South African Communist Party looks at rebuilding alliance with ANC
Delegates to the South African Communist Party's 4th Special National Congress sing at the meeting's opening session on Dec. 9. | SACP via Twitter

The South African Communist Party (SACP) provided the African National Congress (ANC) with key support during the struggle to end apartheid. As a member of the Tripartite Alliance, along with the ANC and the COSATU trade union federation, it has partnered with the ANC in governing South Africa since 1994. And with some 319,000 members organized in 7,300 branches, the SACP is a powerful political force not only in South Africa, but a significant presence among the Communist Parties of the world. But not all is well these days in the ANC-SACP-COSATU partnership.

At issue is continuation of the working-class leadership the SACP provides for masses of South Africa’s economically-oppressed citizens. A lot rests on the party’s current efforts to deal with problems in its relationship with the ANC, which are longstanding. From Dec. 9-12 the SACP held its 4th Special National Congress (SNC) in Ekurhuleni, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. A look at the proceedings of that Congress may be revealing as to the party’s troubled relationship with the ANC and shed light on its strategic grounding and future prospects.

The party’s14th National Congress, held in July 2017, had authorized this SNC in order to monitor implementation of recommendations made there for restoring the Party’s role within the Tripartite Alliance. It’s through the Alliance that the SACP is able to share in the exercise of political power. Within the Alliance framework, SACP members do compete for elected office, but only if they also belong to the ANC. The ANC is supposed to seek SACP approval before naming its own candidates for office. SACP members have even headed a number of government ministries over the years.

Provincial SACP leaders in recent years have complained that the functioning of ANC collaboration is flawed, however. They say the ANC selects electoral candidates on its own, or that some of those candidates are unqualified or corrupt. Leaders of SACP branches have pressured the national leadership to permit the party to undertake independent electoral activities. They have proposed that SACP members run as candidates in the party’s own name or under the auspices of new electoral coalitions.

Preventing the revolution from stalling

The party’s response to difficulties with the ANC shows up in a few of the dozens of resolutions approved at the 2017 Congress. Among the key ones:

— “…the Party must build its own independent presence amongst workers and the masses in general, both organized and unorganized.”

— “…the SACP must actively contest elections. The modality through which we contest elections may, or may not be, within the umbrella of a re-configured Alliance.”

— “…the SACP has a leadership role in the struggle to build a re-configured Alliance.”

— “…both for electoral purposes and for defending, deepening, and advancing a radical second phase of the National Democratic Revolution, the SACP must play an active and leadership role in the consolidation of a left popular front of working class and progressive forces.”

In the December issue of the SACP publication Umsebenzi, SACP Central Committee member Alex Mashilo examined implications of these resolutions. He suggests that, strategically, the Alliance represents a National Democratic Revolutionary front and that “reconfiguration of the Alliance” is required “to give [it] practical expression.” He also sees an opening for the party to move outside the framework of the Alliance to compete in elections, especially if the Alliance has yet to be repaired.

“National Democratic Revolution,” according to the SACP, has historically referred to “the national liberation of the African people in particular, and the black people in general.” Envisioned as encompassing both the destruction of apartheid and the establishment of a democratic state where the working class is dominant, it is seen as a stage on the road toward a socialist society, moving “uninterruptedly towards social emancipation and the total abolition of exploitation of man by man.”

Mashilo envisions the “Popular Left Front” as moving “the National Democratic Revolution…into a second, radical phase [aimed at] advancing, deepening, and de­fending the revolution.” He cites “the danger of throwing the vanguard into decisive battles alone, before the broad masses, and particularly the working class, are ready.” Mashilo sees the left front “as a possible mod­el for participation in future elections” which would provide the means for preparing the masses and workers for future struggles.

Political uncertainty matched with economic trouble

Within its own councils, such as the Special National Congress this month, the SACP is certainly in charge of determining its effectiveness and shaping its own future, but there are outside influences, too.

The ANC itself, for example, is facing difficulties. It no longer commands the overwhelming political support it formerly enjoyed as a legacy of its leadership of the anti-apartheid struggle. In the general elections of May 8, 2019, the ANC won with 57.5% of the vote, down from 66% in 2014. Factional divisions marred ANC campaigning this past May and voter turnout was 65.99 percent—the lowest since 1994.

Accusations of corruption have flourished, notably against former South African President and ANC head Jacob Zuma. By October 2017, SCAP ties to the ANC had frayed enough for Zuma to remove SACP General Secretary Blade Nzimande from a cabinet post. The SACP has criticized the ANC’s Black Economic Empowerment program, which has worsened income inequality.

According to a news report that quoted a discussion document prepared for the special congress, the SACP is pessimistic regarding the ANC’s future. The segment says: “[U]nless the service delivery weaknesses and the corruption and looting have been eradicated and the financial and economic situation of each family has significantly improved … The 2021 local and the 2024 national and provincial elections will not give a mandate to the ANC to remain in government.”

The SACP now regards certain progressive organizations as problematic. A few COSATU spokespersons favor privatization of state-owned properties. Unions have left COSATU to form the South African Federation of Trade Unions, which has set up a new socialist political party, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party. Meanwhile, the Economic Freedom Fighters, a populist political party formed in 2013, gained 10.8% of the vote in the 2019 national elections. That party calls for uncompensated nationalization of “strategic economic centers” such as land, mines, and factories.

The SACP faces the continuing challenge of serious economic oppression weighing upon South Africa’s majority population. Unemployment in South Africa is 29.1% (46% for black workers); over half of South Africans live on less than $2.84 per day, and 64% of all black people and almost 74% of black children live in poverty. A World Bank report indicates that “the top one percent of South Africans own 70.9% of the country’s wealth.” A study this year showed that “almost 8 out of 10 South African children in Grade 4 cannot read for understanding.”

The Special Congress responds

The ANC had criticized the SACP’s recommendations from the Party’s 14th Congress on reconfiguration of the Alliance. The SACP negotiated with the ANC under the auspices of the Alliance Political Council. Meeting on Nov. 10-11, that body announced agreement on a “common paper” on reconfiguring the Alliance—which is accessible here.

Armed with the Council agreement, the SACP’s special congress this month was looking for, as one observer put it, “a fresh mandate on how to deal with the reconfiguration hot potato.” It endorsed the Council’s agreement and also reaffirmed the declaration of the SACP’s 14th National Congress on reconfiguration—signaling that the Communists were sticking to the criticisms they made two years ago.

The special congress’ official declaration appeared on Dec. 12, the meeting’s last day. It details problems, among them: privatization of state-owned enterprises, looting of public resources, and mismanagement of Eskom, the state’s power utility. The document outlines steps toward transforming the financial sector, creating a “comprehensive industrial policy,” redistributing land, firming up state ownership of South African Airlines, and providing “adequate social protection.”

One young attendee at the SACP’s special congress, Masana Waller, smiles for the camera on the event’s closing day. | SACP via Twitter

For whatever reason, discussion about transforming the Tripartite Alliance, ostensibly the SNC’s principal concern, appeared at the document’s end and was brief.

The SNC did offer guidelines on SACP participation in elections, though. It ruled that “lower structures” of the party would submit reports and recommendations to the Central Committee as regards problems showing up prior to the 2021 local elections. At issue would be infractions of guidelines established by the agreement reached by the Alliance Political Council.

Provincial party leaders would report to the Central Committee about the absence of “consensus-seeking consultation,” lack of “Alliance inclusivity,” or disregard of a “shared strategy of struggle.” They would be on the alert for candidates who are corrupt, lack community support, or were imposed without consultation or “by factions.”

The party Central Committee, it says, “will evaluate the reports and adopt a way forward.” It would permit electoral activity “within the framework of the 14th SACP National Congress resolution[s]” (noted above) and based “on criteria [yet] to be finalized.”

Summarizing for a reporter, SACP General Secretary Blade Nzimande indicated, “We think the alliance is still relevant. What is best for our country is for the alliance to remain united. We are committed to single electoral lists that are led by the ANC. But these lists must be drawn up within the context of the reconfigured alliance.”

Changing the Tripartite Alliance is clearly a long-term project. That tortuous process is limited by SACP caution, and why not?  As part of the Tripartite Alliance, the party is assured of a role on the larger political stage. Presently, however, the few Communist Parties sharing even a bit of political power are in precarious positions, and more so in South Africa. There, the victim class potentially aligned with the party is divided. And struggle for mere survival may overwhelm aspirations for collective empowerment.


W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.