CHEERS: SACP secretary general Blade Nzimande, right, and deputy Jeremy Cronin, left, and at the party's congress yesterday. Picture: SAM MKOKELI

AT THE last national conference five years ago, the South African Communist Party (SACP) was not sure of its position in the tripartite alliance. With a strong Thabo Mbeki at the helm of the African National Congress (ANC), which is the driver of the alliance, some leaders of the SACP felt communists were being marginalised, and pushed out of the political centre. That made the SACP flirt with the idea of contesting general elections. Another consideration was for the communists to go out there and infiltrate all power bases - in communities, unions, the ANC itself. Things are different now.

With Mr Mbeki long out of the picture, the SACP - at least at national level - is riding the crest wave of the Jacob Zuma era.

General secretary Blade Nzimande is a key player in Mr Zuma's Cabinet. Chairman Gwede Mantashe, who is stepping down from his SACP position at the Richards Bay conference this week, is third in command of the ANC. Even in unions, communists are occupying crucial positions.

The Cabinet is also packed with them, starting with Mr Nzimande as the minister of higher education. It is these kind of positions that SACP leaders point to, when asked about their influence in the current set-up. But critics of the party consider what the SACP sees as "influence" to be a problem.

Zwelinzima Vavi, the general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), has warned ad nauseam about SACP leaders occupying government positions while leaving the party's offices empty. He is among many union leaders who say Mr Nzimande, as head of the SACP, should be full-time in the party office.

This week's conference will try to resolve the problem of an empty party office by changing the structure. There is a plan to create two new deputy secretary positions - which will give Mr Nzimande three deputies. Currently, there is one deputy secretary - Jeremy Cronin, whose attention is also consumed by government responsibilities. He is deputy minister of public works. Leading candidates for the new positions are Thulas Nxesi, a former trade unionist who is now public works minister, and Joyce Moloi-Moropa, an MP.

The SACP will be changing its constitution once again, to allow Mr Nzimande to carry on in government. It is tradition for secretaries to be full-time in their party positions in the ANC alliance.

Mr Nzimande is the only one among the tripartite alliance secretaries who is pre-occupied with other positions. Mr Mantashe in the ANC, and Mr Vavi in Cosatu, are occupied with their primary jobs.

For Mr Nzimande and those serving in government the benefits are plenty, from chauffeur-driven German cars, to overseeing the public purse and policy. The cost to the party, however, is that its campaigns are nowhere to be seen.

This is something Mr Nzimande denies at every turn. But Mr Mantashe conceded this week that the party's programmes suffered in the past five years because its leaders had too much on their plates.

He points to the fact that the party has grown in membership. It now boasts 160000 members, and is swinging up. Well, it's difficult to read much into the membership figures and what they mean, if anything. The SACP, like its allies, does not have a reliable membership system. But like the ANC (more than 1-million) and Cosatu (more than 2-million), the SACP claims to be growing. These organisations are entitled to their facts. The flip side of that coin, is that the party is not visible on the ground, and its leaders are increasingly identifiable with other organisations.

The Young Communist League allowed its secretary, Buti Manamela, to become an MP, so his attention too is distracted from party affairs.

The SACP is riding the ANC and Cosatu bandwagon. For its offices, it is a "squatter" at Cosatu, the well-off labour movement that recently acquired swanky R50m head offices in Braamfontein. But the supposed voice of the poor and the working class has become far removed as it chases political power.

In the build-up to the Mangaung ANC elections, Mr Nzimande has pulled the SACP together so that it supports Mr Zuma's second term bid. That way he retains influence in the ANC. That is maybe an investment in Mr Nzimande's political future. Some see him as an ambitious politician who fancies his chances at the ANC deputy presidency in 2019 - one step shy of the top job.

While the going is good under a Zuma-led ANC, what would happen if Mr Zuma is defeated in Mangaung? Mr Mbeki's loss in Polokwane saw the people who were riding on his back, some from the SACP, suffer too.