South Africa

Lost in Paradise: The SACP’s pursuit of relevance and power by default

By Ranjeni Munusamy 22 July 2015

If the South African Communist Party (SACP) took a decision to collapse itself, would it make any difference whatsoever to the political space in the country? While it might deprive its general secretary Blade Nzimande of a platform from which to shriek damnation against the judiciary, the media, and other assorted enemies, would it alter the national dialogue or deprive any constituency of its voice? The SACP is trying very hard to convince itself and everyone else that it is an essential partner in the ruling alliance, and that there is still an important role for the party to play despite its acute contradictions and indefinite ideology. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

In an article in City Press recently, former cabinet minister Trevor Manuel questioned the SACP’s ideological coherence and legitimacy. Regarding its claim that it has boosted membership from 70,000 to 230,000 in two years, Manuel asked: “Can the SACP explain whether its members are Marxists? Can it also explain what the purpose of its recruitment drive is? What are the benefits of membership? Is it being true to its origins of building a cadre of leadership?”

“As the SACP ventures into trying to determine what we may read, think, write, say or associate with, it has an enormous obligation to explain what the organisation stands for and from where it derives its legitimacy. While it goes about doing that, it might also choose to tell us what the benefits of membership for its hundreds of thousands of members are,” Manuel wrote.

Like many people, Manuel’s attention was drawn to the SACP following a recent alliance summit and the party’s special national congress earlier this month, which led to the SACP featuring in the news more than it would have for the last six months of the year combined. Amongst the issues that made the news were threats by SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande that he intended to reintroduce the debate on regulation of the media and the claim of “judicial overreach” into affairs of the executive and Parliament.

The SACP has heaped abundant praise on itself, including the declaration that it was “the second largest membership political formation in our country”.

The SACP also said it was “the most stable and ideologically coherent formation within the alliance”. “This is a time when the ANC is acknowledging many challenges related to incumbency and the influence of money on internal democracy. This is a moment in which the unrelenting capitalist offensive against Cosatu coincides with serious challenges to its unity and strength,” the party said in its congress declaration.

Despite this rather generous view of itself, SACP first deputy secretary Jeremy Cronin wrote in City Press in response to Manuel that the party was “not immune to the problems facing all our formations”. “The SACP should welcome constructive criticism from within and without,” Cronin said.

“Constructive criticism from within” has included a view in some SACP structures, not supported by the leadership, that the party should stop piggybacking on the ANC and contest elections on its own. What that would do, effectively, is place the SACP as a competitor to the ANC on the ballot paper, rather than a freeloader in government.

The SACP has celebrated its rapid climb in membership as proof of its relevance, without having to test its support at the polls. If the membership figures are correct, have these thousands of people joined the SACP because they became convinced of its ideas of socialism or communism, or because of the party’s proximity to power and access to resources? Being in the SACP, in the context of the alliance relationship, offers the opportunity for special concessions. As is the case in national government, there is the expectation of deployment of SACP cadres in provincial and local government, the provincial legislatures as well as other key positions in the state.

This means SACP members have a sense of entitlement to positions without having to do any of the heavy lifting. At election time, the SACP is even reliant on funds from the ANC to do campaigning on its behalf. For its day-to-day existence, the SACP sponges off both Cosatu and the ANC.

All the SACP has to do in return is play along with the dominant faction in the ANC. This is proving a lot more difficult to do with its structures in Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal in particular becoming restless with cheering from the sidelines and friction arising with their ANC counterparts. The Young Communist League has also been agitating for the SACP to contest elections for direct access to state power.

This has caused anxiety for the SACP leadership, which has tried to suppress the debate. Being a competitor to the ANC at the polls will most certainly lead to a collapse of the alliance with the ANC and end the SACP’s more-than-generous share of senior positions in government.

It will mean that the SACP will have to put candidates forward for elections that would be subjected to questioning and scrutiny that the party now evades. They would have to have real policies on issues such as unemployment, the budget deficit and state spending, which at present vacillates between a carbon copy of the ANC’s policies to a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist mishmash nobody quite understands. It will mean they have to pin themselves down on controversial issues such as e-tolls, the youth wage subsidy and nationalisation, which they consistently wriggle out of with woolly explanations.

If it did participate in elections, the SACP’s relationship with the ANC would probably take the form of a post-election pact (assuming it gets enough votes to enter into coalition agreements) rather than just the historical premise. That would restrict the SACP’s leverage to how many seats its gets rather than an over-exaggerated attachment that assumes that the party still serves as an ideological guardian to the ANC and Cosatu.

The outcome of the SACP special congress on the issue of future participation in elections was a resolution that a standing central committee commission on state power be established “to evaluate and further refine our long term strategy for socialism”. What this does is keep the question open for discussion to pacify restless SACP structures but also gives the party options should its fortunes change in the ANC.

The SACP is obviously enjoying a period of abundance while President Jacob Zuma has been leader of the ANC. If things change dramatically at the next ANC national conference in 2017, and a leadership core is elected that is not so accommodating of the SACP, the party then has its resolution as a fall-back option to go it alone. The party leadership is quite aware that it will not survive another period of hostility in the ANC, as was the case during the Thabo Mbeki’s presidency. They would have to cut loose and fight for survival.

In the meantime, the SACP appears determined to prove its value to the ANC mainly by playing the role as attack dog against whomever gives the ruling party grief.

So from wishing death to the Economic Freedom Fighters, to threatening the judiciary and the media, the SACP has turned up the volume on its bluster. The SACP also wants to crush what it calls the anti-majoritarian liberal offensive that includes everyone from the Public Protector to NGOs to opposition parties to the media and its enemies in Cosatu.

The SACP leadership has come in for a pasting from metalworkers’ union Numsa, who accused it of engineering the split in Cosatu. Numsa has also accused the SACP of being ideologically bankrupt and embedded in the neoliberal state, accusations the party battles to counter while its senior leaders continue to serve in government and uphold policies in the state that contradict socialist ideas.

Another problem for the SACP is that while the good times have been rolling with access to high office and resources, even the person from whom they derive special dispensation has been critical of what the party has become. Zuma has said repeatedly that the SACP is not playing the “leading role” it should in the alliance. He has also criticised the quality of cadres and debates in the SACP.

The SACP has not responded to this criticism – mostly because it has no answer. Its only response is to boast about its membership numbers and snarl at the ANC’s critics while it remains wholly reliant on its historical role to justify its alliance with the ANC.

The SACP’s ideological slip is showing. It has little relevance in a modern society and its over-representation in a state that does not espouse socialist principles is illogical. The only way to prove its mettle and its support is at the polls. Once it does so, it will have the legitimacy to take on the rest of society. Until then, brace yourself for more fire and brimstone as a pretext for political relevance where none exists. DM

Photo: SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande at the SACP conference (Siboniso Mncube)



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