Steven Friedman, Business Day
THERE was a time when the South African Communist Party (SACP) terrified supporters of a market economy. Today, it is more likely to frighten the left.
By expelling the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), the Congress of South African Trade Unions’s (Cosatu’s) central executive committee seems to have slapped the African National Congress (ANC) in the face: it ignored the appeal by its task team, led by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, for unity.
This raises obvious questions about how much influence the governing party has in Cosatu. But it is also puzzling. The unions that ignored the ANC task team wanted Numsa out mainly because it refuses to back the ANC. So if these unions’ leaders are that loyal to the ANC, why did they not heed its call for unity?
One explanation is that, despite the pious words in its task team report, the ANC leadership wanted Numsa out. But why then invest months of energy in trying to prevent the showdown in Cosatu? Surely because ANC leaders may have given up on Numsa but they know that its expulsion could trigger a split in Cosatu, which would weaken a key ally?
A more likely reason is that the ANC alliance is split on whether Numsa should stay in Cosatu — and that the push to get rid of it came from within the ANC’s other ally, the SACP.
As tension within Cosatu grew, the SACP consistently attacked Numsa’s leaders, urging its members to reject them. While it has issued statements denying that it was behind divisions in Cosatu (despite the fact that it was not publicly accused of this), it has remained loudly hostile to Numsa, in sharp contrast to the ANC’s calls for unity. It has influence in Cosatu — the union leaders who have been most anxious to push Numsa out are vocal SACP supporters. So, if the SACP is not behind Numsa’s expulsion, it has helped create the climate that made it possible.
Why would the SACP want a vocal left-wing union thrown out of Cosatu? Because, some on the left argue, like the rest of the ANC alliance, it is more interested in participating in business than challenging it, despite the recent release of an SACP document that wants policy to move left. It wants the left out of Cosatu, the argument goes, because it stands in the way of this cosy government-business club.
The SACP’s history suggests a likelier explanation — that it fears, and is hostile to, anyone on the left who thinks independently. Numsa is the union in which "workerists" — unionists who believe unions should be independent of the ANC and its allies — have been most active. The SACP is threatened by "workerism" because it challenges its alliance with the ANC.
It also seems likely that the SACP is zealously enforcing obedience to the ANC leadership. Since the ANC’s 2007 conference, it has been a loyal ally of the leadership — defending it has been much more of a priority than pushing for left policies. While it likes to claim that it has moved ANC policy leftward, its examples are unconvincing. A few years ago, activist and academic Mazibuko Jara was expelled from the SACP partly for writing that its flag should be "deepest red, not JZ". He complained that the party seemed more interested in championing President Jacob Zuma than in working for left goals. The years since have confirmed this.
Some see this as a sign that the SACP leadership has "sold out" to the ANC’s leaders. But the SACP is remaining remarkably true to its history.
During the fight against apartheid, it was very effective in getting its members into senior ANC posts — shortly before the ANC was unbanned in 1990, virtually all its leaders were SACP members. But this had little effect on ANC policy. Its failure to move the ANC left was hidden in the "struggle" period by militant slogans — and the fact that the ANC did not have an economic policy.
When that policy emerged, it showed that the ANC was a nationalist movement that wanted to end minority racial control of business, not a socialist organisation championing workers and the poor: former president Thabo Mbeki once reminded the SACP that the ANC was not and never would be socialist.
The SACP may have tolerated market economics to stay in the ANC alliance — but not other views on the left. For decades, it was the most uncritically pro-Soviet party in the world: it did not tolerate even mild left criticism of its policies and programme.
The fall of the Soviet system and the advent of democracy here seemed to have persuaded the SACP to live with democracy. But it grew no more tolerant of those on the left who disagreed, hence the expulsion of Mr Jara and others. Its attitude to Numsa suggests that it still sees those on the left who differ as enemies to be defeated, not critics to be debated. And so Cosatu leaders’ decision to throw out its largest union may owe something to the SACP’s desire to silence other voices on the left.
It is not the market that need worry about the SACP — it is democracy.