The People’s Flag is … a sort of murky grey

I have been trying to figure out whether Billy Masetlha’s criticism assertion that there appears to be an attempted communist take-over of the ANC is accurate or relevant.

During this endeavour I came across an interesting passage from ANC Today, September 2007 (the lead-up to Polokwane). It quotes Joe Slovo:

“But, despite the fact that the ANC has an understandable bias towards the working class it does not, and clearly should not, adopt a socialist platform which the so-called Marxist Workers’ Tendency (expelled from the ANC) would like it to do. If it adopted such a platform it would destroy its character as the prime representative of all the classes among the oppressed black majority…”

The Marxist Workers Tendency. Goodness, that takes me back.

Recruitment into to the ANC underground for some of us at largely white, largely English speaking campuses in the late 70’s and 80’s entailed a healthy dose of sentimental Marxist Leninism (if there can be such a thing).

I still find myself singing under my breath, as I am getting ready to do something that requires my spirits to be roused:

The people’s flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyred dead,
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their hearts’ blood drenched its ev’ry fold

Our ‘socialism’ somehow balanced our dual adherence to the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party.

We could explain how Marx had turned Hegel on his head and we could talk (well briefly, in a learned parrot fashion anyway) about the dialectical movement between theory and practice by way of historical materialism.

Concepts and words like “The Labour Theory of Value” and the “dipolar articulation of class forces in the conjuncture” could burble from our lips.

But boy, the thing we really understood was left deviation.

The Workerists, Partyites and gaggle of Trotskyites that emerged from the ‘Coloured’ community in the Western Cape were terrifyingly articulate and hated us ANC and SACP types. They believed the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party supported a politics that would lead to the emergence of a comprador bourgeoisie and a derailment of the path to socialism. I clearly remember then ‘ultra-leftist’  – in our terms – Ebrahim Patel (EP), wild haired and eyed, deeply frustrated by Congress dominance at UCT. Hmm, kyk hoe lyk hy nou!?

Anyway, there were uglier manifestations of our rigid adherence to the ANC/SACP version of Marxist/Leninism. We knew about the Marxist Workers Tendency who had been suspended from the ANC in 1979 and later expelled in 1985. We used to come across their lurid publication Inqaba Ya Basebenzi – and we made sure ‘the young people’ in our organisations were not reading that rubbish!

Billy Masetlha, ironically – given the fact that he was shafted by Thabo Mbeki himself – is leading the charge against the new “left deviation”.

He said, amongst other things in the Mail and Guardian (I can’t find the original story, but it is quoted here) (these quotes are all pulled together – they did not appear like this in the original M&G version:

“… I will have a problem with someone wanting to faceless individuals (want to) impose a communist manifesto on the ANC … We fired a lot of [comrades] in the past who wanted to do the same thing … The day the ANC sings to the socialist agenda, it would be signing its death warrant … If we have not pronounced our position on these new tendencies it does not mean we are fools …The ANC was not founded on a socialist agenda. Socialism has no space in the ANC.”

Unsurprisingly the ANC, the SACP and Cosatu have rounded on him soundly – all with separate statements worth reading for their take on “The Alliance”.

My own feeling is that Billy is living in the past. He was trained in a milieu (as was I – although he significantly pre-dates me – I think) that consisted of significant threats of “left deviation” and high levels of ideological contestation. He believes that ideology is actually important in the construction of the ruling alliance.

My own feeling is the glue that binds the ANC/SACP/Cosatu alliance is not primarily ideological as I argue here.

If this was me talking in the old days – when I was one of those who felt so powerful and clear that I could dismiss complex historical phenomena with casual ideological name calling – I probably would have characterised the new management of the ANC and the country as:

an unholy alliance between syndicalist trade unions and the most retrograde elements of the comprador bourgeoisie – those elements who fell foul of the law and of party discipline under Mbeki.

It’s probably more complicated than that …but I (almost) miss my youthful certainty – for all its (bombastic) shallowness and (pompous) sentimentality.

2 thoughts on “The People’s Flag is … a sort of murky grey

  1. Great post. Much of what your write about your 1980s memories resonate like deep gongs of many late night, all night, discussions, in various parts of Nusasy South Africa (those tiny pockets on the five campuses!) Although I always claimed to have been a Trot, I knew that meant very different things in the Cape compared to us Jhb workerists who supported Solidarity, for example, when the party and movement were vilifying them in the early 1980s; on the global level that was when it really came home to me, ’56, 68, trying to figure out just what a left perspective was within the broad church your write so well about in your previous post. Did it have to be, as we mostly thought, the hardline, doctrinaire, Stalinism of Slovo’s SACP? Or did those Cape ‘left sectarian’ critiques have more than just the clear moral hight ground? I found myself more and more convinced how impoverished the SACP was, in all their hard-to-come by writings, certainly by the mid 80’s and even after unbanning. It was, as you say, analysis by rote, and way out of touch.

    But did I miss something, somewhere? Because the SACP’s recent paper “Building working class hegemony on the terrain of a national democratic struggle” (which seems to me to have one J. Cronin’s fingerprints all over it), is a beguilingly interesting and often dead-on in its take (or what we would have called a ‘conjectural analysis’ in the old days) on what’s going on. I found myself agreeing with way more of it than I would have thought possible a few years ago; some passages are the most acute insights I’ve seen anywhere on the current crisis, and on SA post Polokwane. But in terms of your post the really interesting bit come towards the end, in terms of entryism and how the SACP plays and see its role “Looking back to our September 2008 SACP National Policy Conference discussions and resolutions, it is possible to realise how influential the Conference has proved to be. Almost all of the key resolutions have been implemented or have been strongly embodied in the ANC’s election manifesto and government’s recently published Medium Term Strategic Framework. The ability of the Party to achieve this level of strategic impact has had much to do with our refusal, collectively, to be hi-jacked into a media sponsored campaign to provoke a crisis within the Party around the tactical question of whether we should contest elect ions in our own right, or not. This is where the media was trying to drive us this time last year.”

    Looking at those resolutions and then at Polokwane and MTSF (I have some weird late night reading habits), this proposition pans out! It is the Commies what done it! There is, at least superficially one heck of ‘strategic impact’. Like so often in the past, the best thinking (not necessarily the right thinking), about policy, about how things fit together, about what works or should be tried, about how society change etc is coming from the left, and in this case, from the SACP. And then whole chunks get lifted out and reworded into ANC resolutions….

    All those late night Kapital reading groups, and pencil marked Lenin’s three volume door-stoppers pay off in something still rare in this day and age: an ability to ask deep questions about what is going on and come up with some sensible answers about how to fix it. Again, not necessary the right answers, but thought out approaches. Refreshing.

    But more importantly, it maybe gives some clues to what is this glue that binds everyone together is (and not just ‘power’ I don’t think, as attractive and life-enhancing as that is). I think there does have to be a glue in broad church, even if people don’t really ‘believe’ the glue. It is the statement of faith. And tracing the stated outline of ‘what is to be done’, and why, and the language used, I certainly start to see how Malema and Ramaphosa could be at the same table together, agreeing about little but yet still bound by the way the words are used (even if they differ about what they mean, which they do all the time). And those words were cooked up mainly on the party left, not the union left, way back ago, and now is in all the ‘song sheets’.

    Maybe I’m in danger of backsliding back to dialectical whatever it was! But anyone wanting to go through the SACP paper in more detail online is very welcome to help me check what is dosh and what is actually on the money and more importantly, what it might presage for the next set of ANC resolutions and glue making.

  2. Gosh Harry it is good to hear your comments!

    I had forgotten how different Jhb and Ct was re those kind of debates – and that was aside from the bitter Nusas contest that was also, ostensibly ideological. Read the SACP paper (that injunction for those who haven’t read it, not you Harry) , here’s a link: . Most of the documents the SACP comes up with are actually quite good and clear – although I always think the premise is seriously wonky – but if you accept the premise then everything else fits perfectly. . Here is the seminal comment on ready to govern (on the friends of JZ website.

    So here’s a line from the State Power doc – discussing one of the bad scenarios post Polokwane:

    “• A negative scenario in which the left fails to hegemonise the post-Polokwane reality, and instead (and particularly after national elections in 2009) a new alliance of “1996 class project floor-crossers”, “compradorists” and “fugitives from justice” coalesces around a programme of awarding influential posts, tenders and contracts to themselves, while the factional destabilisation (and not democratic transformation) of the state, including the criminal justice system, persists.”

    Excellent analysis as always!

    Harry, I have got to agree with you that the SACP is still playing a clear vanguard role within the Polokwane victors.I am more sanguine about this than some because I believe that below all of this is the near godlike power of the aspirations of the emerging elite. Only the criminals and thugs hope to ride a populist left victory to riches unimaginable. The vast majority of the aspirants are traditional little bourgeois and peasants and taxi owners and drivers …. the real emerging business classes who have nothing to gain from more state chaotically blundering around pissing the budget against the wall. Those classes are traditionally characterised by hard work and conservative politics …. they are still in there at the centre of the ANC (frankly Zuma himself still fits the bill) and this left flight of fancy in an alliance with the scumbags who hope to leverage advantage out of preferential access to the state are up against history. Or that’s the team I am shouting for anyway.

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