A CRISIS OF POLITICS? WHAT IS ITS NATURE?

by Aug 17, 2023Amandla 88, Feature

Interview with Mosa Phadi, an activist scholar and member of Keep Left 

Amandla!: Is there a crisis of politics? what’s your understanding of it and its nature in South Africa?

There was a tension that Cosatu, being powerful, was aligned to the ANC. And the relationship naturally between the Left and those who are aligned was not always coherent. And the Communist Party took the Stalinist approach – anything that was not within the coherence of the NDR was not allowed to be even a debate, for a very long time.

MOSA PHADI: It’s been ongoing in different ways since 1994. I think the biggest betrayal happened during the Thabo Mbeki days. In terms of the economic policies they took, but also the politics.You can argue that the transition really started in the 1980s, when the ANC started to make deals with the bantustan leaders as well as the white capitalists themselves.

Some people from different tendencies congregated around the spine of the ANC that took many ideological positions. And I think from that, you can also understand why the ANC in itself at this moment is also in crisis. Sometimes the Left, when they analyse the black bourgeoisie, they put this same monolithic idea on it – that this is the black bourgeoisie, all with the same ideology, with the same logic. The Zuma era showed the different ideologies and different factions within this class. Mainly, I think what the Left is right about is the process of accumulation that has been at the heart of this since the 1980s. And it’s not only a South African problem; you can see it also globally. Capitalism has reached its very maximum ways of accumulating, and now it’s shrinking.

And the Left in that has been weakened, here and also globally. Although, naturally, because our context is very different, it takes different forms. During the Thabo Mbeki era, movements took the centre stage. Trade unions at that time were still very strong, even though they were in an alliance with the ANC and SACP. There were many gains: the LGBTIQA movement was really strong, and many gains were made there. And there was the TAC, with anti-privatisation and different other formations.

I think things started to break down with the regime of Zuma.

A!: Was there an opportunity in 1995 to democratise? Did we fail to define a kind of left project that took advantage of some of the reforms that 1994 obviously presented?

MP: I think sometimes the Left failed to understand liberal politics; that actually it’s part of the logic of black expression. That it’s actually far stronger, and that it understands institutions, understand networks, and understands how to keep certain aspects of capitalism intact.

The Left, especially the rank and file, wanted liberation. But what does it look like other than protesting? What is the thinking around institutions? If we want freedom, what type of institutions are we looking at in terms of local governance, in terms of the state itself, in terms of distribution itself? And I think, when they open their eyes to the logic, other than ideological questions, the liberals or reformists had already captured some of those aspects as well.

How do we leverage power in order to change the system to serve the majority? How do we build institutions that will ideologically reflect the interests of the working class?

A!: How do we account for the dramatic weakening of the workers’ movement and, with it, probably the Left?

MP: I think part of it is this resistance, even now, around really grappling with the race and class question. Amongst left academics and activists, when you talk about race it’s like, oh, no, you’re nationalists. The making of South Africa has been built on race. I think the intersection of race, class and gender becomes such a crucial moment. As much as we can talk about class, you have to understand the interaction between race and class.

And then with trade unions, after 1994, the site of struggle was always bargaining councils. Anything else was not a conversation. So there was also a divorce between the community of those who work versus the unemployed and service delivery activism And the two never fully aligned. 

And there was a tension that Cosatu, being powerful, was aligned to the ANC. And the relationship naturally between the Left and those who are aligned was not always coherent. And the Communist Party took the Stalinist approach – anything that was not within the coherence of the NDR was not allowed to be even a debate, for a very long time.

A!: How is it that the EFF becomes a mass party, and the rest of the Left, which sort of prioritises class, becomes extremely fragmented, and weak and so on? Is it that the EFF gets the issue of the link between race and class much better than the “independent” Left?

MP: The reality is that the young people in the majority of the townships were disgruntled. Those who went to Model C schools, those who go to university coming back and not finding work, those who have actually acquired some jobs, but actually see that white people are still moving up compared to them. Reality reminded them they’re still black – not yet uhuru.

And I think the Left didn’t even care about that majority. In its inception, EFF understood them. And when the language of the EFF came, they could relate easily because it spoke to them. Some of the social movement activists who were very dominant at that time came from the 80s.

They had a particular way of formulating issues that was not necessarily relatable to those young people. And for a very long time, if you disagreed with them, you were not one of them. No, we’re not gonna join EFF. The EFF is problematic, it’s nationalist. They were not seeing the wave when it was coming because they were dealing with “the working class”.

And it’s like – where’s the working class? And I think EFF at that time understood and took the chance. I think it has limitations, and I have my own critique, but I think they understood the mood at that time very well.

The Left needs to analyse fully rather than dismissing. There should be an engagement and we need to think harder about an array of ideologies that are playing out at the moment.

A!: Given some of its failures, how do you see the Left becoming relevant again, to the body politic in South Africa? What needs to happen?

The reality is that the young people in the majority of the township were disgruntled. And I think the Left didn’t even care about that majority. In its inception, EFF understood them. And when the language of the EFF came, they could relate easily because it spoke to them.

MP: In order to revive itself, a different kind of young people have to lead and come with a different imagination. The old guard cannot lead in the same way and try to co-opt people who sound like them. We need to start actually going to communities, and I don’t mean only like informal settlements, or only communities that are affected by mining, but an array of different communities where black people settle. We need to also understand the black bourgeois, in order to sharpen our own politics. With the inflation and interest rate increasing, there’s a huge layer of struggling middle class. We also need to relate to that. How do we sharpen our politics to actually win some of them? And how do we sharpen the young people who are in townships, imploding with nyaope? How do we relate to that?

Go into these communities and organise. And that needs a different discussion, and unlearning certain things from the old guard, particularly.

A!: So apart from the cost of living, what are the other issues you think the Left should be building around?

MP: We need to also reckon that, for the first time and moving forward, now we’re going to have a state that doesn’t have capacity to deliver. This is a serious question. You can demand good quality health care, but will you have a state without the capacity to even deliver some health care, in some communities? What happens in that moment? And how do we mobilise? Those are the critical questions. Because you can’t demand the state must deliver when you know very well the state will not deliver.

And we have to start questioning the idea of formality and informality, the return of small-scale farming, the return of the informal economy being crucial. It’s not sustainable – massification of farms, and malls, and the people cannot fend for themselves. The economy doesn’t have to be this way. 

A!: And programmatically? What about the issue of gender and patriarchy and the extreme levels of violence, and marginalisation of women, homophobia, transphobia, etc? Are these issues that the Left needs to be stronger on?

MP: Once upon a time these were dismissed as identity politics that are not important because class has this logic. We need to engage with feminist scholars, trans scholars and actually start learning and relating to that struggle as much as any other struggle. It’s not identity politics, it is people’s reality.

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