A key element of the crisis of politics in South Africa lies in the great levels of disillusionment and apathy toward politics of millions of working class people. The “protagonists of the revolution” don’t believe politics is for them. Many believe today that “all politicians are corrupt” and only in it for the money. Equally worrying are the low levels of consciousness within the working classes. Sexism and misogyny, expressed through waves of horrific violence against women, are one indicator. Similarly, xenophobia and a narrow nationalist sentiment have filtered into the “common sense” of vast numbers of poor people.
Reactionary views penetrate working class movement
These reactionary views are not just embraced in South Africa. They are gripping the attention of the working classes elsewhere, in previous havens of the Left, in those social democratic bastions of France, Sweden and Italy. And they are not just embraced by vulnerable and impoverished sectors of poor South Africans. Now, more and more, they are accepted amongst activists in trade unions and social movements. Gone are the days when they would be shy, for fear of being politically incorrect, to voice the need to safeguard jobs and services for South African and to control the movement of foreign nationals. This is enabling the growth of right-wing populist groupings such as Herman Mashaba’s Action South Africa, Gayton McKenzie’s Patriotic Alliance, Operation Dudula and others. And it is significantly closing off political space for the radical Left. There are other factors affecting that space as well, not least the power gained by business, through the outcomes of globalisation and neoliberalism. Budget cuts, tax reductions for the rich and more tax increases for the poor, flexible forms of labour, privatisation and the liberalisation of the economy. These have all weakened the negotiating power of labour, as one part of the working class is played off against another. Mass unemployment and the loss of permanent jobs in favour of precarious forms of work have created high levels of insecurity and despair. This is ground in which populist and reactionary ideas can take root.
ANC becomes vehicle of the Black elite
Neoliberal globalisation posed significant challenges for the workers’ movement. For Cosatu and the South African Communist Party, the strategy to mitigate this was to deepen their involvement in the ANC itself, in the belief they could secure pro-working class policies. In reality the opposite occurred. As working class activists became incorporated into the ANC they became exposed to the possibilities of socioeconomic advancement and co-option by different factions of capital. By 2012 this strategy was in tatters.
The “party of liberation” had become the political vehicle of “Black” components of the capitalist class who had missed the f irst round of BEE. They were desperate to gain greater control over the heights of the economy. Their lack of ownership and low capital base predisposed them to cronyism, and practices,which have since been labelled as state capture. The prioritisation of creating a black elite has come at the expense of redistributing wealth to the majority of South Africans. It is this contradiction of post-Apartheid South Africa that catalysed the mass uprising of workers, working class communities and poor tertiary students that rendered this strategy between 2012 and 2016.
Moments of hope
There have been moments when opportunities for a revival of the socialist Left looked promising. The late 1990s saw the flourishing of a range of social justice struggles, which began to pose a challenge to the ANC government’s shift to neoliberalism. But it was the 2012 to 2016 period that represented a real possibility for building a mass based anti-capitalist bloc. The mass strike of rank-and-file mineworkers, the Marikana massacre, the emergence of Amcu as a mass trade union, splits in Cosatu, the Numsa Special National Congress of 2013 and its call for the break with the ANC Alliance, the formation of the EFF, and soon thereafter the rebellion of university students demanding free decolonial education. All these created a massive new space for the Left to grow. However, for this to occur it required the adoption of a non-sectarian, democratic and broad political orientation. This would have recognised that all these initiatives were relatively weak and at a formative stage in terms of political definition. None were hegemonic inside the workers movement, never mind society. These initiatives needed the support and solidarity of each of these different movements.
In other words, a united front orientation and tactic was required to ensure the sum became greater than the individual parts. It’s in this context that the Numsa Special Congress resolutions for a United Front of trade unions and social movements held promise, as did the resolution to explore the development of a movement for socialism.
The United Front responded to the need for campaigns and to strengthen the existing grassroots struggles of working class movements. This was especially on the provision of decent services and the EFF’s demand for the redistribution of wealth. With the emergence of the #FeesMustFall movement, action by labour in support of their demand for free decolonial education could have achieved a rare win against neoliberalism. Its significance would have been similar to TAC’s victories for the provision of HIV-AIDS treatment.
The need for nonsectarian politics It also required an open, anti-capitalist politics, which recognised the need to question the dogma of Marxism-Leninism, problematising practices of substitutionism and bureaucratisation. In other words, a renewal of Marxism as an emancipatory vision as well as an open and evolving body of thought.
Both the EFF- and Numsa-led political initiatives did exactly this in their initial phase. The EFF engaged with various components of the Left in discussion on Fanonism. It involved them in formulating its election programme. For its part, Numsa undertook not just engagement with different components of the Left in SA but also internationally. It undertook visits to learn from international experience in building new Left parties.
The rest, as they say, is history. We disappeared down the rabbit hole of the dogmatic, sectarian, undemocratic politics of the National Democratic Revolution, into sterile debates about whether the NDR was on or off track. And we arrived where we are now. An increasingly divided trade union movement. A weak but surviving network of community organisations. And a lack of any credible political party of the Left.
What do we prioritise?
Firstly, as we have said in previous issues of Amandla!, we need to start the long, painful process of re-building the trade union movement from the ground up. There will be rebellions against the bureaucracies which now run the unions. We need to have resources in place to support them wherever and whenever they erupt. We need to have a set of clear class struggle principles that will guard as much as possible against the same kind of degeneration happening again.
Secondly, we ned to continue the work of building both the strength and organisational capacity of community organisations and also strengthening their capacity to network with each other. We must pay attention to material issues at a municipal level, where it affects people’s daily lives. We must become the leadership that is capable of delivering what the corrupt municipal politicians are unable to deliver.
Thirdly, politically, we need to engage in a systematic review of post-apartheid Congress politics, and in particular the sectarian politics of the NDR and all that entails. The progress represented by the “Numsa Moment” was derailed by precisely those politics. We urgently need dialogue between those who may be emerging battered from those politics, and the heavy defeats and chaos they have given birth to, and those who come from different political traditions. We must draw the lessons from this experience on class independence and united front politics and move towards developing a mass movement for socialism that can begin to contest politically at all levels.
Fourthly, we need to continue the work of struggling for the peril of the climate crisis to be taken seriously and for the contradictions to become clearer between the division of the world into capitalist nation-states and a global set of solutions to the crisis. Because there is only a global solution.
Fifthly, in a country in which a key manifestation of the crisis of social disintegration lies in Gender Based Violence, we must consistently struggle to weave feminist threads through all the work we do as political activists. And finally, we need to capture the essence of the current phase of the struggle in a programme that neither jumps straight to socialist demands nor simply lists every immediate demand in an endless shopping list. It must centre on a concise programme of demands that are achievable reforms but which capture an anti-capitalist dynamic. Such demands might include a Basic Income Grant and a Wealth tax. Whatever those demands are, they need to be thrashed out in representative forums and become the basis for regrouping and rebuilding.