The SACP: The second largest party in parliament

Dave Steward asks how a party which never contested an election could have more MPs than the Democratic Alliance


Last week the Independent Panel appointed to assess the performance of Parliament presented their report. They made many sensible recommendations, including proposals for electoral reform that would strengthen the accountability of members of parliament to the electorate; measures that would improve parliamentary oversight of the executive; and suggestions to make parliament more responsive to voters. They even proposed that Parliament should revisit the arms deal - including a debate on the appointment of a judicial commission of enquiry.

It is a pity that the Panel did not also investigate the political sleight of hand that has enabled the South African Communist Party to establish itself as the second largest registered political party in parliament without having to win a single vote in its own name.  A couple of years ago the SACP toyed with the idea of standing separately in national elections and even appointed a commission to examine this question. The commission noted that, "internationally, capitalist dominated societies are an extremely unfavourable electoral terrain for Communist Parties. There is not a single example of a Communist Party, on its own, winning national elections within a capitalist society - let alone using such a breakthrough as the platform to advance a socialist transformation."

Indeed. According to an Ipsos Markinor survey conducted in April 2007, only 8% of South Africans (and 5% of ANC supporters) would vote for a breakaway SACP/COSATU party if it were to stand independently in a national election. The SACP reached the conclusion that "although elections are important, there is not a pre-determined singular route for the working class (i.e. the SACP and COSATU) to hegemonise state power.'   

The SACP's prospects for parliamentary representation will, indeed, be far better if it remains in the Alliance, rather than having to fight elections on its own. There are already 80 SACP MPs in Parliament (compared with the DA's 46). They comprise a little less than a third of the ANC's parliamentary caucus - and 20% of all MPs (not bad for party with only 51 000 members!).

Prospects are good for the coming election as well. The new ANC leadership is deeply indebted to the SACP and COSATU for their support at Polokwane and might give sympathetic consideration to the Young Communists League's call for the SACP, COSATU and the ANC each to be allocated one third of the places on the ANC's electoral list.

Although SACP members will be standing under the name of the ANC, their party insists that "SACP cadres who are deployed as ANC elected representatives, or as public servants must continue to owe allegiance to the Party and cannot conduct themselves in ways that are contrary to the fundamental policies, principles and values of the SACP. The same principle applies to SACP cadres in other deployments, including within the trade union movement."

The SACP also insists that its MPs should retain their own party identity and loyalty once they have been elected to parliament under the ANC's colours. The SACP Policy Conference in September 2008 declared that "...the principle of retaining an independent SACP profile and identity, and the principle of loyalty to the aims and objectives of the SACP, remain and must be clearly affirmed and understood by Party members and Alliance partners. Elected public representatives who are Party members have responsibilities to the Party and the Party equally has responsibilities to support and effectively (if broadly) to mandate them."

The reality is that the policies of the SACP differ markedly from those of the ANC. The ANC describes itself as a "broad multi-class, mass organization, uniting the motive forces on the basis of a programme of transformation." It is a "broad church", a "hegemonic organization" that does not seek to define itself in exclusivist, or narrow ideological terms.  The ANC says that it is and necessarily remains, home to a variety of progressive ideological currents - nationalist, Africanist, socialist and of a variety of different classes and strata, all united behind a common commitment to national democratic transformation." 

The South African Communist Party, on the other hand, regards itself as the vanguard of the working class and still supports Marxism/Leninism.  Its medium term vision is "to secure working class hegemony in the State in its diversity and in all other sites of power" which, in time, would pave the way to establishment of a fully fledged ‘socialist' (i.e. communist) state.

Nor does the SACP make any secret of its intention of progressively taking control of the ANC. The Political Report of the SACP's 11th Congress Central Committee, presented to the 12th Congress in 2007, quotes with approval the 1928 resolution of the Communist International that the Communist Party in South Africa should  aim "to transform the African National Congress into a fighting nationalist revolutionary organization against the white bourgeoisie and the British imperialists, based upon the trade unions, peasant organizations, etc., developing systematically the leadership of the workers and the Communist Party in the this organization." The SACP, in July 2007, then draws specific attention to the last point: "we repeat: ‘developing systematically the leadership of the workers and the Communist Party in this organization.'"

The founding principles of the Constitution call for "...regular elections, a multiparty system of democratic government, to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness." These principles, in turn, must surely require that

  • millions of ANC voters should have a right to know exactly where their votes are going - since, as indicated by the 2007 Markinor poll, only 5% would vote for the SACP if it stood as a separate party;
  • a political party that would have trouble winning 5% of the vote under its own name should not emerge in Parliament with 20% of the seats;
  • a registered party that wins seats under the banner of another registered party should have no claim to maintain a separate political identity once it is in parliament.

The principle is clear: Political parties should either fight elections under their own names - or they should do so as part of a coalition that openly presents itself to the voters as a coalition, using the insignia of all the participating parties, with a clear indication of who on the coalition electoral lists belongs to which coalition member.

The Independent Panel would have done well if it had also considered this travesty of our parliamentary system. The Independent Electoral Commission, which has the responsibility of ensuring that elections are free and fair, should also give this blatant manipulation of the electoral system its urgent attention. 

Dave Steward is executive director of the F.W. de Klerk Foundation.

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