Magical Socialism

R.W. Johnson in South Africa

According to the New Nation (the nearest thing there is to an ANC newspaper until Tiny Rowland sets up an official one), what really drove Janusz Waluz and Clive and Gaye Derby-Lewis to plot the assassination of the South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani was the belief that Hani was the most likely successor to Nelson Mandela as head of the ANC – and thus the next-President-but-one of South Africa. It’s an interesting thought partly because its airing in an ANC paper signals both that the matter of the succession is in the air and that it is now publicly thinkable that a Communist could succeed Mandela.

The SACP élite, which honeycombs the top levels of the ANC, must have hoped for just such a succession – and Hani would have been almost impossible to stop. After all, he headed the poll in the elections to the ANC national executive, had a useful base of support in the guerrilla wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), an even more important one in the Xhosa heartland of the Transkei, and for the numerous and fractious young he was a spell-binding figure – something which neither of his leadership rivals, Thabo Mbeki or Cyril Ramaphosa, could claim. Hani’s succession to the ANC leadership would have finally disposed of the ‘problem’ of the ANC-SACP relationship by fusing the two parties under him – to the advantage of the SACP. In ideological terms, it would have meant the vanguard party assuming full revolutionary leadership once the simpler battle against white supremacy was won.

If this sounds like a scenario drawn up in the age before the Berlin Wall came down, the reason is that for many of the SACP’s leading lights, the Wall has not come down. The latest issue of the African Communist, the SACP’s ‘forum for Marxist-Leninist thought’, carries a piece by the Party’s long-time eminence grise, Brian Bunting, regretting the fall of the GDR and praising Erich Honecker. The shooting down of the two hundred refugees who tried to cross the Wall is accepted without demur; and Honecker’s assertion that a dictatorship of the proletariat will rise again is seen as ‘a shining contrast to the shuffling compromise and capitulation of the Yeltsins, Schervadnadzes, and their ilk’. Another article enthuses about the presentation in Zimbabwe of the classic Socialist Realist play, The Kremlin Chimes (‘Love across the class line ... Bolshevik sailor Rybakov proposes marriage to electrical engineer Zabilin’s daughter, Masha’), with Lenin depicted as an all-comprehending, all-wise black man. The play’s furious denunciation of ‘counter-revolutionary Whites’ was interpreted in socialist Zimbabwe as an early reference to Ian Smith and the work as a whole commended for showing ‘the importance of the Great October Revolution and the leadership and ideas of Lenin to ordinary Zimbabweans’.

The SACP often sounds like a cruel parody of itself, but it is in fact one of the most successful Communist Parties in the world. It has applied classic Leninist tactics with almost unparallelled success, exercising decisive influence within the ANC (at least two-thirds of the ANC national executive are SACP members) and acting as its ideological and strategic vanguard. Beyond that, it has control over a wide range of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and support organisations, referred to in Party-speak as the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM), while outside South Africa it has often held sway over the various anti-apartheid movements as well as the International Defence and Aid Fund. The President, Vice-President and Assistant General Secretary of Cosatu are all open party members, as are the leaders of many of the individual unions.

The reference to ‘open’ party members has an unpleasantly McCarthyite ring, but it is hard to avoid given the Party’s long history of clandestinity and its continuing habit of allowing only some of its members to emerge publicly – on the grounds that it is more useful to the Party if others operate in secret. Naturally, the Party denies that this is the way it works, but it is rightly and universally disbelieved, to the point where the ANC Secretary-General, Cyril Ramaphosa, tired of evading journalists’ questions about whether or not he is a Communist, has instructed all ANC members to refuse to answer such questions: in itself, a clear admission that there are secret SACP members. If, as the SACP claims, everyone was out in the open about his party membership, there would be no objection to the question being asked – or answered. The situation is further complicated by the fact that a number of SACP cadres – Thabo Mbeki is a leading example – have allowed their party membership to lapse, while others, notably the party chairman, Joe Slovo, have given priority to non-party work within the ANC or Cosatu.

Slovo stands at the very heart of the ANC-SACP relationship. He is the ANC’s chief strategist and the architect of all its major policy shifts: indeed, if one had to pick the single most influential figure within the ANC, it would have to be Joe Slovo, not Mandela. It is, for example, quite impossible to imagine Slovo being publicly disavowed in the way that Mandela has several times been – most recently, over his advocacy of the extension of the franchise to 14-year-olds. It may have suited both Brian Bunting and Slovo himself to push blacks into the symbolic front seat, but no one doubts that Slovo is still the real SACP boss. Take the case of the late Moses Mabhida: he may have been the official Secretary General of the Party, but when pressed for a decision he used to say that he had first to refer the matter to Bunting or Slovo.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in