Armani elite vs unfree masses
Around the world the demands of electoral politics mean that discourse in political parties is usually quite uninspired.
Politicians generally choose caution over valour and real political ideas tend to come from activists and intellectuals rather than parties.
In this regard South Africa is unexceptional. We are far more likely to encounter real political innovation and inspiration from clerics, writers, academics and activists.
But while political innovation on the margins of power must be nurtured and defended, the reality is that the ANC governs the country, has a democratic mandate and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The debates within the ANC will shape the future of all of us—whether we are ANC supporters or not.
For quite some time that debate has been underground. Ordinary citizens just got empty slogans and the endless empty assurance that no one wants power but will serve if deployed. But now that there is open conflict between the nationalists and the communists there is a real debate going on in the ANC. It’s more than a little clunky on both sides and there’s not much nuance.
But at last there is real debate between two fundamentally different, if not subtle visions.
On one side there are the nationalists who offer ethnic chauvinism and the idea that the state is there to facilitate accumulation by national elites. On the other side are the communists who offer a non-ethnic politics and the idea that the state is there to generate development from above by creating jobs and ensuring access to healthcare and education. They both aim at an accommodation with capitalism but for very different purposes.
If the nationalists win the tussle outright we’ll end up with an authoritarian police state with radical class inequality and a general criminalisation of the poor, with a brash elite that takes its place in the world with confidence (and in Armani).
If the communists win the tussle outright we’ll end up with much less inequality in a more drab society centred on a deal between labour and capital that reins in financial capital and speculative investments and protects our manufacturing industries to create an industrial economy that employs people in decent jobs. There is unlikely to be a general criminalisation of the poor but, as Vishwas Satgar from the Conference for a Democratic Left argues, the party has not fully shaken off its Stalinist past and so political freedom is likely to be circumscribed.
Neither the nationalists nor the communists are committed to the liberalism of our Constitution and it seems clear enough that under their full control it will be slowly eroded from above. Some Chapter Nine institutions have already lost most of their credibility so it will be up to civil society to hold the line on what is left of the human rights culture for as long as is possible.
This assessment may sound very bleak but the choice between an ethnic chauvinism organised around elite interests and a top-down but non-ethnic and pro-working-class state is not an insignificant one.
But it is also not the only one. It may be that neither the nationalists nor the communists have the support to take state power on their own.
Many years ago some analysts said that it was necessary for Cosatu and the SACP to split from the ANC to create a genuine multiparty democracy and to create an independent left voice with a real shot at power.
Following this intervention it was assumed that when the ANC did split it would do so along these lines. But, of course, when the break did come it produced the Congress of the People—that is, the break has been in support of a non-ethnic elite politics more sympathetic to liberal human rights.
Of course the question that has gripped many commentators is just how long the nationalists and communists can continue in the same organisation. Now that the full extent of the tensions are out in the open it is going to be difficult to persuade anyone that they are manageable.
Already some SACP activists have left the party to try to forge a new independent left party. Their chances of success seem slim given that they are looking to academics rather than popular politics for leadership and support. But the fact that there has been this splitting off to the left of the alliance may be the tremor that foreshadows the earthquake. Although it is too early to call, the first signs are that President Jacob Zuma will favour the nationalists over the communists.
If this does eventually lead the communists to leave the ANC it will mean that both camps—communist and nationalist—will have to look at generating broader coalitions to get elected. This could well mean that new alliances could be forged that could force both camps to accept a more democratic vision. In turn this could give a more democratic project—by being oriented to the masses or the elite—a chance to influence national politics. These are, as they say, interesting times.
Imraan Buccus is a research fellow in the school of politics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He writes in his personal capacity