Whoever can change SA politics, stand up


“People have had enough of the politics of abuse and control.”

Spoken in a calm voice amid a crowd of excited supporters, Jeremy Corbyn’s pronouncements on the failings of the Western democratic model have framed a popular revolution in the United Kingdom.

A rank outsider, Corbyn was only nominated in the contest because other candidates wanted to widen the race. Bookies gave him a 20/1 chance of winning. Now he is the leader of that country’s opposition, having won 60% of the Labour Party vote.

What he dubs the “politics of democracy” has been at the heart of his popularity. In the UK’s current political system, voters are faced with a choice between two variants of the same neoliberal party. Elections bring slight changes but the fundamental structure of government and society is maintained.

Corbyn has criticised this, saying it has ensured that the greater good is neglected for the advancement of a minority.

He has been hailed as a revolutionary in many sections of British society. One newspaper columnist said the slightly dishevelled 66-year-old was akin to a tonic because “he is someone who believes in something”.

Corbyn’s main brand of leadership is inclusive. Social media platforms have been harnessed to get ideas for questions to be asked in Parliament. This, he says, is what has brought him success.

“Fundamentally, many people are turned off by a political process when the major parties are not saying anything different enough about how we run the economy, and are totally turned off by the style of politics which seems to rely on the levels of clubhouse theatrical abuse that you can throw across at each other in Parliament and across the airwaves.”

The scale of Corbyn’s victory has given impetus to the Bernie Sanders campaign in the United States. Drawing on a similarly disaffected population, the self-declared democratic socialist is running against Hillary Clinton to head the Democratic Party.

Beginning with small meetings in town halls, his campaign has exploded, with stadiums now being filled by mostly young and working-class supporters.

Both candidates are being lauded for shaking up a political establishment that is seen as having been captured by a self-serving political elite.

In South Africa, the politics of elites speaking on behalf of people is still too pervasive for a similarly enthusiastic candidate to be found.

Richard Pithouse, a politics lecturer at Rhodes University, said South Africa was still not having a truly democratic conversation about the political process.

“We still have, as a norm, elites sitting around and making decisions on behalf of poor black people.”

But the country is at a crossroads. The ANC, which dominates the political spectrum, is making decisions on behalf of 54-million people and is increasingly heading for the Chinese and Russian model of centralised control, Pithouse said.

“Zuma wants a less democratic society in order to manage the growing tensions.”

These are apparent from the splintering of the trade union movement and the ANC’s loss of strong parts of its ruling alliance, he said.

Faced with two choices, voters are already following the populist Julius Malema and his Economic Free­dom Fighters, although he still represents the same kind of political thinking, where an authoritarian figure makes decisions on behalf of others.

“You can only affect real change when you have a massive popular movement that then continues the projects that the individual and the movement have started,” he said. This has not yet happened in the UK and US, because the leaders have yet to win over their own parties.

It is also not happening in South Africa, primarily because civil society groups that purport to represent those ignored by the government are replicating the social structure they were in, Pithouse said.

“The main barrier to a coherent opposition is the fact that elites still choose the line that will be taken and expect people to fall in.

“We still haven’t got anyone who can approach the disaffected with the politics of democracy. Only when that happens can we join up all the different groups asking for change and have a meaningful and powerful movement.”

Patrick Bond, of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said that was precisely what had changed in the democratic revolutions of Spain, with Podemos, and Greece, with Syriza.

“The left future lies with a fusion of the big blocks of labour, the EFF young radicals, the progressive nongovernmental groupings and the currently leaderless community protesters.”

A good example for this would be the Bolivian Movement Towards Socialism, he said. This stitched together all sorts of social movements and managed to win power in government. This was increasingly likely, he said, given the “large body of the populace not in formal employment and having no chance of it”. 

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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