of these issues. It’s not that he’s responsible, it’s that he’s the target on some level, as all leaders are from time to time. Some people would be genuinely angry that he’s in cabinet, some annoyed at his silence on many important issues of the day and others would just be in it for themselves, utilising all of the above against him.
Then we have the mistakes he himself has made. The biggest public blunder by far was claiming that “the liberal media are the greatest threat to democracy”. It was mind-bogglingly stupid. Not only was it just wrong, and a clear example of not thinking before speaking (a bigger sin in the SACP than elsewhere, as they are supposed to be the “clever boys” of the alliance), but it was also an example of some serious paranoia. It’s one of those comments that make people stop thinking you’re a Marxist, and start thinking you’re a Stalinist. And just when he might think people will forget, every single journalist in the country will be on hand to remind us all about it (and while there might be an argument to say they shouldn’t, it is surely defensible to say that a comment like that is so dangerous, it should not be forgotten).
The other mistake he’s made is to simply be invisible as a party leader. While he will say that’s because of his cabinet responsibilities (by convention a cabinet minister does not publicly criticise a cabinet decision) it means that Jeremy Cronin (his deputy) has to stand in. And this means that party members may feel he’s spending more time on his government duties than on them.
The real damage to the party is that all of this means it’s losing opportunity after opportunity. At a time when real intellectual leadership could be welcomed within the alliance as an antidote to the Malemas and Manyis of the world, the party simply looks asleep. There’s no coherent argument emanating from it, apart from Cronin’s odd dash of polemical spice, though his lunges at the media are at best ill-informed.
Of course, the SACP will say that much of this is just the usual politicking ahead of any national conference, that things will calm down next year. Well, hang on a bit: We’re in election season, and already the fights within the party are becoming public. That’s a real indication of serious problems.
Nzimande is one of the sharper tools in the shed. He has incumbency, experience and some real gravitas as a leader, so our money, for now, is on him to stay. But it is possible there is another dynamic at play. Nzimande made his name on the national stage to an extent, through his support of President Jacob Zuma. Is it possible that as the Zuma presidency goes on, some people within the party are beginning to think that was a mistake. That perhaps this is what is causing some serious problems for Nzimande. And if so, what are the implications for the greater alliance?
The issue is that, some day, the alliance partners may finally realise just how much the support for the SACP narrowed nationwide and just how high the communists punch above their weight. And should the politicians who are still discussing Stalinism vs Trotskyism continue their process of fading, their partners may just have enough of them. DM
Grootes is an EWN reporter