By Norm Dixon
Delegates to the South African Communist Party's Eighth National Congress, the first held legally within the country for over 40 years, enthusiastically reaffirmed the party's vision of a democratic, socialist South Africa and vowed to further raise its profile in the struggle to end apartheid.
Since its relaunch as a legal political party in August 1990, membership has mushroomed fivefold to almost 25,000. The vast majority of new members are young, black workers.
The congress, held in Soweto over three days in early December, was attended by 413 elected delegates and over 800 observers.
Opening the conference, outgoing general secretary Joe Slovo told the delegates that the party rejected the idea that the horrors of Stalinism were the result of socialism. He emphasised that genuine socialism and democracy are inextricably linked. Only socialism can assure humanity of its freedom, he insisted.
Slovo pointed out that, for the vast majority of South Africans, it is capitalism that has failed. It has "brought untold miseries to our people. It is this indisputable fact which, despite socialist distortions elsewhere, unravels the mystery as to why there is such a groundswell of support among our working people for the future of socialism."
Slovo dismissed the unsolicited advice from sections of the white liberal press prior to the congress that the SACP change its name and distance itself from Marxist ideas: "If there is any name which stinks in the nostrils of the overwhelming majority of our people, it is the National Party. For most of our working people, the name South African Communist Party is a name of honour."
The leadership of the SACP, early partisans of Gorbachev's program of perestroika who responded to the collapse of the regimes in Eastern Europe by rejecting Stalinism and launching a wide-ranging debate on its nature and practice, was disappointed by the events in the Soviet Union, Slovo admitted. Gorbachev had responded to the Stalinist attempted coup with a "Stalinist decree to dissolve the party, as if it was his personal property ... It is saddening that those in the Soviet Union who had helped to diagnose the disease have now allowed themselves to be pushed into a treatment which addresses the disease by killing the patient."
Slovo, who stood down from the general secretary's position for health reasons, was unanimously elected SACP national chairperson. Chris Hani, chief of the African National Congress' guerilla army, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), was unanimously chosen to succeed Slovo as general secretary. There were 44 nominations for the 25-member central committee. Eleven members of the SACP central committee are also members of the ANC's 90-member national executive and five are members of the ANC's 26-member national working committee. Also elected was John Gomomo, president of the Congress of South African Trade Unions.
Chris Hani's election means that the SACP will be taking a higher profile in the struggle to end racial oppression in South Africa. After Nelson Mandela, Hani is South Africa's most popular leader. At the ANC conference, he topped the poll in elections for the national executive, and both the ANC and MK asked Hani not to stand for the SACP general secretaryship because they considered him essential to their own leadership teams.
Following the congress, Hani explained why he stood: "It was tremendous pressure from the delegates, who wouldn't take no for an answer. They threatened to take it to the congress floor. The ANC made no binding decision on me [to not stand], and the MK conference is only a branch of ANC. I had no choice in the end.
"The SACP needs a formidable team at the top. The ANC has established itself. This is the time for the party to benefit from the experience of a few of us ... I've accepted that I'll no longer be central in the ANC. This gives me the opportunity to go down to the grassroots — to take a high profile in the campaigns of the people, to inspire the people."
There remains a definite role for the SACP outside the ANC, Hani explained. The party must focus on the aspirations of the working class and the poor in a way that the ANC, as a multi-class organisation, cannot.
"It is a multi-class movement deriving its unity from opposing apartheid. Remove apartheid, and of course there will be tensions. There are people who join the ANC because they want to be capitalists. There are blacks who are against the unions. We have seen in [other African countries] the emergence of a greedy, immoral, capitalist class ... The poorest people of our country need the Communist Party."
The new leadership did not get everything it wanted at the congress. In the debate over draft constitution and manifesto, two issues dominated. Firstly, delegates objected to the removal of the term "Marxism-Leninism". The drafts referred to "the scientific Marxist outlook" and socialism's "true and original vocation as envisioned by Marx, Engels and Lenin". Delegates voted overwhelmingly to restore the references to "Marxism-Leninism".
More controversial was the delegates' rejection of the term "democratic socialism" in the drafts. This decision was seized upon by the South African and some Western big business newspapers as proof that the SACP was Stalinist and anti-democratic.
Slovo dismissed the press accusations and argued that the congress was for the pro-democracy camp. He said the sentiment of the delegates was not opposition to democracy but belief that socialism is intrinsically democratic and that an adjective was not necessary to clarify this. He added that the party's new constitution committed it to a multiparty democracy and civil liberties.
Hani agreed: "Our people talked about the distortions of socialism in the Soviet Union ... I thought that was an important observation to be made by delegates at the congress. They were saying we don't want those distortions because they are not inherent in socialism."
The congress expressed support for the negotiations process together with continued mass mobilisation and reiterated its demand for an elected constituent assembly to draft the new constitution. The congress also expressed solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and resolved to organise demonstrations against the US blockade of Cuba.
The delegates also resolved to "forge close fraternal links with communist and socialist parties throughout the world with the object of reestablishing international solidarity against the threats of fascism, imperialist wars and imperialist attempts to further impoverish the third world nations ... to exchange ideas and experience so that a thorough-going analysis is undertaken on the problems facing socialists today".