Blade Nzimande and the dilemma of the SACP
For a noisy democracy like ours, most people must be surprised that Blade Nzimande stayed at the helm of the South African Communist Party (SACP) for 24 years before stepping down last week.
It is not unusual, though, for party leaders to remain that long in office. Elected general secretary in 1939, Moses Kotane occupied that office for almost 40 years. He might have stayed even longer had he not died from illness. Communists don’t seem to mind leaders who cling onto power for longer than usual.
More noteworthy than Nzimande’s appetite for power is what he has achieved while at the helm of this historic party that turned 100 last year. Since Nzimande was the 13th individual to lead the party since 1921, it’s tempting to assess his tenure in relation to his predecessors.
Comparisons accentuate differences, thereby aiding to understand a person’s uniqueness. But, they can also be unfair. Individuals assume leadership in different contexts, which means their tasks and challenges vary.
Consider Kotane, for instance. The eighth general secretary, Kotane encountered vastly different challenges to what Nzimande would face 60 years later. His mandate was to mend a party that had just gone through more than 10 years of internal conflict.
The strife followed refusal by some of the party leaders to comply with the 1922 directive from the Communist International (Comintern). Because some of their affiliates were based in colonies, where race mattered just as much as class, the Comintern resolved that they should prioritise support for liberation movements. Once a Native Republic was established — that is, national liberation — communists could then move ahead to pursue socialism.
This is what the SACP had resolved against at its inception a year earlier — never to align themselves with bourgeoisie nationalist movements. Thus the directive met with serious objections. What made matters worse was that, apart from ideological protestations, some seemed to resist the directive because of racial prejudice.
Supporting the liberation movement also meant deferring to African leaders. This proved to be a problem for some of their colleagues, Kotane would later report to the Comintern, for they doubted the competence of African leaders. Instead of following the Comintern directive, they made life difficult for its proponents, even suspending and purging them.
But, the Comintern was uncompromising on prioritising the Native Republic. It meted out harsh punishment to those who defied its instruction. Lazar Bach and the Richter brothers Maurice and Paul, three South Africans who went to Moscow in the 1930s, were sent to the gulags to do hard labour.
Kotane assumed leadership over a party coming out of bitter divisions. In addition to reconciling rival factions, he also had to reassure suspecting nationalist leaders that their idea of co-operation was not a takeover of their movement.
Full commitment to the liberation movement had become even more critical after the ANC went into exile in 1960. African leaders of the newly liberated states were distrustful of communists, some of whom happened to be white, as they suspected them of seeking to manipulate the ANC towards their own ends.
Kotane was determined to invalidate that suspicion by focusing exclusively on ANC activities. Unity of purpose was critical to securing the financial and logistical support from the Soviet Union. And, Kotane maintained healthy, fraternal relations with the USSR ensuring that it remained the largest supporter for the exiled organisation for the most part of its banishment.
Assuming the leadership of the SACP in 1998, Nzimande had a radically different but equally critical question to answer. What becomes of the party now that the Native Republic has been attained?
For someone of his age and political background resolving that question was always going to be daunting. Unlike most in the party, especially his predecessors, Nzimande didn’t get his communism from direct instruction in Moscow’s political schools, nor had he ever set foot in exile. These two factors determined one’s place in the hierarchy of importance in the liberation movement. Nzimande occupied a marginal spot on that hierarchy.
Though lacking in stature, Nzimande enjoyed strong association with the party establishment through Harry Gwala. Both based in Pietermaritzburg, Gwala assumed the role of a mentor, following his release from prison in 1987. Alongside other veteran party leaders like Raymond Mhlaba and Govan Mbeki, Gwala was instrumental in the revival of the SACP after 1990. Nzimande’s closeness to the veteran leader led to him being noticed a lot earlier by other influential members. When the party looked for someone to succeed Charles Nqakula, Nzimande became an obvious frontrunner.
Elected Chris Hani’s deputy in 1991, Nqakula lacked the charisma, energy and oratory of his predecessor. His elevation had been fortuitous, forced by the untimely assassination of Hani in 1993. Nqakula’s gentle, soft-speaking manner did not inspire confidence that he could instigate a socialist revolution. In fact, the subject of socialism was not a priority for Nqakula and his peers in the party leadership. They roundly applauded the government’s new free-market policy regime that sought to court business and cut down the public bill.
An eloquent speaker and 16 years younger than Nqakula, Nzimande’s election promised to return vibrancy back to the party. His intellectual demeanour, with a PhD in sociology, suggested that he was the right person to ask the question: where to from here? He wasted no time.
Together with his equally bold and cerebral deputy, Jeremy Cronin, Nzimande quickly re-oriented the party as an independent and vocal actor in the alliance. He achieved this partly by engineering the ouster of Thabo Mbeki’s old friends in the central committee, especially Essop Pahad and Jeff Radebe who seemed more intent to reinforce Mbeki’s views in the party, than critique him.
Nzimande’s most valuable contribution, therefore, was rediscovering the voice of the party within the alliance. He was not always right in his critique. Debt payments had to be prioritised to prevent it ballooning to uncontrollable levels that would have reduced social expenditure. Rightsizing was a reasonable response to a bloated civil service with unqualified staff. It also made sense to sell off parastatals that did not add strategic value to national development.
Nzimande also forced Mbeki to rethink his logic. Where others easily reinforced Mbeki’s hope that the private sector would eventually invest after lowering tariffs and selling parastatals, the party pointed out that the sacrifices were too great for investors that seemed elusive. Rather, the state should deepen its developmental role. Mbeki was not entirely unpersuaded by that argument.
But Nzimande’s weakness proved to be his fondness for government positions and the accompanying perks. His single-minded support for Jacob Zuma’s presidency was entirely unprincipled and self-serving. He conned his supporters to believe that Zuma was something he was not. Those who pointed out the truth — such as Mazibuko Jara and Vishwas Satgar — were purged. It was a return to the intolerant and Stalinist party of the early 1930s.
When Zuma revealed himself to be a predator, Nzimande called for the imprisonment of those who criticised the president. Then he refused to vacate office in 2017 to allow his deputy, Solly Mapaila, who had become the vocal critic of state capture, to rehabilitate the face of the party. Even the withdrawal of Cronin, his long-serving deputy, wouldn’t convince Nzimande to do likewise. Nzimande had become a stain on the party’s image but insisted on clinging onto office as it assured a ministerial post.
Ultimately, Nzimande seemed willing to carve a niche for the party only when he was outside the corridors of government. He ditched the attempt once the doors seemed to open up for his entry. Once he was inside, he simply kept quiet and never answered the question he faced at the beginning of his tenure.
What becomes of the party now that the Native Republic has been attained? Nzimande leaves the party still in limbo.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.