Jockeys without horses: Let’s all learn to be constructive

Writing from the perspective of what he has elsewhere styled as “an independent left”, Benjamin Fogel seeks to erase the contemporary relevance of the South African Communist Party (“SA could use a communist party”, Mail & Guardian, January 31, 2020). 

To better understand Fogel’s argument and its timing, it is useful to travel back to an earlier intervention he made with Sean Jacobs in the on-line publication Africa is a Country. This latter intervention (“Why South Africa needs Democratic Socialism”, May 21 2019) attempts an analysis of the 2019 general election. It is a fascinating piece not least because it takes two positive steps forward and then, promptly, two steps back.

“For too long the space for a left politics has been dominated by the idea that politics can only be built by contesting state power through social movements and NGOs,” the joint authors write. “The left has to think electorally.” Leaving aside the sectarian (autobiographical?) assumption that the entire South African left has imagined, in the past decade or so, that state power could only be contested through social movements and nongovernmental organisations, Fogel and Jacobs are correct. The left has to think electorally, although not only electorally.

But why? Fogel and Jacob’s argument looks at the 2019 election results: “Like it or not the majority of South Africans believe in democracy. Dismissing their belief as false consciousness and elections — which so many fought and died for — as a mere trick of the bourgeoisie, insults our struggle.”

Fundamentally, yes that’s right. But almost exactly the same could be said of the ANC. 


Like it or not (Fogel and Jacobs don’t like it), the majority of South Africans continue to support the ANC, albeit with a lower (57,6%) majority, and albeit with a relative decline in electoral participation against the background of state capture scandals and broader disillusion. Paraphrasing Fogel and Jacobs, we could say that dismissing this ANC electoral support as the result of popular false consciousness or capitalist trickery insults not just “our” struggle, but also millions of the working and unemployed poor who continue to vote ANC.

And this is why a struggle from within the ANC is so crucial, as I will argue later.

A key moment in Fogel and Jacob’s May 2019 intervention is the section in which they conduct a post-mortem on the dismal electoral performance of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party (SRWP), the “brainchild” they tell us of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa). The SRWP garnered less than 25 000 votes. This is the real trigger for their intervention, one suspects, an attempt to rescue an electoral path for the left from the predictable wreckage of the SRWP. 

Fogel and Jacobs correctly note the electoral amateurism with which the SRWP approached matters, and they rightly criticise its “platform largely sourced from Brezhnev-era dogma …relying on Lenin quotes rather than speaking to South Africans where they are at”. They add: “Tired clichés about a revolution and the state being an instrument of the capitalist class do little to help us understand the state of affairs or figure out a strategy.” Agreed.

They single out Irvin Jim, general secretary of Numsa for this dogmatic style. These are the same criticisms the South African Communist Party leaders made of Jim’s factionalist attempts to get the party to go it alone electorally in the early 2000s when Jim was still an SACP member. Now, ironically, Fogel is telling the SACP that it missed its last chance at relevance by not independently contesting the 2019 elections where we might “have picked up a few seats”. 

Fogel and Jacobs start to conclude their intervention noting that: “The left cannot build an alternative through either nostalgia or revolutionary fantasies.” Again, correct. 

And then, tellingly, they add: “We do not have a base …”. Let me repeat that in capitals: “WE DO NOT HAVE A BASE but that does not mean we cannot build one. The task is to create a credible programme.” (I will return to the outline of a credible programme that they provide.)

But who is this “we”, what is this left-without-a-base? It is a left of ideas, of programmes on paper in search of a mobilised and organised base somewhere else. It wouldn’t be unfair to describe this left as jockeys in search of horses to ride. It is an “independent left” free of the slog work, of the risks, challenges and sometimes compromising responsibilities (trade-offs, because you don’t always get your own way) of building mass organisations. That doesn’t mean the views of an “independent left” are irrelevant, but its positioning inclines it to shift from one, often soon to be frustrated, dalliance to the next, from the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), perhaps, to the Economic Freedom Fighters to Numsa and so on.

Let me not be misunderstood. Any serious left in South Africa should not write off members of AMCU, even while critiquing the war-lordism and ethnic chauvinism of the leadership. Likewise, with the EFF, it has tapped into a genuine youth militancy even though many of its leaders are a high-living scoundrels. Numsa is not reducible to Jim and a majority of its members are ANC supporters and voters, certainly many more that the handful of votes the SRWP scraped together.

Let me also not be misunderstood regarding ideas and programmes. Comradely debate, constructive criticism, and programmatic suggestions, regardless of their left provenance (“independent” or otherwise) are important. We need collective engagement if we are to advance a serious challenge to the current triple civilisational crises caused by late capitalism — looming environmental catastrophe, soaring inequality and deepening mass impoverishment. 

So, what do Fogel and Jacobs offer programmatically for South Africa? This is how they conclude their 2019 intervention: “The task going forward is to create a credible programme that speaks to core issues: corruption, crime, jobs and growth under Ramaphosa [note, under Ramaphosa], without surrendering to the dogmas of the failed left or the liberal centre. The next local government elections in 2021 present that opportunity.”

Naturally, these are the briefest summary headline indicators of a programme, but as such they are, broadly speaking, spot on. In fact, they quite usefully summarise the current programmatic, strategic and tactical positioning of the SACP. Particularly to be appreciated is the call for the left, within the context of a Ramaphosa presidency, not to surrender to the dogmas of the “failed left” or to return to a third way, neo-liberal austerity of the “liberal centre”. Both of which, particularly the latter, are serious challenges.

In the 2019 article, everything suggests that by the “failed left”, what is meant is the kind of dogmatism exhibited by the SRWP and Jim. The SACP is barely, if at all, mentioned.

So why in January 2020 does Fogel now write off the SACP as the arch-personification of a failed left? What changed between May 2019 and January 2020? 

The answer is that at its end of year Special National Congress, after much internal debate, the SACP resolved that its electoral strategy would be to continue to support and work within the ANC and a reconfiguring alliance in the forthcoming elections, while reserving the right to field SACP candidates in cases where corrupt, patronage networks put up discredited ANC candidates.

This correct decision of the party congress deprived those independent left jockeys of an SACP horse they might have been hoping to ride, presumably in tandem with other formations, into the 2021 local government elections. 

It is this horseless disappointment, I suspect, that accounts for the particular venom and one-sided nature of Fogel’s diatribe against the SACP.

It is a tone that is unfortunate because, again don’t get me wrong, the SACP is not above criticism and some of Fogel’s concerns need to be heard. He is right to warn against the dangers of becoming over-absorbed in the palace politics of the ANC at the expense of active community engagement on the ground. He is right to raise the handling of Mazibuko Jara (“one of the party’s most promising young leaders”) and his elbowing out of the party. I could mention other names, Raymond Suttner’s, for instance. Fogel is right to raise the conduct of some of the party leadership at the time of Zuma’s rape trial. It also raises questions about those of us (many of us) in the SACP leadership who disapproved but failed to more boldly say as much at the time.

On other issues, and I can’t deal with the full litany of these, Fogel is plain wrong. For instance, the party didn’t support Zuma when the Guptas landed at Waterkloof. At May Day rallies, on the very day the news broke, all SACP speakers condemned this brazen affront to our national sovereignty and warned of becoming a banana republic. 

The SACP didn’t declare “the fallen workers at Marikana ‘criminals’”, as Fogel claims. But we did point out that besides the 34 workers killed on August 16 2012, the day of the main massacre, 10 workers, among them rank-and-file policemen, had been killed by fellow workers in the days preceding. And, along with condemning the police action on the 16th, and the exploitative conduct of Lonmin and the other mining houses, we continued to condemn the ongoing worker-on-worker killings that persisted in the months and years after Marikana. The SACP didn’t just condemn these things, it sustained an active presence in Marikana and along the platinum belt.

In their 2019 piece, Fogel and Jacobs write that “In 2016, Numsa broke from Cosatu to help form the South African Federation of Trade Unions.” Attaching agency to Numsa in this matter, as they do, is a somewhat more accurate version of what actually happened in 2016. This is in contrast with the Numsa-as-victim of a nasty conspiracy narrative, revived by Fogel’s 2020 claim that the SACP “was so loyal to Zuma that it played a key role in expelling Numsa” from Cosatu. 

Numsa’s departure from Cosatu, engineered by Jim, was much more a self-created constructive dismissal than a case of innocent victimisation. Numsa, a union with a proud tradition of creative left thinking, had been correctly raising questions about new challenges facing trade unionism. Numsa advocated organising along value chains rather than the one-sector one-union foundational principle of Cosatu (and Fosatu before it). How best to organise along value-chains through moving away from sector-based unions, or through better inter-sectoral union co-operation is a debate that needs to be pursued. But, much like the headstrong, impetuous launch of the SRWP’s electoral adventure, Jim went ahead by actively poaching members from other affiliates, without winning the debate inside Cosatu. This wilfully created an untenable situation in the federation.

There is much more in Fogel’s litany of anti-SACP allegations that requires refutation or, at the very least, considerable nuancing, but to return to the nub of the matter. Fogel begins his 2020 intervention on the gloomy note of “ANC fratricidal strife”, with an ANC “and its allies … [continuing] to deny the factional strife that the whole country knows is taking place”. 

I am not aware that the SACP has ever failed publicly to condemn, still less to be in denial of, “fratricidal strife” inside the ANC. Fogel by omission is conflating three separate, if partially interrelated, realities, on all of which the SACP has spoken about loudly and plainly in public. The first is the brutal, fratricidal struggles, including killings, among warring, patronage networks in the ANC, competing for tenders. But this is not the same as the second reality: the hounding and assassination by these corrupt networks of honest ANC and alliance leaders, mostly local and provincial whistle-blowers and brave critics of corruption. The third is the necessary ideological and programmatic struggles in the ANC alliance to ensure, as best as possible, that it is not surrendered to either neoliberal austerity or Gupterisation. 

When the SACP raises left perspectives, we are accused by some in the ANC of being “disruptive”, of “undermining unity”. In other words, they, like Fogel, reduce all differences and contests in the ANC alliance to “factional” behaviour. The SACP will continue to campaign against ANC personalities involved in state capture, and it will continue to warn against the dangers of a return to Mbeki-ism. The SACP must continue to be disruptive in this sense. This is not factional disloyalty to the ANC, but a concern for its legacy and future.

Fogel clearly believes that any principled left struggle from in the ANC is futile. But we have many precedents that suggest otherwise. Among the more instructive was the defeat of Mbeki’s Aids denialism, a denialism that arguably was genocidal in its impact. It was a defeat that brought about the largest roll-out of anti-retroviral treatment in the world, and a relatively rapid and dramatic improvement in life expectancy for South Africans. 

The defeat of Aids denialism and the active implementation of public sector interventions owed a great deal to social movements (not least the Treatment Action Campaign), NGOs, health professionals and Cosatu. But without, also, an internal battle in the ANC, the decisive break with denialism may not have happened. Blade Nzimande, for instance, like Nelson Mandela on another occasion, was at the receiving end of withering Mbeki inspired attacks inside of the ANC’s national executive committee for criticising the denialism. Both Nzimande and Mandela stood their ground and the balance of forces in the ANC began to shift, coming to a complex head at the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane conference. 

Paradoxically, at least at face value, the overdue decisive advance against Aids denialism was made possible in part by an ANC conference that unseated Mbeki and installed Zuma as ANC president. It is not as though Zuma had, or has, a progressive view on Aids or anything else. The infamous taking a shower statement at his rape trial suggests otherwise. But what this example illustrates is that internal struggles in the ANC (supported from without) are neither futile nor can their outcomes, as Fogel is inclined to do, simply be read off the enlightenment or otherwise of who happens to be president.

Now we are facing other struggles. It is encouraging to note how, on energy and the future of Eskom, proposals emanating from progressive NGOs such as the Alternative Information & Development Centre, and taken up in various ways in ANC and government forums by Cosatu and SACP activists are beginning to have a effect. 

Left struggles like these from within the ANC need to engage with and listen to non-ANC left forces and left critics (“independent” or otherwise). They need to be open to the influence of active social movements, and important left developments internationally. But we all need to learn to hear each other, to learn from our collective experiences and mistakes. Fogel’s article is titled “South Africa could use a communist party”. I agree with the plain, not the intended sarcastic meaning of that title. But we also need, and I am not being sarcastic, a broad, democratic socialist left that frees itself of old factional habits, that refrains from writing endless obituaries and, in its critical interventions, learns also to be constructive.

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