The South African Left needs to go back to its roots

by Oct 6, 2022All Articles

The Working Class Summit bounces back 

LAST MONTH, 600 ACTIVISTS packed into a Johannesburg hall for the first meeting in several years of the Working Class Summit. It was a welcome sight for the many sore eyes on the South African Left. The WCS’s main convener is the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu). Saftu has been going through a bitter internecine struggle pretty much since its formation in 2017, centred around its largest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa).

In an attempt to impose its own derelict “vanguard” party on the federation, Numsa leader Irvin Jim has been sabotaging the WCS. But this project hit a snag when Jim’s faction failed to secure a leadership majority at Saftu’s congress last May. WCS organisers then pulled off an impressive feat, using this brief reprieve to rapidly put together a highly successful meeting. Attendees represented dozens of movements from all parts of the country, revealing welcome signs of life on the South African Left after a decade of setbacks.

But the WCS’s opening gambit – the decision to call for a national shutdown just a few weeks after the meeting concluded – It reflects deeper seated problems, which must be addressed if the mistakes of the past are not to be repeated.

A false start

The shutdown was meant to be an opportunity for working class people to show their anger at rising inflation, spiralling crime and ongoing blackouts. But probably not more than 5,000 people, across all of South Africa’s major cities, heeded the call to demonstrate. That’s around 0.001 percent of the combined membership of Saftu and Cosatu, which called for a parallel shutdown the same day. Compare that to recent actions by the EFF, a party with a 10 percent vote share. They have frequently drawn upwards of 50,000 people onto the streets.

These numbers look even more diminutive alongside the imagery of a general strike used in the call to action. Almost nothing was actually shut down. The material cost imposed on elites – presumably one of the main objectives here – was therefore negligible. Roger Etkind has keenly analysed the problems underlying this poor outcome. Years of corruption scandals, internal squabbling and a persisting failure to represent the general interests of working class people have depleted public sympathy for the union movement – the backbone of the WCS. The paltry turnout served only to broadcast these problems to the world. It demonstrated weakness rather than strength.

Even if there had been ten times as many people on the street, it’s hard to see how the shutdown would have contributed to developing the WCS process. It wasn’t embedded in any longer-term campaign of ongoing, cumulative actions that could build popular momentum behind key demands. And even if it had been, it’s not likely that the WCS would’ve been able to use such a campaign effectively as a tool of organisation building, because it presently lacks structures, programme and centralised leadership.

The mobilising model

Cosatu members marching to Union Buildings during the National Day of Action. The paltry turnout served only to broadcast these problems to the world. It demonstrated weakness rather than strength. 

This is symptomatic of a deeper problem in the South African Left which can be summarised as a hyper-focus on mobilising at the expense of organising. This distinction has been popularised in recent years by the US movement guru, Jane McAlevey. Mobilising is when a movement activates and energises its base. It turns out supporters to visible actions that exercise leverage or demonstrate popular support. Organising, on the other hand, is fundamentally about expanding that base. Organising typically happens in “bounded constituencies” – workplaces, places of worship, neighbourhoods. Organisers seek to implant the movement in these constituencies by steadily growing its ranks: finding people who aren’t current supporters, listening attentively to their grievances and persuading them that collective action offers the only real solution.

The most effective way to do this is by identifying and winning over the organic leaders that already exist within the constituency. It’s these people who have the capacity to really anchor the movement, by becoming its standard bearers on the ground and by using their personal networks to scale up and solidify its support. Any successful movement employs a judicious combination of these two tactics. The mobilising model, however, makes mobilising the centrepiece of the movement’s power strategy in a way that displaces organising. It tends to reduce the life of the movement to rallies and meetings attended by a self-selecting group of dedicated supporters. But even this dedicated core participates only minimally in formulating and executing strategies. The mobilising model concentrates power in the hands of staffers and professional activists who “direct, manipulate and control the mobilisation”. They come to see themselves, rather than ordinary people, as the key agents of change.

Democratic organisation

In No Shortcuts, McAlevey traces the mobilising model’s rise to dominance in US civil society. Parts of this story would be familiar to the South African Left: its central thread is the de-radicalisation and bureaucratisation of the labour movement over the post-War period. The effects have been terrible. Nowhere has the mobilising model been able to replicate even a fraction of the successes achieved when deep organising was the guiding maxim of labour. The validity of the deep organising model derives from certain basic facts about capitalism as a social system. Under capitalism, the two sides of the class struggle f ight with very different “power resources”. Elites control institutions, the media, the economy. Working people have only numbers on their side. But the structural forces of capitalism alone don’t grant us those numbers. No amount of misery inflicted by the market will guarantee that workers respond through collective action. That’s because there are always other, individualist, means of resisting and getting by that don’t incur the same risks and sacrifices.

Decisive to the success of the massive Vaal stay-away of 1984 were the ironclad shopfloor structures painstakingly assembled by Fosatu unions over the previous decade.

It’s for this reason that we need not simply organisation, but democratic organisation. Only by showing ordinary people the power they themselves possess, and making them directors of their own quest for justice, can we build the cultures of militancy and solidarity needed to weather the ebbs and flows of the political process.

Democracy is power, and the Left rarely gets far unless it realises this. The South African Left has been no exception. Indeed the labour movement here was midwifed by a political tendency that was particularly extreme in the extent to which it stressed organising over mobilising.

Breaking with earlier practices, the post-1973 generation of unionists eschewed party-based defiance campaigns. Their approach was shopfloor-centric. They organised around workplace grievances rather than political demands. And they used democracy as a defensive tool. A movement reliant on charismatic leaders or outsider activists would be constantly vulnerable to decapitation by the authoritarian state. To survive it had to be rooted in ordinary workers and capable of constantly regenerating new activists.

These strategies paid off. Unions sprouted and gradually expanded throughout the latter half of the 1970s. In 1979, the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu) was formed, with worker control enshrined into its constitution and baked into its political identity. Mistakenly in my view, Fosatu turned the tactical expedient of political independence into a principle. But this stance was soon overtaken by events on the ground. Community mobilisation against apartheid revived rapidly from the early 1980s, and organic ties between neighbourhood and shop steward committees proliferated. With them grew bottom-up pressure for unions to get more directly involved in political struggles.

These budding alliances were put to their most trying test in the massive Vaal stay-away of 1984, involving around half a million workers – by far the strongest such action in the 35 years that stay-aways had been used as a “political weapon”. Decisive to its success were the ironclad shopfloor structures painstakingly assembled by Fosatu unions over the previous decade.

A lost tradition

The tens of thousands turned out to protest at the Durban World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 are often celebrated as the apogee of the NSM era. But this time the “Durban moment” changed nothing whatsoever.

The tragedy of the South African labour movement, which we are currently living, is its failure to keep alive these traditions of worker democracy and social movement unionism in a political environment transformed by democracy and globalisation. That story is too multisided to fully unpack here, but at its centre was the union’s unhealthy entanglement with the party that has sat in power for the entirety of the democratic period.

Its failure to maintain organisational and political autonomy meant not only that Cosatu was unable to resist the ANC’s drift to the right. It also became an accomplice to the giant systems of rent-seeking and patronage that eventually engulfed the “party-state”. The first casualties of this were the traditions of democratic organising that had brought the labour movement to life and seen it through its toughest battles.

Similar dynamics played out elsewhere in society. While seeking to envelop them deeper within its own ranks, the ANC demobilised the neighbourhood-based networks that had been so effective in rendering the apartheid system ungovernable. Then for a period it looked like the contempt the ANC elite showed to its own supporters might blow up in its face. The late 1990s saw the rapid rise of so-called new social movements (NSMs), which took up a vigorous fight against the neoliberalisation of social policy. These became the focal point of a broader “independent Left” forming outside the Tripartite Alliance and attracted huge excitement from activists and movement scholars around the world. But by the late noughties they were a spent force, virtually all ceasing to exist or becoming NGOified.

Their failure again shows the limits of mobilising divorced from organising. With one very important exception, none of the NSMs gave any adequate attention to developing strong, constituency-based structures led by organic leaders. Their focus was on high visibility demonstrations: “numbers over strength”, quantity over quality of support. The tens of thousands turned out to protest at the Durban World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 are often celebrated as the apogee of the NSM era. But this time the “Durban moment” changed nothing whatsoever.

The reality was that deep organising was made incredibly difficult by the pervading hegemony of the ANC Alliance. Most of the organic leaders in the constituencies in which NSMs had a presence already had a political home in the ANC. They could be convinced to engage in protests around service delivery because such actions were and are seen as an entirely legitimate means of putting pressure within the “broad church” of the Congress movement. But to convince them to switch ultimate allegiance was another matter. Pressing the point, and making campaigns too overtly anti-ANC, risked alienating supporters. Movements were forced to fudge the politics while elevating the issues, and this foreclosed strategies focused on cadre building.

Moreover, the same factors that made organising hard, made mobilising easier. NSMs were able to call forth impressively sized demonstrations without the prior investment in deep organising, in large part because organisational infrastructures already existed. Civil society was still relatively dense at the time NSMs got going, a legacy of the scale of popular mobilisation during apartheid’s end phase.

A new vision

This experience – of large-scale mobilising without organising – has entrenched an analytic orientation on the Left which only deepened the hyperfocus on mobilising. I’m speaking here of a widespread, if generally unspoken, belief that deep organising is not necessary because it has already been done. Owing to their heroic vanquishing of apartheid, the South African masses are politicised and radical. In this context, the primary task of the Left is not to slowly expand its ranks by reaching new people and patiently showing them the value of collective action. It’s to win the hearts and minds of the existing radical populace, whose efforts to affect change are straightjacketed by the illusions they continue to harbour in the ANC. The tens of thousands turned out to protest at the Durban World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 are often celebrated as the apogee of the NSM era. But this time the “Durban moment” changed nothing whatsoever.

For that objective, mobilising seems more promising than organising. The latter may bring to our banner a new workplace or a new community here or there. But a well-placed campaign – perhaps a national shutdown – with the right message at the right time, might carve through the ANC’s ideological defences and win us an army. Sadly, this view is simply mistaken about the political temperament of the South African working class. Undoubtedly, there are strong cultures of resistance, stemming from the liberation struggle, that remain alive in working class communities, providing a rich vein into which radicals might tap. And there is tremendous discontent in the population, bred by the liberal order’s failure to change material realities. But without organisation these things count for little. And the sad fact is that left wing organisation has been in continuous decline for the last two decades. It’s the populists and the pseudo-Left that are capitalising most effectively on social discontent.

The effects of the mobilising approach have mirrored those in the US. Activity on the Left gets confined to an ever-shrinking pool of hardcore activists and their dedicated supporters, who turn up to protest after protest, rally after rally, with no lasting gains ever achieved.

To break out of this cycle we need to change tack and make constituency-based organising once again the bedrock of our power strategy. Instead of devoting all our energies to wildly overambitious demonstrations that threaten no one and only reveal our own weaknesses, we need a strategy for reconstructing movements from the ground up. Protests, strikes, even the occasional shutdown, will still play an integral part in this. But they need to be woven into a vision of building strength through deep support in core constituencies.

Niall Reddy is a PhD candidate at NYU Sociology.  

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