Chávez: What relevance for South Africa?

A supporter of the late Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, who inspired many ­leftists around the world, holds a portrait of the ­country's independence hero, Simón Bolívar. (AP)

A supporter of the late Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, who inspired many ­leftists around the world, holds a portrait of the ­country's independence hero, Simón Bolívar. (AP)

Chávez, damned Chávez, and statistics. In the case of the deceased Venezuelan leader, the facts were bent at will. In death, as in life, the battle has continued to rage: Was Hugo Chávez a loony- tunes tyrant or a true man of the people, who made material differences to the daily lives of the poor?

This was, and is, the fault line for progressives everywhere.
If the evidence affirms Chávez’s rhetoric, his “excesses” can be justified. Hence the plethora of data about his extraordinary time in power, and the consequent empirical war of attrition.

There is plenty of respectable ­evidence to suggest the material differences are there: infant mortality decreased by a third during Chávez’s 14 years in power and the number of people in extreme poverty was halved.

If these numbers are correct, it means that here was a leader who bucked a trend; who, despite adverse global economic conditions and globalisation’s tendency to increase the gap between rich and poor, reduced inequality during his time as president.

Chávez disorientated big global institutions. Even though, according to their own statistics, Chávez’s administration halved unemployment, the World Bank could not embrace his developmental successes. In the run-up to last October’s presidential election in Venezuela, outgoing World Bank president Robert Zoellick crowed that Chávez’s days were “numbered”. And then, yet again, Chávez defied his opponents and won.

More than anything, he challenged sacred cows and scared the cattle at the same time. That was his appeal to a fractured, disorganised, demoralised left across the world: he stood up to powerful interests at home and abroad, refusing to accept the ideological diktats of the “Washington Consensus”.

Above all else, Chávez recaptured the romantic flair of Latin American political history – the spirit of Simón Bolívar, the great Andean revolutionary and liberator. Thus, ­presumably, South African Communist Party (SACP) secretary general Blade Nzimande’s telling the BBC: “We have lost a soldier … and a great socialist, who showed that there are alternatives to the unjust market-driven policies and that those policies can actually be changed.”

Objective conditions
But what in Chávez’s “socialism of the 21st century” was different from the old socialism? What, in policy terms, was innovative? And, just as importantly, what were the objective conditions of Chávez’s time and place? This is key to answering the question of whether Chávez has, as Nzimande would wish, any relevance to South Africa now.

Can Chávez’s thought and achievement address the left’s greatest weakness: its inability to articulate a precise, practical alternative? For more than 20 years now, this has been its Achilles heel.

Take the eloquent critique of Pravin Gordhan’s budget in the Mail & Guardian’s Business section of March 8 by Niall Reddy (“Gordhan’s gone from hero to Nero”). It was only that: an eloquent critique. In 1 000 words of lament, there was barely a word about what Gordhan could or should have done instead.

In parts of the ANC and its alliance there has been talk of a “Lula moment”. Why not a “Chávez moment”? Is the preference for the apparently more measured, more pragmatic path of the former Brazilian president, Lula da Silva, a reflection of modesty and reason, or is it a reflection of the constraints on South Africa’s political economy and its rather different place in the world economy?

As Marx said, people make history, but not in the circumstances of their choosing. In South Africa’s case, any assertion of 21st-century socialism will play out in two main games: Brics (the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa grouping) and the national development plan (NDP).

The Brics, Brazil’s involvement notwithstanding, arguably reflects an Asian growth model in which national economic development occurs at the expense of equality. The NDP, as political scientist Adam Habib has noted, recognises income disparity as one of the three evils we face, but is weak on how to close the gap between rich and poor.

But the NDP is contested territory, almost by definition. It is a framework that identifies the long-term macro goals and the trade-offs and choices that must be addressed and made, rather than a precise plan of action. Flesh must still be added to the skeleton.

So for Cosatu to write it off as merely a rehash of the growth, employment and redistribution economic plan of the 1990s said much about the trade union federation’s inability to grasp the opportunity the NDP offers the nation.

While Cosatu longs for a Lula to negotiate a better deal for the working poor, the SACP hankers after Chris Hani’s memory and yearns for a Chávez of its own – a military man tough enough to stand up to historically powerful elites.

Yet, whether cloaked in the revolutionary rhetoric of Chávez and inspired by the romance of the Latin American “pink tide” or not, the left must offer its own clear narrative, imbued with real innovation as well as ideological rigour. Because the big question may actually be this: Is South Africa to think, negotiate or fight its way out of trouble?

Richard Calland

Richard Calland

Richard Calland has for past twenty five years been working in the fields of democratic governance and sustainable development in South Africa and beyond. He is a founding partner of The Paternoster Group. Read more from Richard Calland

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