Which Way for South Africa’s Communists?

Portside Date:
Author: Conrad Landin interviews Mzwandile Thakhudi
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Morning Star

WHEN South Africans head to the polls later this year, they will be faced with a ballot offering myriad choices — from the governing African National Congress (ANC) to the opposition Democratic Alliance and its assorted new bedfellows, and new formations like RISE Mzansi and the Jacob Zuma-backed Umkhonto we Sizwe party.

One major political force, however, will remain off the ballot. The South African Communist Party (SACP) has been part of the ruling Tripartite Alliance since the dawn of democracy. Leading SACP members have been part of every cabinet since the end of apartheid in 1994, but they enter parliament — and government — as members of the ANC.

The SACP will nonetheless play a prominent part in the election campaign. They will mobilise for a seventh ANC majority, in an election many predict could see the governing party dip below 50 per cent for the first time since it was unbanned.

As national secretary of the Young Communist League of South Africa (YCLSA), Mzwandile Thakhudi will play a leading role in this effort. “If you look into the South African demographics, the youth constitute the majority,” he says. “If you look into the last voter registration, of the 2.9 million people who registered, 77 per cent were youth. Young people must now begin to understand their responsibility in participatory democracy. That includes public participation in lawmaking, but also the election of public representatives, as well as to hold them accountable.”

Thakhudi is speaking to the Morning Star at the annual commemoration at the graveside of former SACP leader, housing minister and anti-apartheid hero Joe Slovo.

It is the first such event in a number of years which has attracted a senior representative of the ANC — in this case ANC deputy general secretary and Minister in the Presidency Maropene Ramokgopa. The Tripartite Alliance, consisting of the ANC, SACP and trade union confederation Cosatu, has come under strain in recent years, and senior figures are doing their best to patch things up ahead of the election.

Slovo was himself conscious of the difficulties posed by the Liberation Alliance. “The alliance of the working class with forces which reject its long-term socialist aspirations is never unproblematic and without tension,” he wrote in 1988. “It requires constant vigilance and, above all, the safeguarding of the independence of the vanguard and mass class organs of the workers.”

He defended the SACP’s “two-stage theory” of the South African revolution, stating that “the national democratic phase” was the “most direct route of advance” at that point in history, but would be followed by, “in our particular conditions, to a second stage, socialist development.”

Thirty years on from the end of apartheid, some leftist critics of the SACP charge that it has let down its vigilance and failed to push towards the second stage. The decline of the trade union movement amid worldwide trends and the corruption of some officials has undermined such “mass class organs.”

The SACP, for its part, has returned to the question of standing candidates separately to the ANC. This was ruled out for this year’s elections at the party’s congress last year, in favour of pushing for a “reconfigured” Liberation Alliance.

What does this mean? “There’s got to be a consistent convening of consultation-seeking platforms among the alliance components, that we move in unison, understanding each other out of a common analysis of the state of our revolution in this country,” says Thakhudi.

“That suggests that the Communist Party’s opinions, the left perspectives, must be recorded in parliamentary transcripts, to say ‘this is the SACP’s view, independent from other alliance components.’ While we work together we should have an understanding that the National Democratic Revolution is the minimum programme, and there has got to be a common understanding of what we are doing.”

Given there is no official SACP group in parliament, how would that be implemented in practice? “On policy questions, we’ve got to have an alliance political council, which will sit quarterly, so that we are able to synthesise the views and agree for governance.”

An SACP statement from January gives a flavour of some of the policy priorities the party intends to assert. These include “a new macroeconomic framework and an adequately funded high impact industrial policy,” pushing for industrialisation and relief to the current unemployment crisis. The party also wants to see the existing social relief of distress grant transformed into a universal basic income grant, as a step towards eradicating poverty.

What are the deficiencies of the current set-up? Thakhudi believes the “organisational design of the Alliance” means that the “primary forces” of South Africa’s liberation struggle, such as the poor, the African majority and women, are sidelined in government policy formulation. An SACP statement issued on May Day last year asserted: “Instead of accountability only to one Alliance component, there must be accountability to the Alliance under the principle of collective leadership, with common discipline.”

The past few years has seen an increasingly outspoken SACP criticise the ANC’s record in government — particularly over its failure to reduce poverty and inequality. At the Joe Slovo commemoration, speaker after speaker also slammed the actions of former president Jacob Zuma, both for facilitating the “state capture” of public enterprises in office and for backing the new MK party — named after the ANC’s armed wing — in the forthcoming elections. Thakhudi went the furthest, calling on the ANC to expel Zuma for his disloyalty.

The SACP was itself crucial to Zuma’s rise to the top of the ANC and the presidency. After party influence was sidelined under president Thabo Mbeki and his neoliberal economic policies, leading party figures believed there would be more opportunity for left advance under the Zuma. The SACP’s turn against the controversial president later became a key factor in his downfall.

Thakhudi is keen to cite the history of the Alliance to explain the SACP’s position today. “Comrade president Oliver Tambo said our alliance is not a paper alliance, it is born out of struggle, and out of sacrifice,” he recalls. “So it is not by choice that we are in an Alliance.”

But the question of the future of the party’s strategy has not gone away. “The discussion is still ensuing in the party,” the YCLSA leader emphasises. “This year we have a special congress where we believe the party will make an evaluation of that resolution. There is a diversity of opinions in the party.

“The party identified three modalities to contest the election. One, a reconfigured alliance, two, a broad left front, and three, independently. The party, for now, opted for the first one. Why? Due to the three watchwords that we have identified: that we must be consistent on the strategy, flexible on the tactics, but while we are analytically alert.”

In an interview last year, SACP general secretary Solly Mapaila said that if the Alliance is not reconfigured, the SACP could move to the option of a broad left front Popular Left Front, working “with other social forces to constitute part of rescuing the NDR on the ground, without necessarily waiting for a party political banner under the ANC.” He told SABC News: “Hopefully, the SACP could play a much more visible and dominant role and have credible candidates who could lead that particular Left Front.”

“The party is a party of power, parliamentary power,” says Thakhudi. “It’s not a party for its own sake.”

Conrad Landin is a former Morning Star journalist and now co-edits New Internationalist. The global justice affairs magazine’s next issue, South Africa: 30 Years Later, is available for £1 as part of a trial subscription. Visit a.nin.tl/SouthAfrica to get yours.

Source URL: https://portside.org/2024-02-17/which-way-south-africas-communists