Croninism: a guide for civil society

Jeremy Cronin, the man who is the deputy general secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP), occupies the same body as another Jeremy Cronin, the deputy minister of transport.

This makes it difficult to know which Cronin you will get at any given moment. The story of this mess is the story of brilliant ­ANC strategising, namely, to contain the left by co-opting its leadership into government.

Jeremy Cronin (the communist, that is) had become a thorn in the side of the ruling party. The solution? “We can’t let him beat us, comrades, so let’s have him join us!” And so, like many before and even since him, he finds himself in the Cabinet of a political party, the core policy commitments of which reflect little the true communist desires.

Cronin now has to ingratiate himself to the ANC. Hence the vicious, unnecessary and badly constructed criticism of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, civil society and liberals.

Here is how it went: Cronin argues that “liberalism exists in South Africa in two basic forms: a right-wing, free market, anti-majoritarian liberalism and a more centre-left leaning, NGO/‘social movement’ liberalism. There are differences between these currents of liberalism, but they share a common fundamental paradigm ... to shift the centre of our national debate.”

Right-wing and social liberals
The way in which the interests of these disparate liberal groups converge, for Cronin, is as follows: “For right-wing liberalism, the emphasis is on restricting the state; for social liberalism, the emphasis tends to fall more on demanding that the state ‘deliver’ on its constitutional mandate (ie, an essentially ‘redistributionist’ rather than transformational agenda).

This largely redistributionist approach quickly plays into a right-wing liberal agenda that says ‘Fine, but to redistribute you need the private sector to grow the size of the cake’. Whatever the differences of emphasis, both currents tend to blame the state (and ruling party) one-sidedly for all shortcomings and problems (whether a lack of delivery or corruption).”

And so, in the end, Cosatu is supposedly not realising that both left-wing liberals (including civil society organisations such as the Treatment Action Campaign, the Social Justice Coalition and Section 27) and right-wing (economic) liberals and thinkers (like the writer RW Johnson) are forcing it into accepting that the only way the state can produce a better life for all (which Cosatu surely wants) is through market-friendly, pro-business policies.

There is also the further complaint that the phrase “National Democratic Revolution” does not appear in the text being worked on at the civil society conference.

Cronin bemoans “the absence of the NDR as an organising concept”. Does Cronin really think civil society is a constituency of the ruling party?

This attack on civil society is misplaced. Civil society helps the state by seeking to improve the lot of ordinary South Africans in ways that the state often fails to do. If anything, an effective civil society can help the ruling party by remedying some of the state’s failures.

The elitist
Civil society is certainly not perfect. A study undertaken by me and fellow political analyst Steven Friedman for the Heinrich Böll Foundation concluded that many civil society organisations are elitist and shallow.

They are not ethically or politically shallow. They are shallow in the empirical sense that not all of them are rooted deeply enough within the (mostly poor) communities they sincerely claim to represent. The result is that sometimes the interventions they fight for are misplaced. Successes, however, also abound.

The reversal of state-sponsored Aids denialism has rightly become an oft-repeated example of successful civil society action that can benefit millions in the face of an uncaring state. Jeremy Cronin (the communist) knows this.

And so he should have offered a more nuanced criticism aimed at strengthening civil society rather than portraying it as an enemy of the national democratic revolution. Cronin’s hasty take on liberalism is also deeply flawed.

First, he argues that “within a liberal paradigm the ‘state’ is, basically, a necessary evil. ‘Civil society’ (ie, the market) requires some regulation and policing (but not too much)”.

This definition is mischievous; the state is not conceived of as inherently evil by civil society (if that was the case, civil society would be anarchist rather than working with the state), nor is civil society inherently committed to market-based interventions (hence ideas such as the basic income grant are not uncommon).

Second, the work of most civil society organisations presupposes an interventionist state and not a minimalist state. The state—a strong state—is a key partner for these organisations in their fight against poverty and related social ills.

Constitutional values
This kind of liberalism is based on the democratic values constitutionally enshrined in the Bill of Rights including, importantly, the Constitution’s emphasis on the progressive realisation of socioeconomic rights, rights that are justiciable in our country.

For Cronin to attack these organisations in the way he did is for him to inadvertently reject the constitutional liberalism that he signed up for when he accepted a Cabinet post.

He conflates the work of these left-wing organisations with that of organisations that are right-wing, and that believe in a smaller state and market-based solutions to poverty eradication or that think that prioritising growth over redistribution should be a central strategy of the state. He suggests (without a hint of jest) that the work of the Treatment Action Campaign is no “differ[ent] to that of the FW de Klerk Foundation”.

The minimalist state of economic liberalism is the philosophical foundation of the work of these organisations and hence the kinds of policy recommendations you might get from the South African Institute of Race Relations, the Centre for Development Enterprise or the FW de Klerk Foundation. It is disingenuous to suggest that Cosatu is becoming a puppet of these institutions.

The only thing to be said in mitigation of Cronin’s multiple personality disorder is that he is not the only one to suffer it.

The communists
Blade Nzimande, the general secretary of the South African Communist Party, is enjoying the high life and slowly forgetting the fight for free education.

Ebrahim Patel, now minister of economic development, was essentially seconded to please the unionists, but has hardly said much about the ANC’s loud silence about Cosatu’s alternative growth model.

Cronin himself offers less criticism of the deeper structural dominance of capitalism; instead, rhetorical support for initiatives such as a high-speed rail link between Johannesburg and Durban now rolls off his tongue.

And, of course, Noluthando Mayende-Sibiya (mercifully sacked as minister of women, children and people with disabilities) discovered that enjoying government perks and doing nothing is preferable to the hard work of keeping the left’s agenda alive in Cabinet.

As for Rob Davies, a communist who heads the trade and industry ministry, he has yet to get the Industrial Policy Action Plan 2 off the ground, a plan that is meant to be the sine qua non for ushering in the overdue developmental state with its promise of job creation.

And Thulas Nxesi, who was spotted as a tjatjarag general secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union and now appointed as deputy minister of rural development and land reform, is inevitably going to be less vocal about the legitimacy of the agenda of striking teachers.

And guess what the biggest irony in the next few years will be? Zwelinzima Vavi, the general secretary of Cosatu, who is so keen to remind everyone that he is now “available” for an ANC top-six spot, will himself becoming the next victim of this containment strategy.

I would therefore warn Cosatu leaders, and Vavi in particular, not to be too hasty in asking the real Jeremy Cronin to please stand up.

Eusebius McKaiser is a political analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He also hosts a weekly politics show on Talk Radio 702

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