Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Misleading from the front

The late Parks Mankahlana, who had an ear for the neat catchphrase, once described President Thabo Mbeki as “a revolutionary nationalist”. The problem is that revolutionaries do not make good social democrats.

The distinction is an important one, given the African National Congress’s self-characterisation at its conference last month. There, government communications chief Joel Netshitenzhe defined the ANC as a social democratic party, presumably in the same mould as Britain’s Labour Party, Germany’s SDP and France’s Parti Socialiste.

As a purely economic definition, the tag makes sense. The preface to the ANC’s “strategy and tactics” document, adopted at the conference, locates the party between the free market fundamentalism of the “neo-liberal” right and “modern ultra-leftism”, which it accuses of baying for the illusory moon of an immediate workers’ state.

Quite clearly, the ANC is neither a Thatcherite nor Marxist movement, and only hard-line ideological fantasists, of the left and right respectively, could brand it such.

It sees a developmental role for private business, and is promoting a black business class as an integral part of the “national democratic revolution” — the de-racialisation of South Africa. The strategy and tactics document lays much emphasis on the need for the ANC to win over the “middle strata and the bourgeoisie”.

At the same time, the governing party is very far from advocating Margaret Thatcher’s minimal state. Its conservative critics accuse it of moving too slowly, and conceding too little, on such policies as privatisation and labour market reform.

For a true neo-liberal perspective, one need look no further than the views of Marian Tupy, of the Project on Global Economic Liberty at Washington’s Cato Institute, in the Mail & Guardian‘s letters pages this week.

The dishonesty comes in the way ANC leaders — and particularly Mbeki, obviously the dominant brain behind the strategy and tactics document — distort the economic stance of their opponents.

There is some parody, for example, in the description of the Democratic Alliance as classically “neo-liberal”. The DA certainly has some of the symptoms — aversion to trade unionism being the most obvious. But in other ways, as in its support for a basic income grant and a voucher system for school-leavers, it does not conform to type.

More significant is the gross caricature of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and communist leaders, repeatedly branded “ultra-left” by Mbeki’s coterie.

In the strategy and tactics document, these are accused of advocating “a working class struggle that should be waged purely and only in ‘direct’ pursuit of a system without exploitation. This would be achieved in a simplistic and dramatic abolition of the capitalist market, with the state seizing the means of production.”

When has Cosatu’s Zwelinzima Vavi or South African Communist Party chief Blade Nzimande ever urged “the dramatic abolition of the capitalist market” or state seizure of the means of production? More to the point, when have they ever pressed the ANC to do so?

A handful of far-left crackpots like Neville Alexander may still be demanding the revolutionary overthrow of private capital, but it is a crude smear tactic to put Vavi, Nzimande and his deputy, Jeremy Cronin, in the same pigeonhole.

When such leaders do talk of socialism, they conspicuously avoid defining the term. What they almost certainly mean is not Marxian socialism — thoroughly discredited by the 20th century — but old-style, left-wing social democracy of the type associated with British politicians like Michael Foot and Tony Benn.

It is misleading to characterise the differences between Cosatu and the ANC leadership as a fight between the ultra-left and the “disciplined” left, as the president has sought to do. It is closer to being a fight between Benn and Tony Blair’s versions of social democracy, the former laying far more emphasis on state ownership as a way of achieving social goals.

The distinction may seem largely academic, as Cosatu still opposes any private-sector involvement in the delivery of essential state services. But it is important to see that the ultra-left tag is a “label libel” that says less about the real world of South African politics than Mbeki’s shadow world, shaped by his oddly insecure personality.

If the ANC can plausibly claim to be a social democratic party on economic grounds, in another, more important respect it is very far from being one. This was clarified by a telling event at the conference — a media briefing at which Minister of Foreign Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma described Zanu-PF as one of Africa’s progressive political parties, “for obvious reasons”.

Asked by a journalist what the obvious reasons might be, Zuma explained that Zimbabwe’s ruling party had fought colonialism, aimed to uplift its people and was committed to pursuing “its own destiny”. Journalists who focused on violations of the rule of law in Zimbabwe were “fudging” the real issue, which was the recovery of the land, she said.

Not a word about the rapes, beatings and killings basic to Zimbabwe’s land “reforms”, nor about the torture of journalists and other attacks on the media, nor of the government’s systematic harassment of its opponents and defiance of the courts. Not a word about a presidential election denounced as fraudulent by a Southern African Development Community parliamentary observer team and a Commonwealth delegation under African leadership.

Dlamini-Zuma is not alone in the ANC, as shown by the rousing cheer given by conference delegates to top Zanu-PF official Emerson Mnangagwa.

No self-respecting social dem-ocrat could be so morally blind about what is, in effect, a fascist regime. Social democracy is more than a compromise between the free market and command economics — it is a development of European liberalism that enshrines the rule of law, political pluralism and the full spectrum of personal freedoms.

It is not just the former colonial power, Britain, that rejects President Robert Mugabe and his works. It is the whole of social democratic Europe, including the Scandinavian countries so prominent in the anti-apartheid struggle, and social democratic Australia and New Zealand.

The point, of course, is that Zanu-PF is the collective unconscious of the ANC’s hard-line pan-Africanist wing, of which Mbeki is unofficial leader.

These “revolutionary nationalists” avidly swallow Mugabe’s anti-imperialist posturing and secretly applaud his persecution of whites. Like Dlamini-Zuma, they consider the rule of law a mere quibble, a “fudge”, compared with the re-conquest of African land.

By its nature, revolution is extra-legal — it represents the victory of force over law. The ANC cannot be both social democratic and “revolutionary”, a term it habitually uses to describe itself in policy documents.

If it is sincere in its social democratic pretensions, it needs to shed the bellicose insurrectionary jargon — “motive force”, “bridgehead”, “flanking movement” and the like — that continues to pepper its literature nearly a decade after the 1994 election.

For the moment, Mbeki’s union and communist opponents can more credibly claim the social democratic mantle. They may entertain slightly quaint ideas about state ownership, but at least they have the moral clarity to condemn Mugabe’s crimes.

Subscribe to the M&G

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them.

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

MK committee to look into Gupta influence in military veteran’s...

Party insiders say a report on the Guptas’ association with leaders of the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans’ Association will help rid the structure of Jacob Zuma’s most loyal allies

Bloated Sassa to make staff cuts

The social security agency has ‘lost’ R2-billion on unnecessary salaries and through wasteful expenditure

More top stories

As South Africa’s Covid infections surge, the number of jabs...

Hospitals are under strain, nurses are burning out and infections are on the rise, but there are limited Covid-19 vaccine doses available

SAA: PIC allegations are Harith’s albatross

Sipho Makhubela assures that the private equity firm has what it takes to raise the capital to get SAA flying again

Young people call for an end to the terrible legacy...

‘The generation of 1976 did not fight to end the injustices of their time only for there to be the dawn of a climate apartheid’

Honey laundering: Transcontinental scheme puts fake honey into our supermarkets

South African beekeepers compete with cheap honey imports while still using ethical, bee-friendly practices

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…