Finally, the SACP takes on the ANC

Amid reports that the ANC and its tripartite alliance partners will hold another crisis meeting at the end of the month in an attempt to salvage relations, the discord between the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP) is now being taken to the ballot box in the Free State.

President Jacob Zuma extended an olive branch to the SACP last week, insisting the party was integral to the ANC’s success, but the SACP appears determined to assert its independence. And it is in local government where this is being done. The SACP is contesting 21 wards in a by-election in the embattled Metsimaholo municipality and the ANC appears unable to stop it.

The SACP’s Free State structures rejected a last-ditch bid by ANC provincial chairperson Ace Magashule to dissuade them from running in the by-election. Both parties confirmed that a meeting held last Friday to resolve the impasse had failed.

Explaining the reasons for the SACP’s discontent, its deputy provincial secretary, Mojalefa Simango, said the ANC failed to take “anyone seriously in the Free State”. “They did not have a clear line of engagement, except that they wanted to tell us not to contest, but they did not have a fundamental factual basis as to why we should not contest,” he said.

No political party won an outright majority in Metsimaholo in last year’s local government elections. The ANC won 19 seats, the Democratic Alliance 12, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) eight, the Metsimaholo Community Association (MCA) two and the Freedom Front Plus one.

The problems in the council were triggered by MCA mayor Sello Hlasa defecting to the ANC after appointing two ANC members to key positions in the council. The DA and the EFF vowed to remove Hlasa, which led to the collapse of the coalition council.

The provincial government subsequently dissolved the council, which failed to adopt a budget for the 2017-2018 financial year because of the intractable political differences.

The SACP national leadership has endorsed the decision to contest the by-elections.

This follows a decision taken at its national congress in July, when the party’s 2012 resolution on state power was amended to include contesting elections outside of the tripartite alliance.

Simango said that, at Friday’s meeting Magashule made an impassioned plea for the communists to change their minds but his plea was too late.

“For the past 14 months, we have tried to have a bilateral meeting with the ANC in the province,” Simango said. “We tried to engage them. For more than a year, they have been unavailable to meet …

“The ANC has been invited to every activity of the SACP. They have not even had the decency to send apologies or respond or acknowledge receipt of the invitations.”

But the current conflict between the ANC and the SACP in the Free State predates the current crisis.

In June, the Free State SACP’s provincial conference resolved to formally cut ties with the ANC. An appeal by both parties to their national leaders also failed to restore the relationship.

ANC Free State spokesperson Thabo Meeko concedes the stand-off has reached the point of no return and the ANC is preparing to campaign against the SACP.

“It’s not going to be easy for the ANC to undertake an anti-communist party campaign run in Metsimaholo, but we’ll have to do what we have to do. It will have to be a competition, unfortunately. Elections are about numbers and you have got to mobilise and campaign for those numbers,” Meeko said.

The SACP’s decision could have far-reaching consequences elsewhere in government, he said.

“We were clear [in the meeting], if they decide to contest, it will disorganise the elections on a number of fronts. The ANC would then have to take certain decisions to safeguard its standing in the society. For instance, the SACP in the province is part of the ANC deployment committee. They are sitting there … if we are not able to convince them, that must change.”

But Simango said Magashule hadn’t bothered to consult the SACP about provincial Cabinet reshuffles, so this would be no surprise. “On the issue of [a] reshuffle, the party expressed its dismay because we did not approve it, but it went ahead. Ahead of local government elections, we said don’t put [forward] that mayoral candidate because the community in Metsimaholo didn’t want him. They did it anyway.”

The last meeting between the two parties, which the ANC deemed urgent, came after Zuma was booed at a May Day rally in Bloemfontein.

“And that was because of the PR [public relations] exercise they wanted to portray of a united alliance,” Simango said.

Ultimately, the breakdown in relations stems from protests over service delivery in Metsimaholo’s Zamdela township in 2013, a senior SACP leader said. Still under ANC control at the time, 320 municipal workers were fired for taking part in the protest. But they were reinstated, leading the SACP to ask why they were fired in the first place.

Now the battle has shifted to the ballot box, with both parties campaigning for votes in the same constituency.

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Govan Whittles

Govan Whittles is a general news and political multimedia journalist at the Mail & Guardian. Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he cut his teeth as a radio journalist at Primedia Broadcasting. He produced two documentaries and one short film for the Walter Sisulu University, and enjoys writing about grassroots issues, national politics, identity, heritage and hip-hop culture.

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