The South African Communist Party celebrated its 100th anniversary over the weekend. While this is a moment of celebration for the party’s leadership, some may believe the party has had more to celebrate in the past. It is clear that the SACP faces significant challenges and may be struggling to distinguish itself from the ANC and carve out a distinct place in South African politics.
Throughout its history, the SACP has demonstrated its ability to withstand all manner of external pressure, and it would be absurd to claim that the party does not have a significant influence in our politics. In some ways, its most powerful weapon is also its greatest weakness: its closeness to the ANC, which many see as the party’s defining feature.
There can be no doubt about the significant changes that have occurred during the SACP’s century of existence. It was founded as the Communist Party of South Africa in the years immediately following the Russian Revolution, during a period of economic boom in South Africa and as the world was recovering from World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic. On the surface, South Africa now is completely different from South Africa then.
But important similarities remain. The mining industry is still crucially important to our economy (the newly reinstated social grant of R350 a month is being paid for by higher than expected mining revenues), almost all miners underground are black, many of the managers are still white, racialised inequality is obviously still present and, in many ways, the migrant labour system still exists.
A communist utopia may appear further away now than it did then.
The SACP will assert that it has an illustrious history. It will highlight its role in the anti-apartheid struggle, how it championed the ideology of non-racialism, which later became a major pillar of the ANC’s identity, and how it campaigned against the Gear economic plan of 1996.
But the obvious question is, what role does the SACP currently play, and what role might it play in the future?
It is clear that the party has many critics who claim that it contributes nothing to national debate and is not truly an independent body in any meaningful way.
The source of many of these problems has been its proximity to the ANC.
As a result of this proximity, it can sometimes be blamed for mistakes the ANC makes. This relationship creates situations where there is simply no right direction for the SACP to go.
Perhaps the perfect example of this was e-tolls.
While there was a multi-class rebellion brewing against e-tolls, the SACP found it impossible to publicly condemn the initiative. It was clear that this was naked privatisation of public highways, the very opposite of what the SACP is supposed to stand for.
Nonetheless, the SACP remained deafeningly silent. While Cosatu, another alliance member, was unrestrained enough to be vocal in its opposition, the SACP refused to condemn the plan. Jeremy Cronin, a member of its own leadership, was, in fact, deputy transport minister for a portion of the time that e-tolls were implemented.
This demonstrates the SACP’s weakness and how that weakness was defined by its relationship with the ANC.
However, there have been times when this proximity has been a source of considerable power.
The SACP openly criticised Zuma in the run-up to the ANC’s Nasrec conference. When he fired Pravin Gordhan in late March 2017 during a midnight reshuffle, the SACP reacted quickly. Within 24 hours, its politburo had decided Zuma should step down as president.
This was the result of work that the party had already started. It is possible to argue that the first time the SACP truly defied Zuma was almost a year earlier, in 2016, when it supported efforts to remove Hlaudi Motsoneng from his position as SABC CEO.
The plan to hold a special conference in 2017 was perhaps the most effective use of this power, as announced in June 2017. The timing was critical. It was a sign that if Zuma was seen as having “won” the ANC’s Nasrec conference in December 2017, the SACP would decide to leave the alliance.
The SACP would have run directly against the ANC in elections, providing a home for both leaders and voters who had previously supported the ANC but were opposed to Zuma.
It is not possible to accurately assess the impact of those actions by the SACP and whether it did change the minds of some voting delegates at Nasrec. But it was certainly part of the pressure brought to bear in favour of Ramaphosa. So small was the difference between the two candidates that it may well have been a decisive factor (but by no means the only decisive factor, there were others, such as the #GuptaLeaks and the fact the ANC might have lost an election if the result had gone the other way).
This was perhaps a demonstration of the power that the SACP does have, and of how that power comes through in its relationship with the ANC’s powers that be.
But this power may well be waning because the SACP may only have power in this relationship if its threat of leaving is realistic. It may have been realistic at that moment in 2017, but it is not certain what leverage similar pressure from the SACP would exert now.
The SACP’s brand may have become completely entwined with that of the ANC over time. It may be difficult for voters to distinguish between them, and if it did leave the alliance, it would struggle to compete for power seriously.
Having said that, it has seriously considered running alone in elections at least once, and then contested local elections in Metsimaholo, Free State, winning three seats in the municipality that includes Sasolburg.
Aside from that, it’s never gotten any closer to taking the plunge.
The decision to join the Cabinet, made more than ten years ago, is smack dab in the middle of all of this.
This has led to criticism that decisions made by the party’s leadership are informed by the interests of its leadership, and not by the interests of the party. To put it more crudely, could the party really decide to leave the alliance if its general secretary is in the Cabinet?
This leads to a bigger issue.
If it is true that the EFF has not been able to develop leaders other than Julius Malema and Floyd Nyiko Shivambu, it is also possible that the SACP has a problem changing leadership. South Africa has had five presidents since 1998. We’ve gone from providing a landline number to a WhatsApp number, from newspapers to Twitter, and from four terrestrial television channels to streaming.
However, during that time, the SACP has only had one general secretary, Blade Nzimande.
This will lead to questions about whether the SACP can really claim to be a sustainable force if it is not able to change leadership through a democratic process and if it can really be considered to be a force in the future.
But it is not fair to say that its major problems come from individuals or individual leaders.
It is that the SACP is not necessarily defining itself and thus may not be properly in charge of its own future. That, and the fact that the world is increasingly turning post-ideological, a change that can leave an organisation whose main beliefs are set in stone by a man who died in 1883, appear hopelessly anachronistic.