We may well be on the cusp of a dramatic breakthrough in leftist South African politics. For the first time, the South African Communist Party (SACP) – the decades-old slavishly loyal ally of the ruling African National Congress – is on a course of action whose internal and inevitable logic is a likely and even probable split with it. Its recent rapid growth of membership to a reported figure of about forty thousand comes in the wake of a discernable radicalisation in its ranks amidst a growing crisis in the ANC alliance around its leadership, the close, cosy and conniving relations between the ANC, government and big business – white and black – and the devastating socioeconomic effects the government’s current neo-liberal policies have had on the black working class in particular. There are many other elements to this crisis, which only exacerbate it: rising black unemployment, grinding poverty, the unresolved and still-smouldering Khutsong debacle, spreading and ravaging HIV/Aids, a basic income grant that the ANC still resists but millions hope for, poor or often absent basic services, the explosive presidential succession battles and much more.
That is why the current juncture is bound to go beyond the earlier tiring and incessant speculations about the fate and future of a long-standing but deeply troubled alliance whose strategic purpose has not only been exhausted but under the impact of neo-liberalism has become a serious hindrance to the fulfillment of the party’s socialist objectives, which it shares with its other ally, the Congress of South African Trade Unions. In fact it is evident that in order to prevent a split within the SACP the top leadership has been forced to project a more militant stance recently to contain growing radicalisation in its own ranks, epitomised by a strong call to stand in future elections on an independent platform. So strong was this voice that the party leaders were compelled to institute a commission of enquiry into it. This was unprecedented and the first serious indication of a split that is not necessarily impending but very difficult to avoid because this time the signs are unmistakably more serious and the conjuncture more potentially cataclysmic, and therefore likely to resist the shaky patchwork senior alliance leaders periodically engage in. Deeper, complex and more intractable issues are increasingly beyond the conscious control of leaders of all parties to the alliance and subject instead to growing internal mass pressures. The demand by many in the SACP to independently participate in future elections and the mass support for former deputy president Jacob Zuma, rightly or wrongly, must be seen in this light.
The stakes are high on all sides of the tripartite equation. It is clearly impossible that the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) will be unaffected by these developments for various reasons. Most notable of these is that there is a long-standing and close relationship and a significant overlapping of executive membership between it and the party, which will most likely translate into a unified vision regarding the matters that has in the first place brought the alliance to the present crisis: autocratic ANC leadership, neo-liberal policies and so on. This can only mean that the fate and future of the SACP within the alliance is inextricably linked to that of Cosatu in the present crisis. To imagine a resolution of the crisis that results in a political, ideological and strategic divergence between the two is very unlikely, if their common interests and relations over the years is anything to go by.
This means that if the SACP later finds that it is necessary and desirable to enter future elections independently this will probably be endorsed by Cosatu. The consequential logic of this is that the ANC for the first time will be faced with by far the most serious threat to its rule since 1994, from its own allies, an irony that cannot escape us. Unlike the virtual impossibility of the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition, beating the ANC at the polls, the combined weight of Cosatu and the strategic influence of the SACP could even under propitious conditions result in an electoral defeat of the ANC. Because Cosatu by far brings the biggest electoral chunk of support to the ANC the mind boggles at the prospects in sight if it and the SACP joined hands on a common electoral platform against the ANC.
Combine this prospect with the most likely deepening of the crisis it would have within the ruling ANC itself and we can see that indeed that a decision by the SACP to enter elections independently could have cataclysmic political consequences for both the alliance and the country. Therefore, it is fairly easy to argue that it is impossible to envisage a separate electoral platform for the SACP and Cosatu without splitting the alliance right down the middle. In fact if such a decision were taken it would signal not only the irreversible split of the alliance under current circumstances, but it will deepen existing antagonisms and unleash new ones. To imagine that the ANC would tolerate a continuance of the alliance after such a decision is made is the height of political fantasy. Such are the serious implications of the present conjuncture but faced with their mounting frustrations and impotence within the alliance a road they may well take.
Furthermore, if such prospects were realised it will decisively change the face of leftist politics in this country and most likely result in the further weakening of the left outside the ANC alliance or alternatively its merger with or absorption into a new leftist realignment or coalition. We truly live in interesting times.
Ebrahim Harvey is a political writer and former Cosatu unionist.