Where did the left go wrong?

From a previously articulate leadership, generalised “pronouncements” and a confusion of lame claims are issued. Outside court we get ethnic abuse, gender threats, violence and disrespect for the victim. Gender principles and commitments fly through the window, old-fashioned myths on HIV surface. Usually outspoken, Blade Nzimande is reduced to mumbling. Structures remain silent or waffle. Unity is invoked while throats are torn.

Innocent until proven guilty? Bulelani Ngcuka was publicly accused of being a spy, with “trump-card” former torturer Gideon Nieuwoudt given tea and dug up from his death-bed before the “case” collapsed; Billy Masetlha is mobilised; former MK generals write threatening articles. It is unlikely the public can forget the role of the ANC Youth League and Young Communist League in raising temperatures and mobilising crowds outside Jacob Zuma’s trials.

Cosatu is branded an “agent of imperialism” by the youth league for taking on Robert Mugabe. Attacks on the National Prosecuting Authority are issued by a leadership mired in charges of fraud and tax evasion.

Cosatu rips into Gautrain while its investment arm tenders for the project. Security guards go through train carriages for evidence of guards at work. Victims are stripped, beaten, hit with pipes, and bleeding — unconscious, if lucky — are hurled from trains. Many found in the East Rand hang from trees, stripped, hands tied, riddled with stab wounds. Little more than whimpers are heard from union leadership, mostly denials that members were involved. In the strike’s last days guards disrupted the 30th anniversary celebrations of June 16 in Cape Town and the Eastern Cape. Altogether 57 guards were killed; almost as many people died at Sharpeville. Taxi drivers now use the strike as a threatening benchmark.

Meanwhile, Cosatu is locked in pre-occupations about succession and internal positioning.

Was that an emperor without clothes we saw, or would we rather not look?

A strong left is essential. This includes the ANC as premier national movement. We need progressive political voices, with critical space to discuss and organise. They are essential to sustain pro-poor social and political programmes in a democratic setting.

So how have we descended so quickly? How did we fall from a massive voting ascendancy; political and moral leadership; integrity and worldwide respect for battles fought; and platforms respected globally for progressive political and social content?

The left stands exposed and isolated, accused of obfuscation, of hypocrisy, and of self-serving politics. It has retreated into position papers that open no new space, and instead of taking responsibility for its own woes, lashes out at the media, at enemies, at conspirators. Spectres of populism, tribalism, gender violence and intimidation are given room to play, while unity is asserted and loyalty assumed.

So, where did the left go wrong?

In the late 1980s the world shifted.

Old categories lost their power. How to deal with racism; identity politics; fundamentalist ideology; xenophobia; terror; and the dominance of capitalism in a unipolar world dismissive of human rights?

In a 1992 edition of the journal Work in Progress (No 84, “Insurrection in South Africa?”), I argued for a “dynamic, all-round and multilayered conception”.

For “power is not centralised in the citadel … [but] diffused in a range of practices, institutions and ideologies throughout society … Eliminating the racial parliament will not ensure that sexist ideas no longer remain; a socialist economic policy will not transform undemocratic educational practices in the classroom. The challenge to undemocratic rule must of necessity be diffuse, and thus will also be uneven. Contradictions cannot be reduced to class contradictions, and relations to those of suppression and force.

“The struggle is not a short-term one that can simply wish away processes of social change that may take generations to accomplish. Nor can people be disciplined into line, but must be mobilised, convinced and won over. The goals and objectives in one’s head cannot be confused with what exists on the ground.”

There was a need for fresh thinking and a dynamic approach to a dynamic and new era. That need persists.

South Africa has undoubtedly provided a platform for positive and progressive programmes, one of few in the world in the past decade.

Perhaps in this situation the left overestimated the uniqueness of South Africa. There was over-optimism about the ability to wipe things clean with a clear and bold new progressive policy. The complexity of change and stickiness of social relations have been a harsh and confusing lesson.

Fundamentalist intellectual posturing easily replaces discussion in this disempowered situation.

Many groups reformed within the anti-globalisation camp. Small and localised, with narrow and limited scope, their leap from grassroots work to political perspective has been emotive and ideological. Longer-term perspectives dissipated in romantic attachment to movements like the Zapatistas or populists such as Hugo Chávez. Only the Treatment Action Campaign, the union movement, and perhaps the churches, had deep enough roots to suggest more sustained influence.

It is counter-intuitive for left groups to face the “terrible” implications of overwhelming dominance by capital for the foreseeable future. The tendency might be to slide into populism or to seek external enemies to blame for complex changes.

Grumbling and refusal to self-reflect replace proper, rational debate. Without debate there is no complexity or clarity. Solutions are unlikely.

This is clear in the formulaic “debate” around Gear, the government’s growth strategy. It has always been a yes-no, either-or debate, thick with assertions, counterposed positions and lots of self-referencing to a small group of the usual suspects. Nobody really had to prove anything about actual mechanisms of control or power, specifics of the era, the precise effects of policy. The loose term globalisation and swearword neo-liberalism were enough to replace analysis.

So, complexities of policy choices were ignored; the subtleties of poverty, inequality and marginalisation beyond rhetorical claims; who was affected and how; implications for state and society. What mistakes were made; were serious possibilities for pushing back boundaries missed? How does the new fiscal expansiveness and infrastructural expenditure change the rules of the game?

Who takes responsibility for failure to develop appropriate mobilisation or critical debate in this crucial period? Can this all be blamed on external forces: neo-liberalism, or dictatorial tendencies of a state/party now hostage to capital? Why this ongoing tendency to find conspiracies, and seldom to acknowledge problems in internal organisational responses to social change and reality? Where were the parties when they were needed; institutions of civil society; how strong and organised were they, how extensive their reach? Why has Parliament taken so much strain as an instrument of popular expression? What were the problems and why?

The most basic questions are those about the implications of the current victory of capitalism and globalisation. Is it possible to build “development” under capitalism? Can there still be a progressive prospectus? Is there scope to engage with capitalism in its dominant forms and still find ways to harness developmental paths?

If not, there has to be a wholesale return to revolution, with enormous dangers of social instability and economic collapse.

If so, the complexity of the ground requires the opening up of debate and acknowledgement of failures and false starts.

The current anti-intellectual populism that blames commentators, intellectuals, unidentifiable conspirators; that bays at independent views; the climate of conspiracy; the tendency to blame media and to seriously insult the intelligence of public and readership; the combative and sectional responses of government and critics alike; none of these augur well for a climate of critical debate and ideological or intellectual renewal.

There are too many cracks to be plastered over. Many of the current morbid symptoms of the left reflect these more fundamental gaps.

The left will have to acknowledge its failures and open up to new voices and even ways of thinking. A long period of intellectual renewal is needed to develop a rooted left platform and a new progressive politics for the new era.

A new progressive platform will have to start from acknowledgment that there are few viable models, a hazy vision and few credible alternatives. Globalisation and the modern era call for new ways of interacting and new kinds of engagement.

Central to all of this, surely, must be a reassertion of the values that define the left and are the simplest basis of its definition. Humanist values are required, of integrity, of equity, solidarity, a belief in human potential and human dignity, the possibility of social involvement to eliminate suffering. Consistent willingness to engage with people, to openly discuss, to listen to and incorporate concerns on the ground, all encourage transparency and accountability. Tolerance of difference and the celebration of diversity within an inclusivist but principled approach must be central.

The left must take responsibility for its own direction and fate — whether it creates a vision to inspire and serve as a beacon to human beings or shuffles on the current path to noisy irrelevance in this rocky, fragile and violent world.

Graeme Bloch is an education analyst at the Development Bank of South Africa, and a former executive member of the United Democratic Front. He writes in his personal capacity

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