If the raison d’etre of political parties is to gain state power in order to implement their policies and programmes, the South African Communist Party (SACP) has to be unique among them.
The party’s increasingly strident criticism of the ANC, particularly its president, has again raised questions about its future role in South African politics – and its relationship with the governing party.
The SACP, which holds its all-important national congress this week, has a long history with the ANC. In the past, many of its leaders – such as Govan Mbeki, Moses Kotane, Moses Mabhida, Chris Hani and Joe Slovo - also served in the highest ranks of the ANC, including the powerful national executive committee (NEC).
Even today there is a large number of SACP leaders sitting on the ANC NEC and in the government. They include party general secretary Blade Nzimande (as Higher Education Minister), his party deputy Jeremy Cronin (Deputy Minister of Public Works), Thulas Nxesi (Sports Minister) and Rob Davies (Trade and Industry Minister). Many others serve in Parliament and elsewhere as ANC representatives.
As with party leaders, most SACP members to this day hold dual membership with the ANC.
And in addition to providing an important link with the old socialist bloc for political and military support, the party is often credited with critically influencing the ANC’s own political thinking. It continues to regard itself as the “vanguard” of the tripartite alliance’s National Democratic Revolution.
In the days of the struggle against apartheid, the relationship was premised on the party’s deference to the ANC – which was the unifying front for all South Africans who opposed apartheid, irrespective of their social formation or class. But the changed conditions, in which the ANC has to govern in the interests of all South Africans not just its members and political allies, has brought to the fore the fundamental ideological differences between the party and the ANC.
Apart from government policy, conflict between the SACP and the ANC has been over the so-called “sins of incumbency”, particularly corruption in the ANC and the state.
The SACP has been among the most outspoken critics of malfeasance in the government, particularly in public entities such as the SABC, Eskom, Prasa and PetroSA.
It has called for the rescindment of the citizenship of the Gupta family – President Jacob Zuma’s avowed friends, who stand accused of trying to capture the South African state.
To cap it all, the SACP has demanded that Zuma himself resign. As things stand, the SACP seems to be more in tune with the national mood than the ANC regarding the sorry state of the country and Zuma’s role in that.
With relations between the party and the ANC being at a historical low, the obvious question is why SACP members and leaders are staying in the ANC?
There might be the sentimental matter born of the fact that the two organisations, sharing membership, together weathered tough times during the anti-apartheid struggle. Yet communists are not meant to be ruled by emotion, but rather by what they call the “objective conditions”.
Party leaders might say that by staying in the ANC they stand a better chance of preventing it from falling into the clutches of capitalists or potential state captors – perhaps even nudging it down the socialist path.
However, their recent track record on that score would suggest the contrary.
Thabo Mbeki’s 2007 warning to SACP leaders, to desist from trying to turn the ANC into a socialist party, must still be ringing in their ears. And since then the ANC has remained a “broad church” comprising anything from communists to capitalists to state looters and African nationalists. Even crypto-tribalists.
In some instances, this has led to violence between ANC and SACP members, resulting in a number of murders, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga. Recently, death threats have been made against SACP second deputy general secretary Solly Mapaila (who has been the party’s chief mouthpiece against Zuma and state corruption).
What’s beyond doubt is that the SACP’s presence in the ANC and its government has not prevented the emergence of what the party calls “parasitic patronage networks” that feed off the state.
And might there be political benefit to the SACP in continuing as little more than a handmaiden to the ANC, and campaigning for it during elections?
None that’s apparent. By having its members in government and ANC structures, the party takes equal blame for everything the ANC does wrong. In the electorate’s eyes, it gets tainted by the bad PR around the ANC president.
Worse, its members in the government have been assigned tasks which go against the party’s own ideological beliefs. For instance, Cronin, as deputy minister of Transport, was deployed to defend the unpopular e-tolls in Gauteng. The nub here was that the government had taken an existing public road network, improved it (as is the state’s job), then charged the public for using it.
Similarly, SACP deputy chair Nxesi, while minister of Public Works, and was given the unenviable job of politically cleaning up the mess from the Nkandla fiasco.
For their troubles, SACP leaders are required to fall in line with ANC discipline and “democratic centralism”’, which frown on members criticising the party in public.
And so, if party members spend most of their time being “loyal and disciplined” ANC cadres, who will champion the SACP's stated programme to bring about socialism?
Were the party to stand alone and start articulating its vision to the public, it might have to present the nuts and bolts of that socialist dispensation.
Would it be like Cuba, which swiftly accepted capitalist Barack Obama’s hand of friendship? Would it be like Venezuela, where the socialist experiment has led to prolonged civil strife? Or would it be like China, which has embraced the global capitalist order and is an adept player therein?
The greatest risk for the party in going it alone would be a possible electoral annihilation. Inversely, if it gains a foothold in the legislatures, likely becoming one of the many minority parties, it might be in a stronger position to bargain tactically with the ANC on matters like policy direction.
Its members and public representatives, accounting to one party not two, would be freed to pursue their party programme as distinct from the ANC’s - even where it is diametrically opposed to the ANC’s. Plus, they might not have to pay the political price they currently do every time the ANC shoots itself in the foot.
Going it alone and winning electoral support in its own right would answer critics who aver that, for fear of being rejected by the South African voter, the SACP chooses to hang on to the political coat tails of the ANC.
Rank-and-file pressure to stand alone has been building up in the SACP for a while, often held back by leadership. Could the wind blow in its favour this time around?