Khaya Magaxa | How Blade injected tribalism into the SA Communist Party

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Outgoing general secretary of the SA Communist Party, Blade Nzimande, speaks during the party’s national congress in Boksburg. Photo: Tebogo Letsie
Outgoing general secretary of the SA Communist Party, Blade Nzimande, speaks during the party’s national congress in Boksburg. Photo: Tebogo Letsie


The SA Communist Party (SACP) congress held recently in Johannesburg presented an opportunity for leadership transition and organisational renewal. There was hope it would be vibrant, open and creative.

On the contrary, the congress was subdued and dominated by tension, mainly because of unresolved leadership squabbles in the midst of the acute socioeconomic crisis facing the working class.

READ: Blade Nzimande: I did my best

The prospects of that transition and renewal were stymied by self-centred individuals. This will go down in the annals of history as the most divided congress since the party’s unbanning in 1990.

The tradition of a graduated and coordinated substantive leadership system

This is so because, within the SACP political system, there is a substantive and careful method of handling leadership questions across all levels of the organisation.

For those who might be unfamiliar with the process, it is trite to highlight the essence of the exercise which has created stability over time.

Ahead of a branch congress, all members in good standing assess performance of the outgoing leadership and deliberate on the requirements for the incoming leadership.

READ: Mondli Makhanya | Blade won’t make us feel shushu inside

At the level of the district, all branch secretaries and chairpersons meet and do the same. For the provincial and national layers, district secretaries and provincial secretaries, respectively, are charged with the responsibility to conduct a substantive analysis and emerge with a consensus.

It is a graduated and coordinated approach through which the SACP maintains relative cohesion and matured handling of non-antagonistic contradictions.

It forms part of thorough preparations for the congress in order to create conditions conducive to a focused and ideologically engaging congress. The general secretary of our party led that process until the 13th National Congress held in 2012 in Ongoye, KwaZulu-Natal.

The subversion of the leadership culture

The members have always made a deliberate effort for a strong and coherent SACP, hence they do everything to preserve its unity. It would be naïve and myopic to confine all that positive progress to Blade Nzimande as an individual.

The party had a strong national organising department with seasoned cadres who led land and agrarian struggles and a financial sector campaign, and has had a robust central committee with seasoned intellectuals and capable provincial secretaries with strong district leaderships.

READ: Nzimande criticises Fraser for trying to dislodge ANC with ‘factional agenda’

Over time, we have produced quality leadership from branches up to national level. Hence, after 13 years as a provincial secretary, I did not wait for anyone to tell me that I had been in that position for far too long. I could see for myself that we had produced enough cadres who could do the job better, with more energy. 

It was clear to me that there was nothing new and better that I could do after such a period at the helm.

Ahead of the 13th Congress, then general secretary Nzimande convened our usual session consisting of provincial secretaries and, among the issues he raised, was that the 13th National Congress was his last at the helm. We reluctantly accepted his assertion with respect.

We continued executing our organisational programmes on the basis that the 14th National Congress would usher in a younger and energetic general secretary who would lead the party with the same zeal as that of the outgoing when he had taken over.

READ: Nzimande criticises Fraser for trying to dislodge ANC with ‘factional agenda’

We were shocked and surprised towards the 14th National Congress when the general secretary decided to stop convening our meetings until the congress day. It was worse when we learnt that he was actually available to be elected as a general secretary again, contrary to his earlier indication.

In the same period, the long-serving deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin publicly declared that he was not available for re-election.

For the first time after unbanning, we started experiencing serious divisions in our party, and some provinces would sing songs about the comrade they expected to take over as the general secretary.

That culminated in comrade Solly Mapaila going up to the podium to address the congress, informing comrades that he wouldn’t stand against the incumbent general secretary. Party comrades demonstrated their respect and discipline by complying with the message from comrade Mapaila.

READ: ANC economic policy is stagnant - experts and alliance partners

However, the tension in the congress has remained since then until the 15th National Congress. The reality of the situation is that Nzimande emerged as the general secretary in the 14th National Congress through the back door. He exploited our respect and appreciation for his role in the building of the SACP since he had become the general secretary. We all appreciated the fact that the party grew both qualitatively and quantitatively during his time in that role.

Under his capable leadership, the party had embarked on important campaigns that contributed enormously to rooting it in the working class.

Nzimande instead became angry with everyone who he suspected to be opposed to his return as general secretary from the 14th National Congress.

Among those he identified, one became the newly elected provincial secretary of the Western Cape and the other of the Eastern Cape, whom he had disliked from day one.

On rare occasions when he visited the Eastern Cape, he simply went to divide the province, using his henchmen. He has not put his foot in the Western Cape since Benson Ngqentsu became the provincial secretary, despite many invitations for SACP programmes in that province. He demonstrated his hatred for the young man in all meetings with no shame, including the entire leadership of the province.

As a consequence, political relations deteriorated further when I raised the matter in the central committee about a conflict between him and his director-general who happened to be a member of the central committee.

READ: SACP leaders under attack by armed gangs wearing balaclavas

At that moment, I did not have any opinion about the pros and cons of their conflict, but was instead calling for the party leadership to intervene in an attempt to mediate, since both were party deployees in the state. Nzimande became extremely aggressive and arrogant, to the extent of accusing me of taking sides.

He later grouped me with his self-created permanent enemies from Eastern Cape and Western Cape secretaries and reduced us to Xhosa tribalists who wanted to divide the party along tribal lines.

How he reached that ridiculous conclusion is not clear. Communists subscribe not just to nonracialism, not just to a united South Africa, but, more importantly, to internationalism. Communists believe in one human race in the entire universe, which is only divided into two classes that are inherently in conflict with each other – the rich and the poor. True communists abhor tribal sentiments.

READ: SACP debate on whether to contest elections alone: episode umpteen

When he delivered the central committee report on behalf of the 14th Central Committee, Nzimande decided against advice to exclude a paragraph which was full of tribal diatribe. He ignored that intervention because he sought to use the fabrication of tribal politics to manipulate and mobilise along tribal lines.

In the South African context, communists are not just in the struggle for socialism, but in alliance with other progressive forces to advance, consolidate and deepen the national democratic revolution as our direct route to socialism.

Our role as communists at all material times is to avoid any temptation to opportunistically exploit the ills that were perpetuated by colonialism of a special type and use them to fight our little battles. Tribalism (just like racism) is a social construct used by colonialists to divide our people in order to advance their exploitation of our human and natural resources.

For a senior leader of a vanguard party of the working class to use that weapon to isolate comrades who were opposed to his clinging to power undermines the positive work he had done for more than 20 years.

In fact, that behaviour is exposing us to that side of him that we have not acknowledged since 1998. His desperation to remain relevant in the body politic of the ANC-led alliance, particularly the SACP, has nothing to do with the interest of the class we seek to liberate from exploitation, but, rather, with his continuous benefit as an individual in the state power.

He assumes that, if he does not make it to senior party position, he might lose the Cabinet post. Hence he had to rather divide the party to safeguard his ambition and sustain patronage networks. He therefore behaves just like any narrow opportunist and chauvinist nationalist who decides to indulge in the exploitation of conditions created by colonialism of a special type, instead of the continuous transformation of society.

I strongly believe he was engaged in this type of exploitation because he knew well that the same comrades he accused of tribalism had elected him against comrade Charles Nqakula, who was Xhosa and had supported him for more than 20 years.

Nzimande was mindful of the fact that both the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape had wanted Mapaila to be general secretary since the 14th National Congress in 2017, and comrade Solly was not Xhosa.

Therefore, his desperation to remain at the helm of the SACP made him irrational and lose his capacity to think progressively, and he became childish and mischievous.

Nzimande appears to be inspired by Nazi propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, who believed that:

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.

I am grateful that comrades didn’t fall for his blackmail and respond to his childish mischief, but continue the lobbying against him towards the party 15th National Congress.

Nzimande is aware that he became the national chairperson of the party even before he became general secretary.

We had a genuine case to oppose the tendency to recycle leadership while we have enough young and vibrant intellectual cadres produced by our party. It’s destructive and backward to accuse comrades who differ with you of tribalism while there is absolutely no scientific proof for it.

READ: SACP criticises Lesufi and Maile factions

Why a senior leader of the SACP at the twilight of his leadership of the organisation would degenerate to this level of even fomenting tribal politics remains a mystery. Is it a conspiratorial mind that is gripped by paranoia? The jury is still out, but what is clear is the enormity of the damage his conduct has caused and it will take years to correct.

This political climate is regrettable but it would be remiss of me if I did not congratulate the leadership collective and, equally, declare my full confidence in the newly elected 15th Congress central committee to deal with this backward tendency. The committee is constituted by respected, formidable and seasoned comrades who are equal to the task.

Magaxa is a former Western Cape SACP provincial secretary and central committee member. He writes in his personal capacity

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