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.

After Mabhida’s death Slovo look over as Secretary General, only ceding the title to Hani when it suited him to do so; and the firebrand Hani would moderate his statements in order to remain in line with whatever Slovo said. If Slovo advocated a softer line on nationalisation, Hani followed; when Slovo broached the heresy that the ANC should agree to power-sharing rather than insist on simple majority rule, there was no word of protest from Hani. Right to the end Hani was arguing for negotiation and moderation when most of his kindred spirits on the left were denouncing them. And such was his influence that while he held to this line, the line held.

The arrangement was yet more evidence of Slovo’s talents as a master tactician: Slovo is a political infighter without equal in any South African party. Although Commander of MK at the time of many of the worst atrocities in the MK prison camps, he quietly abandoned that role with such success that he has not even had to face the questions about torture in the camps which have so discomfited other MK leaders. Having shifted into the role of chief ANC strategist and moderate, he both remained in control of the SACP and gifted it with a charismatic black leader under whom it could only grow. Just how central he had become was apparent when the whole ANC-SACP alliance pivoted through 180 degrees in order to stay in line behind him when he declared himself in favour of power-sharing. It was a feat which had white South Africa furiously applauding his move and getting ready to welcome him into government as a moderate. Slovo is quite likely to outrank de Klerk in the next government. The latest Markinor Poll shows that he has, with 27 per cent support, become second only to Mandela (70 per cent) in popularity among big-city blacks.

One wonders how long Hani would have tolerated the seemingly paradoxical persistence of a white leadership. Hani was a man of unusual intelligence and integrity, unafraid both of physical danger and of the ways the movement deals with those who come out with uncomfortable truths. In time, he would no doubt have sloughed off the controlling hand of Slovo, his aging Mephistopheles and, very probably, emerged as South Africa’s Nkrumah – with a power and continental reach undreamt of even by so ambitious a dreamer as Osagyefo, Ghana’s Redeemer.

That was the future of which South Africa was robbed or (depending on one’s point of view) from which it was reprieved by Janusz Waluz’s bullets – for this was one assassination that certainly did make a difference. Hani’s successor, Charles Ngakula (another Xhosa – one is tempted to add ‘of course’) is a man of parts: a journalist, a composer of choral music, the author of a set-book collection of Xhosa poetry. He has also had military training in the USSR and GDR. But he is no Hani: Hani, who had been politically active since 1957, had a remarkable record of military valour going back to the Wankie campaign of 1966-67. For many years he led a fearless underground life in South Africa even while serving as Umkhonto chief of staff. Ngakula, although the same age, did not become politically involved until 1981 and never saw active service in MK. More significantly, he was not even considered as a candidate for the ANC national executive and thus has no ANC role or name at all. Very few people, black or white, have heard of him, even now. Ngakula is unlikely to disturb Slovo’s continued dominance of the SACP, and the question is how far, under him, the Party will be able to expand beyond its current forty thousand members.

The relationship between the ANC and SACP isn’t a mere matter of personalities. Discussion of how and when the alliance might break down often gives rise to metaphors about horse (ANC) and rider (SACP), but in fact there is a total interpenetration of the two parties at middle and (especially) upper levels: scrambled eggs would provide a better analogy. It is more or less impossible for any major development to take place inside the movement without the SACP’s sanction, and of the two parties it is clearly the SACP that retains the initiative. It has already been decided, for example, that the SACP’s candidates for next April’s elections will run on the ANC list (without their SACP affiliation even appearing on the ballot paper) – an arrangement guaranteed to be far more favourable to the SACP than anything it could achieve by presenting its own separate list. Amazingly, the ANC had no part in this critical decision: the SACP merely announced that things would be done this way and the ANC ‘naturally’ acquiesced, even though many non-Communist African nationalists will be forced into losing positions or bumped off the list altogether.

For all that, there is much quiet discussion on both sides stemming from a conviction that the alliance will not last. Mandela has spoken of a future in which the parties will have to go their own ways because of policy differences. As yet there are no differences; and with SACP leaders helping to draw up ANC policy, it is difficult to see how there can be. Within the SACP itself, however, there are two schools of thought. The fusionists argue that the collapse of the Communist bloc leaves no independent long-term future available to the SACP and that the best thing for it is permanent integration with the ANC as its radical conscience and think-tank. It is too defeatist a strategy to be publicly respectable with the Party, but in fact it merely theorises, and makes permanent, what Slovo is in any case doing. Opposed to the fusionists are those who argue that the ANC has already become the instrument of a rising African bourgeoisie which, once in power, will inevitably betray and attack the working class (i.e. the Party) and that it would therefore be better for the Party to leave the alliance now, of its own accord, than wait to be either kicked out or hopelessly compromised later on. Implicitly, at least, the advocates of this line of action are flirting with the strong insurrectionist currents that are the heritage of the township risings of the Eighties and with the assertion of armed struggle as almost a good in itself.

The party leadership’s attempt to chart a middle course between these two extremes is interestingly laid out in the Central Committee’s discussion paper, ‘The Role of the SACP in the Transition to Democracy and Socialism’. (The question of democracy is a sensitive one for many of the newer party members. The clandestine Party was run on a routine Stalinist – that is to say, oligarchic – model and although a more open style is favoured now that the Party is legal, the leadership had conducted several policy U-turns by means of ‘discussion papers’. Any attempt to attack or criticise these papers is quickly headed off with a statement that the paper is ‘merely for discussion’. The usual organisational techniques are then deployed by the apparat to force the papers through and they invariably become party policy – unanimously adopted, of course.) The current discussion paper, presented to the May 1993 SACP Strategy Conference, broaches the question at the heart of intra-party debate: can socialism in one country be built in South Africa? On the whole the leadership thinks it ‘highly improbable’ that South Africa can succeed where the USSR failed, but even so the Option is not entirely ruled out, especially since ‘the world capitalist system is presently in deep structural crisis’ (anyone who had read party documents over time knows that this is the normal condition of capitalism). This opinion is, however, juxtaposed in the African Communist with an article by two American Marxists, who put up a strong case against allowing the country to be opened up to international capital, the alternative being a policy of ‘inward development’ – i.e. production targeted at the home market with rigorous controls ensuring that export industries exist merely to satisfy the foreign-exchange needs of an autarchic people’s economy. The article fits in with the almost religious horror of world capitalism felt by many ANC-SACP militants who, for thirty years, have preached the identity of apartheid with capitalism. To have to acknowledge that apartheid can be abolished while capitalism continues is to lose a major ideological comfort blanket. Accordingly, the leadership is quick to add that even if socialism in one country is improbable, ‘this is not to say we cannot make major revolutionary advances towards socialism.’

In addition to ‘a decisive increase of the sectors of the economy under social control and subject to democratic planning’, this would involve ‘the development of a vast network of democratic organs of popular participation in both the economy and the political system under the leadership of the working class’. Which in turn would require ‘the restructuring of the state so as to establish state apparatuses shaped to relate directly and continuously with these popular structures’. What this means is that a large array of party fronts will be spawned: Party-led NGOs, women’s groups and trade unions, together with the politically correct organisations for youth, students, chiefs, peasants, the unemployed, squatters and so on which are already, for the most part, in place. There will then be demands for each issue to have its own special ‘forum’, in which all the relevant (politically correct) organisations will be guaranteed a permanent place. These organisations, although largely innocent even of formal elections, will claim that their predominance in such forums stems from the fact that they ‘represent’ the working class and the masses beyond. In practice their function will be to ensure that the government department concerned, whatever the political complexion of the minister in charge, will be subject to ‘popular’ (i.e. Party) direction, thus making a nonsense of the idea of coalition government. Should ‘anti-progressive’ (including moderate ANC) ministers prove resistant to direction, the MDM will reserve the right to stage mass action to force home the ‘democratic and popular’ option in any particular instance. The same network of forums is already being created at local and regional levels.

The Party’s vision of the future is implicitly monopolist. The power-sharing agreement provides for a coalition government – it is in any case inevitable given the proportional nature of the electoral system – but the Party’s only ‘concession’ to that is to speak of the need for mass struggle to check and oppose any who ‘block democratic reconstruction’ or attempt to ‘water down programmes’. Indeed, the absolute priority will be ‘to defend and strengthen the hand of our own government representatives’. Since anyone who opposes the Party will be deemed to be ‘blocking democratic reconstruction’, there can in practice be no legitimate opposition. To be sure, the Party nods in the direction of a ‘pluralistic notion of socialism’ and of a ‘civil society’ that transcends politics – but then immediately makes it clear that these concepts include only the world of the MDM, or at most, the wider ‘national liberation movement’ (NLM) – that is, the MDM plus the PAC and AZAPO.

The Party’s overall aim is to force the Government to adopt its Reconstruction Pact. Economically, this would entail a programme of redistribution through ‘inward industrialisation’ – a vast programme of public spending, with all attention focused on the domestic market. It is, however, striking that the Party is at its briefest and least confident in discussing these crucial economic objectives: it has far more to say about how the Pact must remodel state structures. One is left with the clear impression that the Party has extremely thorough and beady-eyed plans for the attainment and exercise of political power but – despite its belief in the primacy of economics – is now quite unsure of its economic policy. It has largely abandoned the notion of nationalisation and warns that the state bureaucracy must remain (improbably) ‘lean’, while the pages of the African Communist are full of discordant and (often wildly unrealistic) debates on fundamental economic issues. There appears to be little certainty even about the general direction of economic policy and no detailed policy on agriculture, industry, trade or transport.

In all this it is assumed that the SACP will continue to lead and animate the whole MDM: ‘the Party’s vanguard role is ... as a generaliser, a unifier and a strategiser ... within the broad popular movement.’ But the Party has enemies within the movement: there is ‘a real and ongoing struggle ... over the class bias and character of the ANC, and against opportunism and its twin in careerism, demagogic populism. Conducting this struggle ... is perhaps ... the most important of tasks for the SACP.’ Faced, however, with ubiquitous evidence that the ANC is bringing to power a rapidly self-enriching black bourgeoisie, many within the Party have begun to doubt the realism of attempting to build socialism via the ANC, but the leadership warns against ‘a narrow, SACP “go it alone” attitude; or, loose, generalising and demoralised assumptions that the “ANC (in its entirety) had sold out”’.

However, even the Party leadership is willing to consider the possibility that the SACP may one day need to break with the ANC and go it alone: ‘if the national liberation struggle is successfully hijacked by some liberal project, or undermined by general chaos, if our NLM unity is broken and our national democratic strategic purpose is lost, the SACP may well need to assume a more autonomous character.’ It isn’t what they want to happen and it would only be in the very last resort – it ‘would represent a temporary (but perhaps longenduring) strategic defeat’. One can already sense the tension between ‘realists’ among the SACP leadership, who want nothing to disturb their last lap towards power, and lower ranking idealists with less to lose, who are appalled by the embourgeoisement of the ANC and by the influence already wielded within it by the likes of Tiny Rowland and Sol Kerzner. Honourably enough, the militants feel more comfortable within the old oppositionist tradition of socialist purity – but this contest will, as ever, be effortlessly won by the leadership.

The leadership’s chosen strategy is immensely ambitious. In order to force its programme through the coalition government it will not only have to overcome the opposition of other political parties and, as it admits, of ‘local and international capital’: it will have continually to discipline and check the ‘careerist and opportunist’ elements within the ANC. This project seems quite impossible. The ANC in office is bound to take whatever money is on offer from international agencies and banks. And like it or not, the black middle class are the only possible winners of the ANC’s ‘revolution’. The sight of the SACP directing an inward industrialisation programme would produce a colossal capital flight and consequent austerity as well, probably, as hyper-inflation Moreover, were the ANC to embark on such a politically and economically illiberal programme, it would encounter widespread foreign criticism. The ANC leadership, used to being lionised, even hero-worshipped, abroad, would find that quite traumatic. Certainly, the major Western embassies here display complete equanimity about the SACP’s dominance, for they assume that its failure is already over-determined. ‘Who cares whether they call themselves Communists or not?’ one ambassador said to me. ‘They can’t get anywhere without a Soviet bloc to support them.’

This is perhaps too glib. There is a third possibility which wouldn’t involve the SACP getting it all its own way or its having to go into purist opposition: a continuation of the present situation, with its contradictions becoming ever more luxuriant. The SACP, in other words, could find itself acting as the brains trust and left caucus of an ANC-led government that was ‘hijacked by a liberal project’ (via the IMF and World Bank), and riddled with the corruption and incompetence normal in African nationalist regimes to the north. Such a regime could quite plausibly act as an engine for the enrichment of a black middle class and provide the SACP with a domaine reservée within which it could exercise power and patronage. This kind of trade-off between Communist and bourgeois was, after all, quite typical of the post-war governments of France and Italy, which may provide the best analogy for what is to come in South Africa – governments of national unity charged with national reconstruction after a political dark age. In Europe these governments fell victim to the pressure of the Cold War within about three years. In South Africa the compromise could last much longer, not only because the Cold War is over but because, in the last analysis, this is Africa – where the improbable is commonplace and the impossible occurs quite often.

Even magical realism has its limits, however. There is now no prospect of the SACP being able to build an East-Germany-in-Africa, strive as it might, and it is doubtful whether it will even be able to prevent the embourgeoisement of its own cadres. The successes of the SACP have been achieved using the tactics and ideology of a bygone age. Its drive for power has been admirably single-minded and yet now, as it stands on the verge of government, it is harder and harder to see what it wants or can do with its power. Chris Hani, before his assassination, was alone in his frankness about this, openly admitting his reluctance to serve in a government where every choice would be difficult. Whoever was in charge of, say, agriculture or education, was bound to become hideously unpopular.

With Hani’s murder the SACP has lost its chance of one day capturing the ANC leadership. Perhaps it will be the other way about now. The Party cannot forever remain immune to the forces which operated against Communism almost everywhere else; and the chances of South Africa seeing ‘major revolutionary advances towards socialism’ are zero. The real question is how seriously the Party is going to take this objective, and whether it will put up a fight before it accepts that the nationalist revolution is real but the socialist revolution is not. It’s likely that the Party will in the end go quietly. Recent events have seen it transformed from a largely white and Indian party to a predominantly black one. Perhaps in the end the Communists will come full circle: having adopted the guise of African nationalism, they could find themselves in power having to behave like ordinary African nationalists, with the disguise gradually becoming the reality.