What path to socialism in South Africa?

August 14, 1991

By Norm Dixon

The collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Europe "forced a serious rethink on all aspects of the South African Communist Party's policies and we are still going through a process of quite developed debate", Ismail Momoniat told a large audience at the recent Socialist Scholars Conference in Melbourne. In his speech, and in comments to Green Left Weekly, he outlined the prospects for democratic socialism in South Africa.

Ismail Momoniat is a member of the SACP's regional leadership in the Transvaal, secretary of the Transvaal Indian Congress and the SACP representative on the ANC Campaigns Committee. Born in 1957, Ismail has been actively involved in liberation politics since 1979. He has been detained by the regime on three occasions and was forced to go underground between 1986 and 1990.

Ismail told Green Left that, like many other activists, he was drawn to the SACP because of its "outstanding record of involvement. A lot of the great leaders of the struggle were communists. These people inspired me. People like Yusuf Dadoo, a giant in the struggle, who came from the Indian community in the Transvaal ... As I got more and more involved with the ANC, spoke with more and more people who were involved during the '50s and '60s, and read the literature, it was obvious our people looked for direction from the SACP."

The party is making "phenomenal progress, particularly among workers", he reported. "Our party has 10,000 members and we are hoping to reach a target of 50,000. We know that our support is much bigger than that. When we launched the party last year, we had 10,000 applications and we found that our organisational machinery was just not geared up to take these large numbers."

The SACP now faces great challenges and responsibilities in the struggle for democracy and socialism in South Africa, Momoniat said. "The last few years have seen momentous changes for the world with the collapse of what we regarded as socialism in Eastern Europe and the growing crisis and weakening of the Soviet Union. These changes have changed both the international and national balance of forces.

"The capitalist class is on the offensive, their aggressive propaganda is portraying the ideals of the SACP as unattainable and bound to fail. There is a renewed offensive to sow tension between the ANC and SACP from within and without the country."

'Failure of capitalism'

World events have forced the party "to think more creatively and democratically of the kind of socialism we want", but "in analysing the downfall of socialism in Eastern Europe, we must not lose sight of the inherent exploitation and weaknesses of capitalism.

"In South Africa, apartheid and capital have worked hand in hand to deprive the black masses of our country of both political and economic rights ... The inequalities present in South Africa today are a glowing testimony to the failure of capitalism."

The SACP was banned in 1950, forcing it to operate underground until February 1990. Since its unbanning and rapid growth, "it has become an urgent matter for the party to address some of the burning matters facing the movement as a whole and the Communist Party in particular."

The party has adopted an open approach, welcoming discussion from those who regard themselves as progressive and socialist but are reluctant to join the party. "Socialists both inside and outside the SACP have embarked on a healthy debate on the relevance of Marxism and the future of socialism and communism", Momoniat said. The discussion kicked off with SACP general secretary Joe Slovo's widely read pamphlet, Has Socialism Failed?.

Democracy

"Although the SACP sees itself as the political instrument of the working class, we do not view this as a natural right. Leadership must be won through practice and action, and continually so. The SACP, therefore, is committed to a multiparty system with regular elections, even in a socialist society. A society cannot be truly socialist if it is not democratic. Neither can a society be truly democratic if it is ruled by profit and social inequality."

What is needed is "participatory democracy" rather than "formal democracy". "Empowerment and accountability are vital for socialism. Civil society has a vital role in any future democratic and socialist South Africa. Autonomous mass organisations like civic [community] or residents associations and trade unions broaden the participation of the people, and are important pressure groups that ensure that the interest of the working class is not compromised by those in political power."

The SACP is committed to basic human freedoms of speech, press, association, religion and other rights.

While the goal of the party is to lead the working class to socialism, "the more immediate objective" is the elimination of white political and economic supremacy and the

establishment of a democratic system.

"The black population still needs to be liberated from colonial subjugation. We are looking at achieving democratic freedoms for all those that are subjugated", not just the working class but "all classes in the black population and the Indian and coloured communities".

Alliances

Momoniat said that socialism is better served by a policy which attempts to remove the obstacles towards socialism rather than one that pretends they do not exist.

"We accept the multi-class structure of the ANC although we believe it has a strong bias towards the working class, who constitute the majority of both its membership and of the oppressed in South Africa. We have what is called a Tripartite Alliance, made up of the ANC, SACP and COSATU [Congress of South African Trade Unions]. It is a principled alliance. Its objective is national liberation.

"What will happen thereafter, only the conditions at that time will decide, but the SACP does not make a secret that it wants to proceed towards a socialist South Africa.

"At the moment our priority is building the ANC. People who belong to the party are also playing very prominent roles within the ANC. Also we are strengthening mass organisations and instilling a much stronger pro-worker consciousness and consciousness against capitalist exploitation that will begin to ensure that the balance will be in favour of socialism once we have democracy."

Momoniat said that those on the left who criticise this strategy are mistaken: "There is no way that we could move to socialism without a struggle for democracy ... If the working class were to abandon the struggle for democracy it would surrender that whole site of struggle to other class forces, making socialism almost impossible.

"Whilst the working class will obviously be the engine for transforming South Africa into a socialist society, we must win over the other classes to our side politically. I don't believe we have to get the religious sector against us. I don't believe small business should be forced to the other side in the struggle for socialism. I think they could benefit if we were able to take effective action against monopolies. The South African economy is very concentrated. Four or five companies control 90% of the shares on the Johannesburg stock exchange. There are no blacks who own mines or are the captains of industry."

Mixed economy

The party is still discussing how a post-apartheid economy may be organised. "Given the experience of Eastern Europe, the trend in the party has been to no longer see nationalisation as a panacea. In fact we've begun to see the kind of nationalisation in Eastern Europe, where control of ownership shifted from private hands to the state, as laying the basis for a very bureaucratic form of socialism, which tended not to be not in the interests of those producing the wealth of the country.

"We must begin to look at new concepts to get workers more and more involved in decision-making processes ... opening up the books of companies, making them available to workers, to initially introduce joint-planning and eventually workers can take total control ... These are some of the ideas that are being discussed."

The current ascendancy of world capitalism and the collapse of the socialist bloc "simply mean that any post-apartheid government will have little choice but to accept that we will have a mixed economy.

"Whilst the SACP accepts this reality, we intend to ensure that the mix has an increasingly socialist orientation ... We don't have any illusions that it is a simple struggle to be won through elections. We see the need for a strong mass movement that is going to apply continual pressure so people can win control and manage their own lives, whether in the workplace or other areas of society."

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