Post-Communism and the South African Communist Party

Tom Lodge. Problems of Post-Communism. Volume 66, Issue 4. July/August 2019.


In what ways does the trajectory of the South African Communist Party correspond with general features of post-communist politics? This paper will show how the party remains far from being reconstituted as a post-communist formation. The party’s leadership remains inspired by Leninist precepts and its own historic strategic perspectives, and draws purpose from its proximity to power. But it struggles to maintain a vanguard function in a political economy in which the industrial working class has weakened and its own mass membership, recruited from unemployed rural youngsters, is motivated by office-seeking rather than solidarity.

It may seem perverse to include South Africa in any consideration of post-communist experience. Before the transition to democracy, South Africa’s governing politicians were neither communists nor self-professed African socialists. And it is not really the case that there were significant similarities between South Africa’s racially exclusive order and East European communist regimes, as free marketer critics of apartheid used to suggest (Lingle), notwithstanding restrictions on labor markets and property ownership.

Nor did South Africa’s progress from authoritarian rule involve a “triple transition” of the kind generally characterizing the replacement of a communist order by political pluralism (Kuzio, 169). Certainly, during the 1990s South Africa underwent political democratization and economic liberalization, but the third dimension of post-communist transition, nation building, was absent because this task was already complete. South African nationalism and national identity is inclusive and civic rather than ascriptive and cultural. Opinion polling indicates widespread acceptance of the state’s legitimacy across historical communal divisions (du Toit and Kotze), although other aspects of cross-communal solidarity are weaker. In particular, social inequality has restricted normative consensus over the values that might underpin both democratization and marketization—as has been the case in many post-Soviet states (Kuzio). But whereas in post-communist settings, states have divested themselves of responsibility for providing basic social services, welfare provisions and social services in South Africa have expanded and proliferated.

Even so, South Africa belongs in any comparative discussion of post-communism because of the assertive role played in its political affairs by a well-organized communist party. The South African Communist Party (SACP) is well situated to exercise influence over the government, with several of its members today serving as cabinet ministers. Its members also hold key positions in the largest trade union confederation, COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions). For decades, Communists have held senior offices in South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), and indeed three of South Africa’s post-apartheid presidents—Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, and Jacob Zuma—at one time or other belonged to the party. Arguably, the Communist Party helped shape the ANC’s programmatic development well before its election into government, especially during its exile. It was influential even before then, during the popular resistance to apartheid in the 1950s, which was underpinned by the party’s systematic organization in many localities. From the mid-1940s, the party’s own strategic goals and methods were shaped by international communist conceptions of the alliances that arise in national democratic struggles. They remain so, with their corollaries of conceding to the leadership status of the ANC and maintaining their partnership with it. Though organized independently, South African Communists are active ANC members and until very recently they have not contested elections separately.

It is arguable that the party’s long-standing relationship with a national liberation movement may have given it a particular resilience compared to other communist parties in the post-communist setting. After all, its leaders in the 1950s and in exile were important figures in the ANC, professedly committed to the democratic goals of a movement with a very broad social following. Working within this alliance may have exposed the SACP leadership to wider kinds of political influence than the doctrinal orthodoxies prevalent among more sectarian communist formations. In any case, in 1990 Communists in South Africa could anticipate very real prospects of themselves soon exercising state power, prospects that would have made the collapse of “existing communism” in Eastern Europe much less discouraging than it would be for communists in other places.

Here, a brief sketch of the ANC’s evolution since 1990 will be useful if we are to understand the party’s trajectory. In exile and inside South Africa under the conditions of illegality, the ANC’s influence depended not so much on disciplined organization as on the loyalties among activists in a variety of different bodies, ranging from township street committees to foreign solidarity associations that considered themselves to be members of a movement. From 1990, though, the ANC began reconstituting itself as a structured mass party with a presence in every location and a bureaucracy of full-time officials. Certain organizations that hitherto had helped it to extend its influence had become more dispensable. Once in power, especially with their command of electoral support confirmed for the second time in 1999, ANC leaders looked to construct a modern political machine, moving away from the social movement politics that had accompanied their ascent to office. Depending less and less on mobilization of activist support, the organization increasingly relied on a politics of patronage facilitated by systematic “deployment” of its cadres (often themselves SACP members) into the public administration and the parastatal corporations. And as the ANC has evolved into a “party-state,” its engagement with its former allies has become increasingly perfunctory.

This paper will first focus on the party’s situation in the early days of South Africa’s transition, when it moved away from vanguardism. I then outline its current profile and orientation to identify the most important changes as well as the similarities that still exist between its present characteristics and in its salient features at the beginning of the 1990s. In particular, I address three considerations: changes in the party’s membership and social location, shifts and continuities in its programmatic predisposition, and the extent and quality of its contribution to the leadership of the ANC and the government.

In the closing section of the paper I consider the extent to which the modern party’s activities and its contribution to broader political life are shaped by its past as an orthodox Marxist-Leninist party.

Toward a “Fairly Mass Party”

At its Seventh Congress, in Havana in 1989, the SACP’s membership was estimated at 5,000, a doubling of its size in the course of a decade. The growth reflected efforts to cultivate within South Africa a more assertive public presence, signaled by the appearance of its flags and propaganda at rallies and funerals. In Havana, officials supplied a breakdown of membership. Among the exiles, three-quarters of the party’s adherents were ex-students, professionals, or intellectuals; only a minority were workers. Within the country, though, the party was largely proletarian and African. Opaque as it was, this information was far more detailed than anything the SACP had chosen to disclose about its membership since the suppression of the Communist Party of South Africa, its legal predecessor, in 1950. However, apart from its most senior office bearers, who were named, the identities of even the other members elected to the Central Committee remained secret.

The Havana meeting included other innovations. A new program was adopted, The Path to Power, to replace the by then decidedly venerable Road to South African Freedom, the party’s canonical text since 1962. After noting the resilient quality of modern capitalism, the “Path” turned to more pressing concerns. In tune with previous advocacy by general secretary Joe Slovo of a gradual pace for any transition to socialism, the program drew upon continental African experience to warn against “the drive to move ahead of objective conditions,” through, for example, the “premature” elimination of private property (SACP, 16). The Path to Power maintained the party’s view of South Africa as characterized by a “colonialism of a special type,” an essential formulation in its justification of its alliance with a multi-class nationalist movement (SACP, 10). Even so, the struggle remained revolutionary, for its goals “cannot be merely for civil rights within the framework of the existing system,” but rather for “fundamental change” that could only follow “a seizure of power” (SACP, 33-34). On strategy, the party reaffirmed its commitment to armed insurgency and indeed its “escalation” (SACP, 57). To expand “organized combat activity,” cadres should prioritize enlisting “factory, urban and rurally based” guerrilla units (SACP, 57). More conciliatorily, the program conceded that the party’s custodianship of Marxism-Leninism did not give it “a monopoly of political wisdom or a natural right to exclusive control of the struggle” (SACP, 43). Elsewhere ideologues also emphasized that the program “clearly implied” that a multi-party system should characterize post-apartheid politics (SACP, 59.). Among other decisions publicized after the congress was the rehabilitation of four members expelled in the 1930s and the admission that three of them had died in Soviet labor camps.

From this testimony, then, it was possible to learn that the SACP was already expanding its active membership inside South Africa after lengthy abstention from any serious internal recruitment, and that while it remained committed to armed victory, it foresaw a rather long period of “national democracy” before the arrival of socialism. Also in conformity with perestroika, it was more discriminating about its own history and that of other constituents of the socialist world.

Later revelations about the identities of the party’s leadership echelon would also supply indications of the extent of its influence within the exile ANC. Of the 35 members of the ANC’s National Executive elected in 1985, 21 belonged to the party. Party members were entrenched in the command of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s army. Leading Communists played a central role in defining the ANC’s strategy in the mid-1980s, in particular in determining its military dimensions. We also know that toward the end of the 1980s, the party began to emphasize recruitment of key trade unionists. But there were limits to its influence. The ANC’s diplomatic initiatives were led by non-communists or Communists such as Thabo Mbeki who were skeptical about the practicality of the insurrectionary course.

The terms of settlement suggested by the ANC’s 1988 “constitutional guidelines” did not suggest the “fundamental” transformation that might be expected to occur after any “seizure of power” (SACP, 35). Indeed, they were well short of the kind of changes anticipated in the SACP’s understanding of “national democracy” (SACP, 37-40). Occupying commanding positions within the ANC’s exile superstructure was no guarantee that the party could impose its view on the larger organization even if it had wanted to. In any case, the party itself was not monolithic in the 1980s and its members sometimes disagreed publicly. Though they appeared united in their antipathy to “compromises … which constitute a retreat from the main aims of the national democratic revolution” (SACP), Communists differed over the necessity for negotiations, the choice of guerrilla tactics, and the likelihood of a popular insurrection. And certain Communists were even doubtful that any transition would be revolutionary at all, and thought “that a compromise solution would have to be found” (Neame, xli).

Taken by surprise by South Africa’s sudden democratization, Communists adapted quickly to the political opportunities that followed their legalization, though they maintained a residual commitment to armed activity. Though “Operation Vula” was, strictly speaking, an ANC undertaking, under Oliver Tambo’s personal supervision, it was Communists who made the key contribution, stockpiling the weaponry imported into the country that would arm “self defence units” protecting local ANC territory against incursions by rival organizations. By the end of 1991, the party had experienced a fivefold expansion of its membership to 25,000 since its assembly in Havana. This was modest compared to the ANC’s following of 750,000, but the party was not aiming to compete. It needed recruits who would enlist effort into its work, not “bystanders” (Slovo, quoted in Business Day, June 26, 1990). This membership was assembled in 250 branches distributed evenly across the country’s main urban centers. Branches were supposed to have 25 to 50 members and were generally located in residential areas, though factory groups also existed “with special tasks.” Thirty “factory cores,” for example, were established during 1990 in Port Elizabeth, historic center of the auto industry. Communists were also busy recruiting mineworkers: Welkom boasted no less than 10 SACP branches, each launched at a different mine shaft (City Press, December 5, 1991). Most of this new following was young, under 30, drawn from the street Jacobins of the 1980s township revolts, the unemployed school-leavers and classroom activists who constituted the rebellion’s vanguard. In its Johannesburg headquarters and its five regional offices, the SACP maintained a modest bureaucracy, not more than a dozen paid staff in Johannesburg.

To judge from the crowds that assembled at its launching rallies, the party enjoyed rather wider appeal than these details suggest. But its expansion was constrained by shortages. According to an internal document leaked to the Citizen on December 28, 1991, in the sixteen months since its launch the party’s income totaled just under R2 million, mostly from donations from local benefactors; help from fraternal foreign organizations had dwindled. For a long time after 1990, a major source of party financing would be COSATU’s “political fund.” In 1991, half of this income went to salaries and printing. Cash shortages compelled the shelving of plans to print the party’s newsletter, Umsebenzi, as a monthly tabloid, and regional offices had to do without vehicles and computers. Poor circulation of party publications hampered training of new members. Through much of the 1990s, the party relied on monthly private donations from Nelson Mandela to balance its books, donations that totaled several million (Nqakula).

The party’s strength was not just the sum of its membership, even though this had grown as a consequence of its aiming to constitute, to use Jeremy Cronin’s felicitous phrase, a “fairly mass party” (Cronin, 7), for the SACP remained committed to vanguardist conceptions of its purpose. Party leaders were ready to concede that, in the past, Communists internationally had misinterpreted this function as a presumption to lead “society at large” and ignoring the necessity for “a renewable mandate” (Slovo, 36).

Historically, the SACP’s opposition status and its relationship with the ANC had helped it to avoid these pitfalls. Now, its goal should be to win its place at the head of the working class by its superior efforts of leadership. Despite some internal misgivings, generally SACP leadership felt that this superiority could become evident through the role of individual Communists within the ANC and, of course, in the trade unions. Consequently, in the early 1990s, its political weight was of a different order to the scale suggested by its disciplined following. In any case, outside the cells and networks that actually constituted the party’s organization, there were other groups, acting independently, who looked to the SACP for inspiration and moral authority and who would claim to act in the party’s name (Wilderson).

After the ANC’s 1991 conference, 19 Communists were elected to its National Executive, nearly half the elected places. Ten out of 26 members of the ANC’s national working committee belonged to the party, though the top senior positions included no active Communists. Communists also were conspicuous on the ANC’s regional echelons. As might be expected, Communists featured heavily in trade-union hierarchies, especially around Johannesburg. For instance, when the SACP’s Transvaal internal leadership announced its existence, 13 of its 23 members were senior trade-union officials.

Ostensibly, the party acknowledged limitations to its influence. As early as 1989 it published a workers’ charter that insisted that trade unions should be independent and that “no political party … [should] directly or indirectly interfere with that independence” (SACP, 111). Certain unions, notably NUMSA, prohibited the formation of “party political blocs” (30) Similarly, ANC leaders felt they should not tolerate the formation of factions within the movement. In both the unions concerned and the ANC, merely belonging to the SACP did not conflict with this principle as long as Communists were not perceived to be functioning as a caucus. Party spokesmen were reassuring on this score. As Joe Slovo observed, “If you have ever been to an ANC conference, you would have seen how communists argue in completely different directions on ANC policy” (Slovo, 9).

The party’s critics were skeptical about such protestations. A group of Communists within the ANC’s executive and working committees were alleged to have rearranged portfolios in August 1991, during Nelson Mandela’s absence overseas, so as to ensure that “hardliners” shaped negotiations with the government. In March 1991, the Citizen published extracts of what it claimed to be minutes of a meeting of SACP representatives from greater Johannesburg. If these are to be believed, discussion centered on “how could the SACP … prevent a bourgeois element from taking the upper hand in the liberation movement” (Citizen report, March 22, 1991). Now, it could be argued that there was nothing reprehensible about party members promoting a common agenda within other organizations as long as they did this openly. And indeed, the South African Communists had no hesitations about defining their own political priorities and pursuing them publicly. Throughout the 1990-1994 transition, leading Communists were consistent and unabashed advocates of a negotiation strategy in which mass action was “strategic,” not merely “tactical,” and were often critical of any deviations from such a course by ANC leaders.

One key limitation, though, in its ability to influence the outlook of its allies, is that as the party expanded and became more intellectually open, it became more internally argumentative. Not all the old guard were pleased with Joe Slovo’s efforts to distance the SACP from its Stalinist lineage. In 1990, Slovo published his critique of “alienation in existing socialism” (Slovo, 19). Though Slovo’s contentions were well within the boundaries of what had become customary in other communist parties, no other South African Communist had before produced such an unqualified denunciation of Stalin’s “socialism without democracy” (Slovo, 3). Harry Gwala, an austere Bolshevik from Robben Island and a pioneer of Natal trade unionism in the 1950s, could not share Slovo’s enthusiasm for Mikhail Gorbachev’s prescriptions. Gwala, and the party’s strong Pietermaritzberg branch which he led, welcomed the August 1991 coup against Gorbachev. The “excesses” of Soviet history should be understood in their context, and in any case “who is not wiser after the event?” Gwala asked (41). But certain new members, especially those the party was gathering at universities, welcomed Slovo’s analysis of the roots of “socialism without democracy.” In Graeme Bloch’s view, Vladimir Lenin’s deployment of the slogan “dictatorship of the proletariat” had been “the source of a permanent blindspot in Marxist thought” (38).

For most Communists, though, these debates were arcane, well removed from the teleological beliefs that still animated most of the party’s followers. In 1992, at the SACP’s Eighth Congress, they prevailed with a series of amendments to the draft constitution that was up for adoption. A series of references to “democratic” socialism were deleted; as Harry Gwala commented, how could socialism not be democratic? This was a “firm” rejection, Gwala’s protégé Blade Nzimande noted approvingly, though the party would no longer retain Leninist language about a proletarian dictatorship (Kolasa, 33, 151). Delegates also insisted on the reinstatement of “Marxism-Leninism” into the “guiding principles” listed in the constitution. In the same spirit, the section on organizational principles was altered. Out went a sentence that read, “members who have a minority view shall not be compelled to pronounce support for majority policy” (SACP). The party leadership accepted defeat on these issues good-naturedly enough, choosing to interpret the rank-and-file triumph as evidence of the party’s abandonment of oligarchy.

As fissures within the party opened up, its relationship with the ANC was shifting. Legalization had accentuated differences. In 1992, the “new” ANC, with its burgeoning bureaucracy, its R90 million budget, and its policymaking departments represented a massive contrast to the once small, impoverished party. It was not just the disparity of scale, though; it was also a question of relative power. In exile, very selective SACP recruitment was a key stage in individuals’ upward mobility within the ANC’s hierarchy. But by 1992 it was possible to be openly critical of the SACP without jeopardizing one’s position in the ANC. Allan Boesak’s election to the Western Cape presidency of the ANC was a case in point; it occurred only months after he had urged the ANC to sever its links with the party, arguing that the alliance alienated potential supporters who were Christians. Certainly, from the moment of its re-entry into legal politics, the ANC recognized that creating a distance between itself and its old ally was expedient: the ANC’s top office-holders included people who in 1990-1991 renounced their party membership.

What sorts of people were leading the party at the inception of its trajectory into the territory of liberal democratic politics? The Eighth Congress’s Central Committee elections did indicate a renewal of its upper ranks. It still included, though, a few survivors from the cohort that had matured in the 1950s and which had led the party for most of its clandestine existence. Occupying the honorific position of chairperson was one of these remaining stalwarts, Joe Slovo, then the party’s dominant thinker. Recently, Slovo had worked hard to foster “a new perception of social democracy,” drawing upon “the democratic spirit which dominated the re-emerged trade union movement” (3). Probably the party’s most enthusiastic admirer of Gorbachev’s perestroika, Slovo by this stage was ready to call for a reappraisal of South African Communist attitudes to the market, as not “necessarily a purely capitalist institution”. Hardly a fresh view—Czech economists were experimenting with notions about market socialism before the Prague Spring—but this was an innovation in South African Marxism. In his red socks, floral ties, and loudly checked jackets, Slovo was a picturesque platform performer and his acclaim extended well beyond his party comrades. In 1991 he obtained the third-highest number of votes in the poll for the ANC’s National Executive. Between 1992 and 1994 he assumed a decisive role in negotiations, championing the necessity to offer and accept a transitional regime, with “sunset clauses” in a constitution that would enable the ANC’s adversaries to retain a share of executive authority.

Replacing Slovo as general secretary was Chris Hani, though his term would end tragically with his assassination one year later. In contrast to Slovo, Hani was not a theoretician. His favored recreational reading was Jane Austen, rather than Lenin or Gramsci, and to judge from his laconic forays into the trickier conceptual issues in the Marxist catechism, theoretical questions bored him. His courage and his charm were two ingredients in his personality that made him hugely popular within the ANC. Hani had joined the party in 1961. He was one of a cluster of talented men the SACP recruited at the University of Fort Hare where he majored in classics. He fought in the ANC’s first guerrilla campaign in Rhodesia in 1967-1968. Hani’s decision to accept the SACP’s highest executive office ostensibly put him out of the running for the ANC’s presidential succession stakes, in which he was widely considered to be an effective rival to Thabo Mbeki. He explained this choice as springing from his emotional empathy with the poor, a feeling derived from his own harsh childhood. His view of the party’s destiny was that in future it would serve as a tribune for the poor—”the poorest people in our country need the Communist Party”—and to function as the ANC’s “conscience” on “radical ideas on socio-economic issues” (Weekly Mail, December 13, 1991).

The remainder of the Central Committee could be categorized into four groups, each characterized by different types of experience. The older age set, including Govan Mbeki, Billy Nair, Stephen Dhlamini, Brian Bunting, and John Nkadimeng, were the last of the group who had presided over the party’s clandestine reconstruction in the 1950s and the cementing of its alliance with the ANC. Then there was the group that, as in the case of Hani, had received most of its political schooling in the liberation diaspora, were recruited on university campuses at the beginning of the 1960s, and acquired senior status in the ANC’s bureaucracy in the 1970s, especially in Umkhonto. Their number included Ronnie Kasrils, one of the architects of the ANC’s “People’s War” strategy. An experienced guerrilla, with strong reservations about the merits of a negotiated settlement, Kasrils’s uncompromising romanticism was evident in his heroic poetry published under his pen-name, ANC Khumalo.

As might be expected, COSATU trade unionists constituted the third category of leadership, usually younger men and women than in first two the groups. Both the “populist” and “workerist” strains of the labor movement were represented, a significant inclusiveness, because in the 1980s these factions had been adversaries over whether they should defer to the ANC’s (and the SACP’s) leadership. Finally, there were the 1980s internal political activists, in some cases as with Jeremy Cronin (another poet) and Raymond Suttner, strongly associated with the “above-ground” United Democratic Front (UDF) leadership, and in the case of others, Jenny Schreiner and Tony Yengeni, for instance, men and women who worked in subterranean ANC formations. Blade Nzimande, general secretary of the party today,also belonged to this category. Mentored by Harry Gwala before becoming active in the UDF and trade unions, Nzimande was a lecturer at the University of Zululand when he joined the clandestine party in 1988. In all, by 1991, a rather impressive group was at the party’s helm, combining a range of skills. It was fairly youthful, and though predominantly working class in origin, it included a number of university graduates.

The Party Today

If we consider the backgrounds of the party’s office holders elected in 2017 at its Fourteenth Congress, the most obvious contrast with the 1992 group is how much younger they are. The oldest member of the Central Committee was born in 1947 and most are much younger, having joined the party after initial political engagements during the 1980s. At least one, Joyce Moloi, (national treasurer), is young enough to attribute her politicization to post-apartheid 1990s campus activism. More are women: 13 out of 40 Central Committee members. Only four are white: the SACP leadership is today overwhelmingly African. Fourteen have held senior positions in trade unions, especially in the National Union of Mineworkers. A significant number, five, were imprisoned for activity in Umkhonto. For others, their “struggle” credentials were obtained through leading township-based civic organizations. The group most under-represented compared to the earlier leadership is people whose political formation was mainly in the exile movement. The two most senior office-holders are Blade Nzimande, who belongs to the party’s intelligentsia, and the chairperson, Senzeni Zokwana, ex-president of the mineworkers union. Other top officials include Solly Mapaila (dubbed by the press as “Comrade Crackdown” for his role as Nzimande’s “enforcer”), ex Umkhonto and later in the army, and two ex-teachers, both also trade unionists, Thulasi Nesi, and Joyce Moloi. Former teachers, after mineworkers, make up the largest occupational grouping within the SACP leadership. Twelve Central Committee members have advanced academic qualifications and most at least completed high school; this is a strikingly well-educated leadership.

So, the party’s leadership has become younger and, if anything, has become more strongly rooted in the trade unions. A share of leaders have higher academic qualifications gained after their entry into government, usually in administrative specializations. As we will see, key decision-making officeholders are trade unionists, and this is in contrast to the party’s pre-1990 history. In exile and before, trade unionists, though conspicuous, were in fact kept in check by party leaders suspicious of trade union “economism.”

What about the party’s following? Membership has expanded many times over the 1992 level, and in particular, growth has accelerated recently. Membership totals moved from 50,000 in 2007, to 150, 000 in 2012, and to 284,000 today, in effect making the SACP, with respect to membership, South Africa’s second largest political party (Kotze; SACP). The steepest surge was between 2008 and 2009, when membership doubled. In 2005, the party itself had deliberately set itself a goal of recruiting 400,000 members, or one percent of the national population (SACP,), a target prompted by the recognition that “the SACP’s influence within the ANC has diminished over the last fifteen years” and, moreover, that “between 1996 and 2002 a relatively coordinated offensive” had been launched against the party by key ANC officials seeking to marginalize the left (SACP, 52-54). Under President Mbeki, party leaders believed, the dominant group within the ANC were seeking to promote “a socio-economic project based around modernising the dominant capitalist accumulation path” (SACP, 28).

In any case, whether as a consequence of deliberate effort or more involuntary sources of attraction, the party now has a mass base. Reporting to a Central Committee meeting in 2015, the deputy general secretary, Solly Mapaila, profiled this membership. About half were aged above 40, and ten percent were over sixty. He also mentioned 147,949 students and pensioners. Given the age demographics just cited, this suggests that the larger proportion within this group are students (in South African terminology: anyone in full-time education). About 5,000 specifically university students belong to the SACP—too few, Mapaila acknowledged. On campuses, the party struggled to compete with the Economic Freedom Fighters, the group supplying much of the leadership in protests over fee increases. Blade Nzimande until 2017 was minister of higher education, an appointment that rather aligned him with university authorities. Roughly as many women as men belonged to the party. Though most members were working class, “the majority of workers joining the SACP are unemployed,” and, Mapaila noted, the party also needed to make an effort “to increase membership among unionized workers.” Finally, just over a quarter of the membership lived in KwaZulu-Natal, a disproportionate share (Anon, 4-5). The party’s following also included the 90,000-strong Young Communist League (YCL), revived in 2003, not all of whose adherents were full party members. Organizational reports of the League indicated that the Young Communists had an especial concentration in Limpopo province, in its smaller towns and villages: 16,611 members out of a total of a national membership of 53,794 in 2010 (Young Communist League, 16). As an earlier report observed, “the YCL is mainly based in the countryside, or is weak in the urban areas, and thus our membership is mainly impoverished, excluded from socio-economic activities, and mainly unemployed” (Young Communist League, 11).

Clearly, Zuma’s accession within the ANC and the perception that the SACP was a key agency in his rise prompted a groundswell of recruitment—the growth of the party’s membership in Kwa-Zulu, Zuma’s heartland, dates from this time. Dirk Kotze has suggested that since 2008 people have been drawn once again to the SACP because “the party retains a cachet” and because it enjoys prestige as a “thought leader” within the alliance, and more fundamentally, since Zuma’s accession, it is perceived as an “access point to government” (Kotze). This explanation makes sense, given the increasing tendency for the party to be especially entrenched among unemployed school-leavers in rural areas; for them the party may well represent a rare channel for social mobility. This is confirmed in earlier observations by party officials.

Well before Zuma’s accession, with the government under an ANC leadership less evidently sympathetic to the SACP, internal reports suggested that “people join the party branches to gain position on election lists” (SACP, 3). After elections as well, there would be a “periodic influx of those unable to gain position in government” (SACP, 17). Gauteng’s provincial SACP organizer noted in 1999, “we need to guard against those who join the Party in order to put forward their own interest, e.g., the Local Government positions” (SACP, 1). Such warnings evidently went unheeded. SACP engagement in the rents-seeking factionalism associated with local government office-holding seems widespread. A recent government investigation found Communist Party officials in control of the “Stalini” faction in Port Elizabeth that had succeeded in siphoning off R300 million from a public transport renewal project to reward its followers (Whittles).

In 2001, Gauteng officials noted that most members had belonged to the party for less than a year and were, moreover, very young (SACP). Significantly, and discouragingly, in South Africa’s most industrialized province, Gauteng, the party had failed to build a single “industrial unit,” notwithstanding earlier resolutions to build factory-based branches (SACP). Nor, it seems, had party organizers succeeded in extending their support among mineworkers from the bases they had constructed in the early 1990s. Changes in the industry supply part of the explanation. As a report in 1998 noted, at Leeudoorn mine on the West Rand, SACP recruitment began but, “retrenchments facing the gold mines” distracted organizers from “party building activities around Westonaria” (SACP, 18). In several instances, branch decline was a consequence of similar developments to those at Leeudorp. In Mohlakeng “the departure of some of the active workers from the area” weakened the branch at the mine, whereas at Kloof, “the active members” were focusing “their attention on union work and not providing us with alternates” (SACP, 17). Meanwhile, in Bekkersdaal, “we have a serious problem of constancy of contacts which affect communication and overall coordination of party work at the mine” (SACP, 16). What is clear from these reports from West Rand branches is that most members were non-miners. Mostly, they were living in the main urban centers and were often engaged in municipal politics, in which factionalism could paralyze party functioning (SACP). There is another way in which the party’s expansion has loosened its relationship with the earlier union base: now with a substantial flow of membership subscriptions, it can afford to become less reliant on COSATU’s funds, and indeed regular donations from COSATU ceased in 2010 (Mashilo).

If today the party’s following is less industrial, the leadership remains representative of the groups that joined the party just after its unbanning: employed workers, especially in the mining industry, as well as the soldiers, technocrats, and intellectuals who predominated in the liberation movement. Developments preceding the 2012 Marikana massacre highlighted the fissure within the labor movement on the mines, a key SACP constituency, with a breakaway union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), enlisting most underground workers at the Marikana platinum mine. Over two decades, the Communist-led NUM had become dominated by surface workers, mostly white-collar and local residents, separated from the experience of the migrant rock drillers, and at Marikana targets of their anger. Concerning the response to the massacre at Marikana, where on August 16, 2012, police fired into two groups of striking miners, killing 34, SACP leaders were quick to absolve the authorities of any blame. The strikers were manipulated by “dark forces” who were able to exploit “backward beliefs and practices amongst sections of the working class” (Frans Baleni and Blade Nzimande, quoted in Beresford, 37). Certain party members were even readier than Nzimande to exculpate the police. Dominic Tweedie, who at the time worked in COSATU’s press section, opined that “the police used their weapons in exactly the way they were supposed to. … The people they shot didn’t look like workers to me. We should be happy. The police were admirable” (Bond and Mottiar, 299). Not to be outdone, the North West’s provincial party took it upon itself to recommend the arrest of AMCU officials (Bond and Mottiar). In fact, video film of the shootings showed police firing into a retreating crowd, and a later official inquiry censured police conduct.

More generally, the social character of organized labor has changed, moving from its older bases in mining and manufacturing, as its main constituents have increasingly become public-sector unions and as it leadership has become bureaucratized and less altruistic (Buhlungu). In any case, within industry, new labor practices involving contracting out and casualization confront trade-union organizers.

These changes in social and economic structure have helped to shape the party’s doctrinal orientation. At its Thirteenth Congress in July 2012, the party adopted a new political program. This South African Road to Socialism contained both continuities and breaks with the party’s earlier strategic trajectories. Absent is any prospect of an insurrectionary seizure of power. However, this document maintained the party’s commitment to the analysis of South Africa’s political economy of embodying a “colonialism of a special type” (CST) and the continuing relevance of a struggle to achieve “national democracy,” the kernel concepts of its 1962 formulation (SACP).

But here, CST has been updated and reinterpreted, and interestingly, substantially de-racialized. Modern global capitalism, the authors of the “Road” (SACP) suggested, was “beginning to approach absolute limits” and in its efforts to survive, a “restructuring of the working class [was] leaving billions more unemployed.” Despite what Communists call 1994’s “democratic breakthrough,” South Africa was still a colonial society because of its situation within the international capitalist economy, in which “the dependent-development path of our society and the reproduction of underdevelopment persist” (SACP). The economy remained export-oriented and still reliant on imports for capital goods, and within the workplace workers were losing rights and security through “casualization.” Neither in 1994 nor today had South Africa achieved a national democratic revolution, nor should national democracy be perceived as a “stage” in which Communists should await the advent of mature capitalism before beginning the struggle for socialism. Indeed achieving national democracy will “require an increasingly decisive advance towards socialism” (SACP).

References to “colonialism as a special type” had continued to be a staple of party programs, but here the effort to redefine the concept was significant, signaling a distinct shift to the left (SACP). And in building the “working class hegemony in key sites of power,” a phrase used in its 2007 program (Kolasa, 203), the party’s historic relationship with its allies, especially with the ANC, could no longer be seen as an unproblematic fusion of short-term and medium-term interests as earlier observations by party personalities had suggested. For in building working-class power, the party would be challenging what its leaders perceived to be a “strategic alliance between monopoly capital and an emergent fraction of capital linked closely to elements in the ANC/state leadership” (SACP). Yes, the alliance with the ANC was still relevant and the SACP could not afford its rupture, for it still represented the best “way of maximising the size and coherence of a popular camp,” but keeping that camp popularly oriented was becoming more difficult (SACP). To be sure, individual SACP members’ participation in ANC and government leadership positions still allowed the party to shape important areas of public policy. This was the case especially with respect to state support for local industrialization and through licensing and other kinds of regulation to “roll back” the influence of the dominant “mineral-energy–finance” complex. More than ever, however, the ANC was “contested space,” a phrase used by Cronin in 2004 (Thomas, 254). For within the ANC, the SACP had to confront a “technocratic class project” being undertaken by representatives of an emerging black bourgeoisie, only supposedly “patriotic” but in fact comprador allies of neoliberal finance capital. Abandoning the alliance and surrendering its constituents to “narrow black bourgeoisie tendencies” and “big man messiah politics” would be irresponsible (SACP). Indeed, as early as 1998, the SACP adopted a restrained repudiation of the government’s business-friendly Growth, Employment and Redistribution Plan: “it was not the appropriate macro-economic framework for our society … and this overall thrust must be rejected” (Kolasa, 185).

Today, the SACP’s commitment to its historic alliance with African nationalism is quite delicately poised, in what it now calls the “radical, second phase of the national democratic revolution” (SACP, 1). In this phase the party aims to “re-surface more clearly the imperialist dimension of our persisting structural problems,” through “de-linking from the imperialist north” (SACP, 11). Since at least 2004, there has been an assertive minority proposing that the party should contest elections separately. The first public suggestion from within the party of such a course of action came from Anthony Holiday, a lecturer at the University of the Western Cape, in 1996 (Gumede). Those in favor of such a course were particularly vocal in the Johannesburg Central branch, though newspaper reports suggested that strong sentiment favoring such a move at six of the party’s provincial conferences in 2004, especially from YCL members (Tabane). The Johannesburg branch submitted resolutions to the provincial congress calling for separately elected Communists who would then “entrench revolutionary parliamentarianism” (Thomas, 262). The resolutions failed to garner support, though research conducted at the time indicated that party leaders were not fiercely opposed to such a prospect. Nzimande, for example told David Thomas that “maybe we [should] be looking at a coalition” (264) in which the party could extract concessions for its support in government. But most of Thomas’s interviewees were doubtful that the party would win much support as an independent electoral competitor, nor were they inclined to take the risk that such a move would certainly entail—that, is allowing the ANC to become more susceptible to right-wing influences. In any case, the SACP had no money to fight elections and even some kind of compromise position, such as a pre-agreed pact or coalition, might be difficult after fighting the same turf in a campaign, in a contest “in which victory means a paid position,” the Central Committee explained (Msomi).

Such arguments prevailed up to 2017. In 2007 COSATU had surveyed its membership to assess the extent of support for independent SACP electioneering and discovered only 6 percent favoring such an option (SACP). On the other hand, the Young Communist League favors separate electioneering, possibly a reflection of the lethal rivalry that can exist at branch level between the Young Communists and ANC Youth Leaguers. In 2016 in Mpumalanga, a provincial resolution favoring the SACP fielding its own electoral candidates followed a succession of murderous attacks directed against Young Communists during contested nominations for the 2014 local government poll (Anon; Nkonyane). At the Fourteenth Congress in July 2017, in response to membership pressure, the party did resolve that, in future, it would “certainly contest elections,” though the “exact modality” of how it would do this would “need to be determined” (SACP) It might, for example, be through a “reconfigured alliance” or through an agreement about “post-electoral” coalitions with the ANC (SACP). The party’s leadership appeared still to be hedging their bets, but in November 2017 they allowed local branches to contest a municipal by-election in Metsimaholo (Sasolburg) in the Free State. The decision was opposed by COSATU, and so party campaigners had to do without trade union support. They contested all 21 wards, winning none but securing about 8 percent of the vote, sufficient to be allocated three of the proportional representation council seats. They took their votes from the ANC, especially eroding its support among young voters.

Counter-balancing any pressure from younger Communists to oppose the ANC in elections, though, at least since 2009, has been the continuing appointment of Communists to ministries and to other important positions, including, with respect to former NUM leader and party chairperson Gwede Mantashe, the ANC secretary generalship. Mantashe was elected alongside Jacob Zuma as one of his principal allies at the ANC’s Polokwane Conference in 2007, and continues to defend Zuma’s presidency against party critics to this day (Letsolao). Mantashe opposed the party’s decision to contest the Metsimaholo by-election. Party thinkers believe that their comrades “deployed” into influential positions since Zuma’s ascent can “drive important advances in the key economic-infrastructure and related sectors” (SACP). In 2017, however, Zuma removed Blade Nzimande from his cabinet in an October reshuffle, an action that Solly Mapaila interpreted as an “act of war,” though he also conceded that the five other party members holding cabinet positions would remain “to serve the interests of society” (Mertin).

Is the party’s debate about electoral participation an indication of the vigor of its internal democracy? Party officials are ready to speak about the issue in public; indeed it is the main inner disagreement that surfaces in the party’s public reports. The issue has been on the agenda of the last four party conferences and has been resolved in a similar fashion every time. The Johannesburg Central branch, which played a key role in incubating the debate, was at odds with national leadership from the late 1990s onward. Its officials complained in 2001 that “de-Stalinization of the SACP has only begun in theory and has not taken root in practice” (SACP, 16). The branch was excluded from the party’s provincial council held on February 6, 2000, after being accused of maintaining “a secret agenda” to undermine the provincial party leadership (SACP). Disaffection in the Johannesburg Central branch has continued to represent a challenge for the party leadership, it seems; the branch, the largest in Gauteng, was the target of disapproving commentary in a Central Committee statement in 2014. Certainly, the party is less predisposed to publicly discuss any internal differences over doctrinal issues than was the case in the early 1990s, and it continues to insist on the disciplinary tenets of democratic centralism, though this emphasis suggests they are often in practice breached by unruly rank-and-file membership (SACP). As is evident over the electoral issue, important disagreements can be debated quite openly over major strategic decisions. Since the early 2000s, though, expulsions and suspensions for public criticisms of party decisions have become more frequent. In 2006, for example, a former YCL national secretary, Mazibuko Jara, was expelled for questioning the party’s support at that time for Jacob Zuma following his dismissal from the deputy presidency after his implication in a corruption trial (Thomas, 122). One-time Gauteng SACP’s provincial secretary Vishwas Satgar also had his membership ended in 2009 after questioning the SACP’s alignment with Zuma. Seemingly, then, there are key issues over which the party curtails debate and other areas in which dissent is tolerated. Another signal that the party’s internal life may be becoming more authoritarian is the way it fills its leadership positions. Internal elections for top office-holders that were not contested in 1995 had by 2002 become vigorously competitive. More recently, though, as at the Fourteenth Congress, the party made a virtue of the filling its top offices without contested elections, and indeed, it re-elected virtually all serving Central Committee members.

As we have noted, Communists have been conspicuous in every administration since the ANC’s accession in 1994, holding half a dozen or so cabinet positions as well as taking up regional premierships. Communists have been well represented on the ANC’s electoral lists. But Communists were in executive positions and in Parliament by virtue of their standing within the ANC, and they regularly disavowed any intention to function as a caucus—behavior that the ANC’s own rules prohibit. And by all the available evidence, such disavowals were truthful. Indeed, researchers conducting interviews with ordinary party members during both the Mandela and the Mbeki presidencies encountered “a groundswell of frustration” at the failure of Communists in government “to display ideological cohesion” (Thomas, 257) and their evident disinterest in promoting party policies. Communist ministers themselves admit they are not in government “with a party mandate” (Jeremy Cronin, quoted in Thomas, 258). In any case, they would add, their own policy ruled out any possibility of their performing an “entryist” role (Nzimande, quoted in Thomas, 260). However, they maintained, it was still possible to work in way that was informed by the party’s “culture” and its “perspectives,” functioning as the ANC’s conscience as it were; indeed Cronin himself habitually borrows Chris Hani’s evocative phrase. In 2007, though, the Twelfth Congress noted that the party had been too ready to give a “blank cheque” to comrades in government to pursue policies that conflicted with party aims: “this must come to an end” (SACP).

Given the ANC’s own efforts to alleviate poverty through the extension of public goods and services, Communist ministers could find a measure of justification for arguing that both the ANC and the party had identical short-term and medium-term goals. Communists often held positions in which it might have been possible to be active agents in addressing basic needs of the poor, as was the case when Mandela assigned the housing portfolio to Joe Slovo and put Derek Hanekom in charge of land reform. In both cases, though, they promoted policies in tune with market principles. For example, Slovo’s main efforts after 1994 were directed at persuading banks to underwrite the construction of low-cost freehold housing in which the state’s role would be confined to the provision of subsidies and serviced plots. Certain Communist ministers had to implement policies inimical to the party’s traditional stance and disliked by the unions—commodification of service provision, for example. And Mandela was quick to react angrily to any party criticism, calling in personally at the party offices in Johannesburg in June 1996 after the Central Committee had had the temerity to suggest that the government’s Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy “had failed to deliver jobs” (Gumede). Rank-and-file displeasure with Communists’ ministerial performance was especially evident during the Mbeki administration; indeed in 2002 Jeffery Radebe, then minister for public enterprises, and Essop Pahad, minister in the Presidency, lost their positions on the party’s Central Committee at its Eleventh Congress. This was an occasion at which Thabo Mbeki broke existing fraternal protocol by refusing to attend as the ANC’s president, sending in his place Mosiuoa Lekota, who was greeted by delegates singing “Makuliwewu Mbeki ahafun sithethatthethane” (“Let us fight because Mbeki does not want to talk”).

Communist support for Jacob Zuma’s replacement of Mbeki, though generalized, was not unanimous, and several key Communists perceived as Mbeki’s allies lost their posts in government. In particular, the YCL championed Zuma’s ascendency, and its leaders opposed the re-election of five of Zuma’s Communist critics at the party’s congress in 2006 (Robinson and Tabane). The party’s role in mobilizing delegates to vote for Zuma in 2007 at Polokwane was amply rewarded after the 2009 elections. Given Zuma’s own efforts to adopt a friendly stance to the party and his favored consensual style of cabinet management, in which in practice ministers were to be accorded much more autonomy than under Mbeki, prospects for the party exercising its “conscience” role seemed brighter with his accession. Blade Nzimande remained committed to continued “deployment” of Communists in the cabinet, resisting trade-union pressure to end the practice (Hlongwane), and sending Solly Mapaila to tour the provinces before the Thirteenth Congress to ensure that supporters of the Nzimande line were elected to key positions (Letsoalo). After all, as a Central Committee report noted, the outcome of the ANC’s conference had “created space for a reconfigured alliance,” for with Zuma’s victory, the neo-liberal “1996 class project” had been “somewhat defeated” (SACP). And one year later, with the publication of the government’s National Development Plan, the parameters of that space were defined. As a “discussion document” at the time noted, the plan, despite its shortcomings did “mark a key shift away from the 1996 neo-liberal package” and while the party should make the “necessary criticisms,” it should also engage with the plan, not totally reject it (SACP).

Communist presence in government remained at roughly the same level as earlier, but under Zuma, committed SACP members have been in a stronger position to determine economic policy. Jeff Radebe, as minister in the Presidency, with his party comrade Buti Manemela as his deputy, coordinates the implementation of the “generally reasonable” (SACP) National Development Plan (NDP) in addition to heading up the cabinet’s economic “cluster.” In fact, though, Radebe is not one of the party’s left-wingers, and hitherto had demonstrated no explicit interest in macroeconomic concerns, despite his wealthy family connections. In his earlier incarnation as the minister of justice, he had loyally tried to limit any official investigations of various scandals implicating Jacob Zuma. Probably more significant, with respect to policy direction, was the appointment of ex-trade-unionist Ebrahim Patel in Economic Development and the retention of Rob Davies at the Department of Trade and Industry, both keen advocates of more regulation of mining and local “beneficiation.” So far, the policy gains have been limited. New land reform legislation giving the government more powers of expropriation was passed in 2014, but the driving personality here was a non-communist minister, ex-UDF leader Gugile Nkwinti, though Communist MPs played an important role in defending the bill at the portfolio committee stage, chaired by a party member. Fiscal and Treasury policy remains a domain from which active Communists continue to be excluded, and budgetary restraint continues to ensure that a “pragmatic” vein predominates in NDP implementation. Even so, party strategists insist that “policy fundamentals for [the] programmatic priorities to place our society on a new growth and development path are already basically in place” (SACP, 22).

In contrast to their caution during the Mbeki administration, Communists in government have been much readier to criticize. As Nzimande pointed out in announcing the SACP’s “Red October” campaign in 2009, “being [in] a multiclass movement is not the same thing as being class neutral” (Nzimande, 4). In the campaign, Communists were called upon to demonstrate their support for a National Health Insurance Scheme, something that the ANC had already committed itself to establishing in its manifesto and so a safe area for the party to engage in militant-appearing street activity. This conformed with earlier politically uncontentious emphases in party campaigning—sponsoring producer cooperatives, for example (SACP), or organizing demonstrations in support of “people’s demands” with respect to banks (SACP). A rather more risky venture was launched in “Red October” in 2009. Here the party’s annual activist initiative would seek to “disrupt the intersection between business and public service interests” (Nzimande, 3) and more generally to protest against corruption. Nzimande himself claims to have invented the term. “tenderpreneur”; certainly he popularized its usage in South African political life (Mashilo). In 2010, a Communist Central Committee member and sports minister in the North-West administration, Grace Bothman, lost her job after calling for the resignation of the provincial premier, who, she said, was protecting a venal official. In Parliament, Communist portfolio committee chairpersons have also been much more willing to confront senior ANC ministers. Most recently, party propaganda has been sharply critical of “state capture” by President Zuma’s businessmen cronies. This represents a sharp turnaround. As late as 2014, Blade Nzimande criticized an investigation by the public protector into the misuse of public funds expended on Zuma’s rural estate, Nkandla, suggesting that the protector was “wittingly or unwittingly” helping to promote “an anti-democratic regime change agenda” (Chirwa). In 2017, however, Zuma was not invited to the Fourteenth Congress, an unprecedented snub to an ANC president. And, as we have seen, Nzimande lost his cabinet post shortly afterward. However, other Communist ministers have remained in the cabinet, despite earlier intimations from party spokesmen that they would resign if Zuma dismissed his finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, a key figure in attempting to limit the venality around the Presidency. It is a mixed picture, then, but under a weak and factionalized government, with a more certain understanding of its own strategic direction; and with the downward accountability resulting from the support and pressure embodied in a quarter million membership, the SACP does seem to more independently assertive.


Let us return to the more general themes referred to in this paper’s introduction. Do the Marxist-Leninist doctrinal and organizational precepts that shaped the party’s earlier history continue to influence its own course or the wider political setting? Alternatively, has the party itself become a post-communist formation?

The party still views itself as guided by Leninist organizational and programmatic principles, possibly rather more so recently. At its special conference in 2015, it adopted a statement, “Towards an Organisational Renewal,” that emphasized the need “to strike a balance between ensuring an unstifled democratic process without undermining democratic centralism”; it was quite clear that, at least in its formalized procedures, “centralism” remains dominant (Barsel, 7). In its view, the world’s existing communist parties fell into two groups: “adherents of the democratic centralism system” and followers of “the notion of the party mass line” (SACP, 18). The SACP belonged to the first camp. Indeed, the party would like to become more “vanguardist.” In practice, though, in a setting in which the party itself has become large and in which it is seeking to assume a critical “conscience” role in its alliance with the ANC, maintaining discipline is much more difficult than in the era when the ANC’s leadership status was unquestioned and unproblematic. Ironically, the party’s newest recruits seem to have a keener appetite for conceptual phraseology of the Marxist canon than the veteran architects of the party’s alliance with the ANC. When the YCL was established in 2003, delegates attending its national consultative conference insisted that it should resurrect the aim of seeking to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat, a goal dropped from the parent organization’s agenda in 1992 (Young Communist League). Today, as in the early 1990s, Leninist “orthodoxy” within the party’s rank and file can be an expression of rebellion against leaders too eager to conciliate non-communist allies.

Generally speaking, though, despite the party’s revisions of its analysis of colonialism of a special type, its strategic approach remains rooted in the concept of national democracy, a concept developed by party theorists in the 1950s from the then existing models supplied by postwar people’s democracies, to justify its alliance with African nationalism (Lodge, 442-45). Even so, the party has moved a long distance from the Bolshevik character it maintained up to 1990. Its organization is now based largely on the support of unemployed school-leavers whose major preoccupations are to do with day-to-day insecurities that resemble rather closely ordinary life in the post-communist settings in other parts of the world as described by Holmes. In the meantime, the labor movement that used to supply its main source of leverage for political influence has become increasingly factionalized and oligarchical.

Though class solidarities may persist among rank-and-file trade unionists, as internal party commentaries suggest, many of the party’s new members may be primarily motivated by hopes of individual fulfillment rather than egalitarian camaraderie.