Helen Suzman Foundation, FOCUS, Third quarter 2006 - Issue 43



Withdrawal from the ANC alliance in the offing



Patrick Laurence

Ever since the decree outlawing the African National Congress (ANC) was rescinded by former President F W de Klerk in 1990, there has been recurring speculation about the future of its long-standing political alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP).

Though De Klerk initially thought the two political entities had become – in his metaphor – a “scrambled egg” that could not be unscrambled, the prevailing presumption has tended to be that the alliance would end with a decision by the communists to raise the Red Flag and re-launch themselves as an independent party. The question is not whether that will take place but, rather, when and how.

It is a view that carries the imprimatur of no less a person than Nelson Mandela who, speaking in his capacity as ANC president, pronounced as far back as July 1991: “After apartheid is destroyed the SACP will take its own line, which we will not follow. We won’t follow socialism. We have got our own programme”[i].

The presence in the same tripartite alliance with the ANC and the SACP of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) has precipitated similar conjecture about how long it will before the centrifugal forces pulling them in different directions gained ascendancy over the centripetal forces holding them together.

Again the overriding assumption of many observers is that sooner or later Cosatu will withdraw to help form and then back an independent party dedicated to mobilising the workers to advance the cause of socialism.

The possibility of a split has been on Cosatu’s collective mind for nearly ten years ago, judging by one of the scenarios delineated in the report of the September Commission to Cosatu’s sixth national congress in 1997. A scenario, codenamed The Desert, envisages the formation of a workers’ party in response to a rightward lurch by the ANC and poses the question of whether Cosatu should throw in its lot with the new party.[ii].

The underlying premise in most projections of the future courses of the SACP and Cosatu is that these pro-socialist formations will pullout of the alliance. Another postulation is associated with that. It is that the dominant political ideology in the ANC per se is a bourgeois nationalism, strongly supported by the emerging black middle class and the new elite of black moguls, and that it is ineluctably driving the ANC further and further apart from SACP and Cosatu members who still subscribe to doctrinaire socialism and, beyond that, communism.

Nothing is written in stone, however.

The alliance might hold together for the foreseeable future, a possibility that is strengthened by alliance’s ability to survive every divisive crisis so far, in part because the opposing ideological camps of bourgeois nationalists - the “patriotic bourgeoisie” in communist-speak – and adamantine socialists judge that they stand to gain more by staying together than by allowing their differences to lead to schism and open political warfare.

There is another more intriguing possible outcome, however. It consists of two inter-related parts: first, that in the pending ideological struggle the unyielding socialists gain the upper-hand against the bourgeois nationalists, and, second, that rather than submit to the dominance of the ideological foes, the bourgeois nationalists opt to withdraw from the alliance and establish a break-away nationalist party.

It is a startling scenario that stands the prevailing assumption of a leftist secession from the tripartite alliance on its head. For that reason alone it is worth serious appraisal, particularly in the context of the special discussion documents prepared for their respective national conferences by the strategic theorists of the SACP and Cosatu.

The secession from the ANC in the late 1950s of the Africanists in protest against the perceived domination of the ANC by “white communists”, as well as subsequent formation of the Pan-Africanist Congress under the leadership of Robert Sobukwe in 1959, might be regarded as a precedent for a nationalist breakaway. [iii] Unanimity of opinion on that is highly unlikely for several reasons, not least because the situation in the 1950s was vastly different for black people from their position in South Africa today. There were, of course, no industrial and mining and potential newspaper magnates of the calibre of Tokyo Sexwale, Patrice Motsepe and Cyril Ramaphosa..

A left-wing palace coup within the tripartite alliance and the ANC – remember many communists are dual members of the SACP and the ANC, as are some middle to upper echelon Cosatu members – is one of the options explored in the SACP and Cosatu discussion documents released in May and June respectively, except that the documents do not refer to palace coups but, rather, to restoration of working class hegemony in the alliance and the ANC.

The SACP discussion document, published in a special edition of the bulletin of the party’s central committee, Bua Komanisi, devotes space and time to the question of whether the SACP should devise a formula to enable it to contest elections under its own banner, instead of its candidates appearing on the ANC electoral lists with nothing to identify them as communists to the public. It is premature to assume that the discussion document is the prelude to a move by the SACP to end its alliance with the ANC, particularly as an earlier central committee discussion document, prepared for last year’s special SACP congress in Durban, makes it clear that the SACP central committee is opposed to any move that would jeopardise SACP participation of the alliance.[iv]

The earlier discussion document asks whether the party should contest elections in its own right. The main tenor of its argument is that the communist leverage within the ANC, though diminished in comparison with its authority during the armed struggle, still translates “into a massive gain in SACP influence and capacity to impact upon the broader South African (polity)”.[v] SACP deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin makes a similar point in an address in June 2006 to the Cape Town press club.[vi] He notes that 73 of the 279 ANC members of parliament are communists, a total that the SACP is highly unlikely to match if its decision to go it alone changes its status from that of an ANC ally (or auxiliary) to that of an ANC rival. The chances of SACP-ANC electoral contests are high if the SACP stands in its own right, as the SACP shares the same largely poor black constituency with the ANC. While contestation will hurt both parties, it is likely to hurt the SACP: as the smaller of the two parties and as the one with far fewer financial resources than the ANC.

From the above it follows that the party leadership is, at the most, tepid about moves that might result in it having to fight elections under its own colours and with its own meagre financial resources, particularly if it finds itself locked in battle with the ANC. A closer reading of the discussion document, and of a summary of it presented to the National Union of Mineworkers by SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande,[vii] offers a radically different description of the problem and advocates a sharply different course of action to remedy it.

The SACP sees the post-apartheid national democratic revolution as one in which there are strong elements of bonapartism and compradorism in the ANC.

The use of the label bonapartism refers to the French Bonaparte dynasty and alludes to strong presidential governance in South Africa. It is hardly flattering to the existing order since the two most famous Bonapartes, Napoleon 1 and Napoleon 111 aspired successfully to attain the status of latter-day Caesars. It resonates, too, with the warning of Cosatu secretary general Zwelizima Vavi of growing authoritarianism in the presidency.

Compradorist is an adjective derived from the noun comprador, meaning a native agent in colonial India or China who worked for foreign capitalist companies. In the SACP-speak it implies that the newly emerging black capitalist elite are the agents or, at best, the auxiliaries, of established white capitalists. Even less flatteringly the compradors are equated with parasites in communist jargon: they feed off their white capitalist hosts. There is, however, one more element to the SACP portrayal of post-apartheid South Africa: the ANC government is depicted as being increasingly in league with the comprador capitalists and hence the capitalist establishment that emerged in apartheid South Africa, as well as the emerging (and well paid) black managerial class.

A salient result of the ANC-comprador-managerial alliance has been, in terms of the SACP paradigm, a shift away from the ANC’s earlier sympathy for socialism and a consequent downgrading of the interests of the proletariat and, even the lumpen-proletariat, on the ANC agenda. In his address referred to above Nzimande blames the recurring crises of “corruption, factionalism and individual careerism” on the ANC’s ideological reorientation and, significantly, sees in it the explanation for the powerful upsurge of support for former Deputy President Jacob Zuma at the ANC’s national general council in July last year.

The remedy, in Nzimande’s phraseology[viii], is an “offensive” against the axis (a word with fascist connotations) between ANC, state managers and emerging black capital, behind which stand the old established capitalist class which sullied its hands under the old apartheid order. The objective of the “offensive” is manifestly to restore the socialist agenda by re-establishing the hegemony of the working class in the ANC and in the ANC-led tripartite alliance.

The Cosatu discussion document follows the same broad ideological trajectory, unsurprisingly given the large ideological overlap between Cosatu and the SACP. It concludes with a summary of five options open to Cosatu. Most attention, however, is devoted to one which aims at increasing Cosatu’s membership from less than two million to four million and concomitantly creating a “conscious and politicised proletariat out of ordinary workers”. From which the conclusion may be drawn that it is the one most strongly favoured by Cosatu’s senior members. For that reason it is worth noting its injunction to “trained cadres to swell the ranks of the ANC” and transform it into an “ANC led by the working class at all levels” and which is “not hostile to socialism”.[ix]

Two issues arise from the discourse of the present monograph thus far: firstly, whether the combined drive by the SACP and Cosatu (and their sympathisers in the ANC) can succeed in restoring working class hegemony and reinstating socialism at the underlying aim of the tripartite alliance, and, secondly, whether a successful palace coup by the left will induce the bourgeois nationalists to pull out of the alliance and possibly the ANC itself.

The answer to the first question is that had it been posed 18 months ago the answer would almost certainly have been in the negative, emphatically so. But the Zuma factor has changed the situation markedly: the alliance between Zuma clad in the ideological clothing of populism and the socialist brigade in the SACP and Cosatu may just succeed in making socialism the official political creed of the tripartite alliance and perhaps even the ANC itself and, in the process, hoist Zuma into the presidential office and onto the fount of political power. There is, of course, the inconvenient matter of Zuma’s pending trial for corruption, But the clumsy manner in which the Scorpions carried out raids on Zuma’s homes and the offices of his lawyers last year may dispose of that for him, courtesy of judicial orders declaring their search warrants unlawful.

The answer to the second is that President Thabo Mbkei and his confidants in the ANC have long been aware of the danger of a palace coup bid from the left, as showed by the ANC’s 2001 Briefing Notes[x] on militant leftists in, pre-eminently, Cosatu. The Briefing Notes warn that leftist militants want to transform Cosatu into a political formation, drive a wedge between the ANC and the SACP, and form a united front between Cosatu and the SACP to force the government “to adopt a populist social and economic programme”[xi]

The senior ANC leadership is thus likely to resist any attack from the militant left, particularly as it rejects characterisation of the ANC as a bonapartist organisation and considers the ANC to be a leftist movement. They may, however, decide for strategic decisions to withdraw from the tripartite alliance and concentrate on defending their control of ANC per se. There is a proviso to that hypothesis, however. It assumes that the Zuma faction does not gain control of the ANC at the pending ANC national conference in 2007, a contingency that cannot be excluded after Zuma supporters successfully demanded his reinstatement as ANC deputy president at the ANC national general council in July 2005. Control of he ANC by Zuma populists and SACP and Cosatu socialist might lead to the unthinkable: the withdrawal from the ANC of the bourgeois nationalists.

The Zuma affair has disrupted old established patterns and made the task of predicting future events over the next the 15 months to two years incredibly difficult. Every statement needs to be qualified by two or three caveats to allow for the apparent crumbling of old political verities even as the scenarios are being formulated. At the same time what seemed implausible a mere 18 months ago, now seems with the realm of possibility.


[i] Interview with Stanley Uys published in The Star, 18 July 1991.
[ii] September Commission Report, Page 3.
[iii] Karis, Cater and Gerhart: From Protest to Challenge, Volume 3. Part 2.
[iv] Focus, Issue 38:Reds caught between a rock and a hard place.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Southern Africa Report, 30 June 2006.1
[vii] Address to Num Congress on 24 May 2006.
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] Cosatu discussion document, Changing the balance of power.
[x] Focus No 24, A dangerous political agenda.
[xi] Ibid.