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South African Communist Party (SACP)

The South African Communist Party (SACP), whose membership totals have slowly eroded in recent years, has been a close ally of the ANC since the mid-20th century and provides its ideological framework -- and some of its personnel -- to the ruling party. The SACP, like the ANC, regards itself as the vanguard of the working class and still espouses Marxist and Leninist theories to underpin its vision of governance for South Africa. Even though the party claims to have roughly 40,000 members, it is more likely that the number stands closer to 12,000-15,000. The party historically has been the intellectual home of communist leaders such as Joe Slovo and Chris Hani. The party claims its medium term vision is to secure "working class hegemony" in the state and in all other centers of power. The party over the longer term seeks to pave the way for the establishment of a socialist state for "the permanent socialist revolution." The SACP has not made any secret of the fact that it wants to secure its visions by gaining increased influence over the ANC.

The desire for greater influence over ANC policies emerges partly because of the marginalization the SACP faced under Mbeki. Although a former SACP member himself, Mbeki fell out with the SACP leadership during the late 1980s. He left the organization (along with Zuma) during the fallout and devoted his energy to negotiation with the apartheid government and to building ANC structures in the country. During his years as Deputy President and then President, Mbeki and the SACP grew further apart and tension mounted as Mbeki increasingly espoused a market-oriented economic structure. Despite harsh public criticism from both SACP and COSATU, Mbeki maintained his economic approach throughout his presidency and his recall in September 2008. Whenever SACP criticized Mbeki directly, accusing his policies of creating a widening gulf between the rich and the poor, Mbeki made it clear that the alliance "was led by the ANC and by ANC policies." In 2005, when SACP threatened to break away from the alliance and contest the 2009 election on its own -- no longer as a partner with the ANC -- Mbeki lashed back and warned that the SACP "does not tell the ANC how to run the country." SACP does not have either the funding nor the organization to break away from the alliance in the near future. Some pundits say if SACP was to break from the Qfuture. Some pundits say if SACP was to break from the alliance, it would become as irrelevant as the Pan-African Congress or the Azanian People's Organization.

Following the 2004 national election, the SACP seated about 80 members in the National Assembly under the ANC's banner. The mere fact that 80 of the ANC's parliamentary seats between 2004 and 2009 belonged to SACP members demonstrated the degree to which the SACP is deeply embedded within the ruling party and has the opportunity to impact both executive and legislative decisions. Even with the tension between Mbeki and SACP, the communist party had several leaders in the former President's Cabinet. Cabinet members from the SACP included Sydney Mufamadi, Charles Nqakula, and Rob Davies. Despite this inclusion, SACP had no members in the top six of the ANC's National Executive Committee (NEC). This changed in 2007 when SACP member Gwede Mantashe became the party's Secretary General. Mantashe and other SACP leaders played key roles in ensuring that Zuma would be elected as ANC leader at the party's congress in December 2007.

The SACP looked to rebound following African National Congress (ANC) President Jacob Zuma's selection as the country's next ruler. SACP members can belong both to the ANC and to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) so it is difficult to identify SACP loyalties. SACP expected its influence and access to grow under the Zuma administration. By 2009 several SACP central committee members -- Blade Nzimande, Jeremy Cronin, Rob Davies, Yunus Carrim, and Gwede Mantashe -- were working inside the halls of government or ANC headquarters.

The South African Communist Party (SACP) held its second annual special congress on 10 December 2009 at the University of Limpopo-Turfloop campus in Polokwane. Lengthy speeches, predictable displays of solidarity with traditional allies such as China and Cuba, and pointed questions (without answers from senior leaders) dominated the event more than practical discussions about policy or what role the party has in the Jacob Zuma administration. Early enthusiasm from the roughly 800 delegates waned as the day wore on and as many of the more difficult questions about SACP positions were posed to the central committee without answers. Several senior African National Congress (ANC) National Executive Committee (NEC) members, all of whom have little in common with the communist wing of the alliance, attended the congress. The lack of any substantial debate or discussion over issues underscores how much this congress was about political theater. As the SACP struggled to figure out how to criticize an administration in which it enjoys more access than any previous government, its negative reception of ANC members such as youth leader Julius Malema and Billy Masetlha may seem like an easy way for SACP members to retain an appearance of independence while also taking on a role of greater political influence.

Secretary General Blade Nzimande said the SACP would "work together to do more" with the ANC, which was the ruling party's campaign slogan. He said the SACP wants to work with the ANC to build a working class hegemony in the state, in the economy, in the workplace, in communities, and in "ideological space." Nzimande left the podium to huge applause and singing. Deputy Secretary General Jeremy Cronin took the stage next and announced that SACP's membership had grown to 96,049. These numbers probably are highly inflated. Most political analysts and former SACP members put the number at closer to 15,000.

By the time of the 1994 election, the South African Communist Party (SACP) was not an independent political entity, but a strong faction within the ANC, where its members held important leadership positions. Former party leaders, Joe Slovo and Chris Hani, for example, had both served as chief of staff of the ANC's military wing and on its most important committees. The SACP won strong representation in the National Assembly in 1994, not by participating openly in the April 1994 elections, but by having SACP members well represented among delegates from the ANC.

The SACP was originally founded as the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) in July 1921 in Cape Town. The CPSA was formed out of the merger of several leftist organizations, including the International Socialist League (ISL), the Social Democratic Federation, the Durban Marxist Club, the Cape Communist Party, and the Jewish Socialist Society. The CPSA affiliated with the Communist International (Comintern), headquartered in Moscow, which provided it with political direction, although some party factions opposed Moscow's intervention in South African affairs.

Although whites dominated the party in the 1920s, some CPSA leaders attempted to strengthen its reputation as an indigenous communist organization by increasing its African membership and orientation. David Ivon Jones and Sidney Percival Bunting, formerly of the ISL, translated the concept of social revolution into a struggle for a "black republic" and a "democratic native republic, with equal rights for all races." The major stumbling block they encountered was the belief, inherent in Marxist dogma, that all workers fundamentally share the same interests. In South Africa, white workers generally felt they had little in common with their black counterparts and feared that any improvements for black workers would reduce their own status and income.

Despite efforts at Africanization, the CPSA failed to establish strong ties with black political organizations, many of which were dominated by traditional tribal leaders. In 1928, for example, the ANC denounced the "fraternization" between the ANC and the CPSA. ANC President James T. Gumede was removed from office in 1930, after trying to educate ANC members about Marxism. Even as the CPSA gradually succeeded in recruiting more black members, its leadership continued to be white. For this reason, two ANC Youth League leaders in the 1940s--Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu--opposed any alliance between the ANC and the CPSA at that time.

CPSA members were divided over the increasing Comintern intervention in local affairs. Moscow urged the CPSA and all communist parties to continue to be small, revolutionary elite organizations, and to rid the party of alleged "rightist" elements. In 1931 a new Stalinist faction, led by Douglas Wolton, Molly Wolton, and Lazar Bach, assumed leadership roles in the CPSA and proceeded to purge the party of many white leaders. In the internal upheaval that followed, the party lost black support, too, and weakened its ties to labor. As its leadership ranks were "Stalinized" and leading party activists fled the country, CPSA membership dropped from an estimated 1,750 members in 1928 to about 150 in 1933. Racial divisions continued to exist between the predominantly white leadership and the largely black membership ranks.

At the outset of World War II, the CPSA opposed efforts to counter the Nazi threat, primarily because of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, which led to Soviet neutrality. Party members campaigned against military recruitment of blacks (and Indians) in South Africa, arguing that the "natives" should not be sacrificed to perpetuate their own exploitation. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the CPSA echoed Moscow's shift to support the anti-Nazi campaign, and the South African government responded by releasing some CPSA activists from detention and permitting political activities in support of the war effort.

By the mid-1940s, CPSA membership was increasing, and the party had gained influence after a few CPSA members (all white) won political office. After the 1948 NP election victory, however, the government quickly restricted black political activity and in 1950 banned the CPSA. The party went underground temporarily but also strengthened its ties to local nationalist organizations, such as the ANC. During the years it was banned, while the ANC continued to operate legally, the CPSA viewed the ANC as the primary expression of black aspirations for a multiracial socialist state under eventual communist leadership. The Comintern's Sixth Congress declared that "the CPSA could now play an active role in the ANC." The party re-emerged in 1953 under the leadership of Joe Slovo and his wife, Ruth First, and changed its name to the SACP.

The SACP and the ANC in the 1950s held similar views about policy and tactics as embodied in the ANC's Freedom Charter; in addition, they both advocated the use of guerrilla warfare against the apartheid regime in order to bring about the dual-phase revolution of political liberation followed by economic transformation. Party members reportedly persuaded the ANC to abandon African nationalism in favor of nonracialism, however, although the SACP, unlike the ANC, viewed the primary objective of the revolution as the creation of a socialist state. After many leaders of both organizations were arrested in 1963, both the SACP and the ANC shifted their political and military bases of operations to neighboring African states.

The close ties between the SACP and the ANC, particularly the predominance of SACP members in the ANC, have always been controversial, and in 1959 prompted a split by black nationalists from the ANC to form the militant Africanist, anticommunist PAC. The SACP-ANC relationship evolved into a symbiosis, derived in part from their dual memberships and overlapping leadership ranks. Throughout the 1980s, for example, the SACP was well represented on the ANC's NEC and in other key ANC positions, and in ANC-affiliated labor organizations, such as COSATU.

When the SACP was unbanned in February 1990, its strength was difficult to estimate because many party members had been underground for years. In July 1990, a party spokesman publicized the names of twenty-two SACP members who were prominent in national politics but said that the names of others would remain secret. In 1991 SACP leaders estimated that the party had 10,000 dues-paying members, but refused to publish the party's membership rolls.

SACP chairman Joe Slovo was the most prominent party member in government in 1994. Slovo was a trained lawyer and advocate, a member of the Johannesburg Bar, and one of the original members of MK, the ANC military wing. He served on the ANC's revolutionary council from 1969 until it was disbanded in 1983, became the first white member of the ANC's NEC in 1985, and served as MK chief of staff until April 1987. He was appointed SACP general secretary in 1986, following the death of Moses Madhiba, and continued in that post until 1991, when he became party chairman. Slovo was appointed minister of housing in the Government of National Unity in May 1994 and served in that post until his death in January 1995.

Slovo had been a hard-line communist, a Stalinist, when he joined the party in the 1940s, but along with others in the SACP had followed Moscow's 1980s reforms. By 1987 Slovo and his associates espoused the creation of a multiparty state with a mixed economy, and sought to broaden the party's membership base. This liberal philosophy might have explained the SACP's large representation among ANC leaders in the 1990s. The collapse of the Soviet system in the late 1980s had weakened the SACP's outside support and appeared to have weakened the appeal of the socialist ideals the party espoused for South Africa. Party activists believed, nonetheless, that the remaining economic disparities among racial groups provided fertile ground for SACP recruitment in the 1990s.

SACP leaders, considerably weakened by the murder of Chris Hani in 1993, debated the possibility that the party no longer represented a political asset to the ANC, as they prepared for the April 1994 elections. They realized that the SACP could do little to help the ANC broaden its popular support beyond its liberation allies, and public opinion polls gave the SACP, alone, strong support among only about 5 percent of voters. By including a large number of SACP members among the electoral delegates representing the ANC in the April 1994 elections, however, the SACP was able to gain significantly more representation in the national and provincial legislatures and more key posts in the government than it would have, had it run independently.

Michael Sachs, one of Finance Minister Trevor Manuel's economic advisors, whose biological father Joe Slovo was a leader of the SACP, also scoffed at the idea that the SACP is even communist anymore. He wrote a very critical article entitled "Has Socialism Left the Party?" which argued that the SACP is "devoid of any sober Marxist analysis and is more concerned about implementation of current ANC policy than a reconfiguration of state power." The SACP is not an ideological alternative to the ANC; its goal is to take back the ANC so their own interests can be served.





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Page last modified: 12-10-2012 18:43:13 ZULU