Dilemmas of the SACP (II)

James Hamill writes on the Party's baleful influence on ANC govt policy, where it has been able to exercise it

“Keep-a hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse”: Dilemmas of the South African Communist Party, Part 2

The first part of this exploration of the South African Communist Party (SACP) in the post-1994 era considered its reluctance to detach itself from the alliance with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and to contest elections as an independent party. That reticence has had a range of adverse consequences for the party.

It has implicated it in government failures, allowed the ANC leadership to take the party for granted, and caused the SACP to place its faith in navigating the treacherous waters of ANC factionalism and leadership struggles as its principal means of influencing South Africa politics.

Part 2 considers three main themes: first, it examines those areas where the SACP has exerted some influence, albeit with often regrettable outcomes. Second, its ongoing but problematic campaign to block economic liberalisation and, finally, the distinctly mixed blessings for South Africa conferred by the party’s growing political irrelevance.

The SACP’s baleful influence

Inevitably there are some areas where a meaningful, if often baleful, SACP influence over the ANC government is visible. In foreign policy, the SACP has been one of the main drivers of the government’s ‘anti-imperialist’ stance in which the definition of ‘anti-imperialism’ is sufficiently elastic to accommodate indulgence of Russian imperialist aggression in Ukraine[i] and expressions of solidarity with an assortment of grim dictatorships in China, Syria, Iran, North Korea[ii] as well as Putin’s gangster regime in Russia itself.

These regimes are the very antithesis of the values embedded in South Africa’s own constitution but they can draw upon the instinctive support of the SACP (and large parts of the ANC) on grounds of their hostility to the West, always enemy number one in party demonology.[iii]

The SACP’s influence is also apparent in shaping the internal political culture and organisation of the ANC with the adoption of the traditional communist modus operandi of democratic centralism and cadre deployment where ANC loyalists are planted throughout the state apparatus and public sector to guarantee the party’s control over them, or to ‘hegemonise state power’ in SACP jargon.[iv]

The final report of the Zondo Commission into state capture in June 2022 found that this policy, as well as being illegal and unconstitutional, was directly linked to the collapse of state-owned enterprises by facilitating corruption, cronyism and appointments based on loyalty to the ANC, or to particular factions within the ANC, not ability or expertise.[v]

Although these contributions are hardly insignificant, they do not amount to the SACP tail wagging the ANC dog scenario some commentators describe[vi] and they may even be considered a relatively meagre return for a party which views itself, however absurdly, as a crucial player and the vanguard of the working class.

In typically Leninist fashion, this vanguard role is claimed as some kind of divine right of communist parties irrespective of workers’ actual opinions on the matter. It is also asserted while the SACP invites us to avert our gaze from the elephant in the room: the party has never received a single vote in a national or provincial election nor had a single representative elected to parliament or a provincial assembly under its own banner.

Frustratingly, in those areas where the SACP adopted a more enlightened position it failed to change government policy. Two in particular stand out from the Mbeki era. On the HIV/AIDS crisis, it stood in defence of scientific and medical orthodoxy in the face of Mbeki’s malign AIDS denialism which cost thousands of lives.[vii]

This led to Nzimande’s ostracism and the party being pushed further to the margins, a process which had begun in 1996 with the adoption of the Mbeki-driven Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy which the SACP and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) considered a neo-liberal abomination.

It also opposed Mbeki’s notorious policy of ‘quiet diplomacy’ on the post-2000 Zimbabwe crisis which abandoned any pretence of even-handedness between the two protagonists, the ruling ZANU-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Instead, Mbeki embarked upon a highly partisan attempt to shore up the dominance of ZANU-PF despite its appalling record in bringing despotism, mayhem and economic ruin to Zimbabwe.

Déjà vu all over again

Like the ANC itself, the SACP’s best days are well behind it, but unlike the ANC it cannot reflect upon any landslide electoral triumphs or on three decades directing the nation’s affairs to provide consolation.

Ultimately, the SACP has pulled its punches and been a prisoner of its own timidity. It currently inhabits a political twilight zone where it is unwilling to chart its own independent course but is incapable of steering the ANC in a direction favoured by the party, still less making it an instrument of the party.

In fact, it might be argued that while it has sought, with some success, to frustrate and impede the pace of economic liberalisation, it has been unable to halt or reverse that process since the introduction of GEAR in 1996. This seems set to continue as the dire condition of the state-owned enterprises (SOEs), many of which are unfit for purpose after years of looting and gross mismanagement under the ANC, seems likely to lead to further liberalisation.

This will be led by the energy sector whose troubles capture in microcosm the wider failings of the ANC[viii], but will not be exclusive to it as all the SOEs are now dysfunctional, to a greater or lesser degree. Tortuous semantics and deft political footwork may be required from Ramaphosa’s government in a bid to head off an ideological confrontation within the alliance as the SACP and COSATU are certain to rage at what they will see as a further capitulation to neo-liberalism.

However, the unpalatable fact is that the desperate, hollowed out, plight of the SOEs has torpedoed the case for the status quo. The SACP now finds itself unimaginatively arguing for highly statist solutions in a context in which the South African state is failing in virtually every area for which it exercises responsibility and it is now synonymous with incompetence and endemic corruption.

Consequently, the SACP will struggle to make a persuasive case for the preservation of the existing level of state ownership far less securing its expansion. The myth of a capable or ‘development state’, so central to ANC and SACP ideology, has been brutally exposed in the last decade as no such state currently exists in South Africa beyond the wishful thinking of party ideologues.[ix]

Unless he wants to continue along a path of proven failure, political necessity will push Ramaphosa towards a policy change. However, because the unwieldy and fractious nature of the ANC coalition makes efficient government so difficult, that policy change will likely be qualified by some attempt to pacify the SACP and COSATU, particularly as they are key elements in his support base.

It will also trigger their customary calls for an alliance summit to address the crisis in relations and to press for policy revisions in what has become a never ending post-1996 loop.

SACP decline: a mixed blessing?

The SACP has had a very chequered history. It provided unconditional support for Soviet foreign policy during the Cold War, including the invasions of Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), Afghanistan (1979), and the Soviet-inspired crackdown in Poland (1981).

Now, in a supremely depressing moment, it has unconditionally endorsed Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine to extend this ignominious record and confirming its knee-jerk support for Russian military aggression wherever and whenever it occurs.

It helped facilitate the Zuma disaster – an episode in party history it would prefer was quietly forgotten - and its politics are still defined by a musty, cobwebbed Stalinism. Given all this, its marginalisation might be considered no bad thing. That said, a word of caution is in order.

The decline of the SACP may leave a void on the left likely to be filled by the demagogues of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) whose politics – militaristic, authoritarian, populist, racist and rooted in a leadership cult – provides a grotesque mutation of the fascist and Stalinist traditions.

Over the years, the SACP has at least produced some serious thinkers, not a claim anyone could reasonably make on behalf of the EFF. It was a 1992 article by the SACP General Secretary in the party journal, The African Communist, which played a significant role in charting a way out of the political impasse which risked derailing South Africa’s post-1990 transition.[x]

Unlike the EFF, the SACP has consistently opposed the politics of racial rabble-rousing and it has not succumbed to the militant impossibilism which is the EFF’s trademark. Its growing irrelevance may prove to be a mixed blessing as it becomes clear – if it is not already – that there is much worse out there.


[i] Thapelo Lekabe. ‘Russia-Ukraine: SACP backs Putin standing up “against US imperialism”’, The Citizen, 25 February 2022

[ii] ‘ANC and SACP applaud N Korea leader on his re-election’, ENCA, 17 May 2016

[iii] Solly Mapaila, ‘Our immediate programme stemming from our national conference – SACP’ Politicsweb, 8 August 2022

[iv] Paul Trewhela, ‘The SACP: Strategy and tactics of the Trojan Horse’ , Politicsweb, 27 October 2008

[v] Ferial Haffajee, ‘Cadre deployment unconstitutional and illegal – Commission’s bombshell finding on ANC’s key policy’, Daily Maverick, 24 June 2022

[vi] Ivo Vegter, ‘Second ESKOM confirms ANC is ideologically bankrupt’, Daily Friend, 19 July 2022

[vii] Sarah Boseley, ‘Mbeki AIDS denial “caused 300,000 deaths”’, The Guardian, 26 November 2008

[viii] Stephen Grootes, ‘Powerless, Clueless, Hopeless: ANC’s complete and sustained failure to deliver electricity will be punished at the polls’, Daily Maverick, 19 September 2022

[ix] Ivo Vigter, ‘Second ESKOM confirms ANC is ideologically bankrupt’, Daily Friend, 19 July 2022

[x] Joe Slovo, ‘Negotiations: what room for compromise?’, The African Communist, Number 130, Third Quarter 1992