A movement to applaud

Social movements represent the best hope of building mass opposition to the African National Congress’s neo-liberal policies, which have denied adequate basic services to those in greatest need. The spate of township rebellions over the past two years bears testimony to this reality.

So what can we expect from their participation in the upcoming local government elections?

No doubt, as an example, the decision by the “Operation Khanyisa Movement”, led by expelled ANC councillor Trevor Ngwane, to contest several wards in Soweto is a brave move into the tough terrain of electoral politics, in a municipality dominated by the ANC.

The social movements’ realisation that electoral politics cannot be ignored has to be commended.

While electoral gains for the movements will not be easy, the recent eruptions in many townships provide a catalytic and fertile terrain to be exploited. In fact, it is against the backdrop of these explosive unrests that social movements will stand a fair chance of making significant electoral gains.

The ANC has suffered so many serious setbacks over the past two years that the elections will present important opportunities for both social movement and independent candidates to gain ground at the ruling party’s expense.

Shifts in the political terrain tantalise. After the elections we could see unifying moves between disaffected former ANC councillors who have a significant support base and stand as independents, and social movements—an exciting prospect indeed.

Poignantly, these local elections are taking place at the coalface of widespread and combustible “service delivery” dissatisfaction within a growing social crisis, which will affect its trajectory and results over the next few weeks.

However, the movements are already facing severe financial constraints—itself a reflection of the poverty of their membership and a difficult funding environment. And we must hope that they will not be further disadvantaged by local ANC hacks who harass, threaten and assault their members, which reportedly occurred in some areas in the 2004 election. This was compounded by allegations of police harassment and torture when some of their members were detained.

To sustain, increase and encourage the participation of social movements in elections we cannot tolerate any behaviour that violates the requirement of “free and fair” elections.

It is the ANC’s responsibility to rein in its members who don’t respect the right for all opposition to openly and freely campaign. This is all the more necessary in a climate in which the ANC has portrayed social movements as enemies of “the people” and where, ironically, many of these same people have been revolting against the ANC—in many instances sympathising with “the enemy”.

Social movements must become strong contenders for political power through elections and extra-parliamentary struggles, because without them our democracy would be poorer. No doubt, thanks to the ANC’s own policies, radical social movements are here to stay. Let us hope they do well enough to begin, even slightly, to dislodge the ANC’s oligarchic domination.

Ebrahim Harvey is a political writer and doctoral candidate in sociology at Wits University

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