Our country is in crisis. There is deepening inequality, many people live in permanent poverty and millions are unemployed for most of their adult lives. Women continue to suffer from social oppression, violence and poverty. The very ecological and biophysical conditions for our human existence are under threat.
Retrogressive ideologies in our society are gaining ground: we are going back to ethnic identity, we have retrogressive notions of womanhood, we have seen the rise in the power of undemocratic rule of unelected chiefs. The state is dysfunctional, corrupt and fraudulent. The state seems unwilling to confront the economic system that produces all these crises. Together, none of these socio-economic problems can be addressed by a South Africa that reproduces capitalism. These problems require solutions that go beyond capitalist accumulation.
Is it correct to regard the Zuma-led African National Congress (ANC) as Left? Whilst the Zuma-led ANC is much friendlier to the Left than Mbeki, neo-liberal capitalism survives in South Africa.
As Karl Marx put it in his Critique of the Gotha Programme: “If capital remains the all dominating economic power, economic and political decision-making will necessarily operate within the strict limits and conditions imposed by it, no matter what one calls the society and no matter which persons or forms of organisation are nominally in control”. Zuma has not broken with Mbeki’s pattern of subordinate progressive reforms in favour of the capitalist profitability. Lesson: left vulnerable to the inordinate power of capital in our society, a president (no matter who it is) is vulnerable and can become increasingly unaccountable to popular interests.
In protecting and advancing its interests, capital continues to act on and through the ANC-led state. Up to now, the SACP-COSATU strategy has been unable to dislodge capital from this position. Given the ANC’s failure to break with neo-liberalism, then there is a serious challenge posed to the SACP’s and COSATU’s political will, strategy, capacity and ability to lead social mobilisation to secure a fundamental break with neo-liberal policies. No amount of alliance boardroom battles will lead to a systemic transformation of South Africa thereby addressing poverty, inequality and other social, economic and ecological ills of our country. The Polokwane revolution can go so far, and no further. This can be seen in how mooted policy changes remain largely within the framework that Mbeki had already put in place. No amount of alliance insider trading will change this. Even if this were an option with reasonable prospects for success, there are serious questions about the SACP’s and COSATU’s policy capacity, political will and organisational ability to win in the boardroom. The post-Polokwane situation does not represent conducive political conditions under which it would be possible to win and secure a fundamental policy shift away from neo-liberalism to even a social democratic programme, let alone thorough-going anti-systemic transformation.
Yet South Africa is in desperate need of radical and transformative political and economic change, essential a participatory socialist democracy that goes beyond capitalism. Therefore, ‘winning the soul of the ANC’ can no longer be the ultimate Left strategy. If it has to have a future in South Africa, the Left has to build a social base that can contest existing power relations, deepen democracy, challenge and transform the capitalist state we have, and win transformative economic and social policies. What is required is an organisational and political base that can challenge and transform power relations, deepen democracy, redistribute wealth, win transformative policies and sustainably nurture human life, the soil and nature. This huge challenge suggests that the time has come for a mass-based left pole in South Africa’s political scene. However, this is easier said than done.
How can democratic socialist politics be rejuvenated and pursued in today’s South Africa? Can poor and working people build a democratic left politics into a formidable counter-hegemonic political pole capable of challenging the circuits of inequality and unsustainability? Can we have a strategic new left pole in South Africa that is able to continuously and consistently organise poor and working people into a socially present, effective and organised voice and power? These are difficult challenges for any genuine Left project that seeks a break with the limits imposed by the discipline of an ANC that is hamstrung by capital.
Key here is the patient, difficult and long-term work to build the social power, weight and voice of workers and communities over political, social and economic questions. This must include direct social mobilisation to challenge capital and build capacity for anti-systemic economic transformation. Instead of the usual sectarian attacks against “ultra-leftists”, the arguments put forward in this article are a serious challenge the SACP and COSATU to critically look at themselves and reconsider many of their strategies and perspectives.
The future of a Left project rests in the collective hands of workers, the dispossessed, the unemployed, the youth, women and rural people as well as radical intellectuals. But only if they wrestle for power and the right to shape a new agenda rooted in the power of a gigantic movement resting on independent autonomous mass organisations of working people thereby giving meaning to the slogan “we are our own liberators”. This is a struggle of the long haul that requires a new Left to boldly and realistically enter the political stage today.
Jara is a member of the Amandla! Editorial collective. He is also a member of the SACP and one of the conveners of the Initiative of the Conference for a Democratic Left
Article first published in Daily Dispatch