South Africa's Divided Communists

2014-07-08 19:48

In the last fortnight Phatse Justice Piitso, a regular commentator on Politicsweb, has taken particular aim at South Africa’s third largest political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Piitso, who has links to the South African Communist Party (SACP), has written a series of articles in which he attempts to expose the EFF as being a revolutionary movement in name only. He is not alone in doing so. SACP Secretary-General, Blade Nzimande, and his Deputy, Jeremy Cronin, among others, have been vicious in their attempt to do the same. Not being a fan of the EFF, I cannot disagree with their ultimate aim.

But, their suggestion that the SACP is the true vanguard of a working class revolution qualifies my praise. This is owing to the fact that the SACP have, and the EFF will, amount to nothing more than political vehicles for the advancement of the elites that control them.

Why, then, should South Africa’s two most prominent actors on the left spend so much of their time attacking each other?

Whereas the SACP was once the bedrock of left-wing intellectualism, it is now a hollowed out party that is happier acting as kingmaker rather than role-player. Under Blade Nzimande’s stewardship, the party has steadily declined in prominence and impact. Climbing its ranks is no longer about offering an alternative view-point within the Alliance policy-making machinery. It is about waging factional battles in order to advance one’s own career.

As Dale McKinley, writing for the Links Journal of International Socialist Renewal, has commented:

‘the SACP has gradually but systematically become a vanguard of African National Congress (ANC) factionalist politics as opposed to its self-proclaimed role as an independent, progressive force representing and leading the "national democratic, anti-capitalist struggle" of the working class.’

McKinley chronicles how Nzimande moved to centralise his control of the SACP and, eventually, dominate it. Despite Nzimande’s dislike for Thabo Mbeki, the similarity between their (party political) careers is striking. Mbeki took over the ANC after Mandela’s standing ebbed. Even though Mandela was still around, and active, his power was symbolic rather than real. The same can be said of Nzimande’s ascendancy within the SACP, specifically, and the Alliance, generally. In the vacuum left after Chris Hani’s death, Nzimande faced no real (internal) opponent that could have kept him in check. Like with Mandela, Hani’s image and name could be used symbolically but Hani could not act. Critical and dissident voices, under both, were forced out: subservience was to be complete.

Nzimande, like Mbeki, developed a strong cabal within party ranks. By using patronage within the SACP to secure loyalty to himself, he is able to exert his influence on the party as a whole. By silencing opposition within he has been able to singularly control of the party’s position without. That is important. In being able to act securely within the knowledge that he alone can determine the SACP’s behaviour – barring minor skirmishes, all of which have been seen off successfully – he can negotiate a high price for its continued support. And so he, and others who have stood by him, now enjoy the spoils of a Zuma administration.

So why, then, does the EFF’s presence rattle the SACP? Two possible explanations exist.

Firstly, the EFF’s firebrand politics exposes the SACP’s own lack of revolutionary credibility. Unlike the SACP, the EFF is free from the constraints of a governing alliance. Its ‘revolutionary agenda’ is meretricious at best. Thus, it has a better chance of tapping into those disenfranchised and disempowered people who see state-led solutions as the answer to their problems. They are out-Marxing the Marxists. And, if their recent performance in the 2014 election is anything to go by, their emetic racial nationalism may be taking hold.

Secondly, in threatening the ANC it stands to, possibly, displace the SACP as the ANC’s ally. With no independence, structures, and votes, the SACP is vulnerable position. If the ANC were to lose more ground to the EFF, co-opting the EFF is always an option. Given that the EFF’s origins that is not difficult to imagine. The ANC, then, could either voluntarily dump the SACP or abandon them if asked by the EFF. In both scenarios, maintaining an alliance with the SACP is too costly. Considering the possibility for the ANC to hollow out the threat within the EFF in this situation means that it is incentivised to do so.

The EFF must not be blind to these issues. The more it can undercut the SACP, the more support it stands to gain. And the more support it has, the greater demands it can make of, and win from, the ANC.

In getting comfortable within government, and refashioning institutions in its own image, the SACP and, by extension the ANC, have become establishment parties. Their incumbency has made them impotent. Their calls for revolution ring more hollow with each year that they preside over a system that is failing millions of South Africans. And the more their key players detach themselves from being in touch with, and accountable to, voters because they are more interested in palace politics, the more the EFF has the ability to capture new support. No wonder the SACP is going into overdrive in seeking to discredit the EFF by whatever means they can. In failing to destroy the EFF, it potentially stands to destroy itself.

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