Why South Africa’s communists need to cut the ANC umbilical cord. Or perish

SACP’s Blade Nzimande, left, with Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. GCIS

The South African Communist Party (SACP) resolved at its recent 14th Congress to contest future elections in the country independent of the African National Congress (ANC), its dominant alliance partner.

If implemented, the resolution would fundamentally change the governing tripartite alliance that’s been in place for more than 60 years. It was formed during the struggle for liberation and has governed South Africa since 1994. The other member of the alliance is the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

Between the mid 1940s and 1950s, South African communists differed with their international counterparts in their interpretation of the role of class struggle in liberation politics. Despite fearsthat nationalism would invariably deliver a political settlement with little change in the material living conditions of the working class, the party tactically aligned itself with the Congress Movement, led by the ANC. It regarded the South African situation as “unique” and therefore requiring “more creativity in how the party sought to advance the class struggle”.

Relations within the alliance are now at an all time low. Ahead of the latest congress, the increasingly strained relations between the SACP and President Jacob Zuma, who is also president of the ANC, and thus the leader of the alliance, had reached an unprecedented low point.

This came amid growing claims alleging that Zuma is the kingpin behind the capture of the state by private business interests. The party has called for the president’s resignation and barred him from speaking at its congress. Zuma had earlier been subjected to similar treatment by Cosatu.

Oddly, the SACP says it will remain within the alliance despite its stated aim to contest elections, effectively in opposition to the ANC. Yet, the mere act of it contesting elections may be construed as a split in practical terms.

But, the party has been here before.

A decade of indecision

Relations among the alliance partners have been strained throughout the democratic period because of the policies of the ANC in power, with Thabo Mbeki’s administration from 1999 to 2008 associated with “neoliberalism” or “the class project of 1996”. In turn, Mbeki was critical of what he called divisive “ultra-leftists” in the alliance when closing the 51st ANC conference at Stellenbosch in 2002, increasing fears of a possible split.

Consequently, the leftist SACP first resolved to contest state power independently at its 12th Congress in 2007. But then the party deferred the final decision to implement the resolution to its central committee, the highest decision making body between congresses.

The central committee was mandated to either lobby for a “reconfigured alliance” with greater leftist influence and control, or to decide on contesting elections independently. The idea of a reconfigured alliance won the day, with the SACP then pinning its hopes on an expected victory by leftists in the ANC. Zuma, its preferred supposedly leftist candidate for the position of ANC president, went on to defeat Mbeki in December 2007.

Thabo Mbeki, former president of South Africa, had a fraught relationship with the SACP. GCIS

The party “reaffirmed” the decision to contest state power at its 13th congress in 2012. But, once again, it failed to empower its central committee to implement the decision. It only mandated it to table “a report” to “enable fuller discussion” in December that year.

Again at the 2017 congress, the party has resolved to contest elections but qualified the resolution by asking its central committee to conduct further analysis and engage its stakeholders on the best way to achieve this.

In essence, the SACP has been tiptoeing about the idea of contesting state power at its three conferences over the past 10 years.

The resolution from the 14th Congress, therefore, could have shown a bolder commitment by the SACP to contesting state power. But once again, decisive action has effectively been postponed by failing to instruct the central committee explicitly to implement it.

When pressed to clarify the tentative nature of the party’s resolution, SACP General Secretary, Blade Nzimande, confirmed that more discussions were to follow before a final decision could be made. This deferring of a final decision to another structure makes the resolution exactly the same as those of the past two conferences.

Clinging onto the ANC’s coattails

Despite successive disappointments, the party still appears to be hoping for an outcome that will favour it in the ANC succession race. Nzimande has denied this. This time, their key man is ANC presidential hopeful and deputy president of the country Cyril Ramaphosa.

This reliance on ANC succession politics may see the SACP fail to contest elections in 2019 once again. But the failure to stop relying on developments in the ANC and start implementing a now ten-year old resolution to contest elections will be more spectacular this time round. That’s because at the rate the governing party is losing support, there might no longer be a dominant ANC in South African electoral politics.

That the ANC is leaking votes presents the SACP with its best ever chance to strengthen its hand within the alliance. It’s a golden opportunity to end the ANC’s abusive tendency to act unilaterally, regardless of the SACP’s position on key issues.

The SACP might have more direct and observable value from real electoral support, which can be translated into seats in municipal councils, provincial legislatures and in parliament.

One more alternative to the ANC?

There has not been a practical and scientific way to determine what the SACP brings to the ANC in terms of electoral support. The picture was complicated by the fact that SACP members are also often members of the ANC. The party could not take for granted that its close to 220 000 members would vote for it if it left the alliance.

But with the ANC in its current crisis, the SACP might present a close enough alternative for supporters who are fed up with the governing party and who don’t have an alternative party to vote for.

But it will never know unless it breaks the perpetual indecisiveness.