What is to be done when a self-styled and self-professed revolutionary force shifts its radical stripes and progressive posture depending on who is in power?
It was a sad day, indeed, for the South African Communist Party (SACP) when its general secretary, Blade Nzimande, who doubles as the minister of higher education and training, stepped on a podium this week and gave his two cents about the recent wave of xenophobic attacks in the country.
Brimming with energy, punctuated by a lack of revolutionary self-awareness, Nzimande aimed his razor-sharp tongue at African leaders looting their countries and creating unfavourable conditions for citizens in which to live. In any event, South Africa was doing its best and it was not solely to blame for what was happening on its shores, he said.
At face value, some would argue Nzimande made valid points. But facts and context matter.
This is the same Nzimande whose SACP, in a statement, called for Thabo Mbeki’s head, saying the then-president had failed to provide leadership when SA was engulfed by the brutal xenophobic attacks of 2008 targeting African migrants and during which scores of people were killed. They did not name names, but there was only one state president at the time, so it was easy to tell at whom the missive was aimed.
The SACP seized on that tragic 2008 moment to drive the factional dagger deep into Mbeki’s back. Of course, the party couched its call in revolutionary speak and cast it as one transcending factional politics and spats. “[Our] country and our region cannot afford to persist with the current blend of directionless absenteeism, and meddling factionalism and general irresoluteness,” reads one part of that statement.
In that same 2008 media release, the SACP implored: “The solution is not to build a fortress South Africa, as is implied by some right-wing suburban xenophobes in the DA and elsewhere.”
During that difficult moment in South African history, the party expressed contrition about what had been unfolding and made sound and practical proposals about how to remedy the situation.
“The past weeks have seen many ugly acts for which, as South Africans, we should feel ashamed,” it said.
The SACP’s tone of late, however, mirrors that of the “right-wing xenophobes” it rebuked not too long ago. The irony must have been lost on Nzimande when he spoke to workers in Durban earlier this week. How times have changed.
The party’s lucid and sober response to what was happening in 2008 could be attributed to the fact that none of its senior leaders had ascended to Cabinet posts. They had nothing to lose and had much to gain from positioning the SACP as a progressive force within the Tripartite Alliance. That was, indeed, a time when the party styled itself as a voice of reason and as the conscience of the alliance.
But the perks of incumbency have long since put paid to that political charade. The SACP of 2008 and that of 2019 are chalk and cheese. Its recent statement on the tragic events of the past few weeks and the remarks of its general secretary feed into the xenophobic impulse gripping South Africa by playing to the populist gallery.
One could then argue that the SACP’s revolutionary instincts hinge on the party’s proximity to state power. The further away the communists are from power, the more their revolutionary impulse becomes ferocious and focused. But when they are in the warm embrace of executive power, suddenly their radical side becomes dulled and gives way to a reactionary posture.
One cannot blame Nzimande and Co, it is rude to bite the political hand that feeds you.
In the lead-up to Polokwane, the SACP was part of the so-called coalition of the wounded that helped topple Mbeki. History repeated itself at Nasrec. When it sensed that the political tide was turning against the Polokwane and Mangaung consensus, the SACP aligned itself accordingly and was duly rewarded.
However, the cost of complicity to whoever is in power will surely be the undoing of the SACP.
As things stand, the SACP’s current posture and Nzimande’s pronouncements resemble those of the counterrevolutionary forces which are so often the subjects of their political derision. The deep irony of the general secretary’s statement is that it is akin to lunging a capitalist boot on the working class whose interests the SACP claims to represent and protect. BM