A small step away from socialism
The South African Communist Party grew from 51 000 members in 2007 to 160 000 midway through 2012, Blade Nzimande told the party’s national conference in KwaZulu-Natal this week, a decent fraction of the ANC’s about one million members.
In strongholds of capitalism such the Britain and the United States, interest in Marxism is growing on the back of what commentators are calling a serious re-evaluation of the free market system in light of the slow-grinding global economic crisis.
Elsewhere in Europe and beyond, policymakers are considering the success of Chinese mercantilism as they contemplate long-term policy development while facing huge pressure to reign in a banking system some of their citizens now see as a threat to their wellbeing.
Is this the beginning of a triumphant resurrection of the philosophy of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin among young people in South Africa? Probably not, say political analysts who deal with politically-minded young people.
“What we do see is a critique of the current system by young people, but they aren’t even talking about capitalism failing, they’re talking about our own policies,” said political analyst Sipho Seepe, who recently completed a project dealing with young job seekers. “They’re not out there saying ‘Marxism is the answer’, they’re talking about entrepreneurship and the business skills they need. They know that is where the future is.”
Fundamental ideological debate
Whereas more developed countries are perhaps moving towards a fundamental ideological debate, South Africans are taking an incrementalist approach to bread-and-butter issues, Seepe said.
“To expect hungry people to think philosophically is illogical. What they do is look at promises that there will be water, then point out that they don’t have water; look at promises of better education, then point out they don’t have education.”
And to the extent that South Africa is, if the ANC has its way, moving towards a less conservative economic approach, no flavour of communism is on the table, said Susan Booysen, who teaches politics at the University of the Witwatersrand.
“When we talk about an alternative to capitalism it’s not ideologically pure Marxism or anything that you see,” she said.
“There’s no real talk about the kind of strong political control you have under communism. What people are talking about is state intervention, where we’re just a small step away from national socialism. The left and the right of the spectrum have become blurred in a circle in which there is little differentiation between national socialism and communism.”
That will have a familiar ring to communist party conference delegates. Opening the elective gathering, Nzimande was thin on class-struggle rhetoric but heavy on state intervention, saying banks must be forced to invest in township housing schemes, among other state interventions, to force the private sector to act in a developmental way.
Wrestle the means of production out of the hands of the few? Not so much. More like forcing those who own the means of production and financing to benefit the many while they retain their privilege, if not all their freedom, to invest as they see fit. Marx would probably not approve.
What South Africans may be more interested in than pure ideology is communism’s history as a gathering point for principled individuals who put the struggle ahead of their own interests.
The communist party’s conference happens completely coincidentally in the same week as the opening of a sympathetic play on one of the best-known Afrikaner communists, Bram Fischer. But it is no coincidence that the play, Die Bram Fischer Wals (The Bram Fischer Waltz), opened in Bloemfontein, which was the birthplace of both Fischer and the ANC.
Fischer, as Nelson Mandela’s lawyer, helped save Madiba from the gallows during the Rivonia Trial in 1963 and 1964.
In 1966 Fischer, who came from top Afrikaner stock and even played rugby for the Free State, was found guilty on charges of furthering the aims of communism and conspiracy to overthrow the government and sentenced to life imprisonment.
“People seem to be loving it,” said scriptwriter Harry Kalmer of the one-man show with David Butler in the lead role.
“You can’t separate Bram from his Marxism. We tried to make it a human story, but you have to respect his ideology because it permeated everything he did. But I think people are attracted to this man who was a politician of great integrity, somebody who had such a sense of commitment.”
Die Bram Fischer Wals, which is set during the time Fischer spent in prison, draws from published accounts and interviews with friends and family members to help capture a man who played the piano, had a wicked sense of fun and played rugby, Kalmer said. Where it most likely fails is in attracting any communists who want to deepen their understanding of bourgeoisie oppression.
“I think they’re all at the communist party conference right now, aren’t they?” said Kalmer of a left-leaning audience for the work. “Maybe we’ll get them when we do the show in English next year.”