/ 6 June 2019

It’s not right for SA’s left to reject elections

'By not competing in elections the South African left only contributes to its own weakness. For instance
A communist party would be a great boon to our democracy, but the South African Communist Party won’t become this party. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)


Dinga Sikwebu is an insightful and important voice on the South African left and I welcome his commentary, 2019 Elections: The Great Democratic Swindle.

We agree about the rising threat of right-wing authoritarianism, the hollowness of “anti-corruption rhetoric” and problems with our electoral system — from the lack of transparency in party funding to our inability to recall our electoral representatives.

But by referring to the elections as a “swindle”, he reinforces an unfortunate tendency on the left to write off elections.

In this article I offer a rejoinder to Sikwebu’s commentary rather than a critique: building on his analysis I will make the case that a democratic socialist project in South Africa needs to be based on an “inside-outside strategy” that is committed to deepening representative democracy through contesting elections and building other forms of democracy (participatory and direct) outside the electoral terrain.

Defending democracy

Although it is not Sikwebu’s position to write off elections, the terms he uses to describe elections — “a swindle” or akin to “a Ponzi scheme” — reinforces the views of those on the South African left opposed to electoral participation or those who downplay or even dismiss elections as a bourgeois shame. Elections and our democratic settlement are reduced to purveyors of false consciousness or instruments of capitalism.

For better or worse, elections are the political arena that South Africans participate in the most. Electoral campaigning and representation is still perceived as the normal form of political activity by the majority, even if turnout and enthusiasm is dropping. Electoral campaigns and public office provide opportunities to make the case for democracy — economic and political — and make the case against reactionary political projects. It enables us to talk to as many people as possible and for those standing for the interests of the majority to take up the fight for emancipation inside the state.

Representative democracy is the product of working-class struggle. This is particularly true in South Africa, where our democracy was born out of the bitter struggle against apartheid. As such, elections tend to reflect the social contradictions that define post-apartheid South Africa —inequality, exclusion and the power of capital.

Elections reflect the social struggles and political terrain of South Africa. They not only benefit the working class, but also provide important political resources for the working class and poor. Elections, by forcing political actors to appeal to the people and institutionalising key rights such as freedom of speech and association (crucial to working-class organisation), opens up political possibilities that are not available in authoritarian countries such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia.

Elections and other democratic institutional forms linked to representative democracy don’t simply cushion the state from popular control from below, they are an essential arena of struggle. By not competing in elections the South African left only contributes to its own weakness and marginalisation. For instance, one struggles to identify the level of support for, or even the role of, the South African Communist Party, a party that had, until 2017, not directly competed in elections. (In 2017 it contested municipal elections in Metsimaholo in the northern Free State and entered into a coalition arrangement with the Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Fighters to govern the municipality.)

The lack of a democratic socialist party rooted in the working class has left Parliament divided between parties defending economic orthodoxy, such as the Democratic Alliance and the ANC. The Economic Freedom Fighters are harsh critics of this orthodoxy, for sure, but represent an at-times authoritarian type of populism.

The future

It is a sad truth that our social movements are weak and small, and the trade unions are being decimated by deindustrialisation and union federation Cosatu’s Faustian pact with the ANC and corruption. A political alternative has failed to emerge from civil society and the majority of the struggles are defensive in nature. Sitting out elections hasn’t stopped the ANC and DA from using the power gained from winning elections against the poor and working class.

Reducing elections to a bourgeois sham and offering abstract visions of revolution has failed to win over the working class who, after years of being promised the world or having every move against their interests justified in the name of the national democratic revolution, are somewhat sceptical of this type of politics. Our democracy is being undermined by a rapacious and self-interested political elite that dismantles democratic institutions for its own benefit and promotes xenophobia and other chauvinisms as cover.

But, South Africans have yet to give up on electoral democracy and, rather than being swindled, voted for their own interests by rejecting former president Jacob Zuma’s faction inside and outside the ANC in the knowledge that “patronage politics does not work for them even if cloaked in the language of liberation”, as political analyst Steven Friedman puts it. Sikwebu is right to warn us of the threat of authoritarianism if the current trajectory of politics continues.

By electing candidates in favour of deepening democracy we can make reforms that not only benefit the majority but deepen democracy, refashion institutions to favour the working class and, through this, facilitate the conditions for organising outside of elections. It is only through not surrendering the electoral terrain to the competition between the hollow politics centre competing against right-wing populism that we can stop the rise of our own Narendra Modi or Jair Bolsonaro.

Deepening democracy

Sikwebu identifies four points central to deepening democracy in South African: addressing the exclusion of the majority from effective control and decision-making; tackling the institutions of traditional leadership and the 17-million people living under the control of traditional leaders; a web of measures to hold public representatives accountable; and economic democracy. These are worthy and necessary goals. Others that should be added are ending urban apartheid through land reform, improving public transport and building social housing. A truly democratic South Africa requires destroying the racial and class segregation in our cities that undermines democratic life by relegating the majority to the periphery.

This perhaps could form the basis for candidates on the left to mobilise voters during the next local elections.

These goals can only be achieved in part through passing reforms. They provide the genesis for a political programme that a party can use to contest elections. By advancing these goals as a political platform, elections can furthermore help organise movements by offering a clear goal and ways of realising this goal.

Elections can be catalytic for organising movements and can build democracy rather than containing it.

As long as we feel as if we are held hostage to the internal machinations of the ANC, we will be unable to realise a meaningful political alternative. This requires a democratic socialist alternative on the ballot. Those of us on the South African left should view this as part of our project. It requires comradely and productive debate and rejecting the sectarianism and personalistic politics that has too often characterised the South African left. Sikwebu’s suggestions have much to offer a future democratic socialist electoral project.

Benjamin Fogel is a PhD candidate in Latin American history at New York University