Jeremy Cronin. Picture: THE TIMES
Jeremy Cronin. Picture: THE TIMES

There is a Tshivenda idiomatic expression, “Vhatali vha milingoni,” whose translation approximates to “misfortune favours the crafty.” One must hasten to add that crafty maneuverers in public life can be calamitous not only to the confidence tricksters, but to whole collectives and nations.

I was reminded of the expression when I read last Sunday’s SACP first Deputy General Secretary, Jeremy Cronin’s rejoinder to my brief commentary – published on the Sunday Times the week before – on the Party’s less than red posture in recent years.

Cronin evades and fudges my central contention, which is about the Party’s opportunism and inconsistencies, both of which have helped to produce the perilous political situation the country faces today. He claims that my comment is due to “irritation” with “the prominent role the SACP has been playing in the critique against state capture.”

Cronin must have a remarkably low opinion of Cabinet at the time, such that in his estimation, it can do no more than mimic and copy Blair

I have no qualms with the SACP or anybody who would be party to the resolution of our national nightmare. I nonetheless plead guilty to the charge of “irritation” with those, like the SACP, who project an image more Catholic than the Pope, wanting in honest acknowledgement of their contribution to delivering fifty five million souls to the gates of the netherworld. How else do individuals, organisations and nations make a clean break with their past if they do not honestly confront their own mistakes?

Instead of addressing this issue, Cronin digresses at length and enthusiastically cuts and pastes the SACP’s positions on economic policy and the ANC’s presidential succession contest in the run-up to the party’s 2007 national conference in Polokwane.

He does this to provide context for what soon clearly becomes a shadow boxing match with former President Thabo Mbeki, Cronin’s seeming favourite pastime. So, the reader is treated to the usual stuff about the Mbeki administration’s corporatisation of “key state-owned enterprises with a view to privatisation as a new source for private BEE accumulation.” This was apparently “borrowed substantially from the now-discredited “Third Way” currently associated with European politicians such as Tony Blair.”

Mbeki allegedly also sought to “eviscerate[…] the popular-movement character of the ANC and transform[…] it into a supposedly “modernised,” narrow parliamentary electoral formation controlled by a presidential centre in the state and funded by BEE money.”

Cronin does not cite one “key” enterprise that was privatised because none in fact exists

Cronin must have a remarkably low opinion of Cabinet at the time, such that in his estimation, it can do no more than mimic and copy Blair. Yet, although the “Third Way” concept originated in the late 1930s, it entered the British Labour Party and Blair’s lexicon in earnest in Labour’s 1997 election manifesto, a year after the adoption of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy.

Cronin does not cite one “key” enterprise that was privatised because none in fact exists. Neither does he explain what was wrong with the corporatisation of state owned entities like the South African Revenue Service and the Public Investment Corporation. We are supposed to believe that corporatisation is, in and of its own, a heresy.

It is not as if the Cronin/SACP’s wiles are consistent either. Reporting on the “restructuring of Telkom and the state-owned transport sector” package announced by then Deputy President Mbeki the previous December, the SACP in its February 1996 edition of the online publication, Umsebenzi, lamented that “Most of the media has since buried the whole issue in a thick fog” saying, “government's plans are presented in the media as simple "privatisation.” It concluded that “Comrade Mbeki's … announcement … explicitly rejected” wholesale privatisation.

The government’s purported embrace of fiscal austerity was restrained in comparison with most comparable economies across the global South
Seekings and Nattrass

A not so well known fact is that the SACP welcomed GEAR on its release on June 14, 1996. It described the strategy as “path-breaking” and “fully back[ed],” its objectives, noting that GEAR “firmly and explicitly situates itself as a framework for the RDP.” The SACP also lauded the strategy for “Resisting free market dogmatism,” and envisaging “a key economic role for the public sector.”

In their book, "Poverty, Politics and Policy in South Africa: Why Has Poverty Persisted After Apartheid," academics Jeremy Seekings and Nicoli Nattrass, noted that during the GEAR years, “The state … intervened actively to regulate private capital” and “compel[led] capital to transform its ownership structure and employment practices.” They further observed that post 1994, the labour market became “more” rather than “less” regulated.

In a December 2002 reply to John Saul published in the left journal, Monthly Review, Cronin wrote, “Those in government who have been most responsible for the [GEAR] policy are not dyed-in-the-wool neoliberals. They are, I think, convinced that the austerity measures were essential, and that they were the only feasible way to ensure the realisation of the reconstruction and development objectives we all share.”

Hardly left themselves, Seekings and Nattrass wrote: “The government’s purported embrace of fiscal austerity was restrained in comparison with most comparable economies across the global South. Public expenditure continued to rise in real terms. And taxation was not reformed in a neoliberal direction. Corporate tax almost doubled as a share of GDP between 1995/6 and 2005/6.”

Why the SACP which first sounded the warning, itself later succumbed to “bury[ing] the … issue [of economic policy] in a thick fog” remains a puzzle.

“The composition of public expenditure,” wrote Seekings and Nattrass, “also sat uneasily with the neoliberal tag. Redistributing close to 4% of GDP to the poor through means-tested social assistance programmes (such as the old-age pension) and public works programmes was hardly a standard characteristic of neoliberalism.

In an interview with Irish historian, Helena Sheehan, on April 17, 2001, Cronin claimed that the ANC was being “Zanufied.” As is now evident, the ANC was being “Zanufied” as it was being “Blairised.”

“South Africa remained one of the most redistributive countries in the world in terms of cash transfers. By 2009, about 50% of South African households received at least one cash grant from the state every month…”.

A cadre of longstanding, it is implausible that Cronin unconsciously manifests the phenomenon the Brazilian intellectual, Paulo Freire, spoke of in his seminal work, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed:” “It [so] happens … that … [when members of the oppressor class join the oppressed in their struggle for liberation and] cease to be exploiters or indifferent spectators or simply the heirs of exploitation and move to the side of the exploited, they almost always bring with them the marks of their origin: their prejudices and their deformations, which include a lack of confidence in the people’s ability to think, to want, and to know. Accordingly these adherents to the people’s cause constantly run the risk of falling into a type of generosity as malefic as that of the oppressors.”

Freire elaborated and said: “Our converts … truly desire to transform the unjust order; but because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people, but they do not trust them; and trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change.”

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce
Karl Marx

In an interview with Irish historian, Helena Sheehan, on April 17, 2001, Cronin claimed that the ANC was being “Zanufied.” As is now evident, the ANC was being “Zanufied” as it was being “Blairised.”

Seventeen years later, Cronin’s “Zanufication” and “Blairisation” labels relative to the evolution of the ANC’s internal democratic functioning, policy and organisational coherence as well as its electoral showing and appeal among the masses of the people can be seen for the political posturing that they truly are.

Most notable, however, is that since becoming a Deputy Minister in 2009, Cronin has been mute about many an organisational and governmental excesses except for occasions when he has come out publicly flogging Comrade so and so for various misdemeanours, real and perceived. It was the Ministry of Public Works in which Cronin served as a Deputy to another SACP member, Minister Thulas Nxesi, from whence the most spirited defence of the Nkandla debacle came. Remember that notorious invention of the noun, “fire pool,” in your Ministry’s “Investigation Report,” Jeremy?

In his condescending voyage, Cronin writes: “Let’s pretend, as Ratshitanga would have it, that the Seriti Commission was an exhaustive, no-stone-left-unturned process.” But this is not the point. The question is whether, for the Honourable Cronin, the integrity of a judge is worth so cheap an innuendo? If Cronin and the SACP are convinced, as they belatedly seem to be, that the Commission was a “whitewash,” why do they not challenge it with the facts presumably at their disposal?

In similar patronising vein, Cronin asks whether the arms procurement process was “the right strategic priority for a society facing multiple developmental challenges?” This sounds legitimate; it pretends reputable political and moral suasion. But it is, with respect, downright opportunistic. Cronin does not mention that after 1994, Parliament adopted a Defence Review which outlined the requirements of the defence force on the basis of which the arms procurement package was conceived.

Cronin was neither a Member of Parliament nor a Deputy Minister at the time. Before 2009, he was one of, if not the fiercest critic, of Gautrain. In 2005, he described cabinet’s approval of Gautrain as “wrong.” But fast-forward to the period after 2009 and Cronin, a not-so-insignificant member of the wedding party to the “marriage of convenience” (his own words) with an “essentially a right-wing narrow nationalist tendency” within (and without) the ANC, now a Deputy Minister of Transport, would be found waxing lyrical about the Gautrain he spent years castigating. Such is the consistency of the SACP and its chief ideologue.

Karl Marx began his 1852 work, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ with the opening lines: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."

It must truly be the stuff of tragedy and farce rolled into one, that for more than a decade, a communist party luxuriated itself in a marriage of convenience with a right-wing narrow nationalist tendency and went on to produce, among others, “a mini-cult of the personality.”

As another Tshivenda expression counsels: “Muluvha hothe maputo aya fhela” – “He or she who worships at every alter soon runs out of tributes!” Thus do we return to the timeless aphorism: Vhatali vha milingoni!

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