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

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

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