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Issue #1787      July 26, 2017

Forging new popular front

The 14th national congress of the South African Communist Party, which met near Johannesburg, July 11-15, put the party on a new path to contesting state power by committing it to fight elections in its own name.

The move marks a break with decades of practice whereby the party has campaigned for the governing African National Congress (ANC) at election time, and in many areas has been decisive in mobilising electoral support for it.

Over 2,500 people attended the party congress, 1,800 of them voting delegates from some 7,000 branches spread across the country.

Pressure has been building within the party for it to fight elections on its own ticket. The SACP’s view is that the ANC is now so beset by corruption and factionalism that it is failing in its mission to tackle the ruinous legacies of colonialism and apartheid. It [ANC] has gradually abandoned the socialist orientation that characterised it when it swept to power with an overwhelming popular mandate in 1994 in South Africa’s first democratic elections.

The SACP and the labour federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), are in alliance with the ANC as a progressive front. This was the driving force for the changes negotiated in the early 1990s to eliminate racist white minority rule and usher in full constitutional democratic rights for the whole population. This process of transition is called the national democratic revolution (or NDR).

But the role of this alliance in shaping ANC policy and practice in government has been increasingly placed on the back-burner by the ANC leadership. Though the ANC agreed some years ago to pursue a second phase of the NDR premised on greater attention to transforming the economy away from capitalist monopoly control, the project exists in name only, and had only been seriously expounded on by the SACP.

The SACP’s approach to contesting state power through a new electoral policy was debated intensely at the congress. It was the crosscutting subject in the work of all the thematic commissions held during the congress, and took up a major portion of the time spent in the vast plenary sessions.

But the issue was not showcased as a go-it-alone move or as a shift to tackling state power purely using ballot papers stamped with the SACP logo. The party is aiming for a highly nuanced approach to contesting elections, one that hinges on efforts to retain and build on the best practices of its alliance with the ANC and COSATU, and on new forms of alliance building and popular mobilization at grassroots level.

The declaration issued by the congress places the new stance on elections at the end of vividly depicted contexts of party activity. Much of this activity is aimed at confronting the parasitic capture of state owned enterprises by a powerful network of patronage and nepotism centred on the family and associates of President Jacob Zuma.

This network is also closely tied to the billionaire Gupta family from India, whose business empire absorbs computer, media and mining interests. A few years ago, the family infamously humiliated South Africans by using one of the country’s air force bases to bring hundreds of guests from India to attend a lavish Gupta multi-million-rand wedding paid for by South African taxpayers.

The South African Council of Churches warned recently that South Africa is fast becoming a mafia state. An array of political and civil society forces are up in arms over the spread of corruption and neglect of the needs mainly of the black majority of the population, who bear the brunt of mass poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment. The public sector is heavily demoralised by corruption, a situation that has made essential services, such as policing, dangerously unreliable.

The SACC has been carrying out an enquiry into corporate state capture, and presented some of its findings to a special session of the SACP congress. They include the information that South Africa lost more than R40 billion from the budgets of state owned enterprises, smuggled to Dubai for the Guptas and their companies.

The SACP congress declaration stated: “Our Congress is occurring at a time when our country is faced with the very dangerous reality that the important democratic and constitutional gains of the mid-1990s will be eroded.” In particular there is the deep threat of wanton parasitic looting of public resources associated with “state capture.” This has gone hand in hand with a general splitting of the ANC into patronage-based factional strands stretching from local branches of the organisation to its higher structures.

The SACP said that it remains committed to strengthening and consolidating the ANC alliance, but that this would require a significant reconfiguration. “Whether the ANC has the capacity to lead its own process of renewal, and whether it will be able to once more play the critical role of uniting itself and its alliance remains uncertain.”

Because of this, the SACP congress resolved that the party would continue with its recently announced aim of consolidating a popular front of working class and progressive forces “to advance, deepen and defend our democracy and our national sovereignty.”

The party announced that it would set out a “road map” to help develop this popular front, and that this will involve “active engagement with our alliance partners and a wide range of worker and progressive formations; the development of a common platform emerging from this process of engagement at all levels, national, provincial and local; and an active audit of the SACP’s own organizational capacity.”

SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande stressed that the party is looking beyond its customary range of partners: “We are not only going to be consulting allies, we are also going to consult wider than that – a whole range of other progressive forces with which we may share the same orientation and interests.”

It is within this context that in its declaration the party cautiously affirmed the commitment to contesting elections: “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.”

South Africa’s next national elections are in 2019. Before that, the ANC has its 54th national conference, in December this year, at which it will elect a new leader. This will be a make or break event for the ANC. Damaged by a poor showing at local elections last year due to rising dissatisfaction and among its erstwhile support bases, the ruling party could face losing its majority in 2019.

The SACP congress grappled with the implications of this, both in terms of whether the ANC can reform itself into a unified and uncorrupted party, or whether its failure to do so will necessitate its traditional partners creating a new type of alliance based on a popular front of progressive formations. For the SACP the key issue here is the fate of the NDR and the effort to reassert it as the most direct route to socialism. The prevailing mood among the congress delegates was that the party has to create electoral leverage to accomplish this.

The SACP is now larger than at any time in its history. Outgoing SACP deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin recalled how during his work in the underground struggle in the 1970s the party had maybe 15 active members arranged in cells inside the country. Five years ago, at the time of its last national congress, the SACP had 150,000 members. It now has 284,554 members, and is South Africa’s fastest growing political party.

Though the party’s congresses are held every five years, the next two years, in the run-up to the 2019 elections, will see the party meet in a range of special and extended forums, including a special national congress, to respond to the pace of political developments in the country.

In his political report to the congress, Blade Nzimande said: “It is difficult to predict what will happen over the coming six months. Which is why we say that this will require of the SACP:

  • strategic consistency, not free-floating opportunism or short-term emotional responses;
  • analytical alertness, not to be locked into mouthing timeless platitudes about the class struggle in general; and
  • tactical flexibility, the ability not to be caught flat-footed while still being guided by strategic consistency.”

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