Gwede, steady, gone: South Africa's failed communists

Verashni Pillay.(Lauren Clifford-Holmes, M&G)

Verashni Pillay.(Lauren Clifford-Holmes, M&G)

Does anyone take the South African Communist Party seriously anymore? The news that the vanguard of the left will once and for all lose its national chairperson to the ruling ANC came as no surprise to critics: the organisation has long taken a back seat where its government and ANC-enamoured leaders are concerned.

Instead of attending to his own household, SACP chair Gwede Mantashe has been arguably the strongest leader of the ANC's top six as secretary general. He is the man at the forefront of the party's engagement with the media and others, defending the weakened Jacob Zuma where necessary, and doing as much as one man can to keep the unruly organisation in line.

Between that and watching his back when the ANC Youth League had their eye on his job, it's a wonder he had any time at all to wear his other hat at the SACP. Which is why he is stepping down at the party's elective conference this week: to focus on what is clearly his passion.
He's come a long way since his 2009 call to SACP members to "stand up" to the ANC and not become pseudo-communists.

Besides Mantashe, the SACP's general secretary Blade Nzimande has also been drawn away from the party into the government's ranks as minister of higher education, and deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin is now the deputy minister of public works, having recently been moved over from an equivalent position at the transport ministry in Zuma's latest swapping of the deckchairs in a mostly inefficient and weak Cabinet. It's anybody's guess how much attention he can pay to the good old hammer and sickle given the demands of that role.

Meanwhile, the trade union federation Cosatu is a different breed of alliance partner. Its leader, Zwelinzima Vavi, has renounced the possibility of a lucrative government position, noting that it would compromise his organisation and leadership. Indeed, Vavi, sometimes a lone voice of reason and integrity in an increasingly corrupt political landscape, has often taken on more of an opposition role where the ANC is concerned, earning his organisation kudos for standing up for the underdog even when it was not politically expedient to do so.

Which couldn't be further from the truth for the SACP, the third member of the so-called tripartite alliance and a rather failed political school for the far-more jacked trade unionists.

The should-be revolutionary communists have made no bones about the fact that they're quite happy to hunker down within the warm confines of the ANC, and "influence debate".

"The state represents the greatest concentration of social power under capitalism, so the working class must contest and use that power," the party's organising secretary Solly Mapaila told the Mail & Guardian on Friday.


It's pretty poignant to the think that the SACP's understanding of the working class making use of state power is Blade taking office, given that one of his first few actions upon doing so was to approve the purchase of a R1.1-million BMW 750i.

But more to the point, the party neglects to acknowledge how that policy compromises the party itself, as its leaders are increasingly co-opted by the ANC and the organisation takes a backseat.

Their sidelining under previous president Thabo Mbeki has been well documented and they have received largely lip service from a chronically noncommittal Zuma. Attempts at reddening the outcome of public policy through their "strategic" leadership has usually resulted in a sort of insipid pinkish effort; the sort of thing that happens when one's red socks find their way into the white washing.

They would be hard-pressed to find one communist-friendly policy outcome that wasn't a result of the ANC wanting to go in that particular direction in any event, such as the national health insurance, which Mapaila claimed as a Communist victory in the M&G interview. More memorable are the embarrassing moments when SACP leaders like Cronin had to sell e-tolls to the public in his role as deputy minister of transport, while his party came out against it.

But the SACP's consuming love affair with the ANC is nothing new. The relationship has been largely symbiotic since the fifties, with dual memberships and overlapping leadership ranks in time. Throughout the 1980s the SACP was well represented on the ANC's NEC and in other key ANC positions, according to this history of the organisation.

That's because the SACP always knew that if it wanted to punch above its weight it had to ride on the ANC's wave. Opinion polls before the 1994 election put the organisation's share of the vote at just 5%. By getting onto the ANC's slate, the SACP's leaders had a better shot at more power. And that is precisely the SACP's problem: the glamour of power, justified with a murky end goal in mind, has triumphed over sticking to their principles, when the ANC has betrayed the cause.

I'm no fan of the communist party or its policies. In fact, South Africans of a more capitalists bent are probably thrilled that the local expression of communism couldn't organise a revolution if they tried. But I do wish they had more guts to hold the ANC to account, when the poor, the marginalised and the working class are in need of a champion. Instead the party will go to its annual congress today boasting of its unity. It looks more like passivity to me.

  • Verashni is the deputy editor of the M&G Online. You can read her column here, and follow her on Twitter here.
Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.  Read more from Verashni Pillay

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