“The ANC, with all of its challenges, in alliance with the SACP, Cosatu and Sanco, is the only political formation found on the ballot capable of leading this struggle,” reads the South African Communist Party’s (SAPC) 2019 election manifesto.
The ANC has been accused of neglecting the poor and the working class, being rotten to its core, and repressing the independent struggles of the working class and the poor. As a result, several working class organisations – including the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), the Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu) and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), as well as the largest popular movement in the country, Abahlali baseMjondolo – have broken from the ruling party.
So why does the SACP, which claims to have the interests of the marginalised and working class at heart, continue to support the ANC? Has it become a vegetarian who eats meat?
SACP first deputy general secretary Solly Mapaila said the party’s alliance with the ANC is “95% strategic”. He offered three key reasons why the SACP continues to endorse the ANC.
The SACP in alliance for three reasons
Former president Nelson Mandela’s vision of a united South African is yet to be realised in a country where issues of race remain sensitive and contentious. Mapaila said that the resolution of the racial question in South Africa is “not only the ANC’s project, we are also interested in that project. We want to resolve the national question. We want to create national unity.”
Gender inequality, according to Mapaila, is the second reason why the SACP still clings to the alliance. “We have to resolve the gender contradictions in society. We want to resolve the system of patriarchy, which is the offshoot of capitalist development. The major problem is that you can’t have a democracy of unequals,” he said.
The third reason given by Mapaila for why the SACP remains within the ANC-dominated alliance, is that it seeks to fight class inequalities produced by the minority ownership of the means of production and the economy. “This struggle is largely seen as the communist struggle, but it’s not the communist struggle alone,” Mapaila said.
“We want an egalitarian society … A just and equal ownership in the economy is a society that’s closer to socialism. We, as the SACP, participate in this struggle for national liberation. We are forces of liberation ourselves.”
The SACP’s objectives haven’t shifted radically since the first democratic elections in 1994. However, progress in achieving those objectives has been at a snail’s pace, if it all.
A 2018 World Bank report, which analysed the progress made in reducing poverty and inequality since 1994, ranked South Africa as the most unequal country in the world. According to the report 64% of black Africans, 41% of those categorised as coloured under the apartheid system, 6% of South Africans of Indian descent and 1% of white people live in poverty.
Even with the party progress has been slow on certain questions. Though the SACP claims to advocate for gender equality, there is only one woman in its top-six list of national officials and, historically, the role of women in critical and fundamental positions within the party has been minimal. Aside from a few well known figures like Ruth First and Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, the SACP has systematically come up short when electing women as leaders.
Background of the alliance
Historically, the SACP and ANC have come a long way together. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, there were two major developments that took place within the organisations.
The ANC intensified its protests and its demands, resulting in the leadership of the 1940s being replaced by a more vibrant, assertive and militant younger generation. Another major development within this period led to strong unity among black organisations fighting colonial oppression and apartheid.
The SACP (then the Communist Party of South Africa or CPSA) was divided in its understanding of the growth of African nationalism and the ANC. Some of its members, especially those in the then Cape, warned of the dangers of African nationalism. They wanted to focus primarily on pursuing class struggle. However, those from the then Transvaal and Natal provinces saw the national struggle as a necessary response to colonial forms of oppression of the black majority.
On 20 June 1950, the CPSA was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act, leading to the party dissolving. Later, the Johannesburg leadership of the CPSA established an underground party under a new name – the SACP. However, the centre of power had shifted from Cape to Transvaal members, who had greater support for national struggle and had developed a close relationship with the Congress movement.
Should communists support the national bourgeoisie?
During the 1952 Defiance Campaign, the debate about the relationship between class struggle and national struggle intensified.
These debates reached back to the discussions in the Communist International (Comintern) – an international organisation that advocated world communism – in the 1920s. Vladimir Lenin, a Russian revolutionary who rose to power after the October Revolution of 1917, and Manabendra Nath Roy, an Indian revolutionary, activist, political theorist and noted philosopher, came to be key figures in the debate about anticolonial movements, which were simultaneously “bourgeois and anti-imperialist”.
Lenin wanted a temporary alliance with the broader anti-imperial struggle while Roy called for the complete separation of working-class movements from national movements. Later on, Lenin’s stance was preferred and adopted under the newly coined concept of “national revolutionary movements”, which did not hinder working-class mobilisation.
By the 1950s, conditions in South Africa were changing rapidly, which influenced communists to undertake a domestic review of the relationship between socialist struggle and national liberation.
After 1953, leading communist members offered a theory of “colonialism of a special type” and arrived at the consensus of building a “cohesive organisation … of the major protagonist, the industrial working class, in alliance with its natural allies, the rural workers and the migrant labours.”
The alliance today
Mapaila said the SACP wouldn’t have had a chance of coming into government in 1994 had it not been in alliance with the ANC. This was because international politics and economics in the 1990s had become largely capitalist after the fall of the Soviet Union.
“We inherited a system that’s powerful and dynamic. In a context of that, we then used what we call strategy and tactics … For our comrades to sit in power is not for self-interest but for the leftist agenda and to further the agenda of the working class … As communists, we are proud of what we’ve achieved through the alliance,” he said.
Mapaila said the SACP is also in the alliance to fulfil some of the objectives of the National Democratic Revolution (NDR), which seek to correct historical injustices. The NDR is “a programme that advances us into socialism”, he said. But the ANC does not perceive the NDR project as a route into socialism. Instead, the ANC perceives the NDR as necessary to emancipate black people from “political and economic bondage”.
This poses a serious strategic challenge for the SACP. Furthermore the extent of moral and ethical corruption in the ruling party is widely noted, as are various incidents of repression against independently organised workers and community activists.
When asked about the possibility of the SACP’s objectives being truly realised in such an alliance, Mapaila paused. “That’s a difficult question, but let me try to summarise what you’re asking,” he said.
“Our primary aim is to free the working class from exploitation. And the workers must start appreciating it,” Mapaila said. “The system can close ranks and deal with you decisively as a working class … Why should communists shy away from influencing the society?
“That’s where people are missing the point. We have to be in every centre of power, whether it is Cabinet or outside … Our comrades to sit in power is not for self-interest but for the leftist agenda and to further the agenda of the working class.”
He added, “Can we pick and choose the only good done by our leaders? That’s the balance we need to make. We will own up to the weaknesses and successes of our alliances.”