South African Communist Party Congress: Rank and File on the Offensive Against the Right Wing

The South African working class movement has a long tradition of singing revolutionary songs and toy-toying as a way of expressing its ideas, anger and willingness to struggle. The 11th Congress of the South African Communist Party (SACP), held from July 24-28 2002 in Rustenburg in the North West Province, was no exception. This time revolutionary songs reflected very well the anger of the rank and file delegates against the policies and leadership of the ANC which have failed in government to solve any of the problems facing the South African workers and the poor. The only way forward is energetic organization around a clear, genuinely socialist programme.

The South African working class movement has a long tradition of singing revolutionary songs and toy-toying as a way of expressing its ideas, anger and willingness to struggle. The 11th Congress of the South African Communist Party (SACP), held from the 24th to the 28th of July 2002 in Rustenburg in the North West Province, was no exception. This time revolutionary songs reflected very well the anger of the rank and file delegates against the policies and leadership of the ANC which have failed in government to solve any of the problems facing the South African workers and the poor.

For instance, South African president Thabo Mbeki refused at the last minute to address the SACP Congress in the name of the ANC and was replaced by defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota. He started his speech amidst a chorus of booing and singing of anti-government songs. Many of the delegates stood up and sang “Makuliwe, uMbeki akafuni sithethathane” - “Mbeki won't talk - we will fight.” This was a clear indication of the mood of the Communist Party's rank and file. The worst, from the point of view of the ANC leaders, was still to come.

Tensions within the Tripartite Alliance formed by the ANC, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the SACP have been running high for a number of years, but once again the leaders of the SACP have retreated and apologised after having mildly criticized the capitalist policies of the ANC government.

This time, however, SACP Congress delegates took advantage of the voting for the new Central Committee to carry out a purge of some of the most right wing leaders of the party and particularly of those who, while seating in the SACP CC were also ministers in Mbeki's government and directly responsible for the carrying out of its capitalist policies. Thus, Minister in the Office of the President, Essop Pahad, and Public Enterprises Minister, Jeff Radebe, were both embarrassingly defeated yesterday in elections for membership of the SACP's 30-member central committee. Jeff Radebe was heavily involved in the privatization programme of the government together with Public Service and Administration Minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, who had been the party's deputy national chairperson and refused to stand for the CC, a position to which she certainly would had not been elected.

A fourth SACP CC member had been the target of the anger of the SACP working class activists, Safety and Security minister and SACP chair, Charles Nqakula. The leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, Gwede Mantashe, had initially stood for the position in a direct challenge to Nqakula, but at the last minute Mantashe withdrew from the race and Nqakula was elected unopposed. A report in the Sunday Times cited strong pressure from the party's general secretary, Blade Nzimande, and his deputy, Jeremy Cronin, who saw the mineworkers leader popularity as a threat to their attempts to reconcile with the ANC leaders.

Union leaders pushed to the left

The most radical stance and speeches at the Congress came from the trade union and working class activists of the COSATU union federation. The union has declared an end to the short-lived truce with the government and two days before the beginning of the SACP Congress announced a 48-hour general strike on October 1st and 2nd against the privatisation policies of the government and to defend jobs. In his speech to the Congress, COSATU general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, warned that he wanted to be “very honest” in his input since he was speaking “as the representative of organised labour ­and workers will lose most if the Communist Party is indecisive, unclear or disorganised”. He described the situation facing South African revolutionaries very well when he said that they are facing a right wing offensive which can be seen in the “downplaying of the leading role of the working class in the NDR [National Democratic Revolution], calling capital a motive force, and saying the NDR should aim first to build a non-racial capitalism. It appears in the insistence that the NDR should only be a bourgeois revolution, and the argument that we must strengthen capitalism as the basis for socialism. And it appears most brutally in the clamour from some quarters to smash strikes, privatise, cut taxes and weaken popular organisations.” He warned that “these positions may use our language ­but ultimately they say we must uncritically reinforce capital, without even any serious attempt to broaden ownership and control in the economy. We would end up with the same big, multinational South African capital, with a few black faces at the top, and virtually no change for the millions of working poor and unemployed.”

Reflecting a deep malaise and anger on the part of organized workers in South Africa against the capitalist policies of the ANC government, COSATU's secretary, Vavi, used the same radical language at an anti-privatisation demonstration in Johannesburg on August 15. There he explained that the struggle has entered a new phase: "The struggle involves the working class and its struggle against a capitalist class and its cohorts. When this happens, militants who fought next to you against apartheid, will now take up the struggle against you while protecting new class benefits". "Some blacks are business leaders, millionaires, director-generals. Many of them earn more than R1 million a year. People are mistaken if they believe COSATU will turn a blind eye. I don't care who it is; the power of the working class cannot be compared to the power of any individual or elite. We did not fight to build a new, arrogant elite in our country," Vavi told protestors. COSATU's president, Willie Madisha, topped the list of those elected to the SACP Central Committee with 790 votes out of 832, while the NUM leader Mantashe came third with 767.

Compromising policies of the SACP leaders

Despite all the pressure from below the position of the current leadership of the SACP, represented by Blade Nzimande and Jeremy Cronin, is one of softening up the tensions with the capitalist elements and policies in the leadership of the ANC and in order to do that they are prepared to compromise and apologise for any criticisms they might have been forced to make.

A clear example of this have been the polemics over an interview Jeremy Cronin gave to Irish academic Helena Sheehan back in January. A few days before the SACP Congress, ANC spokesperson, Smuts Ngonyama, used the contents of that interview (published here on Sheehan's website) to attack Cronin publicly. Allegedly Cronin had warned of excessive ANC bureaucratisation, political intolerance and lack of connection to the grassroots that might lead to it becoming the South African version of Zanu-PF. He had also said in the interview that he and other SACP leaders are being marginalised and attacked within the ANC NEC. On the eve of the SACP Congress, the party leaders closed ranks around Cronin and protested against the public attacks from the ANC. However, just a couple of weeks after the party Congress Cronin made a public apology to the ANC NEC!

In fact, if one takes the trouble to read the full text of the now famous interview we can see that, far from advocating a revolutionary policy, the main thrust of Cronin's statement is to defend the validity of the alliance and to beg from the ANC leaders for a policy which is at least a bit more socialdemocratic. And even from this mild criticism he is prepared to retreat. The whole episode follows the same pattern as Cronin's apologetic reply to Peter Mokaba, a leading ANC member, who launched a public attack against the SACP in the aftermath of COSATU's 48-hour strike in August last year (see The policies of the South African Communist Party and its Alliance with the ANC government).

Blade Nzimande's political line seems to be exactly the same. In an interview with the Mail and Guardian (July 12th, 2002,) just a few days before the Congress, the journalist asks him:

Do you see a socialist revolution in South Africa?

"A transition to socialism is not immediately on the agenda, but we need to build elements of, and capacity for, socialism. … The small business sector is a disaster because banks are not playing along. We want a developmental state that retains its leverage to direct the economy and gives incentives and disincentives to private capital. We have to mobilise those resources.”

Even on basic questions like the party's opposition to privatization and the government's Growth Employment and Redistribution plan he gives a very confused and muddled answer:

"Even worse than when the government switched to the growth, employment and redistribution strategy [Gear]?

"That was the basis of the tensions. But now we have agreed to forge a joint programme at a growth and development summit, called by the president. That's very significant. Since the adoption of Gear there has been no commitment to jointly develop a strategy on how to turn the economy round. We've not dealt with the content of the differences, but we've set the framework that allows us also to deal with them in a forward-looking and positive way.

"The question will be: what are the elements of that strategy? Obviously one will be the role of the parastatals. In that way we can deal with the differences around restructuring and privatisation, in a context of saying what Telkom, Spoornet should be doing in a South Africa committed to creating jobs.

"You've got two diametrically opposed approaches. What compromise is possible?

"We need an overarching industrial policy. What is the state of each sector of the economy? Is it creating or losing jobs? How can we restructure that sector so that it can play a positive role in creating jobs, growing our economy, tackling poverty? Then you say ... what then is the role of a para-statal like Spoornet towards that objective, rather than saying: we have to restructure Spoornet. We can't say we want to restructure Spoornet to bring in black business. It can't be an objective."

So, incredibly, comrade Nzimande is not opposed to privatization but rather is prepared to discuss the role of state-owned companies within the “framework” of an “industrial policy” which will be discussed at a “presidential summit”. The delay of this farcical summit is precisely the reason COSATU is using as the immediate spark of the calling of a 48-hour general strike in October. The journalist is right; opposed approaches cannot be reconciled or rather the interests of the working class and those of the nascent black South African capitalist class bound hands and feet to the white capitalists and the interests of imperialists cannot be reconciled. But this is precisely what the SACP leaders want to do!

Young Communist League

Another important decision which was discussed at the Congress and ratified by the first meeting of the Central Committee in August was that of the formation of the Young Communist League which will have its founding meeting in July next year. This is an important step forward and one in which the leadership has dragged its feet. Even on the eve of the Congress the party leaders refused to use a draft discussion document on the question of the formation of a youth organisation which strongly advocated the need for a revolutionary organisation which would not be bureaucratically run by the Party. The fear is that a YCL will rapidly became a focus for left wing opposition within the party.

Growing class struggle

Whatever the aims of the SACP leaders, the development of class struggle on the ground in South Africa will force the ranks of the party and the unions further to the left. The ANC government and leaders and the masses of workers and poor in South Africa who fought against apartheid and voted the ANC into power twice will increasingly find themselves at opposite sides of the barricades. This is not just a rhetorical expression but a very real situation.

The SACP congress took place just weeks after the magnificent three-week long all out national strike by municipal workers called by SAMWU. During the strike one worker was shot dead and several dozen were shot and injured by the police, security guards and managers. Prominent government figures publicly attacked the strike and striking workers as violent troublemakers and wreckers of the “national liberation movement”. This included by the way SACP's chair and government minister, Charles Nqakula. The official position of the SACP in the meantime was to remain in the sidelines of one of the most important class conflicts since the end of apartheid, calling workers and employers to negotiate and settle their differences. A similar position has been adopted by the Party regarding the calling of COSATU's 48-hour strike in October. "There is no need for a general strike around these issues," said Jeremy Cronin, who advocated a moratorium in privatizations, and for these to be studied on a case-by-case basis. The role of communist leaders is to give the working class direction not to try and smooth out the rough edges of class struggle!

A week before the SACP Congress more than 100 squatters were violently evicted from a site in Johannesburg by the police. Dozens of activists from the Landless People's Movement were arrested while protesting outside the World Summit for Sustainable Development. These are not just isolated incidents but part of a generalised backlash against the lack of delivery and the neo-liberal policies of the ANC government which is bound to grow.

The left wing opposition that has surfaced on the SACP Congress floor and the CC elections reflects a deeper anger amongst workers, activists and youth. But in order to be effective this left opposition needs to organize and coordinate efforts. The first task is political clarity. A serious socialist alternative must be worked out to challenge both the capitalist policies of the ANC government and leaders but also the half-baked socialdemocratic policies of the current SACP leaders.

Such a programme must be based on the understanding that within the limits of the capitalist system there cannot be any long lasting solution to the problems of jobs, water and electricity provision and land redistribution. This can only be provided by a revolutionary socialist change in which the workers take over the highly monopolised means of production in which the South African economy is based and makes an internationalist appeal to spread the revolution throughout the African continent and beyond.