Politics of organising – towards an organisational overview of the SACP

Paper presented by Comrade Langa Zita to SACP Gauteng Provincial Political School, October 22nd, 2005

1994 April breakthrough

This party school as with overall challenges of building the party is occurring within fundamental and epochal changes in the world as well as in our own country. In particular the following features stand out:

  • 1994 April breakthrough

  • The Global neoliberal context

  • Demise of the Soviet Union

These developments fundamentally challenge the values and the historical perspectives that had influenced the world since 1917.

What has been the meaning of April 1994?

This means the formal end of the colonialism of a special type. Concretely this means that for the first time in our history we will enjoy the rule of law and will have the right to choose those who should govern our country.

Importantly for us as Communists the representatives democratic framework that was gained through the April 1994 breakthrough, affords us the opportunity for the first time to advance without threat to physical persecution our goal of socialism. This is a major breakthrough and a challenge. Our fortunes and our status amongst the people will no longer be derived on the unintended publicity through persecution we received from the racists. It will be increasingly depend on our continued relevance to people’s daily lives and daily struggles.

The triumph of April 1994 needs to be counterbalanced with the continuing legacy of apartheid and capitalism. This remaining feature is one of a legacy of massive inequality, lack of jobs and infrastructure for the majority of the people.

The global situation

There are two ways of looking at the global situation. There is the emergent global interpenetration in particular with regard to trade and to a lesser extent with regard to production. This interpenetration principally at the behest and in the interest of multinationals is organised through global institutions, in particular the World Trade Organisation. In particular for our purposes this calls into question the role of the state in leading and managing domestic economies.

Secondly the global situation can also be seen as an attack at the socialist inspired concepts such as planning, the role of the state etc.. Thai is what we mean when we refer to the neoliberal counter-revolution. Informed by both the social democratic forms and economic management as well as soviet planning, neoliberals argue for the need to open up the economy, to deregulate, casualise, to subcontract and to privatise etc. These views were presented as the only truth particularly with the ascent of Thatcher and Reagan in the 1970s and further energised by the fall of Eastern Europe in 1989.

However our own victory in 1994 the ascendency of the Left in almost all of Eastern Europe (if with some confusion) and the Left’s advances in Italy, and more recently France, clearly shows we are very far as humanity from any end of history. Even the World Bank is increasingly being forced in its more recent pronouncements to concede that there is a role for the state in economic management. In simple ways 1997 is not the same as 1989.

The implication of this is that, yes, there are constraints, but there is room to manoeuvre.

What are the political implications of the post 1994 scenario?

We now have a democratic government which brings with it the challenge of transformative governance. Thus the challenge is how to use the existence of the democratic space and power at all levels to effect the transformation that we want. Another way of looking at the situation is to ask the question – how can we use the available democratic space to effect the involvement of ordinary people in the many levers of power that confront us.

Posing the question in this way is useful, in that it helps us to pose three fundamental questions with regard to our approach of transformation. Thus we can say:

1. Some of the transformation will be through the state.

2. Some will be a result of the existence of the democratic space – and may best be understood as primarily occurring at the level of civil society.

3. Others will be a result of joint initiatives within the state and between the state and civil society.

Then what strategic challenges are facing the party? What is the role of the SACP in this context?

There are four ways to address this question:

1. Need to evaluate the organisational context within which the SACP has to play its role.

2. The class basis of the SACP

3. The form that the politics of the SACP should assume

4. The content of the politics of the SACP

The organisational context within which the SACP has to play its role.

Here is a major part of the unfolding National Democratic Revolution. The National Democratic Revolution is led by the ANC, a fact that is acknowledged and advanced by all components of the tripartite alliance. Similarly the ANC has over time embraced the principle of working class leadership. Whether this continues to be in a multiclass contested ANC remains the most difficult question confronting the African revolution in our country. Thus in thinking about our organisational challenges we have to locate ourselves within the reality of existence of the African National Congress. The critical challenge in this regard is to develop the art of working with and in the ANC. To advance their working class perspectives, Communists cannot afford to be haphazard and uncoordinated in the ANC. However in their pursuit of cohesiveness they should avoid inflexibility and sectarianism. In striking this balance the measuring rod should be political effectiveness with regard to what is our political programme of action at whatever level we find each other.

We are also building the party in the context of the existence of the MDM – SASCO, SANCO, COSAS, Religious Sector, NGOs etc. Without relegating the work of the party to active presence in these structures, which would imply subsuming the identity of the Party. Nonetheless party cadres have to be located in all these structures – and co-ordinate their engagements. In this regard Communists should endeavour to be the lifeblood of these organs. Thus Party activists should act as strategic core of the entire democratic movement, in this regard being the most active and the most hard working in theoretical and practical work.

In playing out this role we should undertake it not only for tactical and strategic reasons important as these are, but also for our strategic socialist goals. We should always understand that these are areas of engagement that are relevant in themselves. They are not mere tools for narrow pursuit of our own socialist ends. Thus mass movements and the broader liberation movement should not be seen as conveyor belts of a superior information from the SACP.

Critically we need to see these formations and new formations that are yet to be developed as opening up and giving effective institutional expression to the varied interests of the working class – around issues that affect the day-to-day concerns of the working class and the poor.

Such formations should help us elaborate the social compromise of the various components of the working class amongst themselves to enable the working class and its allies to potentially engage the ruling class as a united force.

The class basis of the SACP

The party presently has been carved out of the working class and popular forces and in particular ex UDF, COSATU and MK cadres. The presence of these layers in it had brought the dynamism of youth who are simultaneously very experienced in the post 76 and 80 mass struggles.

We need to pose the question, is the party indeed a working class party, in terms of its active component? Despite major advances (reflected also by the option of the SACP in the recent COSATU Congress) in bringing the working class into the main life of the party, this remains an incomplete task.

If our project is the sustenance of a revolutionary project – can we afford not to prioritise certain sections within the working class? I want to argue that we want to focus on the industrial working class, in particular the skilled and semi-skilled layers. Why?

1. Skill implies intellectual capacity

2. Though skilled these social forces are still oppressed and exploited. (They exhibit a feature observed by Marx of being educated and thus able to understand social reality as well as their own oppression and exploitation).

3. From the South African situation they will bring the democratic tradition of the organised working class movement into the SACP – in particular the centrality of the base and the vulnerability of leadership.

This does not imply ignoring other sectors such as students, rural poor, the unemployed and the less skilled workers – the issue is the strategic focus!

The form that the politics of the SACP should take

In all the multiple engagements that the democratic movement is engaged with the SACP with, the SACP should prioritise popular involvement of the people in their day-to-day problems. We should open up the voices of the people – encourage them to drive the transformation process not as a tactic but as an end in itself. Radical democracy (socialism) which we are pursuing through our ‘socialising, democratic’ perspective should be both an objective and the means. This implies a fundamental rupture with our verticalist centralising perspective, without foregoing the fundamentals of democratic centralism. This is more a question of emphasis.

The content of the politics of the SACP

Whilst we should not separate the form from the content. By content we intend to highlight the issues that should draw the attention and focus of party activity. One critical dimension of party work should be to express with the working class in varied but organised form its prioritised but differentiated interests. The content of our work should be for and with all the various sections of the working class. In dealing with these varied interests, of male and women workers, of young and old, skilled, semi-skilled and less skilled workers, employed and unemployed, rural and urban, their community and work needs, we should seek to elaborate a policy of social compromise within the working class.

Through its own organised base, through its presence within the ANC and COSATU and other popular organs of civil society (students and religious sector etc) the party should be able to engage comrades in various levels of government and society with particular reference to our localities and local government.

Part of our role should be to draw ideological and strategic conclusions from the issues that draw the attention of this movement and engage, catalyse and introduce socialist oriented solutions now. Our strategic slogan “Socialism is the future, build it now” also implies a socialism from below.

Fifteen years of building a mass vanguard party

The unbanning of the party in 1990 together with the liberation movement, in the backdrop of the fall of Eastern Europe the previous year was not the best environment to rebuild a organisation that had been banned for forty years. Partly as a result of this half of the central committee resigned from the party. The collapse of a particular version of an alternative socialist society meant that the hegemony and stature that we enjoyed in the past as custodians of working alternative society could no longer advance unchecked. We therefore had to build the party in the context of a sceptical age. The murder of General Secretary, Chris Thembisile Hani was a particularly sore point in an already uncomfortable environment.

What counted for us was our history in our own motherland. The patriotism of Communists in the patriotic fight against apartheid could not be questioned. Our record at the service of the South African working class could not be questioned, being in essence the pioneers of progressive trade unionism in this country. However our historic past could not be the only guarantor of our continued existence. Of importance for us was our capacity to earn our relevance where it mattered most for the South African working class, in its present preoccupations.

Beginning with Slovo’s timely if belated intervention “Has Socialism Failed” we tried without opportunistically denouncing our historical links with the October revolution to begin to investigate what had gone wrong with that revolution.

Since then as a party we presented our capacity in the difficult terrain of negotiations. We were part of the drafting of the alliance’s governing programme the RDP. Communists with different record are part of government in the new South Africa. We have as party supported the heroic attempts by the ANC led government to begin to engage with the challenge of wrestling with the apartheid legacy. Some years before the menace of Holomisa, we warned the movement about the problems of populism. We have allowed our privileged location at the centre of the ruling alliance to inhibit us from raising critical issues at the level of policy. We believe we remain a living element in the unfolding drama that is South Africa.

Theoretical innovation in the SACP

At a theoretical level we believe that we are also making significant inroads. Whilst Slovo’s insistence of that there was no Chinese wall between the democratic and socialist stages of revolution, opened up sharply the need to refine the relationship between political democracy and socialism in South Africa. It was in the main our strategic conference in 1993 that began to move us away from a stagist conception of this relationship. In that perspective we began to increasingly locate socialism as an element of the unfolding national democratic revolution not a separate stage. With the 9th congress, with the slogan “Socialism is the future, build it now” we are increasingly raising the possibility not only of thinking about socialism but of doing socialism within the context of consolidating the representative breakthrough we registered in 1994. We need to open up the debate about this socialising democratic perspective. What is this relationship between democracy and socialism? Can we see democratic consolidation and socialism as parallel processes? Should we be talking about ‘building blocks’, should we be talking with our ‘metaphors’ cognisant of the balance of forces about the actual building of socialism, now without buts. What is the role of ANC in this? Can we posit such radical possibilities when the ANC NEC embraced GEAR last year? Despite these questions, difficult as they are, since our 9th Congress we are convinced that we cannot postpone both the thinking and the doing of socialism, for some unknown second stage. In this regard one can say the party is theoretically preparing itself for the battles ahead.

The organisational weight and priorities of the SACP in Gauteng

The party in Gauteng has gone through a number of phases. The first phase was the reconstruction phase. In this phase, the emphasis was to lay roots and to have presence throughout the province. This was the launching phase. At about this time there was a lot of respect and aura about the party and almost all the ‘who’s who’ of the congress movement was associated with the party.

In this phase the party was a respected and valued component of the congress movement. The critical issue at this stage was whether the party would translate its prestige to an effective leftwing policy influence in the province. This prestigious phase came to an end around 1998.

From then on the party had to wrestle with the question of whether its influence was organisational or whether it was based on individuals and personalities. Presently we cannot say that the party both in the province and local government is able to influence the agenda of transformation except for some few notable instances.

From 1998 to date the SACP in Gauteng has been involved in a systematic attempt to reforge itself ideologically. That process of reforging the party as a leftwing party in alliance with a national liberation movement has presently reached an important level. We have made advances in our ideological orientation but have lost whatever hold we had on the movement and in governance. This is the challenge of the party today.

We have made dramatic quantitative advances particularly this year. We have had more than 200% growth. From 2000 members late last year we are now at 6800 members. There are presently four challenges that we have to face with regard to our growing numbers. We have to sustain and advance these numbers. Secondly we have to deepen the political consciousness of our new members through systematic political education. Thirdly we have to organise these communists to play an effective role in the ANC in particular and in the congress movement in general. Fourthly we have to immerse these communists in communist led communist and workplace campaigns that are in the interests of the working class and the poor.

Preconditions for the above

1. We need to build a different kind of cadre – who understands the basic Leninist thesis of organisation and its limitations.

2. There has to be a strengthening of the base – power should flow from the base, from the provinces, from the districts and branches.

3. We have to encourage democratising politics and fundamentally reviewing our centralising tendencies.

4. We need a different understanding of communist activity. For instance is the formal existence of a 25 member branch the only measure of the existence of the party in a particular area? Can we also not say that in an area in which there are four active communists who are busy engaged in communist activity and mobilising the community that what they are doing as that unit is far better than 25 communist members who are unable to immerse themselves in people’s problems.

5. We need to change gears from an oppositional to transformational mould, without ignoring the oppositional dynamics that will continue to be a feature of our work. A very difficult task, that demands that we should seek to strike a very difficult balance.

6. We need to emphasise the importance of servicing our structures. Bu this we mean the creation of an environment wherein the leadership of a province dedicates a day or more to listen to what branches are doing, what problems they are confronting, to undertake the painstaking task of guiding them.

7. There has to be a common understanding of our approach to socialism and being informed by this socialist building blocks approach in our daily endeavours and our programme of action.

8. We have to be equipped to address the above. We need to have the capacity to develop alternative and radical ideas. To achieve this it is critical that we work with radical intellectual as well as with radical research centres and non-governmental organisations such as Planact, Naledi, Ecocity and Copac. Such institutions and individuals will not develop a vision for us. In fact we should go to them already with such a vision, so that they do not set the agenda.

9. This approach can only be effective in a context where we put an end to the gap between organising and political education. There can never be such a thing as an organiser who is not a political educator or political educators who are not organisers.

10. Lastly, we should also be informed by a targeted approach. This means that we should at all times pay close attention to the more advanced elements within the ANC, and the broad democratic forces and democratic, social, cultural and religious sectors.