As election politics moves into a state of frenzy, the elite consensus that has held together our body politic will at last be challenged from what, at first glance, looks like the left.
It is now well known that, for our democracy to emerge in 1994, a deal had to be stitched up behind the scenes between economic and political elites. The ANC was given political power as long as it did not disturb the economic "fundamentals"; that is, the fundamental interests of the economic elite.
So, the financial-minerals-energy complex, based on the banks and fossil-fuel industries, remained intact, and massive amounts of capital were allowed to flee the country. In exchange, we got affirmative action in the public sector, and the black economic enrichment of an elite few.
The working class got some protection, but with enough loopholes for greater informalisation of work. The poor received often substandard reconstruction and development programme houses and, eventually, meagre social grants to keep them beholden to the state.
The ideological discourse of the ANC and its working class allies' "national democratic revolution" (NDR) in effect bound all this together. When the poor became impatient, the mythical, ostensibly more radical "second phase" of the NDR was invoked, but it was once again talk left but walk right. Meanwhile, looting of the state, patronage and government collapse, particularly at provincial and local level, continued apace.
And so did profit maximisation, environmental degradation and obscene wealth accumulation by the economic elite, who had never had it so good. Whitey Basson, the chief executive of Shoprite Checkers, reportedly "earned" R627-million in 2011. But media attention is on the black elite, so Basson is hardly noticed. The global system sanctifies such enrichment as the fruit of economic progress.
What does it mean to be socialist?
Then along comes Julius Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), threatening to blow the elite consensus out of the water. But is the EFF's brand of militarist economic nationalism a left alternative, or a heady cocktail of "Marxist-Leninist-Fanonian" symbolism and racialised populism?
Its election manifesto contains much that leftists could support, such as public transport, minimum wages, free education, a national health service, land redistribution, reduced government wastage, jail time for corruption, public officials using public services, and increased social grants. But its economic nationalism seems more authoritarian-statist than democratic-socialist, and harks back to failed 20th-century experiments.
Last week, Dinga Sikwebu, the education officer of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), offered a very different vision to that of the EFF. Addressing the overflowing book launch of Marxisms in the 21st Century at the University of the Witwatersrand, Sikwebu reminded his audience that to be socialist means to embrace democracy in all its dimensions, and that begins with how people conduct themselves as leaders, and how they make decisions within their own organisations.
It also means defending the rights of those some people disagree with, such as those of the Democratic Alliance (DA) to march peacefully.
Sikwebu startled the audience by saying that Numsa's leadership had seriously discussed issuing a statement to that effect before the DA march. Although it was not agreed to in the end, it introduced the principle that, if such rights are not vigorously defended, the working class could find it is denied them too.
'Movement for socialism'
At its special congress in December, Numsa, the largest affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), decided to leave the tripartite alliance with the ruling ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP), opening a new chapter in the history of working-class politics in South Africa.
Numsa will work towards building a broad united front of organisations and groups "against neoliberal policies" and will explore the establishment of a "movement for socialism" that could eventually become a political party.
The move follows the Marikana massacre of mineworkers in August 2012, the ANC government's adoption of the essentially neoliberal National Development Plan, and the suspension of Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, a firm Numsa ally. It is likely to deepen the fractures in Cosatu further, and brings to the fore the issue of workers' control of the unions and of broader society.
These issues crystallise around the increased social distance of union leaders from members, and the debate on "nationalisation" of the commanding heights of the economy, including Numsa's very specific and imaginative proposals regarding a "socially owned" renewable-energy sector that empowers communities rather than a state bureaucracy or a few private firms.
Though Numsa seems to share a "Marxist-Leninist" outlook with the EFF, it views the EFF with suspicion, particularly given that Malema, its "commander-in-chief", cannot explain how he got his wealth. Numsa also believes the EFF lacks democratic credentials. Are these true democratic leftists or aspirant elites using left rhetoric to ride into power on the backs of the youth and the poor? The EFF and its youth constituency cannot be ignored, but Numsa is cautious.
Yet Numsa is still embedded in a Marxist-Leninist ideological discourse derived from the SACP. Thus, it's foolish to be romantic about its ability to lead a 21st-century democratic socialist project. The union is undergoing its own democratic process of self-clarification as it navigates between 20th-century and 21st-century versions of Marxism – in conversation with other schools of thought, such as feminism and environmentalism.
'Workers' control' – the educational process
It needs to draw on its own rich history, starting in the 1970s, when the issue of "workers' control" – inspired by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci and our own Rick Turner – had a very specific meaning. In his 1972 work, The Eye of the Needle: Participatory Democracy in South Africa, Turner, who was later assassinated, said: "Workers' control is not only a means whereby I can control a specific area of my life. It is an educational process in which I can learn better to control all areas of my life and can develop both psychological and interpersonal skills in a situation of co-operation with my fellows in a common task … participation in decision-making, whether in family, in the school, in voluntary organisations, or at work, increases the ability to participate and increases the competence on the part of the individual that is vital for balanced and autonomous development."
This stands in stark contrast to the SACP's Marxist-Leninism, which has infected the labour movement and the EFF: the mechanical dogma that has robbed Marxism of its critical vitality. The SACP, throughout its history, followed the Soviet Union, which, under Stalin, emptied socialism of its democratic essence. Statism, as the sociologist Erik Olin Wright argues in Real Utopias, was mistaken for socialism. The Soviet Union disempowered the working class and ordinary citizens by placing full authority in the hands of an unaccountable state bureaucracy and ruling party.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the publication of Joe Slovo's Has Socialism Failed? in 1990, the SACP began to shed some of this baggage. Yet it has reasserted itself recently, in both the SACP and, at first glance, the EFF.
Numsa has to decide how it relates to the new kids on the block, including the much smaller Workers and Socialist Party, also embedded in a 20th-century Marxist-Leninism, and the more flexible eco-Marxism in the Democratic Left Front.
There is a vast difference between traditional Marxist-Leninist socialist struggles and a new form of 21st-century eco-socialist struggle. The former is state centric, and facilitated by a hierarchical political party, whereas the latter is society centric, and facilitated by mass participatory democracy.
'Be the change you want to see'
A social focus entails a mobilised civil society to keep elected representatives accountable and maximum participatory democracy at all levels of social life. This participatory-democratic socialist vision resonated in the United Democratic Front during the 1980s, conceptualising working-class politics in the broadest terms, including the struggle for economic democracy and citizens' control in the political and social spheres.
Such a democracy, combined with a global, expansive eco-socialist vision (including insights from indigenous knowledge), would be sensitive to both social and ecological sustainability.
Following the Gandhian principle of "be the change you want to see", the form of struggle has a direct bearing on the outcome. This is a long-term battle that is already taking shape in groupings such as the World Social Forum and in places such as Bolivia and Kerala, India. Even the Buddhist country Bhutan, and its notion of a gross national happiness index, has potential resonance with eco-Marxism.
In the wake of a global crisis that has delegitimised the certainties of neoliberal economics, there is a growing awareness of the need to find alternatives to disaster capitalism.
According to Bolivian president Evo Morales: "It is nothing new to live well. It is simply a matter of recovering the life of our forbears and putting an end to the kind of thinking that encourages individualistic egoism and the thirst for luxury. Living well is not living better at the expense of others. We need to build a communitarian socialism in harmony with Mother Earth."
Devan Pillay teaches sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand