Communism, as formulated by Germans Marx and Engels in their industrialised continent far from the African situation, is seminally Eurocentric. When the South African Communist Party was founded by white, middle class manufacturers and merchants, disproportionately Jewish, Soviet leaders felt blacks weren’t yet advanced enough for Communism. During the 1921 Rand Revolt, the communists were under the sway of working class Afrikaners, as hateful of their fellow black workers as they were of their capitalist bosses. Many of Marx’s radical ideas did not sit comfortably with the missionary school educated elite of the African National Congress.

Participating in the liberation struggle, white communists faced excommunication from their community. They kept their champagne tastes though, like Picasso, the richest communist in the world. But instead of appearing hypocritical, this often served to humanise them. Some would pay the highest price – assassination. But communist advice to the liberation movement was treated with suspicion. The entryism of white-skinned communists was one of the reasons Robert Sobukwe broke with the ANC to form the PAC.

Perhaps it is this sensitivity to its past that underlies the tenor of the rhetoric emanating from the current leader of the SACP.

What we are witnessing under SACP secretary general Blade Nzimande, minster of higher education, is a pitiful rerun of the Stalinist betrayal of communism – a desire for state thought control; paranoiac reactions to dissent; more secretiveness, security apparatus and policing; increasingly irrational analysis; and a dangerous leadership cult.

Strategic pacts that pervert the movement are nothing new. The most depraved was the Hitler – Stalin Pact. As news spread of the millions of Jews and Poles being exterminated, South African communists held their tongues, becoming known as “Communazis”. They then reversed their position when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union.

It was the same mentality in defence of its paymaster that led the SACP to praise imperial Soviet tanks as they crushed the pro-democracy movements of the 1950s.

Once upon a time, the SACP could be relied upon to stand up to government with a certain idealism, to give incisive critiques, as SACP deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin used to do before he became deputy minister of transport, even if in most cases these were followed shortly afterwards by obsequious retractions.

These days the SACP in government has little choice but to dutifully vote for repressive legislation and even implement policy in the very face of striking workers. (E-tolling has now been quaintly reframed as a “serious strategic mistake”.)

Those in the unions – Cosatu and the SACP – who had serious misgivings when Zuma announced his cabinet in 2009, have been vindicated.

Old communists like Ben Turok slipped out of the National Assembly and did not vote for the secrecy Bill. Nzimande not only voted, but endorsed the legislation even in its early faulty form. He belittled critics of the Bill as engaged in nothing more than “titillating, white suburban politics”. Nzimande also favours a state-run media tribunal.

While Cosatu sensibly worried that such mechanisms will block the exposure of corruption among elites, Nzimande told the media: “If there is one serious threat to our democracy, it is [the] media” – not unemployment, not poverty, not corruption, not even global capitalism.

Recently, Nzimande called for an indefinite boycott of City Press. He has been railing against the paper since 2008.

As Cosatu’s Zwelinzima Vavi pointed out, such Communist Party heroes as Ruth First would be turning in their graves: “She would ask where her SACP is, and why it has not led a united working class in a struggle to change the direction we seem to be taking.”

Why? Because the SACP has been drifting ever closer to the elite political classes and further away from Cosatu and the actual workers. Nzimande should be reminded it was the trade unions led by Lech Walęsa in Poland that set in motion the ousting of Europe’s communist parties when they had lost their way.

Within months of being appointed minister, Nzimande’s department purchased a new R1.1-million BMW 7 series for his personal use, earning a rebuke from Cosatu. Living with the contradictions of wealth is one thing; living in ideological confusion is far more corrosive.

An enthusiastic participant in bourgeois democracy, the once mildly charming if bombastic academic with a singsong voice now harbours fantasies of reaching for the deputy presidency. Nzimande, like Julius Malema before him, has become a useful idiot in the succession battle of the ANC.

There he was, ecstatically bouncing about in the vanguard of The Spear circus, a re-elect Zuma (and please keep seats for us) rally if ever there was one. (One should always be extremely suspicious of state-directed protests.)

But it provided a moment of clarity: Nzimande for personal ambition had handed the party over to nationalists. In so doing, he has destroyed the redemptive potential of Communism.

It was significant that the ANC Youth League didn’t show up. Instead, it was the Young Communist League who leapt into the breach.

As the Goodman Gallery and City Press agreed to self-censorship, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe (who is also SACP national chairperson) repeatedly announced, “Mission accomplished!” As the editor of the Mail & Guardian Nic Dawes, observed, all that was missing was the aircraft carrier.

But this was not enough for Blade Nzimande, the man meant to be the guardian of academic freedom. The completely defaced painting, now known as “The Smear”, bought by a German collector for R136 000, should not be allowed to leave the county, instead, it must be destroyed, he told the crowd.

Such implacability smacks of desecrating the corpse of your enemy. What a brave start to the expropriation of foreign assets!

As a communist, his outrage should have been directed at the artist for daring to reflect Lenin through Zuma.

For someone who endlessly complains about the “liberal” media, Nzimande has certainly thrust himself into its limelight at every turn, with all the seductive egotistical dangers that entails. (At one point he was receiving coverage second only to Jacob Zuma, leading to insidious rumours about his wife’s position on the SABC board. Phumelele Ntombela-Nzimande left her position with a R1.8-million retrenchment package.)

Known for tomes of often good analysis, though so turgid it seemed designed to bore its class enemies to death, the SACP however remains wedded to the idea of an all-powerful, one-party state. If the likes of Nzimande were in charge of it, it would be a sorry state indeed. He has embarked on a Stalinist campaign against progressive civil society – what the SACP dubs a “liberal onslaught” or “ideological third force” of “anti-majoritarian liberalism”. Liberal critiques are facilely dismissed as racist attacks. Nzimande is as intolerant of dissension within the party as he is of it in broader society.

Cronin with some justification questions the funding of various NGOs and their lack of accountability. But then will the SACP open its books and reveal its party organisation funders?

Ruth First, as a journalist when secretary of the Young Communist League, kept embarrassing the authorities with exposés of slavery on the Bethal potato farms, migrant labour, slum conditions. Such social blight is not exactly a thing of the past. But the SACP can no longer criticise the failings of the neo-liberal, some might say neo-conservative government of which it is now part and parcel.

Instead, it directs its energies at symbols and propaganda wars. It has made itself ridiculous by describing Murray’s painting as pornography and pleading for better policing of the unenforceable age restriction. How did the SACP end up sounding like a prudish colonial ladies’ tea club?

The party may be getting more press than ever before, but the kind of rhetoric and concerns it busies itself with these days, has left some of us wondering, whatever happened to the Left?

In the battle for the soul of the ANC, the SACP has lost its own. It has been captured by the intrigues and political games of bourgeois democracy, the recycling of elites. Hence, the SACP’s deafening silence over the BEE-owned Aurora mine scandal eventually leading to a mealy-mouthed almost apologist mention of it; and Nzimande’s strident, diversionary tactic of lambasting the media and even stooping to play the populist race card (former Model C schools as “islands for whites” etc).

The classic Marxist approach is to smash the bourgeois state. In truth, the current SACP baulks at the prospect of a real revolution, a sentiment they wholeheartedly share with liberals.

The SACP leadership claim they are contesting democratic space at all levels including cabinet. But it cannot avoid implementing policies designed to benefit the elite. The efficacy of this strategy (ever since Joe Slovo became minster of housing in 1994) has yet to prove itself. Meanwhile, the contradictions and self-delusion is patently obvious to everyone except the SACP leadership.

Follow Brent on Twitter.

The SACP will hold its 13th national congress next month.


  • Brent Meersman is a writer based in Cape Town. He is co-editor of and a columnist for This is Africa. His most recent novel is Five Lives at Noon (2013), and his previous novels are Primary Coloured (Human & Rouseau, 2007) and Reports Before Daybreak (Umuzi-Random House, 2011). He has been writing for the Mail & Guardian since 2003. Follow him on Twitter or visit


Brent Meersman

Brent Meersman is a writer based in Cape Town. He is co-editor of and a columnist for This is Africa. His most recent novel is Five Lives at Noon (2013), and his previous novels are Primary...

Leave a comment