Emboldened by a resurgence of international communism and the ANC’s leftward shift, the South African Communist Party has proposed far-reaching constitutional amendments that it hopes will swing its position in the tripartite alliance from poor cousin to ruling coalition partner.
At the SACP’s 12th national congress in Port Elizabeth this week, the 2 000 delegates were in a buoyant mood. ”I’ve just had lunch with the Chinese delegation to learn from them how to be a ruling party,” joked SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande on the opening day.
Plans to restructure the SACP, set for adoption by the congress, are designed to enable it to exploit discontent among poverty-stricken voters and reposition itself ultimately as an alternative to the ANC.
”The current configuration probably deprives the party of the kind of space it could enjoy as the vanguard of the working class,” said SACP Eastern Cape chairperson Phumulo Masualle. ”We want to profile the party much more than at present.”
A key proposal was an amendment to the SACP’s constitution to reconfigure the party’s branches. At present these are constituted fairly randomly — 714 of the existing 1 000 branches are in good standing — meaning that some areas, particularly those in urban centres, received better service.
The party wants its branches to follow the Independent Electoral Commission’s 18 873 voting districts, each including about 50 000 people.
”We want to reorganise the party at the voting district level,” said national organiser Solly Maphaila. ”Each branch must understand every part of its community — how many people live below the poverty line, who has access to an ATM, who doesn’t have enough money to open a bank account and so on.”
The proposed amendment was seen as the first step to restoring the party to the working class, which the SACP argued was essential to the advancement of socialism and a key to the success of other socialist parties.
”Our strategic objective in regard to state power is to secure not party political, but working class hegemony over the state,” said the congress discussion document.
SACP deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin said the Communist Party of Cuba had been able to confront the United States ”just tens of kilometres away” because ”it paid attention to popular mobilisation”.
”The economy of need, not Anglo American or Mittal Steel, needs to become the dominant reality in South Africa,” he said.
The SACP’s organisational review, which Cronin will present to the congress on Friday, contains detailed research into each province’s social needs.
Highlighting one example, Maphaila said that in the Free State 1,8-million people (68% of the provincial population) were living below the poverty line and life expectancy was 47,2 years. ”We need to refocus ourselves at a societal level and understand the effects of these figures,” he said. ”We need to become a multi-campaigning, issue-based party.”
The new branch system would mean the party would embed itself in communities at a micro-level to manage bread-and-butter issues, which would ultimately translate to votes when the SACP contests elections (see accompanying story).
Maphaila said that since 2002, when the last congress was held, the SACP’s membership had grown by 37% because of the success of grass roots campaigns. These included the Financial Sector Campaign, which helps people blacklisted for debt, and the Road Safety Campaign, which identifies and assists people without transport.
The growth of the party, he said, had ”more to do with the relevance of the issues of the day”.
Another proposed constitutional amendment was refocusing the party’s politburo to become issue-based. The suggestion was that the politburo be increased from eight members to 11 and that, of these, nine should be appointed to specific portfolios.
As some portfolios already exist, the amendment would organise these under specific leaders. They included organising, fund-raising, political education, media, gender relations, trade union liaison, governance and international relations (which until now has been a temporary portfolio).
The party would formalise relations with the social movements, said Maphaila. ”We need to redefine our role in this instance and help to shape the agenda of social movements. A problem has arisen in the past when they become anti-ANC.”
The SACP’s renewed confidence stemmed in part from the ANC’s recent policy conference, where the SACP claimed success in shifting its ally leftward. Internationally, and particularly in Latin America, democratic socialism was resurging.
”There has been a marked leftward shift in the ANC, there’s no doubt about that,” said Nzimande this week. At its conference, the ANC resolved that the state, not the market, should lead macroeconomic growth, including through an industrial policy.
The developmental state model reversed the government’s earlier economic blueprint, Gear, which between 1996 and 2000 advocated open markets and privatisation as a panacea for low growth rates.
”When Gear was adopted we agreed that macroeconomic correction was necessary — but it had to be accompanied by an industrial policy,” said Nzimande.
Cronin said: ”We were never populist or Mugabe-ist, as accused. We have consistently argued that we had to marshal South Africa’s resources soberly and intelligently around a developmental state.”
But he warned that the SACP has to monitor the ”agenda” of the developmental state to ensure additional resources do not exacerbate a ”two-faced” system in which business costs are, for example, lowered at the top end, while a ”third world welfarism” continues on the ground.
”The development state and industrial policy can’t be about promoting the current accumulation path and then doing charity on Sundays,” he said.
The SACP’s congress teemed with communists from far-flung corners of the globe, including Russia, Venezula, China, Chile, Israel, Uruguay and Cyprus. ”I must say there has been an unusually wide interest in our congress this year,” said Nzimande.
SACP to test electoral strength in 2011
The SACP is unlikely to contest the 2009 national elections, but will put its electoral strength to test in the 2011 local government poll.
Only two provinces have formally proposed that the party contest elections, but even they agree the risk is worth the wait.
As more than half (54%) of SACP members have dual membership with the ANC, they would have to choose at the ballot box. If they voted for the ANC, it would decimate the SACP’s medium-term plans to become a credible opposition and ultimately the ANC’s coalition partner.
Phumulo Masualle, Eastern Cape SACP chairperson, says that while the province has agreed the SACP should contest elections, he believes 2009 is too soon because the party needs time to do groundwork.
”The general view across provinces is that the current arrangement needs to change — the question is how soon; 2009 might be too soon, because in the rural areas people still do not make a perfect differentiation between the ANC and SACP and we need to do groundwork in this respect.”
Gauteng, which also wants to contest elections, is bolder than the Eastern Cape. Zico Tamela, Gauteng provincial secretary, says the membership growth in the party indicates that it is ready to contest elections. ”This won’t mean denouncing the ANC, but propagating socialist ideas.” Delegates at the SACP congress wore red worker overalls with the phrase: ”Socialism means access to basic services” printed on the back.
The Eastern Cape and Gauteng agree that the SACP contesting elections would not mean breaking the tripartite alliance. ”The alliance needs to be radically reconfigured, but we’re not saying break it. The ANC has proved it can work in coalition with the [former] New National Party; in some municipalities it is in coalition with the DA and there is an Azapo member in the Cabinet. It can also work with us,” Tamela says.
The SACP first mooted the idea of contesting elections in 2005, when it proposed three scenarios. The first suggested the SACP should stay in the alliance and influence it from within; the second called for a quota system for SACP members on the ANC election lists; and the third proposed an SACP breakaway from the alliance to contest elections.
Masualle says the concern is that SACP members in government were elected on an ANC ticket, which makes it difficult for the SACP to push for accountability. ”How far do we enforce loyalty among our deployed members when the current system requires them to carry out their duties on an ANC ticket?”
The SACP’s Cape Town region supports the proposal that the SACP should contest elections. In North West only the JP Marks district supports the election idea, while in KwaZulu-Natal, clear backing for it has been voiced only by the Pietermaritzburg region. — Vicki Robinson