South Africa: Communists convene broad front to halt country’s decline
Jacob Zuma's corruption-tainted presidency is one of a number of factors putting strain on the tripartite alliance of the ANC, SACP, and COSATU. Here, Zuma (center) watches as disappointing municipal election returns come in for the ANC in Pretoria on Aug. 6, 2016. | Herman Verwey / AP

The South African Communist Party (SACP) has entered a new chapter of its history by forming the beginnings of a broad front of progressive forces in an effort to rescue the National Democratic Revolution, the name given to the transformation of the country under the rule of the African National Congress (ANC) following apartheid. The SACP aims to reverse the disastrous course the country has taken in recent years.

On May 19-20, the SACP convened an Imbizo – a traditional Zulu term for a gathering of leaders – to discuss the current crisis in South Africa and hopefully stimulate a process of renewal. Several hundred movers and shakers from some 33 political and civil society organisations took part in the conference. They included representatives from the South African Council of Churches, which has drawn much public attention for its critical examination of the situation in the country.

At the end of the Imbizo, the participants adopted a short statement, which set out their concerns and resolve to work together: “Notwithstanding the diversity of the participants present, we all broadly agreed about the nature of the challenges facing our country and the imperative of developing a common minimum platform. The important gains we made collectively as South Africans from the mid 1990s in terms of building a unifying sense of nationhood, a vibrant non-racial democracy, and a progressive constitution are now under threat.”

The SACP is in a tripartite alliance with the ANC and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), and has traditionally worked almost exclusively within the alliance structure to influence the transformation of the country from the colonial-apartheid state of the past into a developmental state premised on eliminating poverty. For the SACP, this has been a key strategic route that should lead to socialism.

Revolution under threat

But much of the transformation that comprises the National Democratic Revolution has begun to unravel in recent years. This is largely due to what could be termed “the corporate capture of the state.” Monopoly capital has made deep inroads into state enterprises and, at the national level, there has been the emergence of a parallel state based on the corruption of top officials and the governing bodies of key institutions and wings of government.

Economic institutions, such as the national treasury (finance ministry), revenue service (tax administration), and public investment and procurement bodies have become sites of looting for networks of individuals and companies linked to them clustered around South African President Jacob Zuma.

The criminal justice system, the special police operations unit (known as the Hawks), the national police service, the national prosecuting authority, and intelligence services have similarly been manipulated to favor networks of patronage and to persecute whistle-blowers.

The problems have quickly become systemic. Though the ANC government has over the years made important advances in tackling poverty and racialised inequality, for every step forward that is now taken, there are two steps back.

“The nub of the matter is that an alien substance has now found its way in the ranks of our movement and government and is contaminating the DNA of our revolutionary politics,” said SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande at the Imbizo. “This includes the rise of private, including personal and profit, interests that seek to displace the interests of the people as whole and take control of our basic wealth and public resources.”

South Africa is now facing greater political and social uncertainty than at any time since the height of the struggle against white minority rule.

The problems at the top of government are amplified on the ground, particularly within poor communities in urban and rural areas, where the slow pace of change has become intolerable for many, reflected in numerous violent protests that take place each day in different areas. At the provincial and local levels, corruption has become hardwired into government activity and acts as a brake on social, economic, and infrastructure development, while organisationally, ANC branches and structures are factionalised channels of patronage and nepotism.

None of this rapid decline over recent years has happened without resistance and vocal anger by local communities, civil society groups, business groups, opposition parties, and many within the ANC itself. There have been mass protests against corruption and corporate state capture, and the widespread call now, including from the SACP and COSATU, is for Zuma to go.

One particularly horrifying upshot of the degeneration of institutions is the increasing failure of the police to tackle crime. South Africa is one of the world’s most violent countries that is not in a state of armed conflict. Recently, there has been an upsurge of killings of women and young girls, often linked to human trafficking, the trade in human body parts for witchcraft, and the increasing dysfunction of households and communities.

The Zuma presidency: A dream turned sour

For the alliance (comprising the ANC, SACP, and COSATU), the presidency of Jacob Zuma has turned out to be a dream turned sour. At first, Zuma was seen within the alliance as a man of the Left, and his election as head of the ANC in 2009 as the organisation’s return to its more traditionally left agenda.

The SACP has taken a self-critical attitude in its appraisal of the Zuma presidency, and has tended to regret its involvement in the “palace politics” of the ANC. It also considers that the tripartite alliance has failed to live up to its promise of being the vanguard of the National Democratic Revolution. In this respect, the Imbizo was part of the SACP’s effort to reconnect itself and the alliance with mass organisations along non-sectarian lines to create a new platform for renewal.

The party has pointed out that much of the bases for the current crisis emerged before Zuma, including the influence of the billionaire corporate dynasty of the Gupta brothers from India, who took up residence in South Africa in the early 1990s.

The Gupta brothers have had a particularly close relationship with Zuma and have been involved in the appointment of cabinet ministers and heads of state enterprises in an effort to create favorable channels for their business dealings. Despite repeated calls for Zuma to distance himself from the Guptas, and a scathing report entitled “State of Capture” by the Public Protector (a constitutional watchdog on government), which details their shady dealings with government, they continue to wield great influence.

The tripartite alliance dates back to the days of struggle against apartheid. In this photo, then-SACP general secretary Joe Slovo, left, and then-vice president of the ANC Nelson Mandela, right, greet the crowd at an SACP-ANC rally on April 29, 1990 in Cape Town. | AP

A race against time

The SACP made clear that the Imbizo was not an internal party affair, but a broad consultative forum for different forces brought together by a common concern for what is happening to South Africa. The first deputy general secretary of the party, Jeremy Cronin, pointed out in a radio interview the day after the meeting that the SACP sees it as crucial that the process emerging out of the Imbizo “must not be captured for narrow party concerns, and that we must not be divided on the issues that face us on party political lines.” Cronin said that this is what is happening amidst similar crises in Venezuela and Brazil, and that as a result “aggressive external agendas are coming into play.”

In December this year, the ANC will hold its 54th National Conference, at which it will elect a new leader. That represents a cut off point for Zuma, but much depends on what will happen before that, both in terms of the prospect that he will be recalled by the organisation and what progress, if any, will be made to clean up the ANC. At present it is so chopped and diced by factional battle lines that it is incapable of laying a unifying basis for change.

The South African Council of Churches has warned that South Africa is fast becoming a “mafia state.” The SACP-convened Imbizo gave the sense of a race against time to halt this process. Its declaration contained a minimum platform of action to address the worst of the rot.

These included: appointing an independent judicial commission of enquiry into state capture; urgent attention to ensuring good corporate governance and adherence to developmental mandates and public interest priorities in state-owned entities; an end to the abuse and factionalizing of the criminal justice system; strengthening the oversight role of parliament; implementation of the alliance decision for lifestyle audits of public representatives; halting the roll out of the nuclear energy program (which is mired in controversy over corruption and lack of public consultation);  campaigns to promote the constitutional values of non-racialism, to fight against xenophobia and tribalism, and the epidemic of gender-based violence.

The participants in the meeting also committed themselves to creating a network to coordinate their joint work. Solly Mapaila, the second general secretary of the SACP, stressed that the party must take the outcome of the Imbizo far and wide: “This must feed into a broad range of channels, not back into the SACP itself.”


Mark Waller
Mark Waller

Mark Waller lives and works in the City of Tshwane, South Africa. A journalist, he writes on events in South Africa and other countries on the continent. Originally from Helsinki, Waller translates from Finnish to English.