Benjamin Fogel’s claim that there is really no South African left is close to being true. What remains of the organised left — essentially the Economic Freedom Fighters and National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) — is problematic, though less so than Fogel thinks. In the past 30 years the once-formidable South African left has dissipated like mist in a gale. Yet the overwhelming majority of the population believes in political and economic egalitarianism, which means that they support the left. The left has not been undermined by its support base. It has been undermined by its leaders abandoning their principles and projects. One should ask why.
The impotence of the left would not be a problem if the right’s policies were productive. The policies of the right under late apartheid, however, were economically and socially catastrophic, leading to the ANC inheriting a broken system. It pledged to reconstruct and develop what had been broken, but in practice it did nothing of the sort, even though the promise was massively popular (a quarter-century later that promise probably still drives what remains of its electoral success).
Instead, the Mandela government pursued “national reconciliation” i.e. collaborating with the white right; the Mbeki government combined neoliberal economic policies with social democratic social policies and leftist bluster; whereas Zuma and Ramaphosa have promoted the collapse of economic growth, a surge in inequality and unemployment, and the discrediting of elected government — exactly the opposite of what the ANC ever claimed to stand for. Plainly, the policies of the right have failed in South Africa (as everywhere else) and a change would entail introducing left policies. Instead, the media and what passes for an intelligentsia clamours incessantly for further rightward measures calculated to exacerbate all existing problems. One should ask why.
It seems that the destruction of the left is no accident. Leaders of smaller and (apparently) more extreme leftist parties, the “Trotskyites” and “Communists”, have been co-opted by direct corporate sponsorship or through well-paid sinecures in universities or non-governmental organisations; such sponsorship presumably accounts for their rightward shift. Media agencies have been bought by businesspeople who have centralised their platforms (examples include Independent Media, Tiso Blackstar or Media24) and thus imposed their corporatist views on the newsrooms. The last two ANC presidents gained power through corporate sponsorship clearly aimed at securing right-wing policies in exchange. Similar policies have co-opted or marginalised the surviving leftists active in NGOs and academia.
In other words, Fogel’s claim leaves out the fact that the victory of the right as well as the dissipation of the left has happened because very rich and powerful people wanted it to happen. No doubt it exposes the corrupt and unprincipled nature of the leaders and intellectuals who betrayed their ideals in exchange for hard cash. Most people, however, are corruptible, and principles are fungible, and people find excuses for the most odious behaviour. Therefore, any attempt to restore South African society, economics and politics to a healthy state must start from the position that the only viable way of doing this is via leftist policies, and that such policies will be fought against with extreme violence by the most powerful people in the country, who control not only the ideological state apparatus (including the legal system), but have considerable influence over the repressive state apparatus (and the ideological apparatus can provide legitimating propaganda for repression).
An entire propaganda system, called neoliberalism, has been developed to legitimate the right’s position, and the local media has evolved variants on this (following examples developed elsewhere) to mislead or distract the public and make them believe either that bad policies will serve their interests, or that politicians committed to bad policies are actually committed to good ones.
Anti-racism is a formidable tool for distraction. Anti-racism should be vital for promoting egalitarianism, but under neoliberal auspices it is treated as something peculiar to individual whites (or blacks when this suits the white power structure) and as a moral rather than a political issue. Hence it is a tool for providing corrupt leaders with a façade of political legitimacy, by pretending that pillorying marginal white racists is the royal road to national liberation. Unfortunately the EFF has developed a tendency to pursue this agenda — the party’s most substantial flaw.
So, it is necessary to reconstruct the left if the country is to be rescued. (That is, leftism and patriotism are identical.) The reconstruction process, however, faces an overwhelmingly powerful, unscrupulous and well-propagandised ruling class which is opposed to any such reconstruction — almost certainly because it wishes to continue looting the nation. Any such reconstruction would have to take account of this, and would have to build a centralised and ideologically unified party which nevertheless was capable of powerful intellectual analysis in order to challenge the propaganda and the ideological assumptions underpinning ruling-class hegemony.
Such a party would also need physical strength to defend itself against the repressive state apparatus and its associated political gangsters. It would also need internal checks and balances to guard against the co-option and subversion of leaders and structures. These are huge problems, comparable to the problem of building the left in Russia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It is no wonder that those seeking to perform the task look back to the actual writings and actions of Lenin and Trotsky (rather than the antics performed in their name by most of their successors).
Mathew Blatchford teaches at the University of Fort Hare