The South African Communist Party has established a formal commission to review the proposal that it should contest elections — a move that could be the first formal step toward the restructuring of the “tripartite alliance”.
The establishment of the body is a clear signal that a split between the SACP, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the African National Congress may finally be taking shape.
Tensions in the alliance, while not new, have reached fever pitch over the past few months, greatly fuelled by the ANC’s divisive succession battle, which has emboldened the SACP and Cosatu to suggest that the alliance, once a marriage of political convenience, is irrevocably on the rocks.
Over the next six months, SACP structures must sound out grassroots members on whether the party should put up its own election candidates, and report back to the commission.
This will produce a discussion document, based on its work over the next seven months, for the SACP’s 12th congress next year, where the party will make a formal decision about its future electoral position.
Blade Nzimande, general secretary of the SACP, said in an interview this week that the commission had been established to “formalise the discussion” about elections.
Nzimande will head the commission, which consists of 12 senior leaders of the SACP’s highest leadership structure, the politburo.
Over the next six months, Nzimande and other commission members will travel to China, Cuba, Venezuela and India to engage with other communist parties over their relationship with the ruling party or their challenges as a party of government. India provides particularly close parallels with South Africa — in 1962 the Congress Party split because of irresolvable ideological conflict over the meaning of communism.
“At the time of the split, the Congress Party had exactly the same discussions that we are having regarding [the nature] of its relationship with the bourgeoisie,” said Nzimande.
The commission will also hold “research focus groups”, pulling together the SACP’s “most dedicated cadres” to debate the character and future definition of the party, he said.
The context of the commission is an intense debate in the SACP about whether it would wield more influence over state policy, and serve its membership more effectively, as part of the tripartite alliance or as an independent electoral force.
It follows the publication of the bellwether central committee discussion document in the May edition of the party’s information bulletin Bua Komanisi, which formally floats the proposal, for the first time, that the SACP should consider contesting elections.
The 44-page discussion document is being summarised into between six and 10 pages and translated into the 11 official languages to be disseminated to all SACP members. The party branches will be required to come up with their own recommendations about going it alone in a report back to the commission by the end of the year.
Among the scenarios under debate in party structures are that the SACP contests elections completely independently; that it changes the character of the alliance to contest elections “as a coalition”; or that the communist party contests only municipal elections.
“If the communists don’t have a voice at the local level, what kind of communists are they?” asked Nzimande.
“This isn’t going to be a bureaucratic exercise,” he said. “We want this to be a political commission where all the structures of the SACP participate.”
The central committee discussion document, which sets out the political background to the formation of the commission, is built on the argument that a particular “class project” espoused in government policies, centrally black economic empowerment, has usurped the working-class ideology that informed the formation of the alliance after the unbanning of liberation organisations in the early 1990s.
The document suggests that the “capitalist-driven growth path project [led by] a powerful political-technical-managerial centre within the state” has “ruptured” the “common strategic and tactical perspectives” the alliance partners held in 1994.
The discussion document poses the question: “Is the mode of functioning of the alliance, inherited from an earlier period, still relevant for the current period? Is the organisational form of the alliance not based on the array of forces within our movement prior to 1990, but now seeing a qualitatively new dimension in the actual relationship of national and class struggles?”
Against this background, it asks: “What should the party’s medium- to longer-term perspective be on electoral participation?”
Nzimande said the question of whether the party should contest elections was not new. When the party decided not to stand in the first democratic election in 1994, but rather to bolster the ANC’s victory by mobilising voters through the alliance, there was a “small debate” about whether this support for the ruling party was “too unconditional”.
The concern at the time was the level of “accountability of communists to the SACP serving under the ANC”, he said.
At the party’s 11th congress in Rustenberg in 2002, the debate about electoral participation “exploded”, said Nzimande. “There was a small, but vocal, group proposing this,” he said. “But the leadership managed to sidestep it — the time [for the debate] wasn’t yet right.”
By last year, at the party’s special national congress in eThekwini, the leadership could no longer keep the lid on the debate, which “reached a peak” in the run-up to the congress, explained Nzimande.
There was a pervasive feeling across SACP structures that the party had submerged its own identity and independent programmes to its detriment, in favour of building the ANC.
The SACP’s socialist ideology had become increasingly besieged by the government’s privatisation programme encapsulated in the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) strategy; “the lack of accountability” of the ANC to it alliance partners, the SACP and Cosatu; and “the crises of corruption, factionalism and personal careerism” inherent in the ruling party.
The decision to establish the commission was informed by these “interacting crises”.
“How long can we live in a multi-party electoral system without testing our own levels of support?” asked Nzimande.
The SACP move coincides with attempts to revive the faltering alliance. An alliance secretariat in the next week will attempt to kickstart a trouble-shooting process. The meeting of the alliance partners is likely to discuss the SACP’s discussion document, the ANC’s national executive committee decision to attempt to manage the succession divisions by calling for “unity and cohesion” through policy debates rather than a focus on individual leaders, and Cosatu’s recent suggestion that Thabo Mbeki’s style of presidency is slipping towards a “dictatorship”.
On July 3 a bilateral meeting between the SACP and the ANC will take place, according to Cosatu deputy secretary general Bheki Ntshalintshali, where the current tensions will form “part of the agenda”.