Communism or cake: Has the SACP sold out for its slice?

The South African Communist Party (SACP) has been silent on many issues of grave public concern, from e-tolls to the Limpopo textbook crisis – even as its partner in the tripartite alliance with the ANC, the trade union federation partner Cosatu, was launching blistering attacks on corrupt government officials.

In recent months, antagonism has grown between between party general secretary Blade Nzimande and Cosatu general secretary Zwelenzima Vavi, who was absent from the festivities on Tuesday.

Speaking at the event held at Cosatu House in Johannesburg on Tuesday afternoon, Nzimande said the party had been "in the trenches" with the ANC for decades and that the celebration meant the parties would defend each other.

"An attack on the ANC is an attack on the SACP. If you try to destroy the ANC, you try to destroy our revolution," he said.

He dismissed those who questioned the SACP for not contending the national elections in its own right saying: "We are not in the struggle to [line] our own jackets, we are in the struggle to change the conditions of the poor."

Enduring alliance
"Those who say we should go out on our own, what they want is to destroy the alliance."

He said that the SACP would work with its alliance partners, the ANC and Cosatu, "as long as our struggle is necessary".

Despite this show of solidarity, it's clear that the alliance is not without its cracks. Like the ANC, the SACP and Cosatu are divided along pro-Jacob Zuma and anti-Jacob Zuma lines.

"Whatever may have been said, it's very misleading to regard the SACP, Cosatu or the ANC as internally united, said Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.

"The many divisions in the ANC also go through the SACP and Cosatu," he said.

Concessions stand
The current leadership of the SACP is close to Zuma and recent policy decisions from the party appear to reflect this. Earlier this month the party dropped its calls for nationalisation of the mines and key sectors of the economy in favour of a less radical "supertax" on mining companies, proposed by the ANC.

It's concessions like this, and the fact that senior SACP members hold top positions in Zuma's government, that add to the perception that the Communist Party has sold out, observers say.

According to political analyst Prince Mashele, if senior leaders of the SACP were serious about working towards the construction of communism in South Africa, they would give it their undivided attention by devoting all of their time to the party.

"The fact that they've decided to split their attention between their office in the party and important positions in government is a sign that they're not serious about the communist position," he said.

"They are not wholly committed to socialism which is why they are quite willing for their identity to be diluted by sitting in government."

The good life
Mashele said that Nzimande and Deputy Minister of Public Works Jeremy Cronin had been unable to resist the temptation of "the good life" that comes with high office.

"Look at their lifestyles: The minister drives a BMW. You don't see any traces of communism in his character," he said.

University of Johannesburg political analyst Adam Habib said while both the SACP and Cosatu support an interventionist, activist state, they had taken different approaches when it came to working through government to further their own agendas.

While the SACP sent its top leaders to represent it in government, Cosatu sent less senior members – such as Ebrahim Patel, who now serves as economic development minister – and kept its top guns.

"The result is that Cosatu has much greater legitimacy," said Habib. "But it has come at the cost of [perceived] alienated relationships. The communists have a more solid relationship with Zuma and the ANC, but their legitimacy may be more impaired."

Won over by capitalists
A Cosatu leader like Vavi, who has no official government role, is able to speak out about issues of the day in public, while Nzimande is restricted to raising his concerns in private forums. This again lends to the perception that he has been won over by capitalists.

The SACP's numbers may be on the up – 154 000 at last count – but it is still a minnow compared to its partners in the alliance, so it made sense for the SACP to remain faithful to the ANC, and campaign under its banner, Friedman said.

"There's no way they would be as influential as they are if they were alone … This arrangement is unique. I'm not aware of another case in the world where one party runs under the name of the other."

Given their small numbers, Friedman added, the best method of enhancing their status is to continue to stay close to the ANC. But it hasn't quite worked as planned.

While the SACP has claimed that it originated many government policies – from NHI to stricter regulation of banking institutes – as victories of its own, there is little proof that this is actually the case.

"They haven't actually enhanced their status by staying close to the ANC," said Friedman. "They're close to power, but they don't have any." 

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