Elections: WAY FORWARD FOR THE LEFT

by Apr 10, 2024Amandla 92, Feature

WHAT I WANT TO TALK ABOUT is the profound effect this election is going to have on shaping the medium-term political landscape in the country. That means that it’s going to have a profound effect on how to go about trying to construct a Left party. And there are major strategic issues to discuss in relation to that. And I want to talk about the kind of principles that will have to underpin how such a party operates, as an exercise in imagining some distant future we want to see.

I think these questions have immediate relevance for us. As we have said, the overarching objective of ZASO is to try to catalyse a new political organisation. That means we have to be able to go to other activists and organisations on the Left with a compelling vision of what a new political party will look like. Why it will succeed where so many other similar ventures have failed in the recent past. And why people should be willing to invest their time and energy.

It doesn’t mean we have to have a blueprint. But we have to be able to make the case compellingly for why the moment is now for a Left political party. And the principles under which we do it are going to be heavily shaped by the political conjuncture that’s going to be shaped by this election.

What is this moment?

I think we are in a moment of recomposition. It’s a moment of profound shifting and change in the political landscape. And the dominant trend is one in which a party that was overwhelmingly dominant historically, the ANC, seems almost guaranteed to get below 50%, and will be forced into a coalition of some kind. It’s going to be an historic defeat.

But there’s no new party ready and able to fill the vacuum. So instead, we have what is likely to be growth at the margin for the other established opposition parties (the DA and the EFF). And then a battery of new, smaller political parties entering the arena, each claiming a little handful of the electorate (1% or 2%).

But there’s a bigger dynamic going on here: the largest chunk of the ANC’s own coalition is drifting away from the party. They are essentially de-aligning. They’re not throwing their weight behind any of these new contenders. They are going to sit this election out. They don’t see anybody who’s actually representing their interests.

So the vote is going to get divided amongst an extremely large array of parties. But why this fragmentation? Part of it obviously has to do with the weaknesses and limitations of the existing opposition parties. If we had a more effective opposition, then there would be a chance that the ANC losses would be the victories of one of these parties. But they don’t so far seem able to capitalise.

But there’s a deeper underlying factor at play. And that’s the fact that South African society is defined by relatively deep and profound social cleavages—issues that really divide society politically. That has been partially obscured by the ANC’s very broad church coalition. But now, as that coalition fragments, things are becoming much clearer.

Parties like the DA are hitting a ceiling, because they obviously want to try to appeal to a black electorate, but that offends some of the white power brokers in the party. Another major cleavage that is almost a structural feature of society is the ANC’s patronage machinery.

It is a major economic force in this country. It has really created divisions in communities all over. On the one hand, those who benefited, and on the other, those on the outside who see this as an engine of corruption.

These new parties are not finding a way of navigating through the major divides in politics. When they come down on one side of an issue, it immediately isolates them from voters on the other side.

The other big issue is institutional: our electoral system provides very low barriers to entry. If you can get 1% of the vote, you have representation. Now we’re entering an era of coalitions, it’s easy to leverage up that very small chunk of representation. So every little political entrepreneur who fancies themselves as a popular person is going to throw their hat into the ring and try to get whatever they can. Hence the fragmentation.

Opportunities for a new party of the Left

This creates both opportunities and challenges. It benefits us because it’s better to be starting off in a relatively open political field, in which many of our contenders are small parties with a relatively small resource base. And in which, more importantly, there’s a giant chunk of the electorate that is unaffiliated. If you’re trying to launch a new Left party, you’re trying to convince people who have no political home to join you. Convincing people to leave their existing political home is much harder.

The ANC doesn’t deliver anything, but it continues to win large majorities because of the deep loyalty some of the electorate feels towards it. But this is not a situation that will last. Some, or one, of these parties is going to start to gain momentum, to win more votes, more supporters. And it’s going to translate those votes and supporters into greater resources. And it’s going to build on that momentum. And the political field will be carved up. And then eventually the larger parties will start raising barriers to entry. They’ll make it more and more difficult for new political parties to enter into the field. And they’ll use all of the chaos around these coalitions as a justification for that.

So it means that there’s an opportunity, but it’s an opportunity that has a dwindling time frame. It’s an opportunity we’ve got to seize now before it disappears.

The challenges

The big challenge lies in a ballot paper that’s now 350 parties long. We’re going to face the challenge of what the political scientists call party identification. When you launch your political party, you have to create some kind of brand for this party that allows it to stand out to voters now.

Leftists typically don’t like this language of branding. They think we’ll just come with a programme that really represents people’s interests, and we won’t have to do any of this work that other parties do to sell themselves. But ultimately, to succeed, we have to reach ordinary voters. We have to appeal not just to people like ourselves who are activists, people who live, sleep, drink politics. We have to appeal to the majority of the population who actually detest politics – politics is a bunch of people lying to them, and then wrecking their existence. And to do that, we have to be able to build a clear identity that’s going to distinguish us from the others.

We might be the only genuinely Left party out there—the only party that really wants to represent the interests of working people. But parties that use the language of the Left while walking Right will be all over the place.

So what does that mean? What should our programme be? The only way that we’re going to be able to discover the nature of an effective programme and manifesto for a Left party is by deeply embedding ourselves in communities and workplaces, and testing out our positions.

Two principles

There are two principles that I think have to guide us as we start to craft these policies. And these are principles that really apply to strategising in all sorts of domains.

The first principle is that we have to choose. If we are going to eventually build an effective electoral force in this country, we have to craft a manifesto and programme that selects clear priorities. Prioritising is the essence of strategy.

Without priority, you’re not choosing a strategy. Resources are finite. Prioritising is central to how you build political identity, how you build the brand, or new party.

Choosing a message to focus on doesn’t mean that we stop caring about any of the other issues. And it doesn’t mean that we stop putting them into our campaign. But it means that we have to be very effective in how we choose a message.

The second principle is that to be effective on the Left, we have to be two metres ahead of the masses and not 2,000 metres. In electoral politics, maybe you can only be one meter ahead. That doesn’t mean we can do what bourgeois parties do—conduct a poll to find out what the majority of people want and put that in the manifesto. We can’t do that because we want to transform the world in a way that makes it better. If it turns out that some of our issues are not popular, we don’t just jettison them; we have to find ways to make them popular. Our politics have to be responsive to where people are at today. We can’t just imagine some future electorate will simply want to follow Marx and overthrow the bourgeoisie.

And we have to face the fact that current opinion polls show that certain of the issues that we on the Left care very deeply about, and that should be very central in any political platform, turn out to be issues that don’t rate very highly when you ask people to name their priorities. For example, land reform, turns out to be very low down this list.

When people rank an issue low, it doesn’t mean that they don’t care about the issue at all. It just means that they don’t really prioritise it. Land reform is one of those issues.

Racism is another issue that tends to fall relatively far down this list. Again, it doesn’t mean that people in South Africa don’t care about racism, or don’t think it’s an issue. It just means if you’re going to pose an option to a person between a party that’s going to find a way of solving the unemployment crisis, and a party that’s going to focus all of its efforts on racism, people are going to make an obvious choice.

We have to be ruthless

So how can we navigate this? I’m going to focus on one issue in particular. And that’s the environmental issue. These surveys show that climate change and environmental issues regularly ranked at the absolute bottom. Less than 1% of respondents told the surveys that climate change is the issue for them. If we tried to run an electoral campaign on climate change, like the Climate Justice Charter Movement, it’s a completely losing strategy. People just don’t prioritise it in a way that they’re going to give their one vote to the party that makes that the issue.

That doesn’t mean that we should now say we can no longer be eco-socialists. The reason that we are eco-socialists, and the reason that we try to agitate and organise around climate issues, is that we know that this is an issue that is hugely important to the material life of the working class.

But it means if we are going to be effective in the service of creating a climate just world, we have to be clever about how we pursue that politics. We know that you can build climate change politics in communities that are deeply affected by this issue. And that means that you can build powerful movements that have mobilising capacity around climate change.

We have to get over the notion that has been unfortunately very common on the Left, the notion that if an organisation chooses not to prioritise a specific issue, they don’t care about it, or they don’t think that it’s important. That’s not at all the case. We might believe that climate change is the single most important issue in the country.

But if there’s no chance of building power around that issue, then logic and strategy demand we change tack; we find other issues around which we can build power, so that we can use that power to address everything that exists in our programme.

We have to take a leaf out of the book of the Right. They never won an election saying we’re going to cut taxes, we’re going to slash spending on health care, and we’re going to close your school down, because they know that’s not possible. So they win on a whole bunch of other powerful issues, and then, when they get into power, they just do what’s on their agenda.

We’re going to have to be a little bit ruthless, in the same way that right wing political parties are.

Niall Reddy is a researcher at the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies and a member of ZASO. 

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