Dilemmas of non-ruling socialist/communist parties: the case of the SACP

by Aug 28, 2023Political Issues, Political Parties

In his examination of why despite their  meagre results at the polls, nine non-ruling communist parties in Europe continue to have sporadic participation in multi-party coalitions in government, Sidney Tarrow indicates that  communist parties enter governments during perceived socioeconomic or political crises or as a left-wing of a multi-party coalition in which the communist parties occupy a central position within the left coalition while the centrist parties and republicans holds a centre stage within the  opposite conservative pole. (Tarrow, 1982). Tarrow (1982)  delineates the motivation for the participation of communist parties in such coalition governments or alliance politics as the perception of the communist parties that a crisis situation prevails and  a fear of being absent during a critical period.   He  concludes that  the need not to be isolated or marginalised within the political arena  cause communist parties  to actively or passively support moderate policies and to form alliances with normally anti-communist elements. This implies the belief that communist parties have the theoretical and practical acumen that can take the country out of a crisis but either  lack the courage, will and capacity to take the reins of political power or believe that the balance of forces don’t allow them to do so on their own.

The  observations of Tarrow (1982) correlates with the proposition that though the political cooperation between the African National Congress (ANC),  Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the South African National Civics Organization (SANCO) has historical and ideological roots, their alliance in the post-1990 dispensation is a product of coincidence of political interests. (O’ Malley, 2000). On the eve of the first national democratic elections in 1994, the  ANC sought organizational skills, material support, membership and votes or electoral support  from COSATU, SACP and SANCO.  On other hand, COSATU and SANCO  needed  a political organization that can win elections, hold political power,  and advance a progressive agenda and safe-guards  labour and civil society   interests in parliament.  At the same time, the ANC had the need to enlist  seasoned strategists, tacticians, organizers and campaigners from its alliance partners. Its  electoral prospects depend  highly on the  numbers that the constituencies of its alliance partners added to its membership and support base.  Furthermore, the reputable  political militancy, organizational skills  and ideological  insights of the SACP  gave  it a powerful base within the constituency of both the ANC and COSATU. However, the SACP did not have  enough popular support to be a political force on its own in parliamentary politics where numbers are important.  Therefore, the SACP had  to remain a partner of ANC to try to get the ANC to incorporate its social objectives and agendas.   (O’Malley, 2000).

The SACP did foresee that once the ANC is in political office ,it would be tall order to mediate and harmonise the latter’s multi-class and centrist politics with the former’s professed  working-class and leftist politics. In lieu of this eventuality, the SACP  opted to use as its key  tactical device the notion of its members and that of COSATU and SANCO swelling  the ranks of the ANC with the aim of populating ANC spaces and platforms with communist ideas and the party-line.  The other tactical devices it utilised are  (1)  intensifying  efforts to influence the political perspective of COSATU unions and  education and research labour service organizations such as Ditsela and the Workers College of South Africa, (2)  deploying some of  its seasoned cadres  to take up leadership and influential positions within  COSATU and the labour service organization,  (3) lobbying and campaigning for the leading activists of SACP, Cosatu and  SANCO to have fair representation in the parliamentary and ministerial list of the ANC, and  (4) pushing for extensive consultation and engagement of alliance partners on significant policy and programmatic issues relating to both the ANC and the government. The unintended and negative consequences of this strategy was a brain drain  within the leftist component of the alliance (i.e COSATU, SACP and COSATU)  as the result of an exodus of its seasoned leaders and activists to government.  This also created  the problematic situation where these members found themselves bound by both the oath of office and ANC processes. This compelled them to implement policies and programmes of the ANC even when they were at odds with their own  personal values and the principles of COSATU, SACP and SANCO.  The other challenge that this arrangement  created is the political careerism tendency whereby individuals perceive  and use their positions of leadership and influence within COSATU, SACP and SANCO as a social currency  and stepping ladder to access deployment into government or business with the government. This opened the allies of the ANC prone to being enmeshed in internal factional divisions of the ANC as they had to  be in the good books of whatever faction of the ANC that would become victorious in the contest for control of the government.  This is reflected by how the SACP and COSATU threatened to pull out of the alliance in 2006 but backtracked after former President Jacob Zuma emerged victorious at the Polokwane conference, and religiously defended Jacob Zuma throughout the so-called nine wasted years until the dying hours  of the second term  of Zuma in office.

As for the ANC, its  enlistment of leading and experienced activists of its alliance partners in its election list and subsequently the legislature and the executive,  and various provincial and local government structures meant that it hit three birds with one stone: ( 1)  acquire the votes of  constituencies of its alliance partners, (2) acquire the political and technical skills of the leadership and activists of these alliance partners, and  (3) put them in a situation where they are obliged to implement  co-opt them to neoliberal -capitalist policies and programmes. The  ANC has realised that the fact that it is the de facto leader of the alliance and that  leaders and activists of its partners  are  deployed  in government or to the business sector  on its ticket , reduces their capacity to deviate from ANC policies or to shape its social policy and political economy trajectory. As soon as serious differences on policy occurred, the ANC flexed its muscles and openly told the alliance partners that if they want to pursue a socialist, communist or social democratic agenda , they must do so on their own and not expect the ANC to do so on their behalf.  A telling example is when the late President Mandela read the riot act to COSATU at its own congress, telling them that they can’t dictate ANC policies. Mandela rebuffed COSATU’s opposition to GEAR with a resonant declaration   that GEAR is and shall remain ANC policy. Another example is the statement of the former President Thabo Mbeki when he ejected SACP leading activist, Madlala- Routledge from his executive for daring to challenge government policies. Mbeki remarked that as  member of the executive Madlala-Routledge was bound to the policies and programmes of the ruling party and that she cannot serve in the executive whilst criticising government policies.

As the tensions of  being in alliance with the ruling party and serving in the legislature and executive at its bidding increased, the SACP had to deal with the problem of its relationship with state power and the ruling power. In a 2006 discussion document on state power (Bua Komanisi, 2006) , the SACP reaffirmed  its position that the  chief instrument of achieving the immediate goal of national democratic revolution (NDR) is a multi-class mass movement or liberation front, and that the ANC is such an instrument. The Party further stated that its loyal participation in the multi-class  mass movement or liberation front is to represent the working-class as a class that it (SACP) claims to be the vanguard of. It further reiterated the idea of swelling the ranks of the labour movement and the multi-class mass movement  is to capture neither the labour movement  nor the liberation movement and turn them  into its wing but to illustrate that its members are the most ideologically advanced section of the liberation front. (Bua Komanisi. 2006). While asserting that the dominant force in the alliance should be the working-class, the SACP reaffirmed its view that the ANC is the leader of the alliance.  The whole question of how to assert the dominance of the working-class and advance the renewal and revitalization of the socialist project  chiefly through government policies and programmes dictated by a multi-class mass movement rather than by the community party has provided a theoretical and practical  quandary for the SACP.

In addition to  asserting that socialism is not realizable in the immediate future (Bua Komanisi, 2006) and resorting to transform from a cadre-based party to a mass based political party, the SACP resolved to assume responsibility for what it refers to as partial power and possibilities  at its disposal to make its own contribution to the NDR and to build  momentum towards, capacity for and even elements of socialism in the present. (Bua Komanisi, 2006).  According to the SACP, this entails doing its best to roll back the empire of the so-called free market and build confidence in the masses to take on the soulless secular religion of neoliberalism. ( Bua, Komanisi, 2006). The reality, however, is that the SACP does not have partial political power.  It does not participate in the legislature and the executive or any formal structures and processes of government and the state on its own, based on its own policies and programmes. It has access to political office and participation in government structures and processes as well as platforms for discussing the social policy and political economy of the country at the behest of the ANC. After all is said and done, it is ANC structures and processes that prevail over the social policy and political economy path of the government led by the ANC.  Thus far, other than episodic shadow-boxing with the ANC on policy issues and theatrical threats to delink from the alliance, there is not much that the SACP has up its sleeve to  make its social and political agenda take root within the ANC and government spaces. In theory, the ANC’s big-tent\broad-church   provides an open pulpit or contested terrain but in reality the centrist denomination is the ecumenical council or  majlis of the ANC’s broad-church.

Quite a significant number of the top brass of the SACP at national, provincial and local level is entrapped in or is eyeing for full time career in politics (as MPs, ministers, MECs, Mayors, councillors,  MMCs etc ) courtesy of the ANC. This opens up possibilities for them to be ensnared in the ANC’s patronage system  and therefore unable to significantly raise a  socialist \communist voice within the ANC and the government it leads. This arrangement arrests possibilities for SACP, COSATU and SANCO activists within government to always act in conformity with the professed social and political agendas of their organizations. It is noteworthy that the three persons at the centre of the campaign to freeze the wages of workers in the public service and deny them an increase in the name of reducing the so-called bloated public service wage-bill are former shop stewards, trade union leaders  and erstwhile firebrand fighters against capitalist super exploitation of labour: President Cyril Ramaphosa, and Ministers, Enoch Gondogwana and Thulasi Nxesi, with the latter being the current   deputy national chairperson of the SACP. The phenomenon of former COSATU and SACP leaders religiously implementing neoliberal capitalist and anti-worker policies and programmes once in political office is not new. Among others, this is illustrated by how SACP stalwart,   Pravin Gordhan became a monopoly capital-compliant finance  minister from  to 2020 and is still pursuing free-market oriented agendas in his current position. The very first pronouncements of former General Secretary and current national chairperson of the Party , Dr Blade Nzimande upon being the Minister of Higher Education was that free tertiary university is not possible in the nearest possible future. Nzimande went further to propose that even when free education is possible,  it will be a targeted provision, directed solely towards the poor and underprivileged, and not a blanket free education for all.  This position is completely opposite to the universal provisioning of free and quality education for all that sincere  communists, socialists and even social  democrats advocate. It is not unusual to see SACP people  chanting the mantra that it is cold outside of the ANC and that only the ANC can facilitate and drive political and social revolution in South Africa. This accounts for the unfolding drama wherein talks of reconfiguring the alliance or even open threats to delink from the alliance prevail towards national general elections and dissipate as soon as the MPs list and the ministers have been announced.

With its rich political history and the tremendous political skills and  ideological currency, including its influence on COSATU and SANCO, the SACP has a lot of possibilities to innovatively  reposition itself on the political stage. It  could opt to contest elections on its own with the support of radical elements within COSATU and SANCO, without ending its political collaboration with the ANC on common issues, even entering into a post-election pact with the ANC. The chances of the SACP tilting the ANC more to the left would be much higher if the two parties are in a political cooperation in which the SACP contested elections on its own. Under such circumstances it would be easier for the SACP to place conditionalities for its political cooperation with the ANC than when it participates in government at the invitation of the ANC. Furthermore, if the SACP contest election on its own but keep its political cooperation with the ANC in the form of an electoral pact or as part of a coalition, it will not necessarily fall with the ANC when ultimately the majority of South Africans opt to ditch the ANC  at the polls nor will it be at the receiving end of the fury of the masses should public discontent against the ruling party reach high voltage.

The other alternative is for the SACP to take   alliance and coalition-building politics beyond the mass democratic movement, and explore collaborations or unity-in-action with  the progressive and radical elements of the broader civic, social and labour movements, and the various green, socialist, and  feminist organizations outside of the congress movement. This should include  active support of and participation in  community and labour struggles. The SACP could  play  pivotal role in uniting and mobilising  COSATU, South African Federation of Trade  Unions  (SAFTU),  National Council of Trade Unions  (NACTU) etc and in building a popular front  that includes  political and social movements such as the Bolsheviks Party of South Africa (BSPA), Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP),  Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF) , Workers International Vanguard Party Land Party,  Workers and Socialist Party (WASP), Socialist Party of Azania (SOPA), Abahlali Basemjondolo, Equal Education, Poor People’s Alliance, South African Unemployed Peoples Movement , Sikhula Sonke, Treatment Action Campaign, and the Socialist Group.  On the contrary, the SACP often provides the terminology and ideological arguments to the ANC in rubbishing and rebuffing labour and community struggles. A case in point is the  blanket generalization and reference to civil society protests as the work of a faceless third-force, agents of regime change , an anti-majoritarian lobby  or the so-called anarchist  ‘ultra-left.’    Nothing illustrates this like the manner in which the supposed vanguard of the working-class actively and passively endorsed   the brute force unleashed on workers at Marikana. It even regurgitated and  circulated  the narrative of the government above that of the workers about that tragic incident.

The SACP’s religious hold to the notion of the NDR and the ANC as the eternal leader of society or so-called disciplined centre of the left irrespective of its social policy and political economy trajectory and service delivery performance holds it ransom. It  disallows it to be innovative, creative and daring in examining the ways of  reimagining its organizational form and its engagement with state-power and alliance and coalition politics. Hence, talks about reconfiguring the alliance or repositioning the SACP are confined to ‘modernising’ or refurbishing  its alliance with the ANC and related organizations.  It is in this sense that  Yaqoob Abba Omar likens  the SACP’s  position on reconfiguration of the alliance with sacrificing divorce for redecoration. (Omar, 2022). Throughout its alliance reconfiguration discourse, the SACP  hardly considers exploring some kind of united front   beyond the traditional congress movement.  It has not given serious  thought to tapping into already  existing forms of self-organizations, movement-building in South Africa to actively participate in the project of   building forms of people’s power beyond the ballot and the mechanics of the government. It hardly engages in theoretical and practical work aimed at linking up with the cooperative and solidarity economy movements and grassroots  movements to experiment with cooperative, communal and social forms of production, distribution and consumption as a way  of building democracy and socialism from below.

The  ideology of the SACP does not prevent it from participating in parliamentary politics on its own. As far back as the 1950s , communists such as Brian Bunting and Sam Kahn represented the then Communist Party of South Africa  (CPSA) in Parliament. Prospects  of the SACP becoming a formidable political force if it were to pursue contesting political power on its own are there. The decline in the electoral support of  centrist and conservative parties, the steady electoral performance of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the  significant number of votes garnered by civic and social movements who have opted to contest elections on their own indicate the  quest of the people for an alternative to the mainstream political parties. Moreover,  in municipalities where local  SACP branches had the guts to either field independent candidates or  contest elections on its own,   there are indications of citizen’s positive response to the idea of the SACP standing on its own. A case in point is the fact that in the  2017 municipality bye elections, the SACP was able to secure seats in the  Metsimaholo Local Municipality (MLM) and to  take the position of the Mayor in a coalition government. This is within the same municipality that  in the 2016 local elections the position of Mayor was occupied by the Metsimaholo Community Association (MCA), which gained one seat after contesting elections for the first as a result of pressure from the community that it must contest on its own. This  indicates that there are possibilities of the SACP  testing and building its electoral strength in  the local government sphere, which is effectively the space that is very significant to addressing the immediate and daily needs of communities on the ground for public services and goods. This is also the sphere that experiences an escalating  number of protests that are a combination of self-organization and spontaneity which heralded the formation of some of the civic\social movements and new parties currently involved in local government politics. Participation of the SACP in local government politics on its own will enable it to link up with these organizations thereby influencing community struggles. The SACP is not short of the political skills to engage in such a participation and use it to build the capacity, strength, support-base and confidence for the eventual participation in general elections.  One reason that  a person can think of for the hesitation or even unwillingness of the top echelon of the Party to pursue this option seriously is  that perhaps the party officials and its political elites  find it too risky.  Firstly, too risky   for their political careers or government opportunities and positions derived from being in alliance with the ruling party. Secondly, it is risky for the public  image that the party receives from being an ally to the ruling party. Thirdly, in the absence of an outright left party or coalition of left parties capable of seriously contesting state power,  the split of the votes of the tripartite alliance may lead to South Africa being under the rule of parties on the far right rather than left of the centrist  ANC.

Perhaps leadership of  the Party  believes that the loss of whatever social and political  currency or mileage that it derives from   its association with the ANC surpasses the possible political gains of  contesting elections on its own. However, a revolutionary party  cannot afford to be in the comfort zone nor  can it afford to be imprisoned  in specific organizational form or to be a slave to its own tactics and strategies.  A progressive, revolutionary party  must have the courage to stride where angels fear to tread  and be willing to explore and experiment with new modes and approaches to the struggle. .  As Tarrow (1982)  posits, the risk-averse behaviour of the communist parties  contradicts their  claim to be  unblemished revolutionaries and results in strategic rigidity, paralysis, and  sudden policy reversals. The reality is that a communist party that seeks to seize or shape or influence state  power  cannot afford to be fixed and rigid in its choice of strategic and tactical alliances  nor can it afford to be dogmatic about organizational and institutional forms.  In a socio-political and economic environment characterised by  volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity,  organizational and tactical  agility  is a must. At the same time , it is a fact that strategic and tactical reflexes pose a danger to the ideological consistency of an organization, particularly a progressive revolutionary party. Maintaining the balance between organizational, tactical and strategic agility and ideological consistency is probably the biggest quandary that communist parties that participate in parliamentary and  alliance \coalition politics face. As a party makes strategic and tactical responses to unfolding events and adapts itself to the ever-changing environment, it is likely to make both gains and losses – politically and otherwise.  As much as the party should make all efforts for its essential nature, purpose and message  to be the same, it must accept the fact that strategic and tactical responses to prevailing realities are likely to dictate a change in its  organizational form.

The problem posed by alliance and coalition politics is that the kind of alliances and coalitions that a party enters  may cause a dilution or confusion in its ideo-political identity.  The experience of socialist parties within the European Union (EU) highlights this point. The  Socialist Group (SG), an alliance of socialist, social democratic and centrist  democratic organizations   established in 1953, had since  1979   been either  the largest or second largest group in the Common Assembly – the precursor of the European Union (EU).   In response to the Single European Act of 1987, which facilitated the codification of the European Political Co-operation, the Socialist Group entered into a cooperation with the European People’s Party (EPP) to attain  the majority required by the cooperation procedure.  Since then, this left-right coalition dominated the Parliament, with the post of President alternating between the Socialist Group and the EPP.  ( Hiex et al, 2003, Lightfoot, 2005).  After successful efforts  of national parties  that constituted the Socialist Group to organize in the European region outside of parliament, they established the Confederation of Socialist Parties  of the European Community in 1974.The  Confederation of Socialist Parties of the European Community was succeeded by the Party of European Socialists (PES) in 1992. Consequently , the parliamentary group was renamed the Group of the Party of European Socialists on 21 April 1993.  In 1999 , the  Confederation  of the Party of European Socialists was renamed Socialist Group in the European Parliament and given a different logo to distinguish it from PES European political party.  After the 2009 European election the group’s  members of parliament were reduced to a point where it lost the status it gained in 2007 as  the second largest party in government.  Sammut(2019)  attributes  the decline of electoral support for  the  socialists and social democratic parties to factors such as political fragmentation, instability, security issues, low voter turnout, and the rise in nationalism and far right parties.  In response to this reality, the Group of the Party of European Socialists  sought for additional members in the Democratic Party of Italy, which till then was not an affiliate. As the Democratic Party is a  “big tent” centrist party with strong influences of social democracy  and the  Christian left,  a new and more inclusive name had to be found.   Thus, the group president, Martin Schulz proposed  the name Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats  on 18 June 2009. However, confusion on the various abbreviations of the name in English ( i.e  PASD, PASDE and S & D Group)  led to Schultz declaring that the group would be referred to as Socialists and Democrats until a final title was chosen.  Ultimately, the constitutive session of the party, held on 14 July 2009, adopted the formal name as  Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats and the abbreviation  S & D. While as Socialist Group in European Parliament,  it was previously associated to the Socialist International, under the name  Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, it joined the Progressive Alliance that was established on 22 May 2013 and is a member of the board of the Progressive Alliance.

Whereas the Socialist International (SI) is a political international which seeks to establish democratic socialism,   the Progressive Alliance is a political international for progressive and social democratic political parties and organizations. Importantly, the Progressive Alliance was established by former and current members of the Socialist International (SI) as an alternative to the SI. Clearly, the shift from being an associated organization of the SI to being an affiliate of the PA was dictated by the absorption of the Democratic Party and the increase of the number of centrist  parties in the alliance. In this sense the tactical manoeuvre of incorporating the Democratic Party within the alliance served to modulate the socialist  current and to give more traction to centrist current within the alliance.  Thus, the centre-left orientation of the party was the product  of efforts to mediate and harmonise the political and social agendas of socialist, social democratic and Christian democratic tendencies within  the party. One would also imagine that  this would have impacted on its domestic and international policies in the same way that it’s earlier coalition with the right-wing  EPP  would have constrained the policy choices and decisions of the coalition government. For instance there is likely to be serious tensions in how the socialist, social democrats and Christian democrats would go about in answering  and acting upon  concerns raised by EU citizens on issues such as security, migration issues and good economic governance. (Sammut, 2019)

In the  same way that (Sammut, 2019) propose that social democratic parties in Europe should seriously consider and address   other areas outside their traditional principles in order to reconnect with European citizens, the SACP may have to think and act outside their traditional modes of operation to capture the imagination and support of the populace  beyond their traditional congress movement and Marxist-Leninist  base. The way-forward for the SACP and other non-governing  communist\socialist parties should be  a comprehensive and  holistic strategy that entails active participation in both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary politics to agitate for the socialist cause, expose the inadequacies of reformist projects, build the fighting capacity of the working-class and the underclasses to think and act imaginatively, innovatively and forcefully to advance  socialist agenda. This requires that the SACP and other socialist formations free themselves from the vulgar vanguardism wherein the party ordains itself the intellectual sangoma that knows and sees everything about the present and the future and expects or demands  the masses only to shout : “siyavuma!”  This calls  for the SACP and the entire socialist left to demonstrate through social practice and tangible campaigns,  programmes and projects that an alternative to capitalism is possible and viable and the way out  human misery is the abolition of the current world system based on the production of “value” and its replacement with an egalitarian system that seeks to end the alienation of human beings from their labour, the products of their labour, themselves and fellow beings.

To reduce the possibilities of the type of alliances, coalitions and movement that it becomes part of disenabling its capacity to pronounce its class affinities practically through the policies and programmes it endorse or push, the Party must carefully examine the social and political agendas and class affinities of its political allies and focus its alliance efforts on socialist , green, radical feminists and anarchist organisations before it can think of being in alliance with centrist and right-wing parties. If for whatever reason  a communist  party  enters into a coalition government  with centrist  and right-wing as part of a socialist alliance, it will have more opportunities to exert a socialist agenda both within and outside of government than if it enters into alliance with a centrist organization on its own. importantly, whatever socialist alliance or alliance of socialists, social democrats and centrists that may emerge , must be based on clear-cut minimum demands. The socialist\communist party must take the lead in constructing\shaping such demands and in monitoring compliance and guarding against deviation from the minimum demands. The Party cannot afford to rely only on parliamentary structures and processes or a “ladies and gentlemen” arrangement\agreement  between socialists\communists and centrists or conservatives. It must  build its fighting capacity outside of government  and therefore be part of a broader movement-building and regular mass action outside of parliament. The social intent of the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary action of a socialist \communist party must be the seizure of political power and using that power to advance a social revolution. Anything else will amount to chasing shadows rather than pursuing and realising the socialist\communist society.


Hix, S, Kreppel, A and Noury, A  (2001 ) “The Party System in the European Parliament: Collusive or Competitive?” Journal of Common Market Studies Volume 41 issue April 2001 pp 309-331

Lightfoot, S (2005) Europeanizing Social Democracy? The Rise of the Party of European Socialists. London: Routledge

SACP (2006). “State Power”, Bua Komanisi , Volume 5, Issue no 1, May 2006, Special Edition

Sammut, B. R. (2019). The decline of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in European elections (Bachelor’s dissertation).

Tarrow, S (1982) “Transforming Enemies into Allies : Non-ruling Communist Parties in Multiparty Coalitions” The Journal of Politics. Volume 44, No 4 (Nov, 1982) pp 924-954

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