Trevor Manuel: Is the SACP staying true to its origins?

2015-07-12 16:15
Trevor Manuel. Picture: Bongiwe Gumede

Trevor Manuel. Picture: Bongiwe Gumede

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Is the SACP staying true to its origins, or has it become an organisation that just protests on any issue that comes along, asks Trevor Manuel

I was struck by the strident speeches of Blade Nzimande at the special congress of the SA Communist Party (SACP) this week. The SACP general secretary held forth on trade unionists with whom he has disagreements, against “monopoly capital”, on the 10 workers killed at Marikana before the massacre of August 16 2012, and against the media, among other things. 

Add to this the fact that at the end of the five-day alliance summit the previous week, he chose the concluding press conference to raise matters about the media tribunal, indicating that this was an SACP call, not an alliance one. 

Add all of these to his attacks on the judiciary, his marches against artists and his loose talk about farmers. Do we understand the role of the SACP? Is one of its roles not to develop a cadre of leadership rather than a movement that protests on any issue that comes along? 

All this sparks a curiosity occasioned by the authority with which the SACP general secretary speaks on a range of matters that appear outside of the rational purview of the SACP. 

His conduct and that of other central committee members compel me to ask two important questions. What does the SACP stand for? And from where does it derive its legitimacy? Similar questions were recently posited to the Communist Party of China, but I think these are far more apposite in the context of the SACP. 

My sense is that the licence to espouse views on broad social matters carries the responsibility to answer these two important questions. We know that in the tradition of the underground SACP, the implied responsibility was to ensure that ANC leaders understood policy and values, and essentially remained on the “straight and narrow” of exemplary conduct. It was spoken of as “an obligation to radicalise senior members of the SACP”. 

That mission has long ceased and any perfunctory look at the conduct of many senior ANC leaders reflects a profound “mission failure”. 

The truth is that a number of senior SACP leaders are also painted with the brush of malfeasance. So we must then accept that the SACP is ill-equipped to be the custodian of values and mores in the tripartite alliance or even to operate in a manner where it would use its influence to give the battle for values some direction. The history of the SACP may explain what its distinct role was, especially between 1950 and 1994, but this does not help us to understand what it stands for today. 

Ideological coherence 

There is even more of a puzzle about the origin of its legitimacy. It is deemed to have an open membership and it was reported this week that party membership increased to more than 225 000. 

However, there is a further unresolved question – this is a communist party, not a football supporters’ club or a church – communist parties need ideological coherence. The question is, does it display ideological coherence? 
Moreover, its members are communists who would subscribe to an understanding of Marxist-Leninism. Can the SACP explain whether its members are Marxists? Can it also explain what the purpose of its recruitment drive is? What are the benefits of membership? Is it being true to its origins of building a cadre of leadership? 

It is also important to note that the party’s general secretary has ruled out any prospect of contesting elections as the SACP. So again, we must ask what the purpose of this membership is? My sense is there is likely to be less coherence of beliefs than other ANC members of some persuasion, be they Muslims or Catholics, for example.

The question is, why then does the SACP have this special status and a boundless legitimacy to hold forth on any matter, as if it is independent? 

The SACP cannot be described as a nongovernmental organisation (NGO) either. It probably has a higher density of members (especially of its central committee) serving in the executive of government, than any other group.

The SACP has had to amend its own constitution to permit its general secretary to be in government and not at its headquarters, because in its post-1990 incarnation it was designed to be nongovernmental. 

So by claiming the legitimacy afforded it, it does so from the perch of being distinctly in government, yet claiming to be an NGO. This has to be the most profound paradox of its very existence; this is the “blurring of the blur”, rather than the negation of the negation. 

Deafening silence 

Moreover, one needs to examine the contradictions in its political conduct as it holds forth on a range of issues. Let me mention a few examples. The history of the SACP is intertwined with the struggles of mine workers. The 1922 and 1946 mine workers’ strikes have been profoundly significant in the history of the SACP. 

Yet there is this deafening silence from the party of workers about the events at Marikana. Sure, Nzimande drew attention to the lives of the 10 workers killed in the week before August 16. Impressively, he mentioned some of them by name. But he hasn’t whispered a word about the 34 mine workers mowed down on August 16 2012 and the impact of the attack on the struggle of the working class. There is no statement, even about the Marikana Commission report. 

So how does the SACP wish to explain which workers it represents? I have not seen a statement that sets as a precondition the need to first agree with the leadership of the SACP before it will act to represent the interests of such workers. The same applies to trade unionists who are required to subject themselves to the will of the SACP or run the risk of being scolded and ostracised. 

The SACP is also meant to act to protect the interests of workers against exploitation in society. This week there was a significant judgment in the Western Cape High Court in favour of the most exploited farm workers who have illegal deductions from their wages. 

This judgment was not applauded by the SACP, perhaps because it was a court decision (aren’t all judges “class enemies”?) of the Western Cape High Court (enemy territory). The fact that the beneficiaries are likely to be the poor who cede too much to the mashonisa is ignored. 

The biggest contradiction is that the application was brought tenaciously by one of the country’s wealthiest people and one of the respondents was a member of the SACP central committee, the minister of trade and industry. Whatever happened to the saying: “Workers of the world unite”? 

I am careful about raising the third example because I don’t want to appear precious about the National Development Plan (NDP). 

This week, the SACP’s first deputy general secretary, Jeremy Cronin, spoke about a commitment by the party to implement part of the NDP and then to hold out to radicalise the rest. As deputy minister of public works, he was present when Cabinet agreed to implement the NDP. My sense is that even if he had a slightly different view, he is bound by the decision of the executive. He now says that President Jacob Zuma should have found a method other than to appoint an independent commission. 

What is the origin of the legitimacy and authority of the SACP or its members to be part of decision making in government and to later renege on those decisions? Why should there be a special status for some people? 

Enormous obligation 

Curiously, the very existence of the SACP in the ANC in the current milieu is a huge mystery. The ANC’s oath of membership requires members to “defend the unity and integrity of the organisation and its principles, and to combat any tendency towards disruption and factionalism”. And the rules of discipline prohibit the participation in factional activity. 

So when, within an SACP branch, region or national structure, it discusses positions pertinent to the ANC – such as control of the media, or prepares a preferred list of candidates for ANC positions, and then lobbies for these candidates – it surely becomes a faction and exists contrary to the spirit of the ANC constitution. 

I want to emphasise that I do not query the right of the SACP to exist any more than I would question the right of the Economic Freedom Fighters to exist. There is surely room in the South African body politic for a plurality of views. However, the SACP plays a role that is different to other political formations. My issue is that the reason for its existence has to be more than historical. 

In putting forward these views, there is the likelihood that I will be dismissed as being anti-communist, anti-tripartite alliance, or even a running dog of imperialism, or any of the labels that roll off the tongues of those people when they cannot engage properly. 

My plea is to rather be seen in the same light as the epic poem by Bertolt Brecht, Questions From a Worker Who Reads. The poet invites the reader to question, rather than to merely accept a single version as correct. 

As the SACP ventures into trying to determine what we may read, think, write, say or associate with, it has an enormous obligation to explain what the organisation stands for and from where it derives its legitimacy. 

While it goes about doing that, it might also choose to tell us what the benefits of membership for its hundreds of thousands of members are.

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