Dilemmas of the SACP (I)

James Hamill analyses the Party's politicial and ideological paralysis

“Keep-a hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse”: Dilemmas of the South African Communist Party, Part 1

The South African Communist Party (SACP) has always had a high opinion of itself as a pivotal political actor and ideological and intellectual powerhouse. Yet, despite its considerable self-importance, it has actually been a relatively marginal force in the country’s politics in the democratic era, and even on those occasions where it has played a significant role, its contribution has often produced harmful outcomes.

Since 1994, the SACP has struggled to establish a distinctive identity or to construct a coherent narrative about the country’s future and its own role in it. It has consistently ducked the challenge of mobilising support in its own right for an ‘advance to socialism’, preferring instead to cling to the coattails of its much larger alliance partner, the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

There was a time when the SACP had rather loftier ambitions with its theoretical two stage model of revolution. Within this ideological framework, it would first assist the ANC in the building of the ‘national democratic revolution’ (NDR), a vague concept but essentially the elimination of apartheid-based structures in favour of the institutions of, in SACP-speak, ‘bourgeois democracy.’

The completion of the NDR would then see the SACP embarking independently on stage two of the process where the party would lead the advance to a socialist society. While the merits of this approach were always highly questionable, it did at least provide a pathway and a project to justify the party’s existence.

However, the period since 1994 has been a tale of stagnation for the SACP as both the completion of the NDR and the SACP’s advance to socialism have stalled. The NDR has now become an almost infinite process and the SACP’s independent pursuit of socialism has become a moveable feast for which the time is never quite right.

SACP Myths and Realities

There is a sobering truth lurking beneath the dense theoretical verbiage of SACP statements and publications, namely, that the party’s paralysis is rooted in a chronic lack of self-confidence about its ideology, mission and depth of support.

Since 1994, the SACP has failed to address a number of questions about its future opting instead for constant deferral, a familiar malaise throughout the ANC-led alliance. This has consigned the party to a no man’s land in which it has chosen not to build its own electoral base while simultaneously failing to be truly influential in shaping the economic trajectory of the ANC.

Moreover, throughout the democratic era, the SACP has been unable to articulate a compelling narrative as to what socialism actually is now and what a socialist society should look like in a post-Soviet world where that particular model has failed and lost all credibility.

This should have been a particularly pressing matter for the SACP as it had a long history of devotion to the Soviet Union, uncritically endorsing all of Moscow’s policies, domestic and foreign, for almost seven decades.[1]

Nor has it been able to say when the NDR might be considered a completed phase and therefore when an advance to socialism might begin, the form it will take, and how and when the SACP will finally pursue its own path independent of the ANC. In so far as they are debated at all, these issues remain as clear as mud and the party has drifted aimlessly as a result.

Although the SACP has floated the possibility of standing for elections – and even approved this in principle at its 14th Party Congress in 2017 – it has been very reluctant to commit to this in practice. In fact, the wording of that 2017 decision highlighted the SACP’s extreme caution on this question.

The Congress took refuge in the party’s infamous, near impenetrable, jargon noting that ‘after considerable debate at Congress, we have resolved that while the SACP will certainly contest elections, the exact modality in which we do so needs to be determined by way of a concrete analysis of the concrete reality and through the process of active engagement with worker and progressive formations.” [ii] Again, as clear as mud.

In July 2022, the SACP’s 15th Congress decided that it would not stand independently of the ANC in the 2024 national and provincial elections, and would focus instead on ‘rebuilding’ the alliance, by which it means attempting to enhance the SACP’s influence within it.

The party’s newly elected general secretary, Solly Mapaila, stated that the Congress had decided ‘it would be premature to enter into the electoral space’[iii] – the SACP’s definition of ‘premature’ being 32 years after it was legalised, 28 years after it first joined a governing alliance with the ANC, and five years after it first announced a commitment in principle to contesting elections.

This feeble argument leaves it vulnerable to the charge that it much prefers ‘piggy backing’ on the ANC to the hard slog of mobilising voters under its own steam. It also suggests the SACP is concerned that polling a derisory share of the popular vote would leave it politically exposed by puncturing most of the self-serving myths which have long sustained the party. By default, therefore, it has opted to remain within the ANC led alliance permanently but without ever making that arrangement explicit.

The price of piggy backing

This unwillingness to cut the apron strings tying it to the ANC has had a number of adverse consequences for the SACP:

Accepting ANC dominance

The party has consistently been taken for granted by an ANC leadership which has reminded the SACP that those of its members selected for the ANC candidate lists chose to stand on an ANC rather than a SACP platform. They are therefore required to support ANC positions in parliament and government, not SACP ones.

Furthermore, the ANC has periodically informed both the SACP and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) - the third member of the tripartite alliance - that South Africa has an ANC government not an ‘alliance government’.

This has not played well with either organisation but it has demonstrated the imbalance of power within the alliance and has also been an effective ANC tool in neutralising any SACP capacity for mischief making.

Careerism and Material Self-Interest

By permanently remaining within the ANC-led alliance, the SACP risks sending the message that it is motivated principally by careerism and material self-interest. Its critics contend that it has been co-opted by the ANC leadership and has been prepared to mute its criticism of government policy in exchange for positions in all three tiers of government, and places for SACP members on the ANC candidate lists for the national and provincial assemblies.

In the post-94 period, there has certainly not been an automatic connection between the presence of SACP members in government and the development of more radical economic policies, even when senior SACP figures have held Cabinet positions and even economic portfolios such as Rob Davies, Alec Erwin, Blade Nzimande, Jeremy Cronin, and currently David Masondo, the Deputy-Minister of Finance. In fact, the party itself has bluntly recognised its failure in this regard. At its Congress in July 2022, it stated:

“For the past 26 years, since the government imposed the neoliberal economic policy called Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR), the SACP and other militant working-class formations have been calling for a change in the macroeconomic framework. Without a fundamental shift in the macroeconomic framework, South Africa will continue to experience the problems of the crisis-high levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality that it has failed to address since 1996 after the government-imposed GEAR. The persistence of these problems directly results from GEAR and its lasting legacy, including its shock therapy, besides the persisting legacy of colonialism and apartheid, and the impact of global capitalist crises.”[iv]

The nature of the alliance and the presence of SACP senior leadership figures in government and parliament also means that the party is inevitably implicated in the ANC’s many failures despite its inability to influence policy to any significant degree, the ultimate lose-lose scenario. It also allows other (supposedly) ‘left’ formations to outflank it and to characterise the SACP as old, tired, bureaucratic and ineffectual.

This is precisely the line of attack deployed by the leadership of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) who can argue that at least they had the courage to leave the ANC in 2012 and to campaign as an independent party from 2013 and are therefore uncontaminated by ANC failures and corruption, unlike the compromised SACP.

The SACP and ANC factionalism

Remaining within the alliance has also led the party to focus its energies not on building a left alternative but in seeking to influence internal ANC debates through endless manoeuvring, factionalism and leadership struggles.

For example, the SACP’s marginalisation by President Thabo Mbeki from 1999 onward caused it to make the grave error of promoting Jacob Zuma as a viable alternative. The SACP supported his rise to the leadership of party and state thus enabling the rampant corruption and dysfunctional governance which his malignant presidency spawned.

Unsurprisingly, this period in SACP history is now rarely, if ever, mentioned in its literature or statements but the record is clear: Blade Nzimande, then SACP general-secretary and now its national chairperson, and Zwelinzima Vavi, then COSATU general-secretary, were both fervent champions of Zuma.[v]

They dismissed all criticism of him as part of an elite conspiracy to thwart his presidential aspirations and each made an energetic contribution to Zuma’s successful campaign to secure the ANC presidency at the party’s elective conference in Polokwane in December 2007. Nzimande was subsequently rewarded with a place in Zuma’s government between 2009 and 2017.

For the SACP and COSATU to then bemoan South Africa’s descent into state capture and kleptocracy under Zuma,[vi] while failing to acknowledge their own complicity in this calamity, was a shameful episode, particularly as they knew he was mired in corruption allegations long before becoming ANC leader.

The SACP, despite its progressive language on such issues, was also untroubled in backing the candidacy of a man with deeply reactionary views on gender and homosexuality and who was flirting with ethnic chauvinism, supposedly a taboo for the party. Zuma also failed to utter a solitary criticism of the violent threats and misogynistic abuse which his supporters aimed at his accuser on a daily basis during his 2006 rape trial.

A monastic silence on these matters was maintained throughout by the SACP as it would not permit anything, however reprehensible, to impede Zuma’s progress to the ANC leadership which it considered vital to its own fortunes. The SACP also supported Zuma’s re-election as ANC leader in 2012 and only abandoned him in 2017, but as this came eight years into his presidency it was far too late in the day to mitigate its toxic effects.

Thereafter, the party placed its faith in Cyril Ramaphosa and his project for ANC ‘renewal’ when he secured the party presidency in December 2017 and the presidency of the country in early 2018, following Zuma’s removal.

Once again, the SACP hoped that its support would be rewarded with a policy shift to the left. Predictably, this has not happened, just as it failed to happen under the four previous presidents since 1994 and, equally predictably, the SACP is now starting to express its dissatisfaction with the direction of policy.[vii]

This reliance upon an approach which has consistently failed demonstrates a lack of conviction on the SACP’s part that there is a sufficiently large constituency in the country around which a socialist party can successfully mobilise. This seems counterintuitive given South Africa’s vast reservoirs of poverty and inequality and the ANC’s inability to transform that socio-economic landscape after almost 30 years in power; all of which should provide fertile terrain for a party of the left.

However, the SACP appears to believe that leaving the ANC-led alliance still amounts to a reckless gamble, a potential journey into the wilderness. While this may have been an understandable position between 1994 and 2009, when the ANC was its electoral peak, it now seems quite perverse given its accelerating decline, its failure across so many policy areas, and the fading of its liberation mystique.[viii] The SACP seems to have very limited faith that it will be the electoral beneficiary of that decline and therefore feels it is preferable to have a modest degree of influence under the ANC umbrella - by acting as its radical conscience - than to have virtually none at all outside.

‘It’s cold outside the ANC’ …or is it?

No party takes the warning that ‘it’s cold outside the ANC’[ix] more seriously than the SACP. That thinking of course rests on the assumption that the ANC will still command a majority in 2024 rather than falling below 50% of the vote.

That would at least raise the possibility of an anti-ANC coalition being assembled or a much weakened ANC having to co-operate with other parties. The leadership may also be conscious that any split from the ANC is unlikely to be a neat and orderly separation but may fragment the SACP itself.

Some of its members may be enthusiastic about the party severing the umbilical cord with the ANC while others, still apparently a comfortable majority, will prioritise their loyalty to the ANC. This latter group may be driven by the material and careerist reasons mentioned above or because, in an alliance which permits dual membership, the ANC rather than the SACP stands at the centre of their political universe - or indeed these categories may overlap and both factors are in play.

All of this runs counter to the SACP’s swagger at its July Congress about its growth in membership to an all-time high of 340,000 and Nzimande’s assurance that the party now has a presence in all nine provinces and in all communities: urban, rural and informal.

That is surely a solid platform from which any party could begin to explore its electoral potential, yet Nzimande uses his continuing influence to cement the SACP’s position as a constrained, non-electoral, party within the broader ANC-led alliance, a stance also supported by the new general-secretary.

There would seem to be a reasonably strong argument in the current political environment – one of ANC decline and the likely emergence of coalition politics nationally and provincially - for the SACP forging an alliance with the ANC subsequent to an election in which it had stood as an independent party.

The SACP would be bringing its own proven body of support to that arrangement which would give it greater weight and leverage in discussions over policy and the allocation of government portfolios, particularly if its share of support was likely to prove decisive nationally or provincially.

As Grootes notes, in the more fragmented politics of the future South Africa, even a party with 10% or less of the vote could become a national or provincial kingmaker. [x] Yet the SACP, despite all the boasting about its membership figures and impressive reach, remains unwilling to take the plunge, its reticence now far too deeply ingrained.

This is the first article in a two part series.


[1] Paul Trewhela, The SACP: Strategy and tactics of the Trojan Horse’, Politicsweb, 27 October 2008 and James Hamill ‘The SACP Since 1990: The Weight of Stalinist History’, Politicsweb, 13 August 2020

[ii] ‘We will contest elections at some point – SACP’, Politicsweb, 15 July 2017

[iii] Thando Maeko, ‘SACP will not compete against ANC in 2024 elections’, Business Day, 17 July 2022

[iv]SACP will work to strengthen its independent voice’, Politicsweb, 18 July 2022

[v] Stephen Grootes, ‘Sharp, sharp Blade: two major issues define Nzimande’s decades on top of the SACP’, Daily Maverick, 13 July 2022

[vi] ‘Crucial to now dismantle state capture networks – SACP’, Politicsweb, 23 June 2022

[vii] Thando Maeko and Hajra Omarjee, ‘ANC faces leftist push to reform as SACP calls for a summit’, Business Day, 22 April 2022

[viii] Ferial Haffajee, ‘ANC’s collapse as South Africa’s majority party is foretold in new poll, Daily Maverick, 14 August 2022

[ix] Genevieve Quintal, ‘Its cold outside the ANC – Dlamini’, The Citizen, 11 January 2014

[x] Stephen Grootes, ‘The SACP has a new( ish) leadership – so what’s next?’, Daily Maverick, 19 July 202