The third special national congress of the South African Communist Party (SACP) at the University of Johannesburg’s Soweto campus didn’t quite take off with fireworks strapped to its back. It began in a self-consciously sombre fashion with a drab rendition of the national anthem that lost its footing in the first few bars of Die Stem section. Then there was a lumbering version of the Internationale and the peculiar opening addresses.
Former National Union of Mineworkers’ (NUM) president and SACP chairperson Senzeni Zokwana’s fascination with former Cosatu secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi was both macabre and amusing. Macabre because under Zokwana’s nervous, deafening timbre, the numerous below-the-belt jibes aimed at Vavi took on the nature of propagandist deathblows.
Amusing because during the Impala platinum mine strike in 2012, it was Vavi who tried to protect Zokwana’s honour, stepping into the breach as striking mineworkers booed and heckled the then NUM president at a stadium gathering.
And yet Zokwana’s framing of the 2012 platinum belt strike wave and the Marikana massacre in particular was that “we were dealing with a monster created by the Chamber of Mines and [Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union president Joseph] Mathunjwa was a tool willing to be used”. Platinum prices were plunging and companies were looking to lower production costs, and in walked Mathunjwa, he theorised.
SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande at least had the grace to pepper his polemic with the occasional joke: “We’re entering a challenging period in our national democratic revolution and more and more comrades are turning to the SACP for our analysis of the situation.”
‘Schizophrenic and bipolar’
Like his deputy Jeremy Cronin, the day before at a press conference, Nzimande reeled off membership figures (“214 000”) and cast his organisation as “stable and the most ideologically aware in the tripartite alliance”. The SACP was so healthy, Nzimande declared, that it rendered those who labelled it “dead and useless” in one breath while wondering why it didn’t contest elections in the other “schizophrenic and bipolar”.
While Zokwana couldn’t quite shake his Vavi fixation, Nzimande’s ire, for the most part, was aimed at more general enemies, such as “the legacy of white minority rule” and the “corporate capture of parts of our movement”. His extended passage on the Marikana commission report, for example, mostly focused on how the “pseudo-left” and the media’s discourse failed to highlight the deaths of countless NUM members in the period after the Marikana massacre.
While the party’s rhetoric seems to be about casting it as the alliance’s conscience in the face of a faltering Cosatu – there to give impetus and direction to the second radical phase of the transition – former members and analysts see this as an elaborate song and dance the party has been performing since its unbanning in the 1990s.
Sociologist Professor Devan Pillay of the University of the Witwatersrand said: “In areas like Mpumalanga, the party is alienated from the ANC and, in other areas, there is dissatisfaction with [President Jacob] Zuma. Cronin, Nzimande and the other top leaders are seeking to contain pressures and they are brilliant at doing that. Their dilemma is how to satisfy the status quo and contain the dissident voices with vague promises.”
Pillay said the special congress is “merely a safety valve to let the steam come out” and for grievances to be aired. “The party is still departing from the hegemonic role it played in the past when there were more sophisticated leaders who were able to bring people into the tent,” he said. “But now, increasingly, the strategy is to isolate dissenting voices like Vavi and Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim and say that it will build Cosatu from below.”
Socialist Group member and activist Trevor Ngwane said, when he joined the SACP briefly after it was unbanned, a pivotal meeting with former SACP leader Joe Slovo had quickly soured his optimism. “We were all airing our views, so I aired mine. At the end of it, I guess he could tell I was a new SACP member, [so] Slovo pulled me aside and said: ‘We communists don’t push our line when we are at an ANC conference.’ It just became clear to me that this was a road to nowhere.
“The current discussions about power are not real discussions about power because the first step can’t be to run on your own while still being in the alliance.”
Ngwane said, if the growth of the SACP is to be believed, it is merely due to the fact that it is the leftist flank of a centrist movement. “When you’re radical in the ANC, they always say go and join the party [the SACP]. It’s like having your cake and eating it too.”
More believers in the red flag
More people are joining the South African Communist Party (SACP) – and although most of them are unemployed, the party hopes to attract more unionised workers and those in the informal sector. It is also succeeding in attracting more women members, but failing to appeal to students.
This is according to a report presented by the party’s second deputy general secretary, Solly Mapaila, to a central committee (CC) meeting two months ago, which showed that membership increased by just over 58 500 in the past three years to 213 551.
This means that, even though the SACP does not contest elections as an independent party, a few hundred thousand South Africans still believe in the socialist dream. In addition to the audited membership of 213 551, another 11 707 still need to be processed. Some of these 225 258 members are only registered, but their membership fees are in arrears.
The communists are struggling to convince students to believe in the Marxist-Leninist party – they make up only 2% of its total membership. The special congress edition of the Umsebenzi online newsletter quoted Mapaila’s report as saying “the March CC took a decision that we should embark on an intensive programme to establish SACP campus-based branches and if that is implemented we will see an increase in student membership”.
The report shows that more and more women are becoming members, resulting in “a growing balance between men and women … with only a 3.2% fraction of a difference, about 6 000 members in numbers”. There is no explanation yet about what attracts women to the party, but the SACP has put overall female membership at 48%.
The majority of those joining the SACP are unemployed, but the party wants to increase its membership among unionised workers. To increase its membership further, it is also looking at reviving its sectoral focus on groups such as academics, small entrepreneurs, informal traders, stokvels, burial societies and taxi operators, among others.
It also wants to get more of its members to pay their membership fees through debit orders. Almost three-quarters – 85 821 – pay their R12 annual membership fee in cash. “There is a need to put as many of these members as possible on the debit-order system,” it said. – Mmanaledi Mataboge