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A duller shade of red: Why the SACP decline is bad for the ANC


Xolisa Phillip has had quite an adventure as a journalist in the roles of subeditor, news editor, columnist and commentator. She pretends to be Olivia Pope during the day, while still maintaining a presence in journalism – a passion project she cannot shake away. Journalism keeps finding Phillip no matter where she is and somewhat manages to hold its own space no matter where she is professionally.

It is no secret the SACP is no longer the potent political force it once was. Its decline spells disaster and bad news for the governing party on many fronts. This is a pity because the SACP has made a massive and meaningful contribution to South Africa’s key policies.

Call it nostalgia. Say it is reminiscence. It might even be a case of looking back at history with rose-tinted glasses. There was a time when the South African Communist Party’s (SACP’s) Red October campaigns meant something and carried gravitas in mainstream consciousness.

The party’s in-house publication is called Umsebenzi. It is the Nguni word for work. Looked at from that perspective, it is a term which denotes industriousness and connotes the blood, sweat and tears of the working class.

Tears, because the fruits of workers’ labour do not accrue to them nor does financial wealth, so goes the communist analysis of societal arrangements.

Indeed, there was a window in the early to mid-2000s when the SACP worked hard to be the driving force of left-leaning and impactful policy formulation in the country. One could even argue that the SACP of yesteryear set the policy template for other leftist political formations which emerged in the latter years.

The depth and influence of the SACP’s Red October campaigns is none more apparent than in the period between 2000 and 2005. This was when the party was at the fore of leftist thought in the tripartite alliance. In those days, the ANC had it good because its ideological and policy shortcomings were often counterbalanced by the SACP.

This partly explains why the governing party could pull electoral support from a cross-section of society and call itself a broad church. What gave credence to the ANC’s status as an umbrella body was the governing party’s ability to use the organisational strengths of each of the tripartite alliance members to its benefit.

It would be no exaggeration to characterise the SACP of old as the ideological brain trust of the tripartite alliance and the repository of its policy playbook and toolkit. The ANC served as the implementation arm, while the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) took care of matters on the labour side of things. It is little wonder then that the tripartite alliance was the dominant political force it was.

For its part, the SACP toiled for workers to enjoy the spoils of democracy. The party spearheaded the quest for financial inclusion and the establishment of a state social safety net for the poor. In addition, the SACP’s policy basket included calls for the establishment of National Health Insurance (NHI) and for the ANC to address the land question.

Through its effective and relevant Red October campaigns of years past, the SACP used to galvanise public thought on policy matters. The party enlivened policymakers about what was possible when given the space to explore the viability of progressive ideas.

When historians write the canon of financial inclusion and the drive for transformation in the financial sector, may the SACP’s game-changing contribution not be reduced to a footnote.

The party was the singular force which exerted pressure for change in that sector. The ANC is often incorrectly credited for transformation in that industry. Wrong. It was, in fact, the SACP’s Red October campaign of 2000 that proved to be the springboard for greater financial inclusion and transformation.

This is in stark contrast to recent Red October campaigns, such as the one that unfolded just last month. It went by without much fanfare. It is even hard to remember what it was about.

That is a pity.

Today, the conversations around the NHI and the land issue have been reignited, but the SACP is nowhere to be found. It being enmeshed in ANC factional battles and politics has rendered the party a spectator on crucial policy conversations it started.

This illustrates how important organisational independence is within the tripartite alliance. It also highlights why it is crucial that the SACP and Cosatu are not reduced to junior partners in this arrangement. The alliance’s strength always lay in its ability to balance the sum total of all its moving parts. BM


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