CHICAGO — Ben Dikobe Martins represented the South African Communist Party at the 28th National Convention of Communist Party USA here, July 1-3. Martins is a senior leader of the SACP and an elected member of South Africa’s Parliament.

The SACP is part of a “Tripartite Alliance” that includes the African National Congress and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). After decades of struggle, it was this alliance that won a negotiated settlement to end apartheid. As a result, South Africa’s first democratic election was held in 1994. That election brought political freedom and majority rule, but many economic problems still remain, Martins said.

The greatest accomplishment of the ANC-led government during its first decade, he said, was the country’s new Constitution and Bill of Rights. The Labor Relations Act, which protects the rights of workers, guaranteeing them the right to join a union and the right to strike, was another important achievement.

Over the past 11 years, Martin said, the population’s access to basic services like shelter, clean water, education, electricity and health care has greatly increased. But large numbers of poor and working-class people are still in economic distress.

The challenges to the new democratic government have been many. Martins cited huge job losses, especially in the mining and textiles manufacturing sectors, due largely to outsourcing and globalization. Unemployment is at 40 percent. There is a vast “skills deficit,” he said, especially in technology and science, as a consequence of decades of apartheid policies resulting in lack of education and training for Black South Africans. There is a 40-year backlog for housing.

Another challenge is attracting foreign investment. “There has been an investment boycott by many European and U.S. corporations and financial institutions,” Martins said. “Barclays Bank has just returned to South Africa. South Africa would welcome more U.S. investment and is looking into increased trade with Brazil, India and other progressive countries for mutual interests,” he said. He had warm words for Cuba, noting that it is doing “sterling work in South Africa, continuing to send doctors and skills exchanges.”

South Africa has tried to stay clear of loans from the World Bank and the IMF because they would compromise the country’s economy, he said.

The government passed affirmative action laws and the Black Economic Empowerment program (BEE), which has linked Black businesses with white-owned corporations. The BEE should be linked to industrial policies that benefit workers and create jobs, he said. “Affirmative action must be more broad-based and support partnerships with communities, allowing local people to get jobs and training. It can’t just benefit elite Blacks.”

The SACP has experienced dramatic growth in the last 11 years, Martin said. SACP was in the forefront of mobilizing for the national election in 2004. The ANC-led alliance election victory with 70 percent of the vote is a true mandate, he said. He estimated that there are 300-400 SACP members serving as elected and appointed officials at the national, provincial and local level.

At its Special Congress in April 2005, the SACP affirmed its support for government intervention for jobs creation, job security, improving living standards and educational opportunities for workers. The SACP also urged a comprehensive HIV-AIDS program that is integrated into the country’s economic growth and development strategy.

The SACP continues to promote gender equality as central to economic policy and pushes for a bigger role for state-owned enterprises, cooperatives, public works and nonprofits. In agriculture, the SACP supports land reform and involvement of the rural population in economic planning.

“The role of SACP in the alliance is to keep working-class issues in the forefront and high on the agenda,” Martins said. “The ANC is a multi-class party with a working-class bias. It never claimed to be socialist. We don’t always agree on everything in our alliance. There is vibrant debate.”

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