South Africa has been hit hard by the current capitalist crisis, with a million jobs destroyed in past two years.

“It could have been worse, had the ANC government not sustained its commitment to infrastructure programmes including this year’s football World Cup,” insists the country’s Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande.

He was talking to me in a central London hotel on Remembrance Day, breaking off from his busy schedule as higher education and training minister in the African National Congress government.

He is visiting different parts of Britain to strengthen international relations between educational institutions and programmes.

“We are emerging from the crisis, with economic growth expected to reach between 2 and 3 per cent next year,” he says. It’s only half the level of the period before the recession, but he believes it can be sustained despite one major threat.

“Our government’s New Growth Path is pumping 800 billion rand (about £80 billion) into construction, public services and job creation programmes over a three-year period,” enthuses comrade Nzimande.

“The five priorities of this new strategy are decent work, education, access to health care, rural development and combating crime and corruption,” he points out.

The main danger is that the US is printing $650bn, fuelling the “currency wars” and driving up interest rates as governments try to protect their currency and raise funds for expenditure. The rate in Johannesburg has reached 7.5 per cent, which attracts “hot money” but discourages borrowing for investment.

“There is a debate going on in the ANC about taxing speculation and, like Brazil, putting in ‘speed bumps’ to regulate rapid flows of capital,” says Nzimande.

While interest rates have recently been cut by half a percentage point, he thinks an extra one-point reduction would be better.

He is also concerned that too much of South Africa’s growth is “jobless,” relying upon middle-class consumption and more intensive mineral mining, although higher exports to China bring financial benefits.

“Our state-owned development and land banks, along with the Industrial Development Corporation, need to be directed more towards low-interest lending to boost investment in construction and production for the domestic market,” he says.

I ask him if his country is plagued with private finance initiative schemes that will saddle public finances with ballooning long-term repayments, as in Britain.

“We haven’t gone in for PFI as such, but we have inherited some public-private partnership schemes. Government departments are proceeding rather slowly with those,” he says.

What about privatisation, which in Britain has meant booming profits for shareholders, rocketing prices for consumers and underinvestment in vital infrastructure?

“The SACP and the trade unions fought a 15-year struggle to keep parastatal transport, South African Airways, the Post Office and financial and developmental institutions in the public sector, but we lost telecoms,” he says.

Nzimade is pleased that the policy of previous governments to compel state banks to operate along fully commercial lines is now under review. The approach of President Jacob Zuma’s government is to strengthen public enterprises rather than privatise or “commercialise” them.

We are interrupted by a phone call. It’s from the minister of economic development, former Textile Workers Union general secretary Ibrahim Patel. His department was set up by the new administration to decentralise Treasury functions and control.

But enhanced economic growth sets another challenge.

“We need a larger skilled and educated workforce,” Nzimande says, which is where his own new department comes in.
“In the past 19 months, we have established a national framework for post-school education. Our strategy for skills development aims to produce more artisans and technicians.”

Nzimande knows there is a long way to go. His latest plans include extra assistance for students from poor families, in a society where only 5 per cent of black 18 to 24-year-olds are in college, compared with 59 per cent of whites.

“The legacy of semi-colonialism can be seen in our economic structure and in almost every sphere of society,” Nzimande says.

The Department for Women, Children and Disabilities has just been set up to address serious problems of domestic violence and social discrimination.

“It’s a beginning, but we need to mainstream these issues into the other ministries as well, drawing women into every area of public, economic and social life, transforming gender relations in our country,” he says with some passion.

Nzimande is aware of the Western media’s obsession with President Zuma’s domestic and family arrangements, but he sees no value in restating his own views for publication.

“The president has worked hard to narrow differences between government policies, the trade unions and the South African Communist Party,” he says.

“There is much more consultation across the three main pillars of the revolutionary alliance, even over Cabinet appointments” – an unthinkable proposition in Britain – “and our party values this constructive, collective approach.”

The SACP has resisted calls from anti-ANC and far-left voices to quit the tripartite alliance. Indeed, it has more ANC MPs and government ministers than ever. ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe is also chairman of the Communist Party.

“At the same time, the independent role of working-class organisations such as Cosatu and the SACP is also vital to the revolutionary process,” Nzimande says, listing examples of where those organisations have raised differences with official ANC policy as well as launching their own campaigns.

His party is pursuing the strategy set out in its programme, The South African Road to Socialism.

“We work to establish and extend working-class hegemony – in workplaces, in communities, in the economy, in the battle of ideas, in the state and internationally,” he says.

Nzimande is aware of the hopes vested in the ANC and South Africa as a beacon for left and progressive forces across the continent.

“We actively support the struggle for democracy in Swaziland,” he says, but he singles out the importance of maintaining recent progress in Zimbabwe.

Millions of migrant workers have left there for South Africa, where unscrupulous employers have added to tensions and divisions within the labour force.

“Together with the unions, we are fighting for working-class unity and trying to improve state supervision over employment terms and conditions – but the solution ultimately lies in Harare, where democratisation and the coalition government must continue to stimulate economic recovery.”

In South Africa, meanwhile, the SACP leader sees the current stage of development as one of intense class struggle over society’s direction.

“The biggest threat at present is from the so-called liberals, who attack the political hegemony of the ANC and oppose state intervention and public ownership in the economy,” he says.

“Building a radical, national democracy remains the most direct route to socialism in our country.”

Robert Griffiths is general secretary of the Communist Party of Britain