Red flag flies confidently in South Africa Communists play big role in strained ruling alliance despite small numbers

September 21, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Undaunted by the lowering of the red flag around the world, the small but resourceful South African Communist Party is thriving.

It is looking confidently to the future, cozying up to capitalism by opening its own investment fund and getting closer to God through a dialogue with religious leaders.

"Let's correct the impression it was socialism that failed in the Soviet Union," said Charles Nqakula, the party general secretary, a former exile who was trained in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to conduct underground anti-apartheid activities from the Zambian capital of Lusaka.

"It was not socialism. It was the way the leadership went about trying to implement it."

Under his leadership, the 80,000-member South African party espouses a more democratic and tolerant form of socialism, seeking to expand its power inside the country's first black-majority government.

Its minuscule 2 percent support in the polls belies its political influence -- four Cabinet ministers in the government of President Nelson Mandela, more than 60 members in the 400-seat Parliament and a slew of provincial executives and big-city mayors.

Part of its secret for success is that its candidates run as wolves in sheep's clothing. When voters elected the Mandela government in 1994, the Communists were on the ballot as candidates from his African National Congress.

All Communists here also have ANC party membership.

"It's not an issue, especially among black people," said Vincent Maphai, of the Human Sciences Research Council, which conducts political surveys. "It tends to be an issue among foreigners and business people.

"If you look at the Communists in government, they have actually been, ironically, more of a moderating than a radicalizing influence on the ANC. When one thinks of the Communist Party in 1997, one should not think of Stalin or Eastern Europe. I think that kind of political activity is gone forever."

Struggle against apartheid

Along with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the Communists are members of the ANC-led governing alliance, which grew out of 40 years of struggle, pitting the African nationalists, socialists and trade unionists against the white apartheid regime.

During that struggle, Communists such as Joe Slovo and Chris Hani -- both now dead -- were recognized as being among the best, the brightest and the most committed of freedom fighters who united behind the ANC banner.

"The Communist Party over many years provided the revolutionary theories within the national liberation movement, which ensured there was unity of purpose. It guided what we did on the ground," said Nqakula.

Today the Communists exercise their influence in the corridors of Parliament in Cape Town, the executive suites of federal ministries in Pretoria, in the nine provincial governments and in many city halls.

"They are the brains and the spine of the ANC," said Hermann Gilliomee, professor of political science at the University of Cape Town. "They are the best organizers, the best thinkers within the movement, and they are actually the best orators."

Inevitably, there are strains within the governing alliance as the ANC adopts free-market policies and looks beyond its traditional battlefield allies for new friends, particularly in business.

"We are mindful that when a political movement takes power, there are many influences that are brought to bear on it," said Nqakula. "Business would be among those elements that are bringing some pressure to bear on the ANC. It is our duty to see the ANC is strengthened to resist those pressures."

There is speculation of an eventual split between the ANC and organized labor, which in recent weeks has staged a series of work stoppages to protest government economic and industrial policy.

Such a split would force the Communists to choose where their power base lies, among the workers or inside the political system. Preparations, now beginning, for the 1999 general election that will produce Mandela's successor -- almost certain to be his deputy, Thabo Mbeki -- are likely to be crucial to the alliance's future as new policies are thrashed out.

"The trade unions are in a mutinous mood," said Tom Lodge, head of the political studies department at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg. "Many people are beginning to see it's going to be touch-and-go how long this alliance is going to last."

Resilient alliance

But after a two-day alliance summit Sept. 1-2, Cheryl Carolus, the ANC's acting secretary-general, said: "Despite unending, if wishful, predictions from quarters outside of our ranks that the alliance is on the point of collapse, the opposite is the case."

Inside the Communist Party's headquarters in downtown Johannesburg, Nqakula, a former journalist with a friendly, reassuring demeanor at odds with the traditional image of the dour Communist apparatchik, admitted to tensions with the ANC but discounted any looming crisis.

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