SOUTH AFRICA: The SACP-ANC political merry-go-round

Issue 

BY DALE T. McKINLEY Picture

JOHANNESBURG — "SACP in clash with ANC" and "ANC warned not to follow path of ZANU-PF" were some of the headlines that have graced the pages of South African newspapers following the latest political spat between the ruling African National Congress and South African Communist Party deputy general secretary (and ANC national executive member) Jeremy Cronin. Those who have followed South African politics over the last several years could be forgiven for feeling deja vu.

Remember mid-1998? It was a week before the SACP's 10th congress and newspaper columns were filled with reports of Cronin saying nasty things about the internal politics of the ANC, criticising ANC economic policies and bemoaning the qualities of ANC leadership.

Predictably, equally nasty retorts came from ANC spokespeople about Cronin's "indiscipline" and opportunism, and the SACP's penchant for airing the ANC-SACP-Congress of South African Trade Unions alliance's dirty political laundry in public.

The inevitable speculation about the state of "democratic" debate within the alliance and the political health of the SACP's relationship with the ANC quickly followed.

Fast forward to 2002, a week before the July 24-28 SACP 11th congress and things don't seem to have changed very much. They haven't.

The latest instalment was triggered by some unguarded remarks that Cronin made in an interview with Irish Marxist Helena Sheehan more than six months ago.

The Johannesburg Sunday Times stumbled across the interview and on July 14 sensationalised a handful of quotes which dealt with the SACP's marginalisation within the ANC-dominated alliance. The newspaper ignored the overall context of the interview: Cronin was defending the SACP's political subordination to the neo-liberal ANC government against critics on the left who argue that the SACP should leave the alliance and regain its political independence.

In response, ANC spokesperson Smuts Ngonyama on July 15 launched a vicious public attack on Cronin's comments and accused the SACP leader of being "unfaithful and spreading lies". SACP spokesperson Mazibuko Jara replied on July 16 that the SACP was "flabbergasted" that Ngonyama had misused a press conference called to discuss the decisions of an ANC national executive meeting as a platform to "assassinate" Cronin's character.

The 2002 version of the Cronin/SACP-ANC political merry-go-round is in line with the earlier pseudo-battle. In such "battles" there is always the public appearance of serious political division and ideological contestation but the reality always feigns to deceive.

Every public flare-up of opposition and/or debate between SACP and ANC leaders (and Cronin has been involved in most of them) over the last four years has been miraculously "resolved" after a bout of in-house smooth talking, otherwise known as alliance summits.

This time, Cronin is warning of excessive ANC bureaucratisation, political intolerance and a lack of connection to the grassroots that might lead to the ANC becoming a South African version of the authoritarian Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front.

Last time, Cronin publicly stated: "The ANC is its own worst enemy ... with its fear of dissenting voices ... it needs to listen to the fears and concerns of people. Mugabe epitomises where we could end up ...[with] swings between demagoguery and managerialism." But weeks later, everything was fine after a kiss and make-up session between SACP and ANC leaders.

This time around, Cronin tells us that he, and other SACP leaders who supposedly represent the "left" within the alliance are being "marginalised" and attacked within the ANC. The last time, we were told that Cronin was being so "marginalised" that he was in danger of being "fired" from the ANC national executive. Instead, Cronin ended up as a high-ranking ANC MP.

Yet, these remarks made up less than one page of a 61-page interview in which Cronin goes to extraordinary lengths to defend the general thrust of the ANC government's conservative economic policies, rationalise the SACP's continued political alliance with the capitalist ANC, and launches vicious attacks on those on the left who question the correctness of the SACP's line.

A good example is Cronin's dishonesty about the SACP leadership's utter failure to contest (and therefore possibly prevent) the ANC's abandonment of the Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP) in 1993-1994, a failure which opened the way for the adoption of the harshly neo-liberal Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) macroeconomic program that has provided so much grist for subsequent SACP-ANC "battles".

In the interview, Cronin chooses to turn this failure into an unqualified success by arguing that the RDP was all about "disciplining and persuading" South African capitalists "to be part and parcel of a major restructuring of their economy, in their own interests, otherwise there was no sustainable future for capitalism in South Africa... South African capitalism itself would never be competitive globally".

This is a statement that accurately describes what Cronin and the SACP leadership have been doing for the past eight years. They have, with great arrogance and intellectual duplicity, provided artificial left cover for the consolidation and expansion of (neo-liberal) capitalism in South Africa under the guise of saving South African capitalism from itself.

The very "disciplining and persuading" of the capitalists has allowed them the "space" to become the saviours of the "restructuring" effort (in conjunction with the "peoples'" government) by becoming "globally competitive". In turn, this has allowed the ANC government, and the SACP leaders who are an integral part of it, to justify the intensified exploitation of the working class, the privatisation of the public sector and the commodification of basic social services. So much for Cronin's claim of meaningful ideological and strategic conflict within the ANC-SACP leadership.

Further on in the interview, Cronin tries to put a gloss over such realities by talking about the "complicated" nature of the SACP's "contestation" of GEAR. This is evidently the same kind of "contestation" that Cronin proudly cites in relation to the "reversal" of the privatisation of the South African Airlines division of the state transport utility Transnet (a "success" that Cronin implicitly takes some credit for given his chairpersonship of the parliamentary portfolio committee on transportation).

However, Cronin can't talk about the railway system, the road infrastructure and public transportation system because he knows full well that, where it counts for South Africa's working people, the ANC's privatisation program is going full steam ahead.

The real reason why Cronin and the SACP leadership find themselves in a constant political merry-go-round with the ANC is that they have shown themselves to be completely unwilling to think outside the strategic "box" that they have so willingly occupied throughout the South African "transition".

It is a "box" that inculcates a religious-like sanctity to the SACP's political and organisational relationship with the ANC, which long ago nailed its class and ideological colours to the mast of a nationalist, capitalist state. This allows the core of the SACP leadership to rationalise its active role, as part of the political leadership of the ANC government, in implementing neo-liberal policies and thus consolidating the capitalism they publicly profess to fight against.

It leads to the SACP viewing mass anti-capitalist struggles as often being on mutually exclusive political and socioeconomic "sides". The party leadership launches vicious attacks on, and caricatures, any attempt from the left to question its ideological, organisational and strategic efficacy for the South African working class.

The SACP congress could provide a good opportunity for Cronin and the party leadership to finally break out of their self-defeating political and organisational existence. Unfortunately, judging from a full "reading" of the most recent episode of their circular game with the ANC, this seems highly unlikely.

While Cronin and other SACP leaders might appear to be taking a more oppositional stance towards the ANC, mostly due to the increasing mass struggle on the ground, there is nothing to suggest any fundamental shift in SACP-ANC relationship that would benefit the South African working class and take forward the socialist struggle.

Some things in South African politics never seem to change — they just become more transparent.

[Helena Sheehan's interviews with Jeremy Cronin can be found at <http://www.comms.dcu.ie/sheehanh/za/cronin-aah01.htm>.]

From Green Left Weekly, July 31, 2002.
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