The South African Communist Party can be faulted on many fronts, but its sterling contribution to defeating apartheid and challenging capitalist exploitation was personified in the principled socialist morality and selflessness of Chris Hani, Joe Slovo and others.
In Hani’s words: “To be the general secretary of the SACP was belonging to a party that must link up with day-to-day struggles of the people.”
Yet today’s SACP is largely invisible in these popular struggles for social justice. At worst, the SACP proclaims these struggles as social liberalism and counter-revolutionary.
For all its 90 years of history, current radical rhetoric and the continued presence of many genuine rank and file socialists in it, the SACP is a shell that stands for a demobilising politics of intrigue, power battles, self-justifications for indulgence in trappings of state power, and promotion of personality cults.
The SACP has failed to move beyond a state-obsessed centralism. The SACP is now reduced to the role of mollifying increasingly desperate and restless poor and working people who bear the brunt of post-apartheid capitalism.
The crisis of the SACP cannot spell the end of left renewal. The challenge for forces of the left, poor and working people, and others committed to social justice is how to engender a new counter-hegemonic politics that is relevant and concrete. The formation in January 2011 of the Democratic Left Front is only one step in the much larger long-term processes of political, social and economic struggles ahead.
One of the most important struggles in this regard is to build alternatives to limited conceptions of political agency where, to count as a political force, a political actor has to form a party and contest elections in a one-party dominant model in a capitalist society.
This conception displaces the politics of the people with the self-serving politics of politicians. Politics can and must be about the people. Ordinary people cannot just be regarded as merely disgruntled and powerless protesters. They can go beyond apathetic one-off voting every five years or limited wage-based challenges to the wealthy business elite, or powerless grumbles against the failures of the ANC government.
Like Abahlali baseMijondolo, the Social Justice Coalition and many other localised struggles, the Grahamstown-based Unemployed People’s Movement shows the possibilities of a people-based politics. Formed in August 2009, it has become the most powerful force in the Makana municipality. Its formation represented a collective recognition of the appetite for self-emancipation, and without self-organisation, the unemployed in Grahamstown might as well have remained on the margins of that divided small town.
In its short two years of existence, the movement has marched, written deputations, submitted memorandums of demands, held sit-ins, held meetings with the state, used the law and more.
It has challenged unemployment, poor-quality housing, lack of housing, lack of water and sanitation, lack of electricity and street lighting, violence against women and problems with the social security system. The movement has humanised politics by concerning themselves with how to rebuild the social fabric of a poor community.
In all this, the movement has no illusion that the gradual recognition of constitutional socioeconomic rights and holding government accountable will be the ultimate answer to the systematic and structural marginalisation of the unemployed. The Unemployed People’s Movement is grappling with how to connect immediate struggles with their systemic roots and how to challenge the state as the main transmitter of inequalities.
The movement’s experience is only the start of what will definitely be a long-term process to renew politics in South Africa.
It is this kind of renewal that Hani yearned for when he said: “In the struggle … we have always identified the central role of the oppressed.” Hani’s yearning lives in the Unemployed People’s Movement and challenges the many genuine socialists in the SACP’s rank and file to ask and answer hard questions, lest they get left behind by history.
Jara is a former SACP member and a co-founder of the Democratic Left Front
31 July, 2011