The Character of our Party
Building the SACP in the present period
The following article, by South African Communist Party (SACP) Deputy Chairman Blade Nzimande, is reprinted from The African Communist, No. 139/40, First Quarter 1995. Comrade Nzimande argues that the lessons of the past four years and the challenges of the new period require a return to a more vanguard SACP, built around a quality membership.
The kind of Party we need to build is perhaps the most crucial question facing the SACP at present. We must bear in mind that we cannot answer this question in the abstract. The nature of the conjuncture, our understanding of that conjuncture, and the tasks facing us during this period all help to determine what kind of Party we need.
The April election represents a major victory for the democratic forces in South Africa, the Southern African region and anti-apartheid forces internationally. It marks the end of an epoch – the end of colonialism in Africa. It will test the strength, maturity, political strategies and tactics of the national liberation movement – of which our Party is a key component – to its limits.
The significance of this period lies in many points. Most importantly, the April 1994 breakthrough lays the basis for a truly democratic transition from white minority rule to national democracy. The Party at least has consensus that this period of the Government of National Unity (GNU), historic and significant as it is, does not herald the completion of the national democratic stage of the revolution. Rather, it is the beginning of the path to national democracy.
At every stage of our revolution, we should assess our gains against some of the key objectives of the national democratic revolution – like the hegemony of the working class, fundamental transformation of the structure of the South African economy, progressive emancipation of women, etc. The balance of forces and the nature of the struggle during this period will affect the capacity of the movement to deepen the national democratic revolution. These factors will equally influence the extent to which the national democratic revolution includes a revolution of gender relations within it.
Our strategic objective in the present: implementing the Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP)
As the SACP, our main strategic objective in this period is the most thorough and democratic implementation of the RDP. Our Party played a role in the conceptualisation and drafting of the RDP. There is no doubt that the RDP is biased towards the popular forces in our country, in particular the working class and women. Besides this, the adoption of the RDP as the program of the GNU has placed socio-economic issues at the centre of the present political struggle.
However, given the contradictory nature of the GNU, the capitalist character of South African society, and the continued dominance of patriarchy, the meaning and implementation of the RDP will be heavily contested.
The National Party and the capitalist class intend to subvert the RDP, to strengthen capital accumulation and the interests of capital in general. There might be different tactical approaches within and between sections and branches of capital as to how to use the RDP to serve their interests. However, this does not affect the overall objective of turning the RDP into a terrain of capital accumulation.
There are as many versions of the RDP as there are class and strata interests. Our main task, as communists in this period, is to ensure that the progressive content of the RDP is not diluted. In other words, the implementation of the RDP must be principally oriented towards meeting the needs of the working people of our country. The people must drive it themselves. It must be implemented to ensure gender transformation. All sectors of state and society must be thoroughly democratised, and there must be gender equality in participation. This is part of our overall strategy to safeguard the national democratic revolution.
Arising out of this is the need to ensure that the meaning and content of the RDP are progressive. While this should constitute the major ideological focus of the SACP during this period, our role must not be seen narrowly as a watchdog role. Rather, it is through active participation and playing a leading role in the implementation of programs aimed at achieving RDP objectives that the most effective challenge to the meaning and content of the RDP will be made possible. Through practice, we will effectively equip ourselves to engage in the ideological struggle around the meaning and content of the RDP. It is also through practice that we will turn the RDP into a truly people-driven and gender-sensitive program.
Our branches should engage in mass-based activities and initiatives to carry out the RDP. The SACP should prepare its branches to initiate forums, in a variety of settings, to strategise on the implementation of the RDP in whatever sphere or sector in which they operate. Our branches should play an effective role in the establishment of tripartite alliance and mass democratic forums and structures aimed at improving the socio-economic conditions of the majority of our people, and specifically at changing gender relations.
To achieve these objectives, our Party should embark on the most thorough preparation of cadres to understand the meaning and content of the RDP under present conditions. We should equip our cadres – through a Marxist-Leninist and socialist feminist understanding of the RDP – to operate effectively in their various sectors, for example in education.
It is on the terrain of a working class-biased and gender sensitive implementation of the RDP that we should build the SACP as a force for socialism. The more we defend the progressive and gender content of the RDP, the more we deepen the national democratic revolution. The more thorough and democratic the implementation of the RDP, the more we strengthen the struggle for socialism. The RDP provides for us the most immediate and concrete connection between democracy, women’s emancipation, and socialism in our country.
This means that our Party-building initiatives – political education, branch meetings and activities – should involve the content and implementation of the RDP. We must strengthen each branch of the Party to understand and strategise around the implementation of the RDP.
The RDP requires that we go beyond the rhetorical re-statement of its objectives, and concretely engage in the implementation process itself. To kick-start the Party-building program, each and every branch must begin to hold political discussions on the content of the RDP. From this, they must identify and plan the most appropriate programs and structures to realise the goals of the RDP in their specific localities.
Party branches should pay specific attention to the question of how to embark on gender transformation programs. In doing so, each branch can thoroughly assess its priorities for development. Branches must also begin to plan how to engage other members of the Alliance, the democratic movement and other organisations in their specific areas or sectors of operation.
There are other political tasks facing our Party in the present period that are crucially linked to the RDP. The first one is that of consolidating political power, by ensuring that the national liberation movement in Government places its hands firmly on state apparatuses. The priority here is the transformation of repressive state apparatuses, the army and the police. Related to this is the key task of transforming the apartheid civil service. The strategy of the old ruling block is to prevent the ANC component of the Government of National Unity from effectively controlling state apparatuses for purposes of transformation. The implementation of the RDP crucially rests on our ability to consolidate political power.
A related task is that of transforming and democratising local government and, in particular, rural local government. This requires that, through struggle, we confront the tensions between chieftaincy, women’s emancipation, and mass-based democracy.
Also of crucial importance is the need to strengthen our internationalist outlook. This task has to be undertaken against the background of radically changed international conditions, where many of our traditional allies – the Marxist-Leninist communist parties – have either collapsed or are very weak. We might have to forge international contacts with a broad range of left forces. This is important for strengthening our Party, as well as for contributing to socialist renewal internationally.
In summary, therefore, the themes around which we should be building the SACP in this period are those of struggles around gender equality, democracy, a people-driven RDP, internationalist outlook, and the struggles of organised workers. In relation to the latter, it is important to defend the struggles of organised workers, given the increasing attacks on this section of the working class on the grounds that it is, supposedly, an “elite”.
The character of our Party
To achieve the above objectives, we need to build a particular type of party. The character of the SACP should reflect the tasks facing us in the current situation. Since our unbanning, we have debated this question extensively. The nature of our party was, for example, a key issue at our 8th Party Congress. The Congress rejected the proposal to turn the Party into a mass party, but a detailed analysis of the challenges that we would face in the negotiation period (1990-1994) did not accompany this. The argument against a mass party was based on an inadequate but understandable assessment that the apartheid regime still remained in power and the balance of class forces was still in favour of the old ruling bloc. Our analysis paid scant attention to the continuity of patriarchal relations.
Similarly, the comrades who argued for a mass party did not present a serious assessment of why this should be. Although the argument to build a mass party was defeated at Congress, our Party-building efforts were in essence those of a mass party. We did not translate into practice the resolution to build a vanguard party. Consequently, attempts to build a mass-based party have not been successful, because they were based on an exaggerated capacity to translate our popularity into organisation.
The argument for building a mass party did not problematise the notion of building such a party within an alliance with a mass-based national liberation movement. (The Congress resolution on gender did, however, identify the ANC Women’s League’s role as the vehicle for mass mobilisation of women. The fact that this recognition did not filter into the more general debate reflects the ghettoising of the gender debate to a specific resolution).
Realising this potential tension, an attempt was made to then pose the major challenge of the period of negotiations as that of the “struggle for the soul of the ANC”. Predictably our detractors and other opportunists deliberately misinterpreted this to mean that the Party wished to control the ANC. What we meant by this struggle for the soul of the ANC was that, particularly once the ANC was in power, a whole range of powerful class forces historically antagonistic towards it, would now seek to direct towards their own agenda. This has been the pattern in many other national liberation struggles, and as communists and as a broad movement we have the duty to honestly confront these realities.
However, what our own position failed to do was to concretely translate this struggle into a coherent strategy. It did not conceptualise how communists would wage this struggle. Also, against the background of the collapse of Eastern bloc socialism, the notion of vanguardism was denounced as inherently Stalinist. In addition, we did not have a broad enough cadreship to enable the Party to absorb a large number of members and quickly turn them into advanced, quality cadres.
In a way, our internal organisational strength – size of quality cadreship – has not changed much from the time of the unbanning. The 8th Congress passed a resolution committing the Party to specifically working among women, particularly black working class women. Despite this, an honest reflection shows that there has been little change in the gender composition of membership, and there are still few women at the fore of Party life.
The weakness in our internal organisation is, in part, related to the difficulties in shifting from the underground to legality. We had neither fully anticipated nor adequately prepared for legality within the framework of a negotiated transition.
The character of our Party should primarily be sought in the main strategic objective of the national liberation movement during this period, that is, the implementation of the RDP. How best are we to protect the working class and gender transformation orientation of the RDP? This is the key question that should inform the character of the Party. The deepening of class contradictions within the national liberation movement itself requires a strong political formation representing the interests of the working class. The tendency away from progressive approaches to the gender question requires that this strong political formation takes the lead in the gender struggle.
We need to take a long-range view of the struggle for socialism. We should build a vanguard party rooted in a quality, activist and politically advanced layer of activists/communists spread throughout the national liberation and democratic movements. Our decisions at recent Central Committee meetings point to the need to consolidate our existing membership and to turn it into quality cadreship.
In arguing for a more vanguard approach, we must guard against the danger of disqualifying women comrades, many of whom when approached to join the Party after the unbannings, said they did not feel “theoretically prepared” and that “the Party expected more than they could deliver”. The image of the Party as one that is women-friendly, sensitive to gender issues, and committed to development of women cadres, is crucial.
The size of such a Party will be dictated by existing conditions as the present situation unfolds. Whilst we should not and cannot aim at a massive intake of membership for its own sake, at the same time we should not mechanically limit the number of members to be recruited during this period. Rather, we should aim at targeted recruitment, backed up by an extensive political education program.
One of our major weaknesses at this point is the lack of black, particularly African, intellectuals, and especially black women intellectuals within the Party.
For instance, we have not effectively harnessed the enormous popularity that our Party enjoys from the organised student sector in tertiary institutions. Developing black intellectuals within the Party should be a priority during this period, through targeted recruitment and internal ideological training. However, our cadre development and education should primarily aim at producing Party intellectuals from within the ranks of the working class itself.
It is the fluidity of the present period that dictates building ahighly disciplined, quality party. We need a party that is compact enough for effective and swift deployment, and capable of adjusting to changing conditions in implementing the RDP. It is only with a core of high quality cadreship that we can rise to the challenge if conditions require massive expansion.
Similarly, if we need to fall back on our organisational strength to defend our organisation under difficult political conditions, we will be able to do so better. Even more important is the need to make our presence felt both within and outside the Alliance. In this way, we can command the necessary respect from within the ranks of the working class and wider society.