Remembering Smiso Nkwanyana’s legacy, 20 years on

The SACP in KwaZulu-Natal is remembering its late former provincial leader, Smiso Nkwanyana. Picture: Ian Landsberg/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

The SACP in KwaZulu-Natal is remembering its late former provincial leader, Smiso Nkwanyana. Picture: Ian Landsberg/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Published Oct 9, 2023


By Khaye Nkwanyana and Castro Ngobese

It is with great unease for us to be writing about Smiso Nkwanyana, lest we suffer the accusation of partiality. Unisa will be hosting the inaugural Smiso Nkwanyana lecture on Monday, the International Convention Centre in Durban. Those who followed politics in the early 2000s will remember the tragic passing of the influential SACP leader who was central in the ANC in KwaZulu Natal. Nkwanyana was a rising titan, representing the post-1994 breed of leaders who wanted the quickest possible transformation of the country, the elimination of poverty, and the creation of an equitable distribution of the economy towards the poor. He was prominent in his opposition to the privatisation of State assets, which resulted in job losses.

Having passed away on August 12, 2003, in a car accident, this year marks the 20th anniversary since his tragic death. Nkwanyana was as bold and courageous as he was good-hearted. His biggest obsession was changing the lives of the poor in informal settlements, hostels, townships, and rural areas. He spent his time with the poor and organised workers as much as he did with office work and alliance leadership engagements. To him, no organisational challenge in the entire alliance was too big or intractable to be resolved.

Nkwanyana is credited for building the SACP in the late 1990s and early 2000s within the province numerically, organisationally and in its political strength. During his leadership, the membership profile of the SACP began to diversify, attracting not only organised workers but also professionals, students, and the youth. It is this hodgepodge of membership outlook and the diverse leadership profile in ascendency during his leadership that became a reference point for the general future outlook of the party nationally.

Having started his political activism in the ANC Youth League and South African Students Congress (Sasco) in the early 1990s, his major contribution, however, was to be seen in his leadership at Unisa before and after the 1994 democratic breakthrough, where he and his comrades fought heroic battles to transform what was an Afrikaner distance university with Afrikaans language policy and institutional culture to be inclusive. He was arrested twice as SRC leader for leading students’ actions during those times, and all those acts became tinderboxes that incited the worst from students across Unisa. In the post-1994 setup, still as an SRC leader, he became part of the Broad Transformation Forum representative that sat on the University Council, which was predominantly white with other observers. This status created a path within which they put forward a transformative agenda for Unisa at all levels to reflect the post-apartheid higher education landscape.

Nkwanyana was popularly known for his laughter. His bonhomie traits were demonstrated by his ability to connect with different levels of people from various social statuses. He could easily hobnob with the elite as their equal while putting his ideas across, and later in the day, he proceeded to the informal settlement to address poverty problems in the most genuine way. The following day, he would be leading a Cosatu march against retrenchments of workers, if not conducting a political workshop for students’ organisations building young layers of leadership.

The SACP today, under the new leadership, has the mammoth task of reconnecting with the base—the working class and the poor—through programmatic activism that seeks to extricate the poor from their debased social station. While the long-term solution is the socialist alternative, the immediate task is the fight for seminal reforms whose cumulative outcomes are not just the weakening of capitalism but the improvement of the conditions of the poor and the vulnerable.

In the organisation that he led, we can only hope that renewal will truly take place. The SACP, like the ANC, is faced with a challenge of political and organisational stasis. It has to redefine itself appropriately in the changed and ever-changing material conditions in which the world and much of the country are unfolding. Strategic approaches of the last 10 years are historically irrelevant in 2023, and so are today’s conditions in 2033. What brand of socialism does the party imagine in the 21st century?

The party must be bold in theorising the kind of socialism it conceives in the 21st century, a world that is materially far different than the pre-1990s. The current world and modern economies are dominated by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, whereby artificial intelligence, quantum computing, the Internet of Things, machine learning, and other new innovations have supplanted physical work as we knew it, including the antiquation of traditional interactions among people. In the process, the psychological make-up drift of society has been in earnest in line with these revolutionary changes that capital is injecting into our daily lives. In this regard, what form of socialist revolution can be sustained in the current conjuncture, where capital is borderless and transnational in a web rather than physical locations? Today’s world has made it possible for anyone to work anywhere in the world while maintaining full residence in the country of origin but reporting in another country because of the advancement of technology.

How does the party create class consciousness in these complicated realities dominated by hyperscalers? Of course, industrial labour is still in large measure found at the shop floor level operating fast production machines, but artificial intelligence is expanding by leaps and bounds, replacing much of the physical workers. These are questions that Smiso Nkwanyana, without doubt, would have courageously confronted and forced the left forces to immerse themselves in alternative solutions.

We have established the Smiso Nkwanyana Centre for Alternative Ideas (SNCAI), which will grapple with some of the theoretically complex questions of our time and programmatic initiatives to help the poor and the weak in society. The institute, while progressive, will be non-partisan and do a lot of work in building sustainable livelihoods for the poor in rural and township communities.

We are excited that Unisa will host the 20th anniversary of Smiso Nkwanyana's passing on Monday. We, as individuals who were influenced by his leadership and style, will never let his memory disappear.

* Khaye Nkwanyana and Castro Ngobese are part of the founders and Board members of the Smiso Nkwanyana Centre of Alternative Ideas

**The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL