AS THE South African Communist Party (SACP) meets for its national conference this week, there is inevitably going to be discussion of its role in the ruling political alliance and the government, and about its leadership.

While its perceived unity and lack of dispute over leadership positions puts it in a strong position, the party might well reflect on its role in the government.

SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande is not expected to face a challenger for his position, and is likely to extend his already 14-year reign to 2017. SACP chairman Gwede Mantashe (who is also the African National Congress's secretary-general) is stepping down, amid speculation that he will be replaced by National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) president Senzeni Zokwana. If this does happen, the position will be kept in the NUM family, as Mantashe had been its general secretary before.

This unity and continuity will provide the SACP with strength in the alliance, allowing it to pursue its policies. However, there could be a cost to keeping Mr Nzimande as leader for so long. Political analyst Prof Somadoda Fikeni suggests that it could lead to a situation where "the personality and the policies can become fused". He also suggests there is a "sense of consolidation where networks tend to reproduce the preferences of that person, rather than their own dynamism".

This week, the SACP is likely to claim that it is using its leaders in the government to push for radical change. But it is hard to see how having the SACP's deputy general secretary, Jeremy Cronin, as deputy transport minister has won the SACP policy gains. He was forced to defend the Gautrain and was in an uncomfortable position on e-tolling. Mr Nzimande, as higher education minister, could possibly claim more success, but the party hardly has sole claim to wanting to make higher education more accessible.

In essence, the party has been forced to defend the government, and take an ambiguous stance on several issues. This has also allowed union federation Cosatu to portray itself, within the alliance, as the organisation that keeps a check on the worst excesses of the ANC and the government. It has taken the lead, in the popular imagination at least, against e-tolling and the Protection of State Information Bill. As a result, its public power seems to have increased, while the SACP's has not.

For Prof Fikeni, the SACP's mistake has been to deploy its top two leaders in the government, "The party has done this before, although the (cabinet of former president Mbeki) had a very high number of SACP leaders in it, this did not translate into SACP policy being carried out."

When you consider that Mr Mantashe has another day job, it may have left the party perilously weak organisationally. It is this problem that has led Cosatu to lament the lack of vigour within the SACP, and to call for Mr Nzimande to consider his position in the government. Technically speaking, the SACP is supposed to be Cosatu's political party, thus it is important to the union movement that it be strong, and provide intellectual leadership to the liberation movement as a whole.

Mr Nzimande's closeness to President Jacob Zuma is likely to lead to talk this week that he could be on the Zuma "slate" at the ANC's Manguang electoral conference. However, he has several obstacles to overcome, including that he comes from the same province (KwaZulu-Natal) as the president, at a time when Mr Zuma's detractors are accusing him of provincialism.

But his main problem may be his ideological certainty, since the ANC tends to prefer leaders who are able to appeal to many constituencies, not just one.

. Grootes is a reporter for Eyewitness News