The SACP has a new(ish) leadership — so what’s next?
As the SA communists emerge from their congress, they must now answer several questions about their party’s future direction. What its real role is, and should be, in the South African politics of today. Does it still want to change the direction of our country? Or to have a seat in the room where things get decided? Or should it merely exist as an ideological voice?
Perhaps the fundamental question, the one that defined the SA Communist Party’s (SACP’s) role for the past 30 years, revolves around its continued role in the alliance with the ANC (and Cosatu). Once again, at its latest congress, it has come up with the same answer: that it will try to stay with the same organisation, even though there are signs that our politics might change fundamentally, possibly changing the SACP with it.
This SACP congress will probably be best remembered as the end of the Blade Nzimande era and the start of a new one under Solly Mapaila.
It’s not quite so simple, of course: Mapaila has been in the top leadership of the party for the past 10 years, and Nzimande assumes the role of the national chair of the party.
There is another notable change, in that Deputy Finance Minister David Masondo was elected unopposed as second deputy secretary.
This may draw a line under an important piece of history.
Masondo suffered the wrath of many in the party for criticising its virtually unquestioning support of Jacob Zuma in his campaign to be reelected as leader of the ANC in the run-up to the 2012 Mangaung conference.
Now, he is in the top leadership.
But perhaps one of the most important internal dynamics at this congress was that there was in fact a contest for the position of chairman. This saw the former director-general in the Department of Higher Education, Gwebs Qonde, contesting against his former minister, Nzimande. While Nzimande was always going to prevail, it raises the possibility of change in the SACP’s tradition of negotiated leadership transition.
This question may grow more acute because of the sheer number of members the party now has. As Nzimande reminded us before the conference, the SACP now has 300,000 members. For a party to have such a large number of people and to then manage to negotiate leadership through different constituencies will perhaps be too much to ask for in the foreseeable future.
Considering some of the problems that the ANC has had with managing a large number of members, along with issues around factionalism and divisions, it is unlikely that the SACP will remain immune to the same issues.
It is possible, however, that the only reason the ANC has these problems is that it is much closer to power. If the SACP does not experience these problems it could also be a sign that people within the party do not believe positions are worth fighting over.
The fundamental dilemma
This gets to the heart of what may still be the party’s fundamental dilemma, which is, what is the best way to exert its power?
There is certainly evidence that it has had an influence in the alliance. The way the communists opposed and even defined State Capture during the period between 2015 and 2017 is testament to that influence. On the other hand, it was not able to stop State Capture from happening in the first place.
Like many other organisations, the SACP appears to be very capable of diagnosing our problems, but finds it much harder to create workable solutions.
Many will have some sympathy for this simply because the choices that need to be made are very difficult.
For example, in its final conference declaration, the party says:
“It is critical to strengthen public financial institutions — the DBSA [Development Bank of Southern Africa], the IDC [Industrial Development Corporation], the Land Bank, the PIC [Public Investment Corporation], the Postbank, and provincial financial entities — to play a developmental role. This should be guided by a clearer mandating of the South African Reserve Bank to support the public development finance institutions.”
But Masondo, its new second deputy general secretary, is also the deputy minister of finance. And presumably, he is in a position to have an influence over policy in the government to implement what the SACP has called for.
It is not clear that this influence is being felt.
Is it possible that Masondo has in fact had an influence on economic policy, but that it is hard to discern? Or, could he have been in a similar political position to Jeremy Cronin a decade ago? Cronin was in the same SACP position Masondo is in now and was also deputy transport minister. He was forced to help implement the introduction of the Gauteng e-tolls policy, which surely went against SACP ideology.
In the end, this conflict can be shown perhaps in its sharpest form in Parliament, where SACP members (and leaders) are deployed by the ANC. This means they have to vote with the ANC, even if their own party disagrees with the policy.
The heart of the problem
This gets to the heart of the problem of assessing the influence of the SACP. It is hard to know what happens behind closed doors and whether it really has an influence. But, considering that the economic policy that has actually been implemented has not moved markedly to the left may suggest that it struggles to influence ANC policy. Of course, it could argue that it has prevented more “neoliberal” policies from being implemented, but that may be difficult to prove.
This entire issue may soon come into sharp relief with changes to the fundamental nature of our politics.
As has been discussed many times on these pages, if it is true that the ANC will continue to lose political power, the fracturing of our politics is almost inevitable.
This may mean that any given political party could have important influence with as little as 10% of the vote — in some cases, even less. And it does not just have to be a percentage of the national vote, there are likely to be coalitions in several provinces too, which could give political parties oversized importance.
This means that a party with relatively limited voter numbers could have a decisive influence over policy.
In such a divided political space, the SACP may in fact have more influence campaigning on its own and then voting with the ANC in Parliament on an issue-by-issue basis.
Of course, this may test the real electoral strength of the party. And there is plenty of evidence that having a large number of members does not automatically translate into a large number of votes. The recent history of the ANC shows that growing your membership does not grow your vote (in fact the evidence shows that the opposite can happen and has happened).
It is also not clear that the SACP is that popular.
For example, while its statement of support for the Palestinian people in its declaration may resonate with most South Africans, it is not certain that its position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will.
The SACP says:
“We denounce imperialist aggression by the blood thirsty [sic] and trigger-happy United States-dominated NATO. The expansion of NATO, which is an instrument of war, represents the greatest threat to world peace and equality in our time. At present, this is manifesting itself through the NATO-provoked war in Ukraine. The impact of the war, including NATO’s weaponisation and wielding of extraterritorial sanctions, includes the global cost-of-living crisis.”
While there is very little polling information available on the views of South Africans on the conflict in Ukraine, one published poll, from The Economist, suggests that most do not support Russia’s actions.
It is unlikely that the SACP will change its stance because of a poll by The Economist, not known for its support of communist causes. But it may underscore how some of the closely held beliefs of the SACP will prevent it from ever being a party with major national support.
That said, any party with 300,000 members is likely to contain some ambitious individuals who may want to use it as a vehicle to advance their own agendas. This means that the future of the party may contain more arguments and divisions than its recent past.
In 2012, the ANC’s Mangaung conference gave the impression the party was largely united. Five years later, it came close to collapse at Nasrec. While it is unlikely that the SACP will share a similar fate, it may be that the party’s next five years will be much more lively than the past decade has been. DM
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