If the ANC's rivals are all right, what's left?
Disillusioned ANC backers feel they don't have credible options, and a union-based body à la Brazil's Workers' Party could rebalance SA's democracy.
Twenty years since the founding of South Africa's democracy, the country's existing party political system, the parties and their leaders appear unable to fulfil the needs of the majority of voters.
The increasing disconnection between the voters and parties undermines the accountability of the country's democratic system and diminishes the quality of its democracy.
It is rather obvious that any political party serious about winning an election in South Africa must grab a significant slice of the black vote.
If it was only so simple.
The majority of black voters, in terms of economic beliefs, appear to be on the mainstream left, even if they may be socially or politically conservative.
In terms of economic orientation, the problem is that most of the existing opposition parties and new parties formed after 1994 are to the right of the ANC and its mass black support.
South Africa has now reached a tipping point at which many ANC supporters who have had a deep emotionally affinity with the party are not able to identify themselves with the current version of the party and its leaders any more. They appear to be ready to look for alternative political homes.
The dilemma, however, is that many disillusioned ANC supporters – many of them on the left of the economic spectrum – feel they do not have credible options, given the fact that most of the established opposition parties are on the right (or at least centre-right) in terms of economics. So it is likely they will just not vote.
In real terms, this will mean the ANC will be re-elected, albeit with ever-smaller margins, and the opposition parties will gain a little bit more but, essentially, the perceived flawed party political system remains the same.
The reality is that appealing to the good heart of current ANC leaders and to the glorious examples of responsible leadership of former leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu is not going to get the urgency to be more caring, responsive and honest across to the current ANC leadership.
Only the prospect of losing its traditional supporters to other parties and the prospect that it may lose elections or at least do so poorly it may be forced into coalitions will force the current ANC leadership to change for the better.
The fact that the current opposition parties are not yet appealing politically and especially economically to the ANC's mass base is providing the current ANC leadership not only with a valuable lifeline but also entrenching the extraordinary high levels of complacency in its leadership ranks.
The opposition Democratic Alliance is entrenched on the economic centre-right with mostly neoliberal policies. For another, it still suffers from perceptions among majority black ANC supporters that it only cares about the issues of white South Africans.
The Congress of the People (Cope) was hived off from the ANC's right flank. In the beginning, Cope not only had black credentials, it was also perceived by many ANC supporters to be no different in economic outlook from the ANC itself. Of course, Cope descended into chaos and lacks credibility as a responsible force.
Agang SA, launched recently by former Black Consciousness leader Mamphela Ramphele, is also on the right of the ANC. In its current form it is more likely to appeal to South Africa's small black middle class, which will be inadequate to win national elections, rather than the majority black township and rural poor.
A number of smaller far-left socialist parties have been formed since the ANC's 2007 Polokwane conference. In truth, they are too pie-in-the-sky ideologically to be relevant to ordinary black people struggling with the daily dilemmas of how to put bread on the table or care for families.
Is there a way out of this political cul-de-sac?
Disillusioned ANC members could close their eyes and vote en masse against their natural instincts for opposition parties that may not appeal to their economic views.
In this way, the voting tally of the opposition parties could bulge and the ANC could get a serious wake-up call and introduce the urgent reforms needed – making the party internally democratic, bringing in more accountable leaders and governing more honestly and responsibly.
But South Africa's democratic system would be best served by a genuinely democratic mainstream trade union-based party, à la Brazil's Workers' Party (PT), which is to the left of the ANC, with the ANC remaining at the left of centre and the current opposition parties on the right, leaving the populist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the far-left socialist parties on the flanks.
The trade union federation Cosatu's largest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) is mulling over launching such a party.
The practical danger of Cosatu's association with an unaccountable version of the ANC is that its affiliates could break away from the trade union movement and form new ones.
The splintering of the National Union of Mineworkers, once the most powerful Cosatu affiliate, is a case in a point.
The presence of Cosatu in the ANC alliance has given the party valuable grassroots and "left" credibility, even if the current ANC leadership has backslid on the party's original ethos and mandates.
However, as the ANC loses further credibility under the weight of the governing party's decidedly mixed performance in reducing poverty and delivering jobs and effective public services to the black majority, Cosatu also risks sinking with it.
Expelled former ANC Youth League president Julius Malema astutely understands the large vacuum in South Africa's electoral firmament and has embedded his new Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, the country's first out-and-out populist and youth party, with leftist economic messages.
Malema's populist message may appeal to the restless youth but it is unlikely to appeal to the masses of mature and sensible middle-ground ANC supporters, however disaffected they may be with the current ANC.
But, if the EFF transforms itself into a social movement party and successfully aligns itself with breakaway Cosatu trade unions such as the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, and many of South Africa's disgruntled grassroots and community groups, it will not only take sizeable chunks of votes from the ANC but may also hive off some members of Cosatu too.
Cosatu's decision to back one faction at the ANC's 2007 Polokwane conference, instead of being principled and remaining neutral, may cause the break-up of the trade-union federation as its fortunes are now linked with the foibles of that faction.
Cosatu affiliates will have to decide whether to take over the ANC completely and transform it, to continue to support the current ANC leadership in its current form and risk its own break-up, or form its own trade union-based political party.
The formation of the PT in Brazil in the 1980s was different from the formation of most trade union-based parties in the developed world, such as the British Labour Party or the German Social Democratic Party, and has clear lessons for any trade-union efforts to form a party in South Africa.
The PT, although it was initiated by the metalworkers' unions, mobilised a much broader support base than just trade union members. What stands out is that it was not launched on a populist platform – it was based on principled policies, pragmatism and honesty. Lula da Silva, the founding PT leader, embodied these values, in person.
Lula was the leader of the metalworkers' union in Brazil.
The success of the PT was that "workers" encapsulated more than traditional trade union members and included all wage earners, the unemployed, professional groups, academics, community associations and neighbourhood watch groups.
For another, it included such diverse organisations as the Brazilian landless movement (MST) and progressive churches, which were involved in social justice work.
As important, the PT was also formed specifically to promote and deepen democracy.
Brazilian trade unions believed that existing parties, including the Brazilian Communist Party, were irrelevant and had become so ossified that they were not able to pursue a progressive economic, social and democratic agenda for the country.
But Lula and the PT were not dogmatic or rigid ideologically. Already in the 1980s they were critical of rigid Soviet Union-style socialism and grasped that the PT had to be more imaginative and innovative and to search for out-of-the-box solutions.
What is clear, any South African trade union-based party must be on the mainstream left rather than on the far left. Moreover, a successful trade union-based political party must align itself with a broad front of community, civil society and issue-based groups.
Quality leadership is important. In Lula, the Brazilian PT had a genuinely democratic, honest and pragmatic socialist as leader of the party.
The arrival of a new party based on the trade union movement that is pragmatic, mobilises civil society on a broad front, is nonracial and is based on principled leadership has the potential to breathe new energy into South Africa's paralysed party political system.
William Gumede's new book – South Africa in Brics: Salvation or Ruination? – was recently published by Tafelberg