South African Communist Party leading members the late Joe Slovo and Ruth First. First was killed by the SADF in 1982 in Mozambique. Slovo died of cancer in 1995. , a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Joe Slovo – 18th Anniversary Commemoration of his death
SACP CC Message delivered by Cde Jeremy Cronin, SACP 1st Deputy General Secretary
6 January 2013
My last relatively extended personal interaction with cde Joe Slovo was 18 years ago over supper. It was mid-December 1994. It was in Bloemfontein at the ANC’s 49th National Conference. Cde Joe was not well, the illness from which he was to die a few weeks later was taking its toll – one arm was supported in a sling, his voice reduced to a soft rasp.
Physically he was exhausted, but intellectually he was as sharp as ever. And now we are just a few weeks beyond another ANC National Conference, which, coincidentally, was also held in Bloemfontein/Mangaung.
What would cde JS make of our current ANC, SACP and Alliance? What would he have to say about our present government, or the prevailing South African and international reality? There is always the temptation to claim cde JS’s authority for whatever views we might personally now hold – but, let’s concede it, none of us can say with any certainty what he would have to say about our present.
What we DO know, however, is the MANNER in which he would attempt to approach an understanding of our present situation. That approach would be at once passionately critical and responsibly measured. It would be critical because Slovo had a knack of intervening decisively at critical moments, of (to use one of his favourite turns of phrase) “belling the cat” – grabbing hold of a vexatious challenge that others were avoiding or deferring. He would do so with intellectual rigour, as a Marxist-Leninist.
But the approach would also be responsible.
Joe’s interventions were never merely academic; however brilliant, they were never displays of individualism. They were certainly never about seeking favour in liberal quarters by parading a personal independence from the collectives of which he was part.
If his interventions were critical, they were collectively self-critical – they assumed personal and collective responsibility for the organisations of which he was an active member, the SACP, the ANC, MK. They were also always about drawing lessons. It was not criticism for criticism’s sake, but collective self-criticism in order to answer, programmatically, the abiding Leninist question: “What is to be Done?”
You will find this approach in all of his key interventions. In “No Middle Road”, published in 1975, for instance, Slovo is breaking the spell of ANC exile demoralisation and defeatism – which were often disguised behind a denialism that asserted that “things are fine”, “the revolution is on track”. In “No Middle Road” Slovo is saying quite bluntly that, by the late-1960s, the ANC-led liberation movement had, indeed, suffered a major strategic defeat.
Things were not fine. The armed struggle launched in December 1961 was, in many respects, strategically confused. We grossly over-estimated our own capacity, we badly under-estimated the strength and vicious counter-offensive intent of the apartheid regime and its international backers.
This was “belling the cat”, saying boldly what others in our movement whispered, at best, but dared not say out loud. But that wasn’t where it ended for Slovo. In a characteristic dialectical switch, he then went on to argue that whatever the blunders, however unfavourable the conditions for armed struggle in December 1961– untimely action was by far preferable to inaction. And he then proceeded to unpack how the many features of an internal colonialism (that made a classical Third World armed struggle so much more difficult in the South African reality) could, with a sustained popular insurrectionary uprising, turn into positives for the liberation movement. This was to prove prophetic, written (remember) in 1975, “No Middle Road” anticipated the 1976 uprisings that were to roll on through the decade of the 1980s and into the early 1990s.
You will find the same approach at work in other critical Slovo interventions. “Has Socialism Failed?” is an obvious example. He worked on it largely in Lusaka in 1989 and it was published in 1990 in the midst of the deepening crisis and subsequent collapse of the Soviet bloc system. Once again he is taking on denialism:
--On the one hand, the denialism of those in the SACP and ANC, and those internationally who continued to believe that nothing had gone seriously wrong in the Soviet Union, or that it was all simply a belated betrayal by a single personality – Gorbachev; and
--On the other hand, the denialism of those who quickly disowned any personal or collective association with communism – there were the Yeltsins in Russia, but there were also many local equivalents within our own movement.
As far as they were concerned, Marxism, Communism, the Party, even the critique of imperialism had become “yesterday’s fashions”.
In analysing the Soviet experience, cde Joe was assuming both a personal and collective responsibility for this important if ultimately gravely flawed legacy – he was not taking the easy route out. He was not disowning it. But, even more important, he was intervening AS a communist, as a Marxist – for him the critique of the Soviet legacy was in the end a defence of socialism, of a democratic socialism, for socialism could only be democratic, or it would not be socialism, he argued.
So, in commemorating the living example of cde JS in the present, how do we take forward the fundamentals of his approach? What “cats” require “belling”? Obviously, there isn’t the space and time here to do anything comprehensive – but let’s try to put down some markers on two related issues, two “cats” - the end of the post-1994 South African honeymoon, and the related corrosive challenges of corruption. What are we to make of these undeniable realities?
End of the post-1994 South African honeymoon
Nearly two decades beyond the 1994 democratic breakthrough, it is clear that we continue to confront persisting problems – notably unemployment of crisis proportions, mass poverty, and extraordinary levels of inequality. Why? Who or what is to blame?
In much of the commercial media and amongst the predominant commentariat the answer tends to be reduced, quite simply, to the weaknesses, “cultural backwardness”, ineptitude and general venality of personalities related to the ANC, the Alliance, and the ANC-led government. “I went to Mangaung and what I saw made me not only sad and despondent, I literally shed a tear for the ANC, and for my country”, writes Mogomotsi Mogodiri in last week’s Sunday Times. “The installation of the new top six officials of the ANC is a tragedy of gargantuan proportions – a disaster not even Shakespeare could have dreamt up.” (“Mangaung dooms ANC to a slow death”, December 30, 2012).
This middle class lamentation is relatively typical, although, admittedly, Mogodiri does take the hyperbole to new depths of melodrama. Dr Mamphela Ramphele is a more thoughtful representative of basically the same school of thought. For her, too, the South African democratic breakthrough has been betrayed by the ANC-led liberation movement.
“The reality is that there is not a single post-liberation movement in Africa, perhaps in the rest of the world, that has made a successful transition to democracy”, she said in a September lecture at the University of Basel, Switzerland (“Defend your constitution”, The New Age, September 27 2012).
“For Africa to successfully claim its rightful place in the globally interconnected and interdependent world [that’s how an unjust, imperialist-dominated world is conceptualised in these quarters] it will have to make a fundamental shift from liberation struggle politics to democratic politics…The key reason for the failure to make the transition from liberation politics to democratic politics lies in the radical difference in the values framework. Liberation movements tend to simplify socio-economic and political conflicts as simply black and white. No ambiguity is tolerated.”
Now it would be wrong for us to simply dismiss all of this out of hand. Many post-independence liberation movements have not done well. Our own movement is facing serious challenges. Mistakes have been made.
Yes, a brave MK fighter doesn’t necessarily make an effective director general (although some of our best DGs have had a struggle background).
Clearly there is a potential “mismatch” (to quote Ramphele) “between the skills set required for governance and that of freedom fighters”.
But notice how Ramphele is guilty of the very thing she accuses liberation politics of – notice how she establishes a simple, unambiguous, black-and-white contrast between “liberation politics” on the one hand and “democratic politics” on the other. (Indeed, she goes on to suggest, no doubt to the amusement of her Swiss audience, that having been an activist in the liberation struggle “may well be the basis for the disqualification” of individuals from the “governance process”!!)
What is Ramphele’s answer to the challenges we are confronting? It is, essentially, an appeal for “active citizenship”, for “citizens, the corporate sector, civil society organisations” to stand up and defend democracy and the Constitution – supposedly under threat from the ANC, the Alliance, and the ANC-led government. Yes, of course, we need an “active citizenry” – but the appeal to all us simply as individual, atomised “citizens” in a nebulous “civil society” masks the huge differences in class interest and class power among us.
Participation in a school governing body or a neighbourhood watch is, in principle, a good thing. But an SGB or neighbourhood watch in a wealthy suburb is more than likely to end up DEFENDING existing powers, privileges and gated property values AGAINST the egalitarian transformation of our society.
This is why, as cde JS surely would have insisted, we need always to apply a class analysis to our situation. And this is why we need to integrate the values and aspirations of our liberation struggle into the new challenges of governance, rather than abandon them - for unless we achieve a radically egalitarian society, democracy will be formalistic and insubstantial, and constantly under threat.
Which brings me to the second and related “cat” that we need to consider “belling”.
The scourge of corruption
It is (or it should be) common cause that we are confronting a serious challenge of corruption which has acquired many endemic features. What are its causes? What is to be done?
Again, in most of the media and among most of the political commentariat, ANC politicians are the ones to be blamed. Greed, moral venality, arrogant displays of new wealth, and the abuse of office are constantly paraded in the headlines – and rightly so. These things need to be exposed and condemned. Those guilty of corruption, regardless of their historic track record, or current status, should be dealt with, without fear or favour.
But if we leave it simply there then we will never get to the bottom of the corruption challenge – we will constantly be preaching the need for “more political education”, for “moral regeneration”, for another reading of “Through the Eye of the Needle”. Again, without denying the importance of any of these things, I believe that we need to go beyond the purely subjective, beyond individual bad behaviour to where cde Joe would (surely?) have taken us – to a more systemic, that is to say, Marxist analysis.
In the first place we need to understand the vulnerabilities of, say, a squatter camp ANC Youth Leaguer within the context of a society of extreme inequality, in which becoming an ANC regional chairperson (or perhaps supporting someone else for the post) might offer you a one-in-a-million, rags-to-riches chance of lifting yourself out of poverty - and in which, contrariwise, losing such a position can plunge you back into poverty, riches-to-rags. We are trying to consolidate democracy in a country characterised by high levels of desperation. It is a society, as we were reminded this past week, in which 36,000 candidates will risk their lives (six dying, a seventh committing suicide when failing the cut-off) to secure one of 90 trainee traffic officer posts. We cannot resolve the problems of corruption without understanding and addressing the desperation and the often corrosive impact that radical inequality has upon politics and upon everything else within our society.
We also need to remember the flip-side of the same issue. For over a century, monopoly capital in SA resisted majority democratic rule.
The mining houses and the major financial institutions sheltered behind minority rule and were in the forefront of resisting one-person, one-vote democracy in our country. In the face of mass struggle and global solidarity, by the mid-1980s, white minority rule in SA had become unviable, which is to say unprofitable.
For monopoly capital, the risk of a negotiated settlement towards some kind of democratic dispensation had to be undertaken. For its own profitable reproduction, monopoly capital in SA had to embark upon the hazardous path of loosening its cosy ties with a white minority political elite for an uncertain future under a new political dispensation.
To understand what was at stake, let’s switch to another country. The US political system is, of course, not corruption free - but the US generally has a far superior ranking to SA in supposed corruption free politics. In the 2012 Transparency International World Corruption Index, for instance, the US was ranked 19th least corrupt nation out of 174 – up 5 places.
SA was ranked a relatively lowly 69th - down 5 places on the previous year. The US political system is, presumably, one that those like Ramphele would consider a “mature democracy”. So what goes on in a “mature democracy”?
Writing in the November issue of Monthly Review, Robert W McChesney notes that: “A generation ago Mississippi Senator John Stennis thought it would be inappropriate to accept donations from firms that were affected by the work of the committee he chaired; today that is arguably the whole point of getting a committee chair.
A significant portion of the work of being a member of Congress is about fundraising.
That and setting oneself up for a lucrative high six- or seven-figure annual income as a K Street [Washington] lobbyist once one’s stint in Congress is done. In the 1970s, 3 percent of retiring members became lobbyists; by 2012 the figure is in the 50 percent range.”
In 2009, at the height of banks being bailed out, no fewer than 70 former members of Congress were actively employed by the financial sector alone as lobbyists on their behalf in Washington. One serving Senator had the honesty to note: “The banks – hard to believe in a time when we’re facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created – are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill…they frankly own the place.”
Now little or none of this features in the Transparency International Corruption Index.
We are, after all, dealing here with a “mature” democracy, in which the cruder forms of brown envelopes and tender-preneuring are no longer needed. As McChesney writes: “the corruption in Congress and across the government today is only rarely of the traditional bribery variety. It is instead a far more structured dependence upon corporate money built into the DNA of the political system – traditional payoffs are not necessary.”
That is a “mature” capitalist democracy at work, free of any “liberation politics”. (Please understand that I am citing US examples not in order to excuse corruption here in SA – I am trying to understand the corrosive interface between capitalism and democratic dispensations in different concrete circumstances.)
I suppose SA can be considered an “immature” (or “young”) democracy in which, however, there is a mature and well-established capitalist class. We cannot understand the scourge of corruption in our society without understanding corruption as part and parcel of this old capitalist class seeking to recover it footing, to transplant its DNA into the new reality.
But that is only part of the story. The other part of the story does indeed lie at the doorstep of the ANC-led movement, or at least at the doorstep of a significant faction within it, and a particular strategic policy choice taken in the mid-1990s.
This strategic policy choice was to use state power to create a new black capitalist stratum.
The policy, of course, went under the deceptive (and mendacious) title of “Black Economic Empowerment”, BEE. Interestingly, and notwithstanding Ramphele’s claims, you will not find the advocacy of BEE in any pre-1994 ANC liberation politics policy perspective.
From the point of view of some within the ANC and government, the creation of this stratum served the useful purpose not just of personal enrichment, but of providing a counter-weight within the movement to the SACP and COSATU. Established capital played along with this agenda - accommodating a buffer stratum with political connections gave it a foothold within the post-1994 reality.
The trouble, of course, with this agenda, was that those in this emergent new stratum were aspirant capitalists but without capital. The primitive accumulation process required to launch them could only be at once compradorial (i.e. dependent) upon established capital and parasitic on state resources – regardless of the subjective patriotism or erstwhile struggle credentials of those involved.
But this is not, cde Slovo would remind us, an academic or purely theoretical discussion. To address the scourge of corruption in South Africa we require a series of practical interventions. If vigorously applied, some can have an immediate impact, including tough anti-corruption measures that use the full might of the state to uncover and crack-down on wrong-doers; popular campaigns that encourage whistle-blowing and that mobilize community-based organizations and social movements to play an active role in undercutting corruption; the strengthening of the declaration of interests regulations applying to public representatives and senior public servants; the outlawing of public servants from being involved in private businesses; and the tightening up of state procurement processes.
However, we need simultaneously to address the more systemic underlying factors behind the scourge of corruption – by placing our economy on to a different, more egalitarian developmental path; and by critically and thoroughly reviewing BEE policies.
If we follow all of these we will be recovering and reaffirming (not abandoning) our liberation politics to which cde Joe Slovo made such an outstanding contribution.