When the nascent United Front met in a dour airport-hotel conference room in December last year to chart a path towards its own official creation, due in April this year, it had difficulty agreeing on certain things, not least of all the definition of socialism, and whether it would be a socialist organisation.
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But on two issues – that the world has changed and that to respond to that change the left had to look to its own history – those from labour, social organisations and community groups did, indeed, seem united.
The list of things that had changed – and had, often, grown more complicated since the left was last ascendant – was long. Where the enemy used to be capitalism to be fought with Marxist-Leninist theory, the new enemy was neoliberalism (possibly still to be fought with communism, but that decision was postponed).
Where the lines used to be clear, with the owners of the means of production on one side and the workers on the other, the distinctions had blurred; is the owner of a taxi a capitalist oppressor? What if he drives his own taxi?
What if he owns two, and drives one himself? And those who used to be the staunch defenders of the working class could no longer be trusted, with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and parts of labour federation Cosatu, in the view of just about everyone who intends to form part of the United Front, having sold out entirely to foreign capital and ideas such as trickle-down economics.
As for the ANC being a home to socialists, pull the other one; it has bourgeoisie bells on it.
Yet persuasive voices argued that the strategy of the left, or at least the United Front, should be the same as it ever was, and that the tactics that had been tested in the struggle against apartheid were as valid as ever – in part because the ghost of apartheid is still haunting the state.
“The state has captured the ANC,” activist Zachie Achmat told the preparatory meeting in Johannesburg, a day before being elected as one of the interim leaders of the United Front. And that state, he held, is still under the control of apartheid apparatchiks. Not white ones, “we’ve got rid of those”, but black people who learnt their politics and economics in Bantustans, and now act as officers in the police, defence force, and government administration. That, Achmat argued, leads to “Bantustan economics” (aimed at enriching “the chief”).
Meanwhile, workers stand disunited. Not through the machinations of an apartheid government, perhaps, but nonetheless, public-sector workers have different objectives to those in private employment or without jobs, and the youth look up to Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) instead of working towards what the old-timers on the left would consider real socialism.
The response? Emulate the history of the United Democratic Front (UDF), add in bits from the creation and evolution of the ANC and the SACP, and build a new organisation using the same approach, even if its aim is to oppose what the tripartite alliance has become.
Judging by the enthusiasm of delegates, if not any final decision of the conference, the United Front expects university campuses to be important strongholds for its new struggle. The “revolutionary consciousness” of students must be encouraged, the consensus had it, and left-leaning academics would be important contributors, much as they had for the SACP.
As for the actual demands and projects and course of action of the United Front, delegates were all but unanimous that those should come “from below”. What value the Freedom Charter holds today was vigorously debated, but a series of events in which individuals could contribute their ideas — modelled shamelessly on the creation of the Freedom Charter in 1955 — found easy support.
The global nature of the struggle too has not changed in the minds of the majority of those who plan to form the United Front. Whether the organisation itself will span the region, or the continent, is yet to be decided, but “internationalism” is the watchword, and inspiration will be drawn from, and solidarity expressed with, everyone from the black American community of Ferguson to the dispossessed and landless in Brazil.
Most importantly, though, the United Front seems set to be structurally similar to the UDF of yore: an umbrella for organisations based in communities or special-interest groups such as sector-specific unions, and tasked primarily with helping the smaller organisations achieve their aims.
The broad goal may be social and economic justice rather than the fall of apartheid, but the approach is the same: cross-pollinate and gently steer that which is already unfolding.
“Across the country people in communities, workplaces, townships and villages are mobilising against poverty, inequality and corruption,” the December “preparatory assembly” organised and funded by the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) declared. “Our role is to unite and co-ordinate these struggles.”