What are the prospects of real political realignment in South Africa?

Cosatu seems to lack the gumption; people’s movements are too localised; and popular anger is rising. So to whom can we turn for change?

Since Zackie Achmat described Julius Malema as a proponent of an “emerging fascism in South Africa” there has been a vigorous debate about the prospects for a real political realignment that could add to the plurality of our political landscape.

Achmat himself puts his hope in Cosatu to lead a political realignment. There’s a lot to be said for this strategy. Cosatu has two million members, it is a democratic organisation, and it has taken principled positions on Aids and Zimbabwe, despite the controversial official positions. It is also true that, as Stephen Friedman showed in his classic book Building Tomorrow Today, it was in the black trade unions that a genuinely democratic culture was first developed in this country.

But it is not at all clear that Cosatu has the political gumption to really take on the nationalist faction in the ANC as it descends into a kind of fascism. There are also credible allegations that top leaders have been seduced into the world of bling and corruption. (See “Cosatu: more members but less power)” And the movement has shown itself completely unwilling to break from the alliance and offer support to the growing grassroots rebellion in the country. Indeed Cosatu has been culpably silent when poor people’s movements have faced repression.

So what of the other contenders? The socialists in the ANC are clearly on the back foot, the Democratic Alliance has never escaped its roots in white privilege and the Congress of the People has become an irrelevant farce.

Outside of the ANC there are some important poor people’s movements that have conducted their struggles with real courage and commitment. They have won some important victories and, in some cases, demonstrated a real fidelity to the values of the struggle. But they only have real power in some neighbourhoods, face increasing repression and are not a significant national force.

The huge increase in so-called “service delivery protests” shows that there is enormous popular anger and the scale of these protests has made them an important national phenomenon. But while they have developed a similar array of tactics and rhetoric, largely through mediation by the media, they are invariably organised at the local level and so their political energies remain fragmented.

The middle-class left outside the ANC has a big presence on a couple of email lists but no significant presence on the ground. To compound matters it seems more interested in waging brutal internecine conflicts and arranging online witch-hunts and show trials than in building any kind of popular project. In fact, it’s more like Monty Python’s Judean People’s Front than any sort of threat to the state or capital.

So, if we agree South Africa needs political plurality in order to enhance our democracy and have greater accountability, how do we build sane alternatives from these unpromising circumstances?

Well, there is some good news. For a start, we have a vigorous and courageous media that is doing a superb job of exposing the increasing depravity of power. If a sane alternative, one that is democratic and genuinely pro-poor, is to grow, the media could give it air and light and the popular unhappiness with the current political landscape could give it fertile soil.

But a real alternative is unlikely to flourish if it can’t connect the popular anger expressed through the ongoing “service delivery protests” with the courage of the organised poor people’s movements and Cosatu’s incredible organisational strength. The great question of our time is how to bring these three social forces together.

No NGO workshop will achieve this. In fact, such a workshop is more likely to bore everyone into willing submission to Malema and company. And none of the little left groupuscles competing to be the new vanguard has sufficient confidence in ordinary people to be able to do anything but damage to a democratic project.

It seems that there are only two real possibilities. One option is for ordinary people to start building connections between Cosatu, the social movements and the local protests. Another is that a group of non-sectarian leaders with demonstrable personal integrity and commitment to social justice could step forward and begin the work of weaving these different social forces together. People like Achmat, Bishop Njongonkulu Ndungane and Pregs Govender have the integrity and public confidence required for this sort of project.

This may sound like a long shot but, as they used to say in different times, the alternative is too ghastly to contemplate.

Imraan Buccus is attached to the school of politics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He is also academic director of the US-based School for International Training’s summer programme in South Africa

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Imraan Buccus
Imraan Buccus works from Durban North. academic, columnist, researcher, writer

Related stories

Deconstructing South Africa’s construction industry performance

The construction industry has contracted sharply, partly due to Covid, and needs to rebalance its focus if it wants to survive

Editorial: SA will be bankrupted by looters

The chickens have finally come home to roost: if we do not end the looting, it will end us

Too broke for Mboweni to budget

The scramble to find cash for an SAA bailout, Covid-19 grants and civil servants’ demands force postponement of mini-budget

Teacher union to join Cosatu strike over ‘uncaring employer’

Sadtu has accused the state of being an “uncaring employer” for failing to pay salary increases due two years ago

October 7 strike: ‘Lukewarm’ action amid Covid-19 crisis?

After months of little action, the planned nationwide stayaway may not be an impressive show of force by the trade union movement

Dance with the ‘devil’: Why SA has fought off the IMF for so long

The ANC has, until now, always rejected going to the International Monetary Fund, which underscores how bad our economic situation is

Subscribers only

SAA bailout raises more questions

As the government continues to grapple with the troubles facing the airline, it would do well to keep on eye on the impending Denel implosion

ANC’s rogue deployees revealed

Despite 6 300 ANC cadres working in government, the party’s integrity committee has done little to deal with its accused members

More top stories

It’s not a ‘second wave’: Covid resurges because safety measures...

A simple model shows how complacency in South Africa will cause the number of infections to go on an upward trend again

Trouble brewing for Kenya’s coffee growers

Kenyan farmers say theft of their crop is endemic – and they suspect collusion

Unisa shortlists two candidates for the vice-chancellor job

The outgoing vice-chancellor’s term has been extended to April to allow for a smooth hand-over

How US foreign policy under Donald Trump has affected Africa

Lesotho has been used as a microcosm in this article to reflect how the foreign policy has affected Africa

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday