We need to learn lessons from the past

Jeremy Cronin replies to Mbeki spokesperson Mukoni Ratshitanga's criticism of the SACP

Red Alert

What we need is maximum unity to defend and further develop our democracy, not peevish attacks – Response to Mukoni Ratshitanga by Jeremy Cronin

The current avalanche of Gupta related e-mails provides a more granular understanding of what has been obvious for some time. There has been an insidious, large-scale parasitic looting of public resources. The recent study by leading academics, “Betrayal of the Promise”, aptly describes it as a “silent coup”.

In these circumstances we need to ask: “What is to be done?” Part of the answer is the forging of the broadest possible patriotic front across ideological divides in defence of our constitution, democracy, and national sovereignty. This includes the wide-spread call (first suggested by the SACP) for the establishment of an independent judicial commission to look specifically at the role of the Gupta family and its parasitic political and corporate network.

Particularly those of us in the political space need to ask two additional questions. “How did we get here?” and, an awkward but necessary: “What, if any, has been our individual and organisational contribution to the mess?”

Mukoni Ratshitanga, previously former President Mbeki’s spokesperson, entered this discussion but effectively dodged all three questions (“Men who make their own history, as they please”, Sunday Times 4 June 2017). As often happens in pupil-mentor relationships, the tone, the prose style and the prickliness of Ratshitanga’s intervention suggest the continued inspiration of his mentor.

Ratshitanga’s intervention is a peevish attack on the SACP in general, and most especially on our general secretary, Blade Nzimande. Ratshitanga’s irritation appears to be largely with the prominent role the SACP has been playing in the critique of state capture. More specifically his irritation seems to have been sparked by an SACP statement that the recent Seriti Commission into the arms deal was a “white wash” and that any judicial commission into state capture must not follow similar lines.

There is plenty of personal history behind Ratshitanga’s ire. It would be unrealistic, I guess, to simply suggest bygones should be left as such. Certainly, there are self-critical lessons that the SACP needs to draw, as last (2-4 June 2017) SACP central committee (CC) emphasised. Although the SACP never formally endorsed Jacob Zuma for the ANC presidency at the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane conference, much of the SACP organisational apparatus was actively involved in supporting him. A mini-cult of the personality was created at the time, and leading SACP voices were among those involved. Going into the future the SACP must vigorously avoid any “great-man-as-saviour” temptation.

More substantively, as the past weekend’s CC noted, back in 2007 the SACP was very much involved in an alignment of forces best described as a “Polokwane marriage of convenience”.

From at least 1996, the SACP and COSATU, along with many others, were in open opposition to the neo-liberal turn engineered by a leading group within the ANC in which Mbeki was undoubtedly a key factor. In essence, this project was an implicit pact between established big capital and the new political elite, consummated in highly-leveraged black economic empowerment deals for the politically connected in exchange for policies that allowed established monopoly capital to largely evade developmental disciplining by the new democratic state. Additionally, key parastatals (among them Eskom and Transnet) were corporatised with a view to privatisation as a new source for private BEE accumulation.

This project also had a political dimension, borrowed substantially from the now discredited “Third Way” current associated with European politicians like Tony Blair. In the South African reality this meant eviscerating the popular movement character of the ANC and transforming it into a supposedly “modernised”, narrow parliamentary electoral formation controlled by a presidential centre in the state and funded by BEE money.

Despite GDP growth in the Mbeki years, the underlying structural features of our apartheid-colonial political economy persisted and the triple crisis of unemployment and racialised inequality and poverty was reproduced. Terrible blunders were also made in this period, notably AIDS denialism.

This was the context in which the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane Conference took place. On the eve of conference, the SACP issued a statement calling on delegates to insist on “either a change of direction, or a change of leadership”. SACP and COSATU aligned ANC delegates were joined by another grouping – essentially a right-wing, narrow nationalist tendency that expressed the frustration of aspirant BEE players who felt excluded from the magic, inner-BEE circle of the Mbeki years. The ANC Youth League was a key point of focus for this tendency with Julius Malema among its more outspoken agitators.

The SACP-COSATU left axis on the one hand and the ANC YL and its BEE backers on the other constituted the “Polokwane marriage of convenience”. Programmatically the two sides were nominally united around the call to re-establish the ANC and its alliance as the “strategic political centre”, as opposed to the narrow, state-centred and technicist Mbeki presidential centre. In practice, however, two very different agendas lay behind the notion of rebuilding the ANC.  

For the left it meant rebuilding the popular movement character of the ANC and its alliance, anchoring branch activity in the daily concerns of communities facing crises of poverty, unemployment and endemic violence. For the narrow nationalist tendency, as it has clearly turned out, the ANC was identified as the soft-underbelly which, through money and patronage-based networks, the Mbeki BEE beneficiaries could be replaced by a new wave of accumulation, grounded less on debt-leveraged share acquisition and privatisation proceeds, and more on the parasitic looting of state (particularly SOE) procurement.

From the first (2009-2014) Zuma administration an uneasy balance of forces has existed between these different and contradictory tendencies in both government and the ANC alliance. Important advances were made, notably in the massive roll-out of anti-retrovirals, but also in key areas like industrial policy, state-led infrastructure build, and the re-calibration of competition policy to address collusive monopoly capital behaviour. But progress was always constrained by the suborning of key institutions in the criminal justice system (notably the NPA and the Hawks), and increasingly by corporate capture of SOEs, notably via board appointments.

So how does this all relate to Ratshitanga and, more importantly, mapping a way forward?  Let’s pretend, as Ratshitanga would have it, that the Seriti commission was an exhaustive, no stone left unturned process. Let’s pretend that the arms deal was entirely corruption free, apart from the pesky “secondary contracts” in which Shabir Shaik and Tony Yengeni became collateral damage.

Pretending all of this, a broader set of questions still arises. Was the massive multi-billion rand arms deal the right strategic priority for a society facing multiple developmental challenges? Has the arms deal left our armed forces more appropriately equipped for the strategic challenges of our country? Did the procurement process advance national sovereign interests, or surrender them to foreign multi-nationals interests?

If we are to defend our democracy we all need to be thoughtful about lessons to be learnt from the recent past. While we lament the apparent capture of key institutions like the NPA, we shouldn’t forget the earlier politicisation of the institution and how in the run-up to Polokwane, a former NPA head announced there was a prima facie case against then deputy president Zuma, but no charges would be pressed. This laid the basis for much of the political turmoil that was to follow.

However, not all lessons from the past are negative. One of which is the dignified manner in which President Mbeki resigned in 2008 when it was apparent that he had lost support within the movement that had nurtured him.

Cde Jeremy Cronin is SACP First Deputy General Secretary, a shortened version of this response was first published by the Sunday Times, 11 June 2017

This version first appeared in Umsebenzi Online, the online journal of the SACP.