The traditional paradigm of left and right is shifting in the ruling alliance, as senior communists and leaders with a trade union background move towards an increasingly pragmatic stance.
The global economic meltdown and plummeting government revenues have served as a reality check, and cracks in President Jacob Zuma’s Polokwane support base are deepening.
Within the African National Congress (ANC), the centre has shifted leftwards, while a new “right” is becoming increasingly vocal in its support of traditional social values and opposition to socialist economics.
The ideological fluidity in the alliance has been highlighted by the South African Communist Party’s (SACP) stated opposition to the nationalisation of the mines, as proposed by the ANC Youth League (ANCYL).
South African Communist Party (SACP) deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin has questioned ANCYL president Julius Malema’s motives for the nationalisation call, saying it is serving the interests of black business people who want to offload their shares in a failing industry.
The Mail & Guardian spoke to various leaders in the alliance about the reconfiguration in the ANC.
“Those supporting Zuma at Polokwane are divided into the principled left, those who were in trouble with the Scorpions and those who didn’t get the tenders. And the cracks are starting to show” was the analysis of one senior ANC leader who is also part of Zuma’s executive.
Emerging tensions in the alliance are making it increasingly clear that these factions have different agendas.
Said a member of the ANC national executive committee: “There is a populist, right-wing element in the ANC that includes people such as Tony Yengeni and Malema. This grouping is Africanist in nature and believes in militant populism — and they are loud and crude.
“They believe in ‘shoot-to-kill’, they make racist comments and are advancing the narrow interests of the elite, but claim to be left.”
This grouping is seen as a marginal force in the ANC itself, but it hogs the public eye because it is fighting to take over leadership roles in the ruling party once Zuma steps aside.
ANC leaders insist Malema is a “waning star” in the party despite the increasingly inflammatory nature of his rhetoric and high public profile. “People are fed up with him. He’s angered so many,” one leader said.
Although there is consensus that Zuma will probably serve another term as ANC president, the battle for the position of secretary general is under vigorous discussion behind the scenes.
ANC leaders aligned to the SACP say that although there are more communist leaders in government than ever before, the traditional left-wing perspective is not the defining force in government.
A new axis of pragmatic leftists has coalesced, including such figures as Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, Deputy Transport Minister Jeremy Cronin and Deputy Local Government Minister Yunus Carriem.
The global economic crisis has forced governments all over the world to rethink policies such as inflation-targeting. The ANC, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the SACP recently announced a task team to research the issue.
An alignment between pragmatic leftists and ministers who served in the last Cabinet has taken place, crowding out radical elements. “Those who were not quite at ease with Mbeki are now aligned with those who were considered leftist,” a leftist leader told the M&G. “We’re trying to be practical, not utopian. We are not shouting any more.”
Even Cosatu appears to be moderating its demands. At the recent alliance summit, delegates who would historically have been at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum found common ground.
Planning Minister Trevor Manuel, Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel, a former union boss, Davies, an SACP politburo member, and the ANC’s Mantashe led discussions about macroeconomic policy.
Shortly before the summit Cosatu decided to abandon its push for Manuel’s removal as the head of the planning commission and insist on a greater role for Patel.
“Even before the summit Cosatu realised that they made a mistake in personalising the issue around the planning commission and tried to shift away from that. They realised their shouting about Manuel did not help Patel,” said a delegate who attended the summit. “He was there as a member of the ANC executive, so it was awkward for him. They came to realise he is only as good as how well he will work in the collective.” The delegate said: “The right wing, which makes all the noise, had nothing to offer.”
But the ANC’s “new right” should not be written off too quickly. Although on policy level the right will not be a major force in the ANC, its support from the marginalised masses will make it a power that the ANC cannot afford to ignore.