Those pundits who argue that the SACP is dead or dying greatly mistake the party’s role and influence in the Alliance.
Many have argued that the South African Communist Party (SACP) is dead or dying. Whilst there is no evidence of death, funeral parlour operators and pallbearers have starched their shirts and written obituaries. Since 1921, the SACP-African National Congress (ANC) relationship has been tested, but they are alive and well. With the Arms Deal allegations having fallen flat, the Marikana massacre report absolving ANC politicians of blame, and all of the reports on Nkandla stating that there had been no corruption, all that is left is to resuscitate allegations of a rift in the Alliance.
In March 1922, Prime Minister Jan Smuts deployed heavy artillery manned by 20,000 soldiers in the gold mining towns of Benoni, Jeppe, Fordsburg and Brakpan. The war-like military action against South Africans was not aimed at the usual suspects but mainly at White mine workers who had taken up arms, as the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) did during 2012 platinum belt strike and killings.
More than 200 people died during what is now known as the Rand Revolt or Rebellion.
A year earlier, in 1921, the Communist Party of SA (CPSA), today’s SACP, had been launched as an all–White party. The Rand Revolt itself was a rebellion against mine bosses who had successfully lobbied the government to drop the colour bar in hiring, enabling them to hire blacks in management and supervisory roles for the first time. The whites-only CPSA would have none of it. They demanded that the colour bar be reinstated and that blacks not be employed in senior positions.
Before examining the mine bosses’ motivations, let me quickly mention that this act had nothing to do with workplace equality. It was aimed at maximising profits. Blacks were cheap labour when the gold price plunged from about R13 to about R8 in the two years from 1919 to 1921. Mine bosses sought to manage profit margins by letting go of “expensive white labour”. The CPSA fought the Nationalists under the slogan: ”Workers of the world, unite and fight for a white South Africa!”
Alarmed at this racism, the Soviet Union-controlled international communist steering committee, the Comintern, resolved to instruct the CPSA to stop its anti-native politics and to adopt a black friendly “Native Republic” policy.
The communists in SA were immediately made to confront the racists amongst them. Two types of communists emerged. The likes of young ANC leaders Nelson Mandela, Anton Lembede and Walter Sisulu aligned with the Lenin-influenced communists, while the aggrieved group + which went on to form the Pan Africanist Congress, led by Robert Sobukwe – took a Maoist approach to communism but also supported non-racialism as opposed to the ANC’s then multi-racialism. Chairman Mao’s influence is also visible in the Economic Freedom Fighters.
Contrary to what happened later, the SACP has had the taste for electoral politics in SA. In 1944, whites elected a Hillbrow city councillor, Hilda Watts, on an official Communist ticket for the only time in South African history. The party also contested a seat on the Native Representative Council (NRC) but it was unsuccessful. The NRC, a precursor to Bantustans, was enacted by Parliament in 1936. It created a representative council elected through nominations by elite blacks and approved tribal chiefs. The NRC had no real powers other than being able to make recommendations. The NRC collapsed of its own accord in 1946 as a protest against the massacre of black mine workers.
With Field Marshall Jan Smuts back in office, on August 12, 1946, more than 60,000 black mine workers on the Witwatersrand refused to continue working demanding better wages. Smuts first tried to appease the workers, who were led by ANC Transvaal president JB Marks. When this failed, Smuts unleashed the police with tanks, leaving more than 1,200 injured and at least nine dead, government reports said. SACP records claim hundreds died of their wounds. Marks was elected to the central committee of the Communist Party in 1932 and eventually became SACP chairman.
The 1936 NRC law enabled the first SACP MP to be elected. It allowed elite blacks to elect at least three whites to represent blacks in the 150-member, whites-only Parliament. In 1948 the SACP’s Sam Kahn stood won a seat.
In 1950, Parliament passed the Unlawful Organizations Act at a time when Kahn was an SACP MP, representing blacks as a white man. The Act effectively banned the SACP, causing Kahn to lose his seat. The government was then able to evict elected MPs from Parliament.
As a young man I asked in a political class with the SACP’s Harry Gwala in KwaZulu Natal why all books and written materials about socialism had to be stripped of their covers and hidden in complicated ways, yet Parliament’s Hansard which contained the full text of the Communist Manifesto was always lying open. M’ntomdala (the elder), as Gwala was affectionately known, had a very colourful way of explaining events with a dose of humour.
M’ntomdala taught our small Marx class about sneaky Sam Kahn who as an MP for the black elite had found a way to put the Communist Manifesto into historic records by inserting the full text to show the SACP’s aims. The apartheid regime was left red faced as it government printers had to to print the Hansard with the full text of the Communist Manifesto, making it the only legal copy of the manifesto in the country when the material was banned.
Kahn remains one of the unsung heroes of black struggle. South African Communist Jews like Kahn were the heroes of the oppressed and as young boys we knew that when “amakomanisi” arrived our humanity would be restored in our shacks and squalor.
So what of the much publicised demise of the SACP?
Under Oliver Tambo, the SACP was not at its loudest as it had enough access to influence ANC policy. During Mandela’s ANC presidency this continued – his Cabinet was heavily packed with illustrious community thinkers such as Advocate Joe Slovo. When Thabo Mbeki took over the reins, he kept the SACP at arms’ length, and this created what the SACP refers to as the 1996 Class Project. Rifts developed in public between the ANC and its traditional sounding board think tank the SACP.
From 1994 to 1996, the SACP managed to get the ANC to agree to include many economic rights in the Constitution, limiting political competition as the Constitution says where capital should be focused and spent. The right to housing is a right that no political party can easily take away. Likewise the right to strike became a constitutional right. Fiscal management is also included in the Constitution.
Through Tito Mboweni as labour minister, the ground-breaking new labour relations framework was achieved, creating the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration. The Mandela years were about a socialist foundation.
Most pundits stop at the Mbeki era in their assessment of the SACP’s influence inside the ANC Alliance. The SACP is seen as weak if it does not go to media with a bullhorn to complain about the government or the ANC. Lack of friction within the Alliance is viewed as a sign of a weak SACP or Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) by the new thinkers. To these analysts and intellectuals, a working and relevant alliance partner offers weekend news about squabbles or runs to the press with demands or disagreements. When Mbeki introduced inflation targeting in 2000, that was the beginning of his deeper issues with the SACP. The targeting made sense, as inflation had been stable. But by 2007, it had shot up to 7.1%. Public debates about Mbeki era short-term policies such as Growth, Employment and Redistribution in 1996, the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative in 2005,a joint initiative with Harvard University in 2007 and many others in between such as Growth for All in 1996 caused pundits to think this was the way things would be done.
In reality, President Jacob Zuma has managed the most successful Alliance relations since the mid-2000s. The Alliance is more intact than ever. Many mistook the National Union of Mineworkers of SA (Numsa) issue for an Alliance matter. Numsa needs to understand the changed global environment and realise that Cosatu has closed ranks with global worker organisations; it needs to adjust its strategies and goals to fit the new global environment.
Irvin Jim and Zwelinzima Vavi’s politics have been canvassed inside the ANC and Alliance for decades, even before the Freedom Charter. The Alliance is not like an a-la-carte menu; it is a buffet which offers something for everyone.
For as long as the ANC agrees with the SACP that capitalism robs workers, that labour produces wealth represented by both wages and profits, there is no likelihood of a break-up.
The Alliance also agrees that capital accumulation is competitive. Conglomerates and monopolies have greater economies of scale and in the South African context they drive new entrants out of the market by out-pricing them – this informs the need to amend laws that deal with public procurement to make them fair, for black small and medium enterprises in particular.
Numsa has missed a key aspect of the globalised capitalist system that old industries die: there are more call center agents today than there are metal workers.
Little analysis is expended on Cabinet decisions in which the SACP is deeply involved in this Zuma-led ANC. Like Albert Luthuli, Tambo and Mandela; Zuma has given much leeway to the communists in the Alliance, particularly on the fiscal and monetary management front. The rise of debt to gross domestic product levels to finance infrastructure can be credited to Zuma’s leaning to the SACP policy of increasing state power and control of the economy. The Reserve Bank seems to lean more towards looking at job creation alongside inflation management than before.
The massive recapitalisation of the markets by Zuma would not have occurred had the SACP not been pushing hard for it. The Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA) New Development Bank with its various monetary policy interventions links with the politics of the SACP and it is not far fetched to conclude that the bank would have not seen the light of day during the Mbeki regime.
During Mbeki’s term, the privatisation of some state assets, like Telkom, was seen as a strategic mistake by the SACP. The privatisation of 20% of South African Airways was later reversed when SwissAir went bankrupt. These are matters that caused the communists to run to microphones and register the SACP as a political party with the Independent Electoral Commission. Those days are gone yet pundits still sees an SACP under Nzimande as weakened and not achieving satisfaction. This I find shallow an analysis, extremely lazy at best.
Mandela’s explanation of ANC-SACP relations is educational. During the Rivonia Trial, he described his understanding of the Communist Party thus:
“Another of the allegations made by the state is that the aims and objects of the ANC and the Communist Party are the same. I wish to deal with this and with my own political position, because I must assume that the state may try to argue from certain exhibits that I tried to introduce Marxism into the ANC. The allegation as to the ANC is false. This is an old allegation which was disproved at the Treason Trial and which has again reared its head. But since the allegation has been made again, I shall deal with it as well as with the relationship between the ANC and the Communist Party and Umkhonto and that party.
“The ideological creed of the ANC is, and always has been, the creed of African nationalism. It is not the concept of African nationalism expressed in the cry, `Drive the White man into the sea`. The African nationalism for which the ANC stands is the concept of freedom and fulfillment for the African people in their own land. The most important political document ever adopted by the ANC is the `Freedom Charter`. It is by no means a blueprint for a socialist state. It calls for redistribution, but not nationalisation, of land; it provides for the nationalisation of mines, banks, and monopoly industry, because big monopolies are owned by one race only, and without such nationalisation racial domination would be perpetuated despite the spread of political power. It would be a hollow gesture to repeal the Gold Law prohibitions against Africans when all gold mines are owned by European companies. In this respect the ANC’s policy corresponds with the old policy of the present Nationalist Party which, for many years, had as part of its programme the nationalization of the gold mines which, at that time, were controlled by foreign capital. Under the Freedom Charter, nationalisation would take place in an economy based on private enterprise. The realisation of the Freedom Charter would open up fresh fields for a prosperous African population of all classes, including the middle class. The ANC has never at any period of its history advocated a revolutionary change in the economic structure of the country, nor has it, to the best of my recollection, ever condemned capitalist society.
“As far as the Communist Party is concerned, and if I understand its policy correctly, it stands for the establishment of a state based on the principles of Marxism. Although it is prepared to work for the Freedom Charter, as a short-term solution to the problems created by white supremacy, it regards the Freedom Charter as the beginning, and not the end, of its programme.
“The ANC, unlike the Communist Party, admitted Africans only as members. Its chief goal was, and is, for the African people to win unity and full political rights. The Communist Party`s main aim, on the other hand, was to remove the capitalists and to replace them with a working-class government. The Communist Party sought to emphasise class distinctions whilst the ANC seeks to harmonize them. This is a vital distinction” (extract: Rivonia Trial, Nelson Mandela statement, Pretoria Supreme Court, 20 April 1964)
When Mandela says that “under the Freedom Charter, nationalisation would take place in an economy based on private enterprise”, it means it is not the state that must own mines, the state must own minerals under the soil but private enterprise will operate mines on an non-racial-exclusive basis. The 2002 minerals legislation in SA does exactly this, the state owns all minerals, all races can apply for rights to mine. Due to the fact that they were left behind, blacks are given a leg up with the minimum of 26% ownership, with the state earning a revenue levy on top of this.
The ANC’s nationalisation policy will always be different to the one the SACP champions. The ANC refers to nationalisation as a means to stop one race oppressing another, and the equitable ownership of the economy. The SACP seeks a single-class society, with no one having more money, more food than another.
At his trial, Mandela argued that black economic empowerment is the same as the National Party policy of having mines owned by South Africans and not Europeans, as was the case then.
After the death of Isithwalandwe Seaparankoe Award recipient Slovo (also known as Sol Dubula) in 1995, the men and women who followed – from Thenjiwe Mtintso to the late Ncumisa Kondlo, from Charles Nqakula, to Jeremy Cronin, from Sue Rabkin to Blade Nzimande to Thulas Nxesi – have kept the SACP’s blade sharp and the party remains aware of its role and its goals.
Here’s what Gwala would say of the question of the Alliance in the late ‘80s to ‘90s: “Imagine a face flouting without a neck … it’s inconceivable.” The ANC owes its existence after the Sharpeville massacre to the SACP, it remains unthinkable that there could be a “polivorce”; there are no clauses to navigate a break-up. To those who challenge the ANC over the Freedom Charter, they’ll have to take on Mandela in the dock in the Rivonia Trial to make their case as to why the ANC must suddenly change its understanding of the Freedom Charter it co-wrote.
The question is: do today’s poor get to feel fuzzy inside when amakomanisi visit? DM
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