Not time to dither

2009-12-15 00:00

THE South African Communist Party congress taking place in Polokwane has become a place for contests over the soul of the governing party, the African National Congress. Even as delegates prepared for this gathering, it became clear that the meeting would test the tenacity of this decades-old ANC-led alliance, notwithstanding the show of unity during the ANC’s national conference held in the same town, almost­ exactly two years ago.

Expected to simply reaffirm its marriage to the ANC, the SACP has been forced to reflect upon its position­, role and effect in the alliance. Among those who believe the party is treated as a junior party are those who believe that the party must strengthen its vanguardist position in the ANC by occupying­ positions of significance at all levels of the organisation and the government to lead the development of policy positions in line with the tenets of a socialist revolution.

But as has been the case since the early nineties, there are those who argue that taking strategic government positions while pursuing public campaigns is not adequate to preserve the long-term interests of the party as a sovereign organisation. They argue that the party must build itself into a mass party engaged in mass struggles and what Mazibuko Jara calls “democratic social power” in its drive towards socialism.

Whichever strategy gains prominence at the end of the conference, communists will not avoid questions asked about continuities and discontinuities between the national democratic revolution that the ANC is pursuing and the socialist revolution of the SACP. This is because in the process of projecting its power and interests either as a vanguard of the governing movement or as a mass party engaged in grassroots campaigns, the SACP will confront this accusation that it is trying to “take over” the ANC. Dismissing this as a rooi gevaar is to recognise only one among many factors in the debate on the SACP’s position in the ANC.

It is only natural that the decision to assert the party’s influence will lead to a stronger expression of key tenets of a socialist revolution in an organisation engaged in a slightly different revolution. The SACP cannot assume that the two are similar. So, it will be accused of pursuing its own ideological agenda in an ANC-led government. So the discussion about how the party will manage the implications of its assertiveness regarding the alliance will become more and more intricate as opposed to simple. This is because the alliance is built on an assumption that the ANC leads it and so an attempt by the SACP to lead will cause the ANC to want to reassert its leadership role. This is an old dilemma, which has resurfaced in all SACP congresses since 1990.

“It is this mutual enrichment that has characterised our relationship. And this is not about to change … There is none who constitutes the sole repository of ideas and wisdom. We are sovereign organisations and none dictates to the other … Ours is an alliance that recognises the leading role of the ANC, not by mere declarations, but because it is the force that brings together all the strands.”

This is not an extract from the address by President Jacob Zuma at the party congress on Saturday. These are the words of former president Nelson Mandela at the SACP’s 75th anniversary in July 1996. Former president Thabo Mbeki echoed these sentiments in several similar addresses, asserting the fact that the ANC leads the alliance. In keeping with this tone, Zuma demanded in his address to the party congress on Saturday that alliance partners should uphold discipline and mutual respect for each other, and engage with dignity. Then, Zuma asked the party to stop acting like a pressure group and advised that instead it should provide leadership in profound debates to enrich the alliance’s ideological and intellectual capacity.

He then threw down a gauntlet by asking the communists to introspect on whether they have really defined their role in a post-apartheid society. This was a clever move to refocus the discussion. Zuma knows that this is a fundamental condition for the stability of the alliance in the future. An SACP that is not sure about its position and role in the alliance is not only erratic in its conduct, but it may even leave the alliance abruptly in the future.

It is this complex issue confronting communists that we should watch carefully, rather than issues of personalities and public spats. The resolutions of the congress suggest that the communists have decided to maintain the status quo — a combination of vanguardist posture and mass politics. This means the party will have to contend with suspicions that it wants to take over the ANC by penetrating its centre of power, while engaging in public grass-roots campaigns designed to put pressure on the ANC government. These campaigns have led some to believe that the party was behind some of the community protests over service delivery. After all, communists are not automatically immune to ubiquitous opportunism and jostling for positions using community protests.

Hence, the communists can ill-afford to dither about their role and position in the alliance, especially given their good relations with the Zuma leadership. Hesitation suggests that the party has not come to terms with both the post-apartheid and post-Polokwane dynamics in South Africa and in the ANC. The party may be buying time to allow internal debate on its long-term perspective, but it may also be confused by opportunities presented by changed relations within the alliance under Zuma­’s leadership.

Under these conditions, a safe position to take for yesterday’s all-important ANC National Executive Committee meeting would have been to reaffirm its commitment to improving the health of the alliance­.

• Siphamandla Zondi works for the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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