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As Inequality Grows, So Too Does South Africa’s Communist Party

The SACP calls for working-class unity and “patriotic and left popular fronts” to challenge big business oligarchs, reverse their influence in the state apparatus and put South Africa on the road to economic, social and green transformations.

Blade Nzimande,

Blade Nzimande is South Africa’s Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology. He is also the general secretary of South African Communist Party (SACP).

We met after he had just finished attending the Education World Forum. More than 100 government ministers for education and skills had spent three days in London discussing resources, infrastructure, learning pathways, technology, innovation, research and citizenship.

Shrugging off fatigue, he spoke to me with clarity and passion about the challenges facing the peoples of his country, Africa and the world.

Obviously, the war in Ukraine was an early talking point in our discussion. Tory government ministers had tried to win support for a joint statement at the EWF condemning the Russian invasion.

Nzimande and other attenders had not been impressed by this sudden attempt to “shoehorn” the issue into the conference proceedings, using dead children as a point of relevance.

“I had to point out that dead children are dead children wherever they are killed, whether in Ukraine, Yemen or Palestine,” he said, refusing to place a higher value on young lives tragically taken in some countries than in others.

South Africa’s Communists have adopted a policy which Nzimande insists is not one of neutrality. “We are on the side of peace,” he declares, “For a ceasefire and negotiations that could lead to a stable settlement which recognises the legitimate interests of both Ukraine and Russia.

“We know from our own liberation struggle in South Africa that, however grim the immediate situation, peace and a just settlement can be achieved.”

He certainly holds Nato and successive regimes in Kiev — and their alliance with fascists — primarily responsible for the conflict in Ukraine. The US and other Western powers have provoked President Putin into a war that they hope will weaken Russia and thereby send a signal to China.

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“Behind this lies the beginning of the end of US world hegemony,” Nzimande suggests, citing China’s economic rise as the main factor now challenging the US “unipolar” domination.

The biggest gap on the world stage is that once filled by the Non-Aligned Movement, he argues. Born in the 1950s during the first cold war, its member states remained outside the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact and US-led Nato and other military alliances.

Countries such as Yugoslavia, India, Egypt, Ghana, Indonesia and Cuba concentrated instead on the struggle for national sovereignty and independence against imperialism, colonialism and all forms of foreign aggression and domination.

But since the end of the first cold war in the early 1990s, it has lost its focus and sense of mission, pushed aside initially by Western promises of a peaceful and prosperous “New World Order” for all.

“Today we have Brics — the co-operation between Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — but it needs to become broader, more dynamic and a force for peace as well as development,” Nzimande proposes.

He hopes that a victory for Lula da Silva in Brazil’s presidential election in October will provide the spark and leadership needed to revive the Non-Aligned Movement, especially if supported by governments in Mexico, India, Vietnam, Cuba and his own South Africa. This could help build the alliance required to counteract the second cold war aimed at China and win justice and sovereignty for the Palestinian people.

Nzimande is not very optimistic about the immediate prospects for progress in Africa.

“The African Union is ineffective and lacks transparency in its decision-making,” he comments, pointing to their recent admission of Israel as a state with “observer status.”

Nzimande also expresses his disappointment with the situation in Zimbabwe, where the regime of President Mnangagwa has responded to protests against economic depression, mass unemployment and runaway inflation with repression.

“Of course, the SACP does what it can to assist the newly formed Zimbabwe Communist Party and our comrades in Swaziland in their struggle for economic justice and democratic rights, against state repression,” he confirms.

Years of economic depression in Zimbabwe have driven millions of its citizens to seek work in South Africa. The same dynamic is at work in Mozambique. In South Africa today, unemployment by even the lowest definition is running at 35 per cent.

“This influx of mostly undocumented workers presents us with further challenges,” Nzimande admits. Already there are shanty towns (“informal settlements”) on the periphery of South Africa’s major cities such as Johannesburg, Cape Town and his own native Pietermaritzburg.

Migrant workers from nearby countries provide easy prey for homegrown and incoming gangmasters and gangsters. They are a source of super-exploited cheap labour, especially in some service sectors in the cities.

Competition with native workers sometimes spills over into conflict, which places a special responsibility on the SACP and Cosatu (the Confederation of South African Trade Unions) to try to resolve.

Julius Malema’s self-styled Economic Freedom Fighters party pose as the only true defenders of migrant workers, but Nzimande is not impressed.

“They blow a lot of hot air,” he tells me, “and their chief concern is to find a fresh source of votes in the future.” This is necessary because, he reckons, they have reached the limit of their electoral support — about 9 or 10 per cent of the poll — now that many workers have seen through their demagogic posturing and corruption.

Not that the ANC, its government and the tripartite ANC-Cosatu-SACP alliance are without their own problems.

“The internal struggle in the ANC continues against a background of economic stagnation and growing economic and social inequality,” Nzimande says.

“The defeated neoliberal faction in the ANC is counter-attacking the ‘state capture’ faction that arose under ex-President Zuma, while the SACP and Cosatu reject both factions,” he explains.

Instead, the SACP calls for the widest possible working-class unity and “patriotic and left popular fronts” to challenge the big business oligarchs, reverse their influence in the state apparatus and put South Africa on the road to deeper economic, social and green transformations.

Nzimande identifies the main areas that could advance this process: a more militant working class with a stronger manufacturing base (the Communists are supporting strikes such as the 12-week struggle of the unions in the Sibanye-Stillwater gold mines); a bigger movement for land reform; the mass involvement of women in the labour and social movements in the fight against patriarchy; and a stronger co-operative and self-help sector in local communities; and a campaigning peace movement, where he believes much can be learnt from Britain’s experiences.

Next month’s SACP conference will seek to strengthen the party’s organisation and cadre development programme.

These are urgent problems — “the kind we like” according to Nzimande — as membership rises to 330,000. He will be standing down as the party’s general secretary after 24 years in post. Among the frontrunners in any contest to succeed him is SACP first deputy general secretary Solly Mapaila.

Then will come a momentous conference of the ANC in December, when it too will elect its leadership going into the National Assembly elections due in 2024.

These events will help determine when a more radical phase of South Africa’s national-democratic revolution will open up a new stage on the country’s road to socialism.

Robert Griffiths is general secretary of the Communist Party of Britain.