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South Africa

The Communist Party under the shadow

A Commentary by Hein Marais on the 12th Congress of the SACP.

Sunday 9 September 2007, by Hein Marais

What is the biggest weakness in current SACP strategy?

The biggest weakness is the fact that neither strategy nor tactics address the hard reality that the Party has suffered a series of bruising defeats over the past ten to twelve years, and that it has effectively been outmaneuvered by its principal ally, the ANC, and by its principal foe, cocksure and hyped-up capital, on most fronts.

Historically, the SACP has punched way above its weight. It was able to do so because it brought valuable qualities to the liberation struggle, qualities that ranged from its ability to act as a kind of intellectual and ideological propellant of struggle, to its success at brokering various forms of material and logistical support for that struggle, and its militant activist credentials, to mention a few. 1989 belatedly cast both doubt and shadow on its ideological integrity; the negotiated transition devalourised its brokering role; and the perceived need to “steady the ship”, to try and nurse into being this state of pseudo-normality (to avoid a “Balkan scenario” in South Africa) meant that popular mobilisation slipped down the rungs of priority.

Practically overnight, the Party’s arsenal stood depleted – only, it kept on as if nothing had happened. So what seemed obvious to a few at the time is now self-evident to most: By the mid-1990s, the Party had lost much of the strategic heft it had accumulated in previous decades. It was becoming the subject of conscious efforts at containment and marginalisation. There have been brief interludes of promise but none that lasted long enough to leave an imprint. The result? As a national force, the Party today looks and acts lightweight. Its pugilism has been too impulsive, too embittered to earn it much beyond ridicule and grief. An air of woozy desperation wafts around it. All this is a great pity. The damage – both suffered and done – can’t be repaired without a thorough diagnosis of why, for all its sweat and industry, it’s throwing powder-puff punches.

How should the SACP respond to the leadership question in the ANC?

Pinning excessive hopes on a specific individual as leader carries an air of desperation, and sounds like a muffled acknowledgement of failure. A more sympathetic ANC leader is not going to rid the Party of its frailties, nor solve its dilemmas, nor shunt SA onto a different development path. By all means join the leadership debate, but keep perspective. Much of that effort and passion is perhaps better deployed in safeguarding and enriching democratic practices in the ANC – and, as with normative interventions generally, the best way of doing that is to start at home.

What should be the most important outcome of the SACP Congress?

The Party retains an historic duty to end the barbarism that rules the lives of millions in our country. But earnest effort notwithstanding, it’s not made much of a dent in the past decade. Why? is the question. And it won’t be answered by pointing fingers. Virtually from the get-go in 1994 the Party has been out-gunned and outmaneuvered. It needs to figure out how and why this could happen, and then it has to steer itself back into the thick of things. This entails a lengthy process of rebuilding, repositioning and rejuvenating itself.

The Congress is the place to start, and two important steps would be an end to the internecine bloodletting and a consolidation of internal democracy and greeing on a process for an honorable, scrupulous and thorough analysis of how the Party allowed itself to drift into the doldrums, and for devising a recovery strategy.

How should the SACP relate to grassroots struggles against neoliberalism?

Ideologically, the Party needs to constitute a kind of moral compass, in deed as much as in thought – and this should define its relations with grassroots struggles.

The tactics of those engagements should reflect the fact that the Party and the rest of the Left is involved in a long war of position. High noon stand-offs are sometimes unavoidable but they dare not become a reflex. We’re playing chess, not chequers.

Strategically, I’m convinced that the Left’s ambitions must focus more tightly on the local: on zones or sites of ‘human’ scale where it can marshal and deploy thought and muscle, in building tangible, textured alternatives. Neither the Left nor the Party is going to rebuild itself by shouting from rooftops. Scan your strengths and opportunities, pick a half dozen districts and set about helping change the world there, using the resources – human, organisational and ideological – stored elsewhere (in parliament, in national and provincial governments, in civil society, in BEE) to shape the terrain and provide the support for real-life alternatives.

HEIN MARAIS is a writer and analyst, and an editorial board member of Amandla!

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