The Real Problem with the SACP

2013-12-29 19:08

The news that the SACP would support the ANC in next year’s general election was, rightfully, decried by political commentators, journalists and voters alike. The SACP’s decision comes as no surprise to anyone. The party has consistently maintained its own identity in theory while piggybacking on the ANC in practise.

The fact that much fanfare was made of this decision was no doubt precipitated by the decision of NUMSA – announced the week prior – to withdraw its support from the ANC. No doubt Blade Nzimande and his cohorts believed that in doing this, they would have effectively countered the criticism often levelled at Jacob Zuma: that his ANC is the ANC of decline. Unfortunately, for them, the louder they trumpeted this decision the less credibility they had. And so, now, we are faced with the situation where the SACP’s announcement actually hurts Zuma more than it aids him.

But why should this be the case?

The SACP has consistently forgone its individual identity in favour of blindly supporting the ANC. It is, in effect, an in-house lobby group. Even at the height of capitalism’s open capture of the ANC, during the Mbeki era, the SACP still remained within the fold. No wonder no one sets much stock by it.

The reasoning for this varies but can be summarised in terms of a power calculation. The SACP forgoes its own identity, its independence and its ability to criticise, so that it can remain embedded within the ANC and influence power from within.

In the first sense, the SACP gains significant access to policy makers and decision-making processes. Not only does it gain access, by means of observation, it also gains influence: directly and indirectly. Its members either hold dual identity as SACP and ANC office bearers that get to make ANC decisions or the SACP’s leadership leans heavily on those in the ANC that it can influence to bring round to their way of thinking. Either way, it locates itself near the centre of power and does whatever it can to influence outcomes.

In the second instance, this symbiotic relationship allows the SACP to be political without having to undergo the difficulties of having to run a political party on a day-to-day basis. While the SACP does have many structures, office-bearers and members, they exist in theory. The SACP is not a political party by traditional measures: they do not campaign, they do not stand in elections, they do not get out there and try to win votes. Or more accurately, they do not do this in their own name and for their own benefit. Rather, they focus their attention to these activities but only in so far as it can win them greater influence within the ANC itself. They are the ultimate insiders.

Of course, supporting the ANC also has direct benefits to many high-ranking SACP members. Blade Nzimande, Jeremy Cronin and Willies Mchunu all hold ministerial level posts in national and provincial government. There are many other ministers, mayors or office bearers that litter the state apparatus who owe their prominence to their SACP links.

The fascinating thing, then, is that the SACP can gain these benefits without truly having their ‘support’ of the ANC quantified. For all we know, were the SACP to break rank with the ANC, the loss of support to the ANC could be negligible. In all likelihood, it would be, because the SACP has no support-base of its own. All its support is already given to the ANC. And even if the SACP had its own support base, the cost of being outside the ANC is too high to allow them to leave in the first place. Kenny Kunene and several ex-COPE members demonstrate this wonderfully.

In short, it is highly possible that the SACP gains more power and influence than they deserve. In the absence of knowing how many votes they actually bring to the ANC, every ANC leader would be wary to isolate the SACP and its ‘support base’ just in case it turns out to be as large as the SACP would suggest it is. And one can see why they would suggest so: the more voters and members they can allege they represent, the more powerful they are in determining delegates for internal ANC decision-making processes. As Thabo Mbeki learnt the hard way, it does not matter what the voters think of you, your career is made or broken within the ANC.

But, this being the case, why should we care? Does it really matter what relationship the SACP has with the ANC or whether it is a political party in its own right? The answer must be a resounding yes.

As I wrote earlier in the year, our politics is becoming increasingly unaccountable to the voters. The Proportional Representation (PR) system locates power not at the ballot box but within the political parties themselves. We vote for a party that evaluates its own members and determines who represents us. We have no say in how candidates are selected and elected. We get what we are given. We have to trust that when we vote for any party, they will put the best people up for the job. As I wrote, that is unlikely to be the case as selections have more to do with leadership ambitions. And it is often difficult, after we see who the party elects in our name, to vote for anyone else because they are largely as bad as each other.

So, if our politics is largely unaccountable, what does this mean? It means that the SACP symbolises how much further accountability is moved from the ordinary voter. Why is it, that a party with no democratic legitimacy, having not won a single vote in its own name, be so instrumental and influential in government policy? Why is it that Blade Nzimande, Zuma’s ally and lieutenant, should be rewarded for his efforts with a ministerial post when he has never stood for election – other than through an elaborate arrangement that the SACP has reached with the ANC?

There is no conceivable explanation as to why this should be the case.

Not only does it hurt the ANC (over-valuing the SACP delegates’ contributions and making the room to climb more difficult), it is also bad for our democracy (that people who are unelected and untested should hold high office of state). Often, people who criticise judicial intervention in government policy (especially where the judiciary overturns government policy that is unconstitutional argue that such interventions are problematic, and illegitimate, because the judiciary suffers from a democratic deficit, i.e. that having no popular mandate, the judges should not be able to influence – and in cases dictate – what government policy should be. Many proponents of this argument are themselves within the ANC. It is hard to see why this misapplied argument to the judiciary should not apply to their own colleagues in the SACP. (It is misapplied, by the way, because judges are accountable to the public at large as dictated by the Constitution – no such system exists to hold the SACP accountable other than through reliance on the Tripartite Alliance’s internal processes)

The real problem, then, with the SACP is not that they may choose to support – or not support – the ANC, it is that we cannot hold them accountable for whatever choice that they irrespective on the direct consequences that it may have for us. Drawing inspiration from the American Independence slogan ‘no taxation without representation,’ our rallying cry should become ‘no representation without election.’ Anything short of that violates the very spirit of the democracy which so many have fought so hard to achieve.

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