by Apr 10, 2024Amandla 92, Editorial

THE COMING 2024 NATIONAL AND provincial elections are the most significant since the ’94 ‘freedom elections’. Yet once again there is no credible left-wing or anti-capitalist force contesting. By all accounts, the ANC is not likely to win an outright majority, and new configurations of power might emerge. The failure to be present in these elections is indicative of the state of the Left and of the labour and social movements. They are a shadow of the movements which were so decisive in dislodging the racist National Party regime from the Union Buildings.

30 years of ANC rule has been a disaster for our country and for poor and working class people. The rate of unemployment has climbed to one of the highest in the world. Inequality has deteriorated to the worst in the world. Violence against women is at horrific levels. On average a woman is raped every 25 seconds, and one is killed by an intimate partner every eight hours. Most local municipalities are unable to provide basic services to their people because of gross underfunding.

The corporatisation and marketisation of state owned enterprises has been a disaster. Eskom and Transnet are in a death spiral. Highly indebted, they are unable to meet the electricity and transport needs of people and the economy. The same is true of almost all other SOEs.

The Left vacuum

It is therefore tragic that the Left which has developed a cogent critique of neoliberal policies is not able to promote real alternatives, at the very time the electorate is wanting real solutions.

All the fragments of the opposition to the ANC (and each day a new fragment emerges) offer largely superficial and false explanations for the current state of the nation. For the DA and its allies, it’s corruption and cadre deployment. For the populists, it’s either illegal immigrants or the failure to protect Christian family values. For the ANC breakaways, it’s not enough BEE and the vacuous notion of radical economic transformation.

The failure of the Left to constitute a credible force has given rise to a farcical situation: corrupt populists, who once led the ANC, opportunistically repackage themselves as left-wing radicals. Zuma and his MK Party are just the most recent case. There is Ace Magashule and his African Congress for Transformation, Marius Fransman’s People’s Movement for Change and of course the EFF, where Carl Niehaus has found yet another home. For the new kids on the block (parties like the Patriotic Alliance and Action SA), their election strategy is to appeal to the worst sentiments of a people made desperate by the socio-economic crisis. They outbid each other to be the most stridently xenophobic, homophobic and tough on crime.

The disastrous showing of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party in the 2019 elections has had consequences for the entire Left. It signals the demise of what was referred to as the ‘Numsa moment’ in 2013—an opportunity for the renewal of independent Left politics rooted in mass popular movements. It reinforces the mistaken idea that it is difficult to build democratic, radical, mass-based political movements which can successfully contest elections; the idea that electoral politics is not where the Left should intervene. Equally, the drift by the EFF towards crude nationalistic politics, and its evolution towards becoming just a radical version of the ANC, will stand as a blockage to the renewal of a militant Left politics.

The consequence for a genuine, democratic socialist Left is that, even if it was in a position to enter the election fray, it would find itself in a congested field, struggling to distinguish itself from the many imposters.

And then there are the large numbers of the potential constituency of the Left who have become so disillusioned with this situation that they have opted out, not even bothering to register to vote.

Elections are expensive affairs. Mobilising finances to compete with bourgeois parties, without sinking into opportunism, bent by reliance on questionable donors, is potentially a massive problem for a Left dependent on the support of those who own nothing.

Resolving the electoral absence of a credible Left is urgent. It will require a deep rethinking of Left perspectives and strategy which will provoke a substantial reorganisation of the Left.

The long march to building a mass Left alternative to nationalist politics will face difficult strategic and tactical decisions, particularly with the decline of working class social movements, including the weakening and fragmenting of the labour movement.

Our starting point

Our understanding of the absence of an anti-capitalist party in the coming elections has to go beyond the analysis of Steven Friedman, who puts it down to the centrality of race and racial inequality. A good starting point would be to acknowledge the defeat of the Left in South Africa. The French socialist philosopher and activist, Daniel Ben said, remarked, when assessing revolutionary strategy at the turn of the 21st century: What are we coming from? From a historic defeat. We do best to admit it and gauge its scope. The neoliberal offensive of the last quarter century is both the cause of this defeat, its consequence, and its culmination.

Something was accomplished at turn of the century, between the fall of the Berlin Wall and September 11. But what was it? The end of the ‘short twentieth century’ and its cycle of wars and revolutions? Or the end of modernity? The end of a cycle, a period of time, or an epoch?

Clearly the Left in South Africa has suffered in a similar way. But there are also elements specific to South Africa.

Firstly, it comes in the wake, and as a consequence, of the collapse of the socialist distortion, which was the USSR and its satellite states. Then, as Vishwas Satgar correctly explained:

Two decades of ANC-led neoliberalisation, which has surrendered democracy, development and state formation to capital, consolidated the strategic defeat of the Left and working class in South Africa. The ‘National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) moment’ and process, led by South Africa’s largest (more than 330 000 members) and most militant trade union, is all about confronting this strategic defeat. It is about a battle to determine the future of South Africa the strategic initiative for the country’s working class.

Yet, it is the collapse of this ‘Numsa moment’ which makes the situation for the Left that much more difficult and complex. It is like having to rebuild from scratch. As Stuart Hall, the British Marxist, points out:

When a conjuncture unrolls, there is no ‘going back’. History shifts gears. The terrain changes. You are in a new moment. You have to attend, ‘violently’, with all the ‘pessimism of the intellect’ at your and, to the ‘discipline of the conjuncture’. 

Stalinist politics prevailed

Why did the anti-capitalist Left in South Africa fail to put its stamp on this moment? Old-style Marxist Leninist dogma was dominant, with its in-built authoritarianism and its hold over significant bureaucratic machines such as the SACP, Cosatu and Numsa. This killed off the green shoots of a more open, democratic and pluralist emancipatory politics.

Amongst the protagonists behind the formation of the EFF and Numsa’s SRWP, there may have been a break with the ANC/SACP but not with Congress/Stalinist politics and practices. This is particularly true in relation to the regurgitation of the notions of ‘national democratic revolution,’ the stagist theory of revolutionary change, underpinned by an alliance with the patriotic bourgeoisie, on behalf of the working class. The young activists and cadres thrown up by the worker, community and student struggles were absorbed by these bureaucracies as they searched for a stable income and personal security.

Acknowledging the defeat we have suffered is not to demoralise. It is rather to acknowledge a failure without capitulating before the enemy, knowing that a new beginning could take unprecedented forms.

Towards renewal

There will be no shortcut out of this state of decline. This election may be significant in that it will, in all likelihood, end the complete dominance of nationalist politics. Perhaps, therefore, there will be greater opportunities for a constituency for class politics. But in another sense it will be completely insignificant—it will have no effect on the material lives of the working class and the poor. It will not fix the broken water and sewerage pipes. It won’t stop load- shedding. And above all it won’t move the government away from the neoliberal direction that is shared by most of its political opponents.

For real change, there will be no alternative but to continue to build popular organisations, to fight to recapture the labour movement from its bureaucratic leadership, and to struggle to rebuild unity of the working class movement into a movement for socialism. There must be no more elections without a voice of the Left being on the ballot paper. And that voice must be rooted in active popular organisations.

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