Questioning the SACP

2009-11-09 00:00

ON this day 20 years ago a wall collapsed and the world changed.

The dismantling of the Berlin wall marked the end of the cold war and for many it was seen as the triumph of capitalism over communism. A triumph, some would argue, that was short-lived given the recent crisis in capitalism and the resulting global meltdown. The collapse of the Berlin Wall had implications for South Africa, as well. After a few months, Nelson Mandela was freed, the ANC unbanned and the rest — as is often said — is history.

However, looking at the antics of the South African Communist Party (SACP) today, one can’t help feeling that in our part of the world, a remnant of old-style communism still exists. There are critics who say it does. They claim that, unlike other countries where leftist organisations used the collapse of the Berlin Wall as an opportunity to innovate and renew Marxist socialism, this project never got off the ground in South Africa. What we have here, they claim is an authoritarian neo-Stalinist populism.

Why am I writing about left- wing politics; what’s it to us, you may ask? I would argue that if you really want more than just a superficial understanding of South African politics today, you need to know what is happening in the left. I reached this conclusion after reading a fascinating new book entitled, New Frontiers for Socialism in the 21st Century, edited by our own homegrown city boy Vishwas Satgar and leading left- wing intellectual Langa Zita. Both these editors were unceremoniously dumped from the SACP for challenging what was happening in the party.

The co-editors describe themselves as part of the generation that emerged after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. They took up the process inaugurated by the late Joe Slovo, who started the discussion on Marxist renewal with a pamphlet, “Has socialism failed?” Satgar says this process never took root within the SACP for various reasons. He says the leadership that emerged at the helm of the party in 1998 did not believe in the project of socialist renewal and were more comfortable with dogmatic and orthodox Marxism. In fact, Zita, who had developed a new curriculum for party political education was replaced as education officer. It is claimed that the material used by the party today is old-fashioned Marxist text from Progress Publishers in the Soviet Union.

Satgar argues that the current leadership under Blade Nzimande and Jeremy Cronin are preoccupied with a centralised, top-down approach in which debate has been shut down. He claims the state has emerged as the key controller and state capitalism has become the project of the SACP.

“This state capitalist project of the Blade/Cronin faction had more in common with the BEE elites inside the ANC, the union investment companies and the personal interests of those in the SACP leadership who were in parliament and government benefiting from the largesse of the ANC,” says Satgar.

You may or may not agree with Satgar and Zita. However, these two young men have opened up a space for critical debate and discussion. For some time now, especially in the mainstream media, I have been struck by the mediocrity of most of our commentary. This book offers a lot of food for thought and provides the basis for exploring new ideas.

If I have made the publication sound like the disgruntled views of two former SACP members, let me correct this.

New Frontiers for Socialism in the 21st Century really does look at renewal and change and how a new world order can be forged: one that is based on values, that places people at the centre and that addresses ecological exploitation and caring for the environment.

The books starts with interviews with 15 of the leading socialist thinkers in the world and offers Satgar and Zita’s own reflections at the end. You may not remotely consider yourself a socialist or have any leanings in that direction, but the problem with debate is that we so often languish in our own comfortable domains that we fail to grasp chances to test our own ideas There is rich material for thought in the whole left renewal project. However, often the left is its own worst enemy by the inaccessible language it uses.

It really is time to break down more barriers on all sides and widen the space for critical discussion and debate, if only to get a grip on what is happening in our own country and forge ahead with what was started 20 years ago — that dream of a more humane and connected world.

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