These Voices Cannot be Ignored
Five years ago at the annual conference of the SA Communist Party, then-deputy president Thabo Mbeki mounted the podium and proceeded to utter the famous words from a popular African philosopher-ruler: "Tell no lies! Claim no easy victories!"
Mbeki had had enough.
"We must end the practice of claiming easy party victories for the cause of the revolutionary on the basis of having told lies about our own comrades, who we seek to outshine so that we can position ourselves as the real representative of the genuine left."
Before him, Nelson Mandela had put his own prepared speech aside to speak his mind. "You must choose what role you want to play."
It was a public mauling that stunned the comrades but delighted their enemies. Never before had so public a rebuke been uttered. In exile, the SACP was the tail that wagged the dog. The party was the intellectual engine of the movement.
Membership of the Communist Party opened doors. Now times had changed.
But if Mandela's criticism could be dismissed as the rantings of an old man looking forward to retirement, Mbeki was different.
He had taken over the leadership of the ANC and within a year he was to succeed Mandela as the country's president.
And he was drawing a line in the sand. His audience had to take him seriously. Too many careers were going to be at the mercy of his moods. Many comrades left the conference muttering something about going it alone. That didn't come to pass. Cooler heads prevailed.
A year or so ago, the ANC reacted with exaggerated bewilderment to an interview with Jeremy Cronin in an obscure Irish publication. Unburdening his soul about the state of play in the alliance, Cronin had referred, among other things, to the Zanufication of the ANC. That touched a raw nerve.
Smuts Ngonyama was wheeled out to lead Cronin's public flogging. One was left with the impression that for the ANC, keen to bolster its Africanist flank, Cronin's colour was a welcome convenience. Cronin, master of subterfuge, grovelled. Mbeki darkly referred to the "ultra-left" muddying the waters. Shades of Stalin denouncing Trotsky.
Power has understandably changed the ANC. Political parties realise very soon after attaining power that their responsibilities go way beyond the sectarian interests of their constituencies. A party in opposition takes on a different hue once in power. Power also has a sobering effect on policies and attitudes. It's like a rebellious youth who suddenly becomes a parent.
No late nights any more, no shouting at the powers that be. You're now at the receiving end, your little yobbo yelling at you, and tossing toys out of the cot. Suddenly life becomes unfair.
The ANC is at that stage of youthful parenthood, huge responsibilities facing it in government but still hankering for those heady days of gay abandon. It is still uncomfortable with the accoutrements of power. It needs to let go of its past. It is in a different trench now. It can't keep yelling at power. It is now the power.
The ANC government has done reasonably well in catering for the needs of the poor. But the single biggest beneficiary of its policies has been the militarists - R50-billion in armaments - and a few corrupt cronies suckling from the honeypot.
The SACP and Cosatu have grave reservations about government's economic policies, especially the privatisation of state assets. But what has also got their noses out of joint is the fact that the alliance table has also become a bit overcrowded of late. The IFP, the perennial partners, are there, and so are the ANC's new and vocal constituency, the black elite, who are brusquely muscling in with their own demands and perspectives on life. The comrades also had to swallow very hard to accept the NNP.
There's a tendency to delight in the misfortunes of both the SACP and Cosatu. And so government's public squabbles with them earns a feather on its cap.
Hostility to the SACP and Cosatu is located in the past, in ideology. But ideology as we have come to know it has ceased to exist. We all are now adherents of the ideology of the stomach. We all have to eat, don't we? The communists will insist they are still fighting for a socialist nirvana. That's a pipedream. But exist they must.
Both Cosatu and the SACP deserve a place in the sun. The numbers, and the constituencies they represent, mean government cannot, unlike the opposition in parliament, ignore them. They speak for the marginalised and the disaffected. That can only be good for stability and for democracy.
They have a principled stand on some of Mbeki's major policy blunders - Zimbabwe, Aids/HIV and the arms deal. On the now infamous coup plot, they warned publicly against the use of state resources to settle political scores or advance personal agendas. That takes courage.
They are a key component of the social contract. Their voice should not be stilled or emasculated.
With acknowledgements to Barney Mothombothi and The Star.