THE SOUTH AFRICAN COMMUNIST Party has recently emerged from its 15th National Congress (13-16 July 2022) with a resolution to build a Left popular front or a powerful, socialist movement of workers and poor. The South African Struggle for Socialism, the SACP’s draft political programme adopted at congress, described it as a: “Left popular mobilisation to win over (or win back) many genuine militants who drifted off into other places, groupings or organisations outside our movement.” Rolling back the neoliberal macroeconomic framework is identified as its key task.
So, is this Left popular front a genuine proposal for broader Left renewal? Or is it a perpetuation of the sterile national democratic revolution (NDR) strategy of the ANC-SACP alliance? The political programme has three parts: the first part discusses the multiple crises of capitalism, such as the environmental crisis, the economic crisis, the rural crisis of social reproduction, the crisis of social reproduction and urban slums, a capitalist hegemonic crisis, and the capitalist crisis in South Africa. The second section focuses on “the national democratic revolution and the struggle for socialism in South Africa”. Then the third section is on “alliances, fronts, programmes of action and the role and character of a vanguard party of socialism”. So, they are conscious of the deepening social crisis; yet they stick to the sterile NDR.
The SACP’s contradictions
There are several problems with the SACP’s discussion of these matters which then plunges their proposal of a Left front into disarray. The South African Struggle for Socialism is the SACP’s draft political programme adopted at congress. It shows that they are conscious of the deepening social crisis; yet they stick to the sterile NDR. They actually acknowledge neoliberalism as key to the building of the post-94 social crisis that has now become burning. But they make no serious attempt to analyse in a systematic way the mechanisms and impact of neoliberal restructuring over the last 28 years of ANC rule. It’s all generalisations. Nor is there any rethinking of the struggle for socialism in the context of the neoliberal capitalist crisis, even as we approach 30 years since ‘94.
So even the big crises in the economy, politics, ecology, social reproduction they talk about are just background, despite sounding aware that these crises have become an emergency. These burning crises do not feature in the conclusions they reach and in their way forward for building a socialist movement and alliances. In other words, this socialist movement they propose is not a coherent proposal for a Left renewal on a clear socialist basis. This is despite the fact that they do acknowledge that the ANC decline has become irreversible.
They say there is no contradiction between building the Left popular front and their close ties with the ANC. But the ANC government has been an important linkage and agency of the neoliberal restructuring since 1994. It is now absolutely committed to neoliberal economic policy. The SACP acknowledges that, but only half-heartedly when they say the Left front must “certainly be aggressively against some of the dominant trends within the ANC”.
28 years of ANC’s neoliberalism is a long time, yet the SACP is still ambivalent about confronting it head-on. They are not clear on how they want to build mass power on an anti-capitalist basis, without which the ANC’s neoliberalism cannot be challenged.
They make no analysis of why they failed to challenge neoliberalism within the ANC over the past 28 years. They are therefore unable to pose a political programme that can shake the neoliberal foundations and pave a path towards meaningful socialist struggles in conjunction with popular classes on the ground and other Left forces outside the ANC.
They are not alive to the reality that they can either pose a serious challenge to ANC’s neoliberalism within the alliance or break away from the alliance in order to forge a genuine socialist path. And yet what is worse, they still think they can win back genuine militants who have Left the ANC (probably Numsa and its political party SRWP, some in the EFF, and other socialist activists who are not affiliated but are committed) and win over other Left forces historically outside the ANC. In their current pathetic state and with their woeful performance, they are clearly daydreaming.
The SACP thinks in this backward and uninspiring way because they are trapped in the ANC quagmire and their old dogmatic Marxist-Leninist template.
Trapped in the ANC quagmire
The ANC has come full circle in its bourgeois capitulation. By being trapped in ANC factional battles, the SACP has reduced itself to a Leftwing of the bourgeoisie. After the 2007 ANC Polokwane conference, they attached themselves to Zuma. Now they are the main backers of the billionaire capitalist Cyril Ramaphosa. They absolutely defend Ramaphosa on the Phala Phala farm scandal, involving millions of US dollars. This shows how they have not learnt anything from their close relationship with the reactionary criminal Zuma that backfired. ANC veteran Mavuso Msimang has a far better approach when he says Cyril should step down until the matter is fully investigated.
Communist Parties no longer offer a viable model for effective Left parties and movements to challenge capitalism and pose revolutionary advances in today’s world. But there are other Communist Parties elsewhere in the world that did not unconditionally tie themselves to nationalist movements in the liberation struggle. And after liberation they made tremendous progress in building radical social projects that are worth something. Just look at the Communist Party of China and how it became powerful after dumping the nationalist Kuomintang; how it waged a relentless struggle until the victory of the socialist revolution in 1949. When it was time for communist parties in various states in India to drop the Congress Party in pursuit of militant struggles, for advancing the social demands of popular classes, they did so. And they secured significant victories and even built radical projects in some instances. It is overwhelmingly evident that the socialist project in South Africa needs to be reborn outside the ANC and on the basis of renewed concrete analysis. Hence the need for renewed strategic perspectives. The SACP is proving incapable of rising to this need.
Failure to analyse change
Changes in contemporary capitalism require an updating: of definitions and analysis of social classes, class struggles, political parties and social movements; and of modes of action for bringing about radical social transformation amidst the deepening capitalist crisis. The dogmatic Marxism-Leninism of the SACP makes them fail dismally in this challenge. In their discussion, the SACP don’t seem to appreciate the changes that more than 40 years of neoliberal capitalism have wrought in shaping the social formation of post-apartheid South Africa. Changes within the working class – precariousness of jobs, unionised workers becoming a small minority etc. Extreme forms of poverty in township population and rural masses, with a relatively large black middle class and a growing class of millionaires that deepens social inequality. The SACP continue to put trade unions at the centre of their socialist strategy, despite their drastic decline.
They do this without any sense of trade union renewal, amidst the neoliberal restructuring of work and the economic crisis. They acknowledge the widespread unemployment and extreme poverty in urban areas but they still can’t conceptualise any real political agency for these popular classes, who constitute the majority of the population. They are victims of neoliberal capitalism, but they are not workers in the typical sense of industrial capitalism. Neoliberal capitalism has been shedding jobs since the 80s. Yet they still talk about trade unions leading township struggles. They are clearly found wanting on the changing nature of the social subject for revolutionary change –the nature of the class force that will lead that change.
This is all the function of an abstract Marxism-Leninism that is detached from the changing social reality brought about by neoliberal capitalism. So sometimes they end up making serious theoretical mistakes. For example, they describe the urban poor found in the shanty towns of countries in the Global South as lumpen proletariat. That was the way Marx described the classes that came from old dying European feudal society and could not be integrated into the emerging European industrial capitalist societies. Thus this lumpen proletariat tended to resort to crime as a means of survival. You can’t draw parallels between today’s urban poor of the Global South and the European lumpen proletariat of 19th-century Europe. There is a crisis of peripheral capitalism only found in the Global South.
It is capitalism but with inadequate industrial development compared to the central capitalism of the Global North. This is so precisely because of the polarisation, which is part of global capitalism, between countries of the periphery – of the Global South – and countries of the centre – of the Global North. It’s a polarisation of unequal development. So the crisis tends to express itself differently in the two poles of global capitalism. The Communist Party comrades simply don’t appreciate that, as Marxists, we only have to start with Marx. We don’t necessarily have to end with him. Though he was a genius, Marx did not develop a template that we must simply apply eternally. Marx’s opus remains open-ended and incomplete. That is why we have to advance it and develop it further in light of the changing historical and social reality.
Adapt or die
Even when they discuss the building of the Left popular front, the starting point of the SACP is to quote a 1977 Central Committee Political Report, The Way Forward from Soweto. Could not they perhaps find, say, a 2012 document with the title, The Way Forward from Marikana? Because that’s where we are now. Revolutionary theory can’t be eternal and transhistorical. And it is precisely their attachment to an overtly bourgeois ANC that can explain this. The SACP referred to Marikana workers as “vigilantes”. But Marikana represents a moment in history when the ANC permanently crossed class lines, to be firmly located within the camp of the bourgeoisie. Sadly, the SACP, that claims to be the vanguard of workers, was with the ANC at this moment of crossing.
We need to build a new historical bloc of Left and popular forces that is rooted in the social reality of post-apartheid South Africa. The anti-apartheid historical bloc disintegrated in the late 1990s when the leadership of working-class formations got co-opted into government and given positions in business. They now form part of the new black elite class.
Popular classes have been waging struggles to resist neoliberalism and to pose radical alternatives. Though some victories have been registered over the last 20 years, there has been no significant success in sustaining effective mass struggles and building formidable mass movements capable of revolutionary advances in post-1994 South Africa. Why have things turned out like this? That’s what we need to grapple with; both in theory and in practice. There can be no easy answers from the vanguard, decreed in a sanctified doctrine, even with the change of SACP leadership from Blade Nzimande to Solly Mapaila as the new General Secretary.
The Mapaila euphoria is blind to the fact that there is still no change in theory, policy and practice concerning major class dynamics and how to advance socialist struggles within and outside the alliance. For instance, the new Central Committee includes David Masondo as the 2nd Deputy GS. Masondo is the Deputy Finance Minister. In that capacity, he has become an agent in the service of the neoliberal fiscal policy from the National Treasury. This means the entrenchment of neoliberalism will be defended even from within the SACP, albeit with a radical-sounding, sterile NDR rhetoric that Masondo is steeped in.
Latin America has played a pioneering role in rejecting neoliberalism and posing a viable model for socialist struggles in the 21st century. Popular movements, not political parties, were at the forefront of the struggles against neoliberalism. Those movements were engaged in concrete popular struggles made up of various popular classes. They had decisive victories against elements of neoliberalism (privatisation, neoliberal agriculture and land polices, unequal trade, water privatisation, foreign debt, free education etc).
There is no sense of popular struggles being proposed by the SACP against dominant neoliberal polices in South Africa. For instance, the key anti-neoliberal demands could include the basic income grant set at R1,300, as per the upper-bound poverty line determined by Statistics South Africa. It could include fighting budget cuts on public sector workers’ wages, and austerity on public basic services such as education, health, housing etc.
Another important anti-neoliberal struggle is organising community struggles around the electricity crisis, posing a socially responsible restructuring of Eskom to counter the looming privatisation, and pushing for revolutionary changes in the production, consumption and energy usage, as part of the pathway to ecological survival.
There is no articulation of some of these key anti-neoliberal social demands in the SACP’s Left popular front proposal. Where these are mentioned, it is done in a convenient rhetorical way rather than as a basis for genuine popular struggles. The starting point of being a communist today should be to reformulate an actual critique of late capitalism. It is no longer sufficient to be generally against capitalism. We need to be against this capitalism, the neoliberal capitalism that combines with the historical features of South Africa’s capitalism and the capitalism of a world in which we increasingly see failures and crises.
That’s what the SACP doesn’t get with their proposal of a Left popular front. It falls way short of any meaningful Left renewal and movement building for socialist forces. Instead, they perpetuate the sterile NDR strategy!
Gunnett Kaaf is a Marxist activist and writer based in Bloemfontein. He is a former SACP member.