The magical year of 2010, a year of millennial promises and expectations, is drawing to an end, with South Africa still facing multifaceted social, economic, political and ecological crises.
In 2010 we saw continued profit maximisation by an economic elite, poor service delivery, growing unemployment, increasing inequalities, sustained inequities in land ownership, the brutalisation of women at home and in their communities, still very high levels of HIV infection and many other social and economic problems.
In response to the crises we saw one million public service workers go on strike for weeks, plus hundreds of protests in communities. We also saw something new 107 workers occupied the West Rand Mine line valve-production factory, not only demanding their unpaid income but also declaring the intention to take it over, own it, produce as a collective, protect their jobs and earn a decent income. In two sentences, all these realities show a country crying out for new politics and economic — policies.
The ruling elite is failing to lead us in this direction. Instead, the past 16 years have seen this elite factionalising our politics, dipping its dirty hands into the feeding trough and presiding over worsening socioeconomic conditions.
It is time that the people took their destiny into their own hands. Can poor and working people, working with middle-class people committed to social change, open a path to new politics that can change this country? Can a modest national conference, under the umbrella of democratic-left politics, offer any hope for the majority and those supporting social change?
The first National Conference of the Democratic Left, which will take place two weeks after the celebration of the ANC’s 99th anniversary in January 2011, will be a milestone in a maturing, long-term political process.
It will be a start to rebuilding and sustaining mass movements in a renewed transformative and emancipatory project. It will give concrete meaning to rebuilding activists, mobilising and presenting a united front of community organisations, religious institutions, social movements, trade unions, women, youth, academics, NGOs and others to challenge capitalist power, inequality, the failure of political leadership and other crises facing our country.
Beyond the conference, there is a need for sustained organising and programmed work in townships, informal settlements, inner cities, rural areas, suburbs and workplaces. The power of ordinary people must be built up so that they can become active citizens capable of winning concrete demands and challenging existing social, economic and political power relations and the unsustainable, exploitative and oppressive foundations of a capitalist South Africa, while putting forward an alternative vision of the society we should have.
A democratic-left in South Africa
This process must embrace many of the democratic gains since 1994, including some progressive reforms initiated by the ANC government. We must give popular and transformative meaning and content to the Constitution and enact progressive laws and other reforms, going beyond the limits of neoliberal policies that constrain change.
A new bloc of forces must test the limits of our democracy and widen its horizons. It must make concrete the kind of changes needed to enhance freedom and democracy.
For this process to succeed, it will not be enough to be in opposition. The democratic left cannot be a voluntary reconfiguration of existing opposition parties or small leftist sects set against the ANC.
The key is to build an emancipatory vision of what we want, to build a genuine social struggle based on ordinary people’s grievances. This requires going beyond a class-based understanding of society and ignoring social, ecological, cultural and religious dimensions.
Approached in this way, the democratic left can encompass diverse concerns about, for example, the growing socioeconomic crisis, the economic and other policies that protect business interests, the lack of urgency surrounding ecological sustainability, the attacks on the Constitution and gender rights and the rise of conservative forces. All of these concerns could be brought together – a broad platform to drive genuine, effective, empowering and transformative action.
Another challenge is to overcome the straightjacket of political organisation. To date, the democratic left has been mischaracterised by some in the media as a new left political party. Political parties are important, but the democratic left is not about narrowing mobilisation into political party form. New types of political organisation must be developed in which the centre of political life and power is the people and not The Party.
A democratic-left front could link various forces and help them to coordinate their struggles against the multiple oppressions of capitalism. Women’s groups, community organisations, activist forums, social movements, NGOs, youth organisations, development projects, trade unions, cooperatives and so on must have a space and home in such a broad front. We cannot fall into the trap of thinking that party-based electoral contests are the be-all and end-all of political organisation and social mobilisation.
A democratic-left front must embody the struggles for emancipation from capitalism, while working to build a common vision and platform of action. In this sense alone, and not through insider trading or ideological purity, can we begin to rebuild a base from which to contest power relations, deepen democracy, win concrete demands, secure transformative policies and challenge capitalism.
This requires that we assert positively and concretely who we are and what we are for, and not simply whom we are against. This is exactly what the January 2011 democratic-left conference is about.
Mazibuko Jara is a co-convener of the Conference of the Democratic Left.