SACP militants need to come out
Mazibuko Jara and Gunnet Kaaf | Amandla Online | June/July 2021
Where were the 22 million members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union when things were going wrong in that vast territory? This rhetorical question was asked by Jeremy Cronin at a South African Communist Party (SACP) Central Committee meeting held during the 2002-2007 rise of the Party’s onslaught against what it characterised as the Thabo Mbeki-led Zanufication of the ANC. This question was meant to underline the importance of principled political struggle within a revolutionary party by those of its members who are critical, conscious and courageous. Today, Cronin’s question must be turned on its head and asked of the SACP itself: where are the 300,000 or so officially claimed members when the SACP is so decidedly meek and subservient to the ANC, its anti-poor neo-liberal policies and capitalism at the expense of workers and the poor? Where are the SACP militants as the working class is facing a bloodbath? The class struggle requires of them to shed their limiting SACP prism and take the step to be part of efforts to build fighting mass movements of the broad working class and broader, mass-based, class struggle-based socialist rejuvenation. Will they rise to the occasion?
Often, the Party’s direction is decided by a small clique made up of Blade Nzimande, Solly Mapaila, Cronin himself, a few trusted provincial leaders and then, when necessary, extended for rubberstamping to its Political Bureau and Central Committee. This small clique is at the heart of the SACP’s degeneration which, since 1998, has regularly marginalised, hounded out and purged principled SACP members who dared to hold other views. Despite this clique’s control, communist militants still exist within the SACP. Some are holding important positions where they can challenge the SACP’s degeneration. But what are they doing with the power they have given that the SACP has long been a fetter to the development of the class struggle? What are these militants still doing there? When will they come out, fight a principled political struggle for an independent radical SACP pursuing a socialist programme, purge themselves of SACP degeneration, and eventually contribute to a broader left renewal process?
The SACP’s silence on the privatisation of the energy system and its woeful, mealy-mouthed statement on the privatisation of the South African Airways (SAA) are a key moment that requires such a principled political fight by SACP militants. This fight would not just be for correct communist statements and positions, but a real fight for an SACP that would be genuinely committed to the class struggle and that takes its socialist programme to society.
On the SAA privatisation, two points would have told us there is a different and fighting communist party even within its current strategy and fold of its ANC alliance: i) “The SACP rejects the privatisation of SAA in the strongest terms”; and ii) “We are going to raise our strong objection in the next alliance meeting and fight for a reversal of this crude neoliberal privatisation that flies in the face of the need for radical economic transformation, which is a declared policy framework of the ANC”. Even better would have been a line that the SACP calls for mass mobilisation and even court action in defence of public assets, and even a boycott by SACP Cabinet Ministers – that would have mean a really independent SACP. Other left parties in governing coalitions elsewhere have even collapsed governments in defence of the public good and their socialist independence – but not our SACP.
A rigorous left analysis and perspectives are still required to counter the anti-poor but dominant media narrative justifying the privatisation of SAA and ESKOM. But the SACP is not doing this at all. Such a weak-kneed SACP had to be dragged by its then militants and COSATU to ultimately reject the over-arching neo-liberal development policy framework (in the form of GEAR). Even with this, the SACP ultimately gave up the need for a mass-based opposition to neo-liberal policies as it opted for alliance boardrooms which also hold the promise for government deployments for SACP leaders. Under the SACP’s limited action against the ANC’s neo-liberalism, the ANC government has failed on a number of fronts where it could decommodify and redistribute the country’s wealth: free basic services, land redistribution, free education from early childhood development to the first post-school qualification, public transport, a universal basic income grant, and so on. Instead of such decommodification and redistribution, the ANC government (including SACP Cabinet Ministers) has allowed corporatisation of public entities, bureaucratised technicist management of public bodies, privatisation, poor service delivery, municipal collapse, weakening of key government departments, cost recovery leading to service cut-offs, and the sustenance of an enabling environment for patronage, corruption and factional politics – all of which have hit the poor and low-income workers the hardest. Such are the outcomes of the SACP’s resistance to the ANC’s neo-liberalism.
As we can now so clearly see, the state is now increasingly becoming a clumsy combination of largely unsustainable and inequitable promises, inappropriate to the context, inadequate to the task and most likely to produce crises at a number of levels – environmental, political, developmental, and social. The SACP and its militants are not leading a sustained effort to rebuild the state. Instead, they are part of actively shaping the state as THE facilitator of capitalist accumulation through creating business opportunities instead of promoting public goods, socialised ownership, a social wage and even disciplining the private sector through state-led industrial policy or other redistributive measures driven by a substantive macro ‘public’ character. This would not be the case if SACP militants were effective.
Recent SACP history of dealing with dissent
So many atimes before have conscious, principled and courageous communist militants fought it out in the SACP. Today, the issues for such principled fights are plenty: the failure of the ANC government to roll out an effective COVID-19 vaccination programme, the anti-poor approach of the ANC government when it comes to the COVID-19 lockdown, the austerity budgets we have seen over the last few years, the hollow CODIV-19 fiscal ‘stimulus’, the ANC government’s commitment to coal energy as led by the SACP’s Gwede Mantashe, the collapse of municipalities under the weight of corruption and neo-liberal management, the failure of the SACP to take a principled stand when there were calls for Jacob Zuma to pay back the money and step down, the alleged abuse of SETAs and the National Skils Fund by the SACP’s Masincazelane Investments, the holding of SACP investment shares by Masincazelane in the anti-poor and polluting Kameni mining operation in Limpopo, and many more. All these moments are critical for the projection of socialist autonomy and independence, something which the SACP has sacrificed in favour of its subordination to the ANC. During the Zuma Must Go moment, the SACP establishment would not encourage Party members of parliament or Cabinet Ministers to vote against Zuma or resign their posts in protest. In all this recent history we do not even hear a whimper from SACP militants.
Earlier moments of principled political struggles by SACP militants included the struggles against iGoli 2002 (which was the neo-liberal administration and corporatisation of the City of Joburg), the Khutsong demarcation struggle which was also about proper municipal functioning and service delivery, the call for the SACP to stand in elections in its own name and right, and the unilateral adoption of the anti-poor neo-liberal Growth, employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy by the ANC government. These struggles challenged the SACP establishment and also led to a change in the position of the organisation. The SACP establishment did not take these struggles lightly as it expelled the likes of Dale McKinley for challenging GEAR and openly criticising ANC government policies, Mazibuko Jara for questioning SACP’s support of Jacob Zuma and advancing a perspective for an independent SACP, isolated others such as Langa Zita and Vishwas Satgar, systematically dissolved militant districts such as the militant Mbuyi Ngwenda and Cape Town districts, and also systematically prevented the democratic election of radical leaders at provincial, district and branch levels.
The earlier close ties the SACP held with the ANC, during the struggle against apartheid, were part of the overall mobilisation of all revolutionary forces against the apartheid system. In the SACP’s case, this led to it as a socialist force not to independently exist distant from a broad liberation movement. After the fall of apartheid in 1994, the SACP was not prepared to build independent socialist politics despite the prominence of class and other popular struggles in the post-1994 period. After 1994 many in the leading personnel of the SACP were coopted into a neo-liberal government. Those who remained in the SACP, effectively outside government, never had a coherent approach to independent socialist politics that would be impactful within the Alliance and in society broadly. The SACP grassroots and militants fought on. They were reinforced by the Young Communist League after it was formed in 2002. It was in the Mbeki-Zuma fight, leading to the ANC Polokwane Conference of 2007, that both the SACP and the YCL were permanently lost to anything that would resemble independent socialist politics, and collapsed into the Zuma faction. When they pulled out of the Zuma faction after the 2014 general elections, after they fell out of favour within the inner Zuma circle, they were completely impaired and could not even fathom any genuine socialist autonomy. The only type of politics they were accustomed to was siding with ANC factions in their never-ending fractricide. That’s why the SACP threw its lot with the Cyril Ramaphosa faction leading up to the ANC Nasrec conference held in December 2017. The Nasrec pact with the billionaire business person Ramaphosa, who is a sworn neoliberal politician, has further impaired the SACP as a fighting socialist force. That’s why the SACP is found wanting when it is supposed to unequivocally reject the continued anti-poor policies of the ANC including its neoliberal privatisation of the energy system and SAA.
The need for a fighting left that the SACP could have become has at times been exemplified by the EFF’s politics: these moments included the EFF’s campaign to discredit and challenge Jacob Zuma for the thieving and corrupt counter-revolutionary that he is, the EFF’s campaign for a constitutional amendment to allow expropriation without compensation, land occupations, the municipal challenge to the ANC, its Labour Desk Organising, and an independent student organisation. Of course, the EFF is contradictory, limited, often racist and reactionary, and ultimately not a socialist force.
The fact that the EFF could take this gap confirms how the SACP is basically absent from the widespread class struggles characterising this society. In actual fact, SACP Ministers get exposed by radical mass struggles: as we saw with the Marikana massacre, the 15-year old resistance to mining in Amadiba, many other mass struggles for land redistribution, farm worker struggles, the Fees Must Fall rebellion, and current struggles for a universal basic income grant. This SACP distance from mass struggles belies the claims of the SACP elite that the SACP is ultimately responsible for what it claims to be a defeat of state capture and neo-liberalism – claims which are baseless and essentially politically dishonest. As has been argued above, the SACP has been swallowed completely by the ANC. It has no independent socialist programme worth the name as it cannot openly reject neoliberalism. It lacks political independence, will, courage and commitment to take responsibility for advancing a socialist programme. Even the basic free water and other proto-socialist measures it used to claim have been rolled back by the impact of the neo-liberal paradigm it is part of. The SACP is completely immersed in the ANC and thoroughly implicated in the collapsing state, the cronyism and the corruption, the austerity, and capitalist domination of society. For how long, will SACP militants remain part of this rot and decay? What can still be the validity of a claim that the ANC and SACP can be rescued?
In several national congresses, the clique controlling the SACP would stifle and redirect the radicalising debates on the socialisation of the economy, the call for the SACP to contest elections in its own name and right, building mass struggles, and fostering broader left unity. The manouvres of the clique controlling the SACP has led to meaningless Congress resolutions that ensured the SACP remained subservient to the neo-liberal ANC. Another outcome was also the assimilation of militants into SACP patronage which would include SACP lobbying for its members to occupy key positions of power in government and the legislatures, and international trips. The fact that the controlling clique could succeed for so long also begs a number of questions regarding the SACP militants: to what extent are they themselves implicated in overall SACP failures and shortcomings? To what extent have they slavishly regurgitated inadequate SACP theories and perspectives? To what extent are they implicated and shaped in the image of the neo-liberal state? For example, some leading elements who argued for the SACP to contest elections in its own right were some of those who had actually lost out in ANC governance deployments – thus, their apparent radicalism was opportunist and self-interested. To what extent are they actually ANC operatives rather than militant communists first?
Many of the current Communist Party militants must be so sufficiently subordinated to the whims of the controlling clique and to the seductive analyses and formulations in Party documents that, in addition to their own limits, are however contradicted by daily practice. This subordination produces a fairly unique and traumatic state of being – basically, a persistent, stubborn and frustrating schizophrenia of being a committed communist giving your soul, time, resource life and limb to a Party that is essentially not committed to achieving its own socialist programme without the possibility of overcoming its limited prism from within. This schizophrenia is best resolved by carving out new pathways and trajectories away from the flawed and long-defeated SACP’s path to socialism through the ANC. It is not the inertia of the comfort of SACP networks, family and comradeship that will advance the struggles of poor and working people. Instead, it is progressively building new discourses, families and networks that we can renew the socialist agenda.
The end of SACP domination of left thought
The foregoing analysis leads to the conclusion that the SACP’s long-held dominance of left thought, theory, strategy and programme has come to a disastrous end. The SACP’s ANC path to socialism is simply not the way forward.
It is time for a new left imagination, a new left political pole, a mass-rooted and class-struggle based socialist renewal process. In such a process, SACP militants have a genuine home, place and role to play away from limiting SACP prisms, rigidities and unchangeable Alliance truths. The current period and the foreseeable future call for new socialist perspectives, theory, programme, strategy and practice to emerge. We call on SACP militants to take off the limiting SACP garb, and to come out and free themselves from a frustrated, defeated and decaying project that the SACP represents. There are no historically guaranteed outcomes. The point is in the doing and rebuilding.
Whilst this paper has openly critiqued the SACP, it is important to close it with a note to the non-SACP left. Whilst the SACP strategy has long been defeated since the rise of Thabo Mbeki, it is important that the other left do not become narrowly triumphalist, propagandistic, polemical, and other such sectarian conduct. This is a moment for humility, and attention to the hard task of open-ended, non-sectarian left renewal which must also embrace SACP elements and the best of its traditions which include a mass-based socialist organisation, thousands of socialists activist, a Party seriously grappling with the national question, non-racialism and a constant attention to the best ways to combine theory and practice including the spectrum from reforms to ultra-leftism.
* - Kaaf left the SACP in 2013 and the YCL in 2006. Jara was expelled from the YCL in 2006, and from the SACP in 2010. Both expulsions were without a hearing.