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Why communism appears to be gaining favour in South Africa

South African Communist Party general secretary and South Africa’s higher education minister Blade Nzimande addresses the party’s 3rd special congress in Soweto in June. Sowetan/Vathiswa Ruselo

The South African Communist Party reported an upsurge in membership at its recent 3rd special congress. Its membership now stands at about 220 000.

Does this indicate that the Left is gaining momentum or is it only a cyclical spike?

The SACP’s membership has gone through cycles over the years reflecting important political developments (see table below). A comparison suggests that these figures are still relatively small weighed against those of its partners in South Africa’s governing alliance that brings together the communist party, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the African National Congress, which leads the alliance.

Cosatu had 1.9 million members before its biggest affiliate, the metals union Numsa, with 300 000 members, was expelled in 2014. The ANC passed the one million mark in 2012.

The SACP, formed in 1921, is the oldest communist party in Africa. It is one of only 20 parties which survived the anti-communist purge after independence. Many other parties, like the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola and Mozambique Liberation Front, officially changed their party ideologies in the 1990s from Marxism-Leninism to Social Democracy.

But the SACP continued to be Marxist-Leninist. It is the only communist party on the continent which is part of a governing alliance, similar to those in Brazil, Venezuela and Nepal in recent years.

Membership trends

Changes in SACP membership figures after its unbanning in 1990 and its decision to become an open party went through at least four periods.

  • The first was between 1990 and 1996 with an influx of new members, motivated by the SACP’s success with getting the ANC to adopt the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), and its prominence in the first post-apartheid cabinet led by former President Nelson Mandela.

  • The second period was the demise of the RDP and appearance of Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) as a neoliberal macro-economic policy. The ANC leadership regarded it as “non-negotiable” and in the process then South African Deputy President Thabo Mbeki started to marginalise the SACP and Cosatu. Arguably, its marginalisation within the alliance can explain the decline in membership between 1995 and 2002.

  • The third period was during President Mbeki’s last term when membership started to increase, presumably because his deputy, Jacob Zuma, solicited the SACP’s support against Mbeki. The expectation was that a Zuma government would restore the SACP’s prominence in government. Zuma’s victory at the ANC’s 52nd national conference in Polokwane in 2007 solidified it.

Five years later the SACP entered the fourth period at the ANC’s Mangaung national conference. Arguably it reached the 150 000 mark partly because of the ANC’s perceived shift to the right with the adoption of its new long-term macro-economic plan, the National Development Plan. The SACP gained support by opposing the plan. This attracted those who had formerly been part of Zuma’s “Polokwane alliance” but were increasingly unhappy with the President.

Organisational problems in the ANC and corruption scandals diverted attention away from a policy turn to the left. Alternative leftist moves were made in 2012-2015 by the Economic Freedom Fighters and the left in Cosatu. It is possible to argue that the same trend to the left is happening in the alliance in the form of a decline in ANC public support - evident in the 2014 elections - and an increase in SACP membership.

Despite its recent difficulties with President Zuma, the SACP has had a resurgence of influence under his administration. At the moment Senzeni Zokwana, Thulas Nxesi, Blade Nzimande, Jeff Radebe and Rob Davies are ministers while Jeremy Cronin, Godfrey Oliphant and Buti Manamela are deputies. They all serve as examples that the SACP is an access point to government.

The rise in membership could be attributed to the fact that it is seen as an alternative option for a political career.

Official explanation

SACP second deputy general secretary Solly Mapaila ascribed the growth to success with its campaigns, notably that aimed at restructuring the country’s financial sector.

Also, he said, some new members felt more comfortable to express their activism and criticism of corruption in the SACP than in the ANC. Between the lines it suggests an anti-Zuma sentiment, albeit not shared by most national leaders.

Fault-lines and frustrations between the SACP and the ANC are evident. There is open friction between it and the ANC in Mpumalanga province. In addition, the Young Communists League has taken an openly critical stance towards the ANC.

The idea that the SACP should break away from the ANC and stand as an independent political entity has once again emerged. Some delegates at the special congress called on the SACP to contest elections separately from the ANC in 2016. The issue also surfaced in 2008 at its National Policy Conference.

Several motivations for such a call are possible: a perception that the SACP leadership have been co-opted by President Zuma and his government. There have also been accusations that the Zuma government is no longer pro-worker and pro-poor. This is especially so in the light of Marikana massacre in 2012 and government’s minimalist response to the findings of the Marikana Commission of Inquiry.

The government has drawn flack for policies considered to be neo-liberal and that socio-economic inequality and poverty are increasing under the current government.

The thinking wing of the party

The party retains a cache. There is still prestige attached to it as the governing alliance’s “thought leader”. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa referred to it as such at the SACP’s latest special congress. He continued:

Throughout the years, the SACP has played a critical role in the ideological development of the liberation movement. Its contribution to the revolutionary theory of two stages and their notion of apartheid as a “colonialism of a special type” are a few examples.

Activists with a strong ideological inclination will be more attracted by the SACP than by the ANC. Being associated with it has its own pull factors, including the lure of intellectual sophistication.

The SACP’s growth is therefore symptomatic of several factors of which frustrations in the alliance are possibly the most important.

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