Left moves to seize the moment

Reverend Allan Boesak.

Reverend Allan Boesak.


A newly energised left wing wants to make 2015 their year. They have given up on turning the ANC back to socialism, and have nothing but jokes to offer about the South African Communist Party. But a rise in grass-roots social activism (and of course money from the trade union Numsa to help organise) has them hopeful that, this time, capitalism won’t win. Again. So will 2015 see the rise of a broad left in South Africa like we’re seeing in parts of Europe and Latin America? We assess the chances of a red tide flooding South Africa’s political landscape.

There were a mere seven months between the then Reverend Allan Boesak’s clarion call for an anti-apartheid “united front” at the Transvaal Anti-South African Indian Council conference in January 1983 and the launch of the United Democratic Front (UDF) at Rocklands Community Centre in Mitchells Plain on August 20 that year. A bustle of activity lay in between, leading to the quick formation of regional structures, an interim national committee, and the convening of a two-day planning meeting in July 1983.

An iconic photograph of the launch depicts ANC Women’s League stalwart Frances Baard at the podium, surrounded by raised fists in a hall packed to the rafters. The event was followed by a mass rally of 10 000 people.

Fast-forward three decades and, in contrast, the build-up to the similarly monikered and ideologically broad United Front was a lot tamer. The United Front, whose impetus came out of a conference of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) in December 2013, has been seen by some attendants of its “preparatory assembly” in December last year as diffidently reluctant to address issues of power head-on by forming a political party.

The assembly, attended by just over 300 people, postponed the launch of the United Front by a further four months and was marked by what some attendees called ideological reticence, with discourse around the definitions of socialism and the bourgeoisie being deferred for further discussion.

What is the left likely to look like?
In the face of rising community protests and the fracturing and morphing of social movements that peaked in the era of former president Thabo Mbeki, it forces the question of what terrain the left in South Africa inhabits. What is the left likely to look like should there be a drastic realignment within trade union federation Cosatu, not to mention an ongoing metamorphosis of the country’s social movements?

Numsa has already begun sending international task teams out to scout the development of left politics in other countries and they will report back at March’s central committee, according to United Front convenor and Numsa head of education Dinga Sikwebu.

The forms of socialism making waves around the world these days can scarcely be associated with the dusty Marxist-Leninism in the history books, a strand of which still permeates Numsa.

Brazil, for example, scaled back its enormous inequality and poverty thanks in part to its mixed “Lula” model, named for the country’s popular former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a founding member of the Workers Party.

Theoretically, the Lula model opens the economy, creates vibrant trade with other southern economies and, on the back of that, actively redistributes wealth, creates employment guarantees, extensive grants and enforces a minimum wage.

Other parts of Latin America have seen left-leaning models introduced to improve the lot of its people. Venezuela, for example, nationalised key mineral resources, which it used to strengthen welfare systems – although with varying degrees of success.

The consensus in some of the above countries, as well as models used in Spain and Greece (where recently socialist-leaning parties have grown exponentially), is that free-market capitalism may have failed, but so has 20th-century socialism.

Yet you wouldn’t think so, looking at South Africa. While our Latin American counterparts have moved on from their rigid experiments, South Africa’s left appears to still be enamoured with Russia circa 1917.

Another side
But University of the Witwatersrand sociology professor Devan Pillay believes a more democratic – and modern – socialism is gaining ascendancy in Numsa, which could bode well for the country.

“There are two currents in Numsa, which some people don’t seem to be aware of – they only hear the Marxist-Leninism side,” he says. “The awareness of these alternative perspectives exists in South Africa but it’ll be true to say they are not at the forefront yet.”

Mazibuko Jara, who was expelled from the South African Communist Party (SACP) in 2010 and is a founding member of the Democratic Left Front (DLF), also says there are diverse Marxist currents in Numsa.

Archaic, textbook Marxist-Leninism takes pride of place in the professed ideology of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which is puzzling given the youth and verve of that movement. Many of the party’s critics also doubt whether its progressive credentials go much further than its slogans.

“What is the alternative that the left is putting forward in South Africa?” asked Jara. “It’s not good enough to critique the ANC. How would it be different [for them] when it comes to Eskom, to service delivery, to municipalities? They have to come up with firm proposals.”

Confronting ideologies
It is a critique echoed by political analyst and struggle stalwart Raymond Suttner, who was in the leadership of the ANC and SACP, but is now in disagreement with the directions both parties are taking. Many critics on the left see the SACP as distant from the problems faced by the poor in the country.

“The first question that comes to the mind of a shack-dweller is not about neoliberalism,” says Suttner. “The problem with much of the left discourse in South Africa is that it is not addressing the character of the current problems that we’re experiencing.”

Jara says: “What Numsa is doing – the international trips, the political schools – is a conscious attempt to unlearn the baggage of the SACP. That unlearning and learning is very useful … We must not derive answers from a canon, but build answers from struggles of working communities.”

According to Sikwebu, although social movements have been rising and falling, “they have also been shifting ground” from one area to another. So while the Anti-Privatisation Forum is gone and Abahlali base­Mjondolo may have split along ideological lines, Sikwebu says, “the Rural People’s Movement launched recently and they attended the assembly. In Durban, for example, you have the growth of the Hostel Residents’ Association which has tens of thousands of members.”

Dale McKinley, a co-founder of the Anti-Privatisation Forum, says the social movements that grew strong during Mbeki’s rule were “a product of their time”, a response to the Mbeki administration’s neoliberal Growth, Employment and Redistribution policy. The result of “the idea of Zuma and the left turn” (Zuma was perceived to be “left-friendly” and close to the SACP and Cosatu when he was elected as ANC president in 2007) was that some members of social movements rejoined the ANC, aligned themselves with the Congress of the People or, with the formation of the EFF, went there.

“So, while protests have continued to rise, for many people in those areas translating that energy on the ground into political change is going to be difficult if you consider that in 2002, there were three million people on social grants and now there are over 17-million people,” says McKinley.

For the co-founder of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, Trevor Ngwane, the weaknesses lie not in the state of social movements (the current committee, he says, has been helping the United Front get off the ground in Soweto) but from “an underdeveloped political orientation”.

Ngwane says the reluctance to confront ideology head-on (discussions around the definition of bourgeoisie, for example, are to continue), and the emergence of a middle-class layer of leadership, could lead to a situation where “the masses toyi-toyi all day and the intelligentsia meet on their own”.

Former ANC intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils, who was elected into the interim leadership of the United Front, agrees that there is an urgency to “get down to the laboratory of living struggle”.

Kasrils says that “stark changes” that have taken place on our doorstep should spread hope. “Mauritius recently had a historic election where a socialist movement was elected in a landslide victory. The people of Mauritius understood the need for revolution not bought off by neoliberal forces.”

Rhodes University politics lecturer Richard Pithouse notes that, historically, where there have been social movements that gather enough momentum to put pressure on the state, they have been years in the making. “Numsa has reached out to these [left-wing] academics and NGOs with much more seriousness than it has grass-roots activists involved in popular struggles – possibly because it is easier, or it could be elitism or ideological dogmatism,” he says.

“In the past there has been the tendency of organisations like Democracy from Below, the DLF, or Awethu, to be announced with great fanfare but then fail to create a great momentum in advancing popular struggles. But Numsa has the resources to afford making some first mistakes. If they persevere, they can learn from these mistakes and try other methods.”

But don’t expect the United Front to cover a wide spectrum like the UDF did back in 1983. Unlike then, there is no common ideology and no common enemy.

Certainly not in 2015.

Kwanele Sosibo
Verashni Pillay

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011.
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  • Verashni Pillay

    Verashni Pillay is the editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian. She grew up in Laudium, Pretoria, learned her trade at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, spent a spell in Cape Town as an online journalist, and now loves living in Jozi. Her interests are broad but include a focus on politics and multi-platform storytelling.
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