It is bad enough that a ‘communist’ is a senior minister in a capitalist government, writes Peter Manson. But now things are even worse
The contradictions and problems in the political line of the South African Communist Party are continuing unabated, with its general secretary, Blade Nzimande, now under attack for “impropriety” and even “corruption”. It just so happens that Nzimande is one of several SACP ministers in the African National Congress government headed by president Cyril Ramaphosa and the allegations relate to his role as minister of higher education, science and innovation.
Before we look at this case itself, it is worth asking a few basic questions. Firstly, what on earth are so-called ‘communists’ doing helping to run a capitalist government? And how can any single person realistically be expected to lead a party with a claimed membership of over 300,000, while at the same time being in charge of all the country’s universities and colleges?
This situation results from the political impasse into which the SACP fell after the end of apartheid and the election of the first ANC government in 1994. In reality it was precisely the SACP which to all intents and purposes had led the illegal ANC in its armed struggle against the racist apartheid regime - the ANC Freedom Charter, which called for immediate, full racial equality, as well as substantial pro-working class reforms, was drafted mainly by SACP comrades, for example.
Then there was the case of ANC leader and figurehead Nelson Mandela, who had for a time been a member of the SACP central committee - this was admitted by the party immediately after his death in 2013. He had been instructed by the SACP to sever all official links with the party in order to further the claim that the ANC was a broad liberation front, and certainly not a communist tool.
This was connected to the SACP programme, which highlighted the need for a two-stage revolution. The first was the ‘national democratic revolution’ (NDR), in which full equality would be achieved and working class ‘emancipation’ would begin under conditions of capitalism. However, it was envisaged that in a very short time (a few years at most) the NDR would be replaced by the second, ‘socialist’ stage, in which Soviet-style ‘socialism’ would be adopted, with South Africa becoming part of the ‘official communist’ bloc led by the USSR.
With this scenario in mind, it was natural for the SACP to advocate the promotion of its own comrades into the ANC leadership, including senior posts within the post-apartheid government. However, this seemed to overlook the fact that everything had changed with the final collapse of the Soviet Union and the ‘socialist bloc’ over 1989-91. As a result, the Freedom Charter was viewed in a totally different light. It no longer encapsulated merely the short-term aims of democracy and equality, which would open the way to ‘socialism’, but a rather more long-term programme, preparing for such a transformation in the indeterminate future.
So now we have the situation where the NDR is itself being divided into stages by SACP ‘theorists’. Party propaganda now calls for South Africa to embark as soon as possible on the (very vaguely defined) “second, more radical stage of the national democratic revolution” - which, of course, requires SACP leaders to be amongst those at the helm.
The latest allegations against the SACP general secretary resulted from a row with the director-general of higher education, Gwebinkundla Qonde - who, incredibly, sits also alongside Nzimande as a fellow member of the SACP central committee.
Back in May, Qonde (who was the longest-serving director-general in the South African civil service) had publicly complained of two years of “persistent mistreatment” by Nzimande, which “effectively relegated me and diminished my authority”. Later he was to describe this as “workplace bullying”. More significantly, however, according to Qonde, Nzimande was responsible for “financial mismanagement” and “breaking procurement processes”: eg, over the purchase of laptops for university students via the National Students Financial Aid Scheme. In May 2020, alleges Qonde, Nzimande gave instructions that “a service provider he had handpicked be appointed, against the advice of the National Treasury”.
The left-populist/black nationalist Economic Freedom Fighters were more specific, accusing Nzimande of “outright corruption” by attempting to “siphon money to entities closely linked to him and those he places in strategic positions”.1 The EFF claimed: “Nzimande has turned what ought to be a developmental sector into his fiefdom, thriving at insults, evasion and taking public platforms to ridicule students.”
Previously, former SACP member Zwelinzima Vavi, who is today general secretary of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), had demanded that Nzimande resign for “belittling the genuine struggle for access to education by students”. In reality, he continued, “this ‘communist’ minister should hang his head in shame, because students are essentially fighting an austerity programme that has led to cuts in essential services, such as education”.2
But, returning to the allegations of corruption, Nzimande, instead of attempting to either prove that the accusations against him were false or, alternatively, to justify the actions for which he was accused of “impropriety”, attempted to turn the tables by calling on the president, who is ultimately responsible for the appointment of all civil service director-generals, to suspend Qonde from his post, even though his contract was due to end a few weeks later on September 6. A senior civil servant has no right to complain about the “impropriety” of the minister in charge of his department, obviously. Ramaphosa had no hesitation in complying and ensured that a notice of intention to suspend Qonde was issued on July 12.
Despite the fact that his contract has now ended, Qonde took the case to the Johannesburg Labour Court, on the grounds that the action taken against him would damage his reputation and future career. However, the court rejected his claim on September 7 on the grounds that he had failed to establish that “his disclosures to president Cyril Ramaphosa led to his suspension”, and ruled that Qonde must pay the costs of the application.
It comes to something, doesn’t it, when two ‘communist’ leaders fight out their differences in a bourgeois court? Especially when those differences arise over whether or not they had made personal gain through deals with capitalists.
It is ironic that Ramaphosa won the presidency to a large degree thanks to the support of the SACP, which had campaigned against the previous president, Jacob Zuma (another former party member), precisely because of allegations of corruption, which allegedly opened the way to “state capture” by the super rich Gupta family.
Zuma was, of course, sentenced to 15 months imprisonment in July for contempt of court after he refused to attend an official enquiry into his own alleged corruption (by coincidence, he has just been released, having been granted medical parole because of his rapidly deteriorating health).
Either way, there is no doubting the substantial basis of the corruption charges levelled against him. But what about his successor, Ramaphosa, who, as I say, has enjoyed the SACP’s full support? That despite the fact that his own relations with capital have been dubious, to say the least. Although he started off as an employee of mining company Anglo American, he was parachuted in as general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers in the final days of apartheid. He was gradually promoted within the ANC until he became its secretary-general in 1991. After that, there was no stopping him: he gradually enriched himself, no doubt to a large degree thanks to his contacts, and by the time he was elected president in 2018 was one of South Africa’s wealthiest men (until 2016 he owned the McDonald’s burger franchise).
On top of that he played a key role in the Marikana massacre of August 16 2012, when 34 striking miners were shot dead by police. Ramaphosa was actually a board member of Lonmin, the company that employed the miners, and on the very eve of the massacre described the strikers as “dastardly criminal” and demanded the police take “concomitant action” against them. Coming from the secretary-general of the ANC, such a call could hardly be discounted.
The following day, police penned in and then gunned down workers who had gathered for ongoing protests - as they were attempting to flee. It seems indisputable that many were shot in the back. Sporadic shooting continued for half an hour, as police on horseback or in helicopters hunted down individuals desperately trying to get away. At least a dozen were picked off in this way, some as they were trying to surrender.
Yet, to its shame, this is the man the SACP supported to replace the “corrupt” Zuma. And, to top it all, now we have allegations of corruption against the party’s own general secretary!