In the leadup to last week’s British elections, some of UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s most enthusiastic supporters were the groups “Africans for Jeremy Corbyn for Prime Minister” and Africans for Momentum (the grassroots Labour movement supportive of Corbyn). Africans in Britain are just about one million, hardly capable of swinging a vote. but their reasons for backing Corbyn were interesting. They cited his longtime support for dissidents on the continent and his protests against South African apartheid. Viral Facebook posts reminded supporters that while Tory leaders like Margaret Thatcher and a young David Cameron were calling Nelson Mandela a terrorist or going on all-expenses-paid junkets to apartheid South Africa, Corbyn was “being roughed up and arrested for blockading the South African embassy in London.”
But even more than solidarity, these African groups cited Corbyn’s policy proposals: more public investment in free education, health care and public infrastructure like the rail service, solving the affordable housing crisis and taxing the rich and corporations; struggles abandoned by most conventional political parties, including by the establishment in the Labour Party: “issues that affect African people.”
In one of the clearest articulation of this stance, the Ugandan economist Yash Tandon wrote before the election: “Corbyn has introduced a new political vocabulary (actually, it is an old one, but the Blairites in the Party took it to new heights of opportunism … which the people can now — finally — see. We must all vote for Corbyn.” Tandon cited a number of foreign policy areas where Africans held common cause with Corbyn: opposition to nuclear weapons (the African Union declared the continent a nuclear free zone); renegotiating trade terms with the European Union and international financial institutions; questioning the role of NATO as a peacekeeping force (especially its role in Libya); and, finally and crucially, creating “a new kind of politics” where “you do not bully your opponent, not respond to personal attacks, and use the internet and social media to hold bottom-up policy consultations.”
In contrast to the excitement around Corbyn, politics on the continent is largely stale, dominated by national liberation movements or legacy political parties (including communist, socialist or labour parties) that are long discredited, either rigging elections, suppressing voters, using violent tactics to silence critics, and in cases, where there are free and fair elections, to organize politics via patronage and influence trading (Nigeria), presenting voters with political parties that are ideologically indistinct (Kenya, Ghana) or taking voters for granted by assuming past achievements make them immune to losing office (the South African ANC). In most cases, the alternatives are clean-cut, personality-driven politics combining austerity with market reform.
Like the Conservatives in Britain or the Republican Party in the United States, established political parties reckon they have a lock on who will make the effort to go out and vote. The common sense until now was that young people, while active on social media and in political campaigning, don’t bother to turn up on election day. Yet, Corbyn defied the expectations, by directly appealing to young people’s social and economic experiences. These new voters “came of age during the financial crisis,” wrote The Guardian postelection. In Corbyn’s manifesto, “young people saw tuition fees, investment in social care, housing, education — a vision for society that they can believe in and they could benefit from.” Some estimates suggest youth turnout in the UK election was 72%, with the majority leaning Labour. Social media contrasted Corbyn’s success with young people with American politician Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign, where only 49% of young people voted. “[Hillary’s] idea of reaching out to youth was dabbing and making shit mannequin challenges cos she thought young voters were stupid trend zombies,” mocked a Twitter user.
The one recent African election in which the votes of young people played a decisive role, was Senegal in 2012. Then, Yen a Marre, a youth social movement, threw their lot in with Macky Sall, a former prime minister to the incumbent, President Abdoulaye Wade; the latter wanted to scrap term limits. Postelection Sall, however, proved to be very conventional politician, implementing austerity politics and exploring foreign policy agreements with Israel. Yen a Marre, not surprisingly is growing impatient with him. More significant have been the role of young people in countries like Burkina Faso and South Africa. In the former, youth activists augmented the movement which forced the country’s longtime president to flee the country in October 2014. In the South African case, between 2015 and 2016 university students, mostly black, inaugurated the most significant opposition to the country’s postapartheid consensus of market reform (they agitated for free higher education and an end to outsourcing) and racial reconciliatory politics. Unfortunately, in neither case did those youth mobilizations have significant electoral effects.
This may be because no organized political force offer voters a clear political alternative to the political consensus.
Corbyn’s draw, as the left American writer Bhaskar Sunkara wrote in Jacobin Magazine, was that he stood up for socialist ideas beyond simplistic populism and argued for them in public, despite ridicule from media and political-economic elites: “Labour’s surge confirms what the Left has long argued: people like an honest defense of public goods.”
In South Africa, for example, the ANC’s empty rhetoric of “radical economic transformation” combined with a vacuous Afropolitanism is looking more and more like a cover for looting the state. But South Africa also points to the most exciting possibilities for a new kind of politics. Perhaps the most profound takeaway for Africans from Corbyn and Labour’s showing last week is that after years of lip service to left programs, we now have evidence that a real commitment to such programs can mobilize previously apathetic or excluded constituencies. This is something that a combination of South African movements such as #FeesMustFall, left populist movements like the EFF, trade unions (the ones who broke away from Cosatu), the planned Workers’ Party and social movements like Reclaim the City, could rally around together for 2019.
Sean Jacobs, a native of Cape Town, founded and edits Africa is a Country. He is associate professor of international affairs at The New School in New York City.