Only dead fish go with the flow
28 March 2017 17:40 (South Africa)
Politics

The Communists’ dilemma

  • Branko Brkic
    branko3048 a ray
    Branko Brkic

    Brkic is the founder and editor of The Daily Maverick.

    He has edited magazines on business and politics, technology, and wildlife. He has also published fiction and non-fiction books, most of them in Serbian. Though he has never pretended to be a reporter, his wide knowledge of politics (especially in America), combined with his experiences in a disintegrating Yugoslavia, gives him an unusual outlook on events in South Africa.

    Despite the vowel-poor surname, he tells anyone who asks that he hails from Hyde Park, Johannesburg, having spent most of his adult life in South Africa.

    Recent columns:

  • Politics
blade nzimand on white background

The South African Communist Party’s special national conference gets under way properly this morning. But maybe this time it will be more about the party itself than about bringing world peace and declaring that utopia is damn well achievable. Maybe this time they will pose some hard questions, like how much does the SACP actually matter? And what to do with the top three men?

Communists really love to talk. And talk. And if they can, they will talk some more. It’s about the battle of ideas, the propaganda war that they love so much. It’s about debate-debate rather than revolution-revolution. And the next few days are likely to be a good example of that.

The SACP is meeting in Polokwane at a gathering that is unlikely to be quite as momentous as the last time something political happened there, but it’ll be pretty interesting nonetheless. And while the party’s propagandists are likely to put all kinds of spin on the choice of location, we capitalists can’t resist taking a cheap shot or two, like reminding them that it took about a year to pay back the Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth for their last conference.

If you’re in the Alliance, but not in power, there’s really only one major debate: how to achieve as much power as possible within that Alliance. If you’re in power, like the ANC, you don’t need to worry about that, and you have the luxury of a good old-fashioned leadership battle, or even a quick discussion about policy. But for the SACP, policy may well come second. After all, “Socialism in our lifetime” is one of those goals that moves, depending on who you’re talking to. And so you can expect the relationship between the SACP and the ANC to be a major focus.

In this debate, the SACP has one major problem. It’s rather insurmountable really. If it ran in an election tomorrow, as an independent party, it would be lucky to get 17% of the vote. That’s just a little bit more than the DA. And that’s before the ANC really gets its campaign in motion. Then it would be able to take a lot of that support from the SACP very easily. Both the ANC  and the SACP know that. (The ANC has the best electoral mathematicians rands can buy, and the DA’s are pretty bloody good too. Witness how ANC officials were careful not to predict a two-thirds majority in this year’s election.) So, if the person you’re negotiating with knows that you’re in a much weaker position, your options are hugely limited. But what you CAN do is find out who has the same problem as you do, and work together. Hence Cosatu and the SACP’s close relationship. And what do they demand? That the Alliance is the “centre of power”, and the claim that it makes policy.

Here the SACP is on a good ground. It’s being told that it’s making some headway, over things like inflation targeting, the deficit and so forth. It’ll want to believe that all of that is actually true, but is likely to keep a close eye on those particular debates. As always, if you want an honest answer to the question, how much power does the left have, you go to Jeremy Cronin. He’s the deputy general secretary of the party, and has a brain the size of a planet. Not only is he rare and an honest politician, he’s even more rare in that he’s a communist with a sense of humour, which Julius Malema spectacularly failed to notice during the nationalisation debate. And Cronin always says that for the left to get what it wants, it’ll have to work harder than ever. Which should make the left worry a little, considering that their man Zuma is now safely installed in the Union Buildings.

The “personality issue” of this week’s conference is going to be about that well-known product of the union between a gardener and a kitchen girl, Blade Nzimande. If you haven’t heard him sing that little ditty, you’re missing something. He does have one of the better political voices on the current scene. But the question delegates will debate is should he keep two jobs, that of higher education minister, and of being the only person who can claim to be Cronin’s party boss? As an issue, it’s a doozy. The argument for him to keep them both is that he’s successfully led the party’s support for President Jacob Zuma. He’s having an impact on government policies, his supporters will say, and as a minister, he gets name recognition, an opportunity to implement SACP policy on the ground etc.

The arguments against will be muted, but they’ll be there. The SACP has already previously prevented one of its officials from being an MEC, so there’ll be discussions about precedent. Then, and you’ll have to listen closely to hear it, doesn’t having the party’s leader in government stop that leader, who is the party’s biggest, most visible and spinnable asset, from being as free, and as honest as he would like? In other words, if cabinet decides inflation targeting should stay, and that it should be written into the Constitution forever, as a cabinet member, he would be expected to back it fully and with enthusiasm.

Nzimande knows his party well, and he’ll have made sure he gets his preferred outcome. So he’ll keep a corner office at Cosatu House (which also houses the SACP), and get to keep his trappings of power, including his ministerial car (that’s cars, plural – Ed).

And when it comes to policy, don’t expect a major departure from the ANC’s election manifesto. The SACP’s chairman Gwede Mantashe won’t want any kind of change or anything that’ll rock the boat. After all, Mantashe also has an interest in keeping the SACP in line.

By Stephen Grootes

(Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter)

Photo: Blade Nzimande. REUTERS/Claudia Daut

  • Branko Brkic
    branko3048 a ray
    Branko Brkic

    Brkic is the founder and editor of The Daily Maverick.

    He has edited magazines on business and politics, technology, and wildlife. He has also published fiction and non-fiction books, most of them in Serbian. Though he has never pretended to be a reporter, his wide knowledge of politics (especially in America), combined with his experiences in a disintegrating Yugoslavia, gives him an unusual outlook on events in South Africa.

    Despite the vowel-poor surname, he tells anyone who asks that he hails from Hyde Park, Johannesburg, having spent most of his adult life in South Africa.

    Recent columns:

  • Politics

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