/ 23 December 2023

What can fill the centre-left gap?

Graphic Tl Calland Revenge Page 0001

Even as the year staggers towards the finish line, the runners and riders for next year’s scramble for power are jockeying for position. There are many new contestants but precious few new ideas about how to use it well.

Jacob Zuma’s quest for revenge over Cyril Ramaphosa and the “renewal” group of reformers in the ANC continues unabated. His latest act of shit-stirring meddling is to ally himself with a new party, uMkhonto weSizwe, that seeks to exploit the reputation and brand of the ANC’s military wing from the struggle days.

Zuma makes little effort to mask his true motive. In his hubristic “address to the nation” last Saturday, the former president returned to the Bell Pottinger trope of the state capture years when accusing Ramaphosa of being controlled by “white monopoly capital”. 

This is the latest in a sequence of increasingly desperate attempts to weaken both Ramaphosa and the ANC’s prospects. The game plan is not for any new party to succeed, but only for it to garner enough votes to reduce the ANC’s share to the point where it is untenable for Ramaphosa to continue, thus creating the opening for the radical economic transformation (RET) faction to gain a new foothold with ANC deputy president Paul Mashatile as president. 

What is that number? How far below 50% would the ANC have to fall in next year’s watershed national election for Ramaphosa to have to go? Certainly below 47%. With 47, 48 or 49 percent, the ANC should be able to form an “easy coalition” with social democratic-inclined parties such as Good, Rise Mzansi and Roger Jardine’s Change Starts Now, the newest entrant to a crowded little pocket of space on the political spectrum. 

It would seem that this group of parties is probably competing for the same, rather small group of voters, raising the simple question: why not collaborate and grow the market rather than compete? 

Rise Mzansi and other new entrants will take a few percentage points, possibly from both the ANC and opposition camps. But the near-term result will continue to be nothing more than a fracturing of South African politics, rather than something concrete to occupy the vacated space left by a falling ANC. 

For progressive democrats, and certainly social democrats, this is the most interesting and important part of the emerging new political landscape. Once the ANC loses its majority the veneer of invincibility will be quickly shed, hastening its steady decline. 

My prediction is that it will get 48% in 2024 and 38% in 2029. This means that in the decade from the last election in 2019, when a Ramaphosa bounce-back took the ANC to 57% (having fallen to 55% in the 2016 local government election), a critical 20% will have opened up in the electoral marketplace. 

Twenty percent translates to almost four million votes. Where these votes will go becomes the driving question for the next generation. Do they go to the faux revolutionaries of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) or their acolytes in the Zuma-prompted RET breakaways — the African Transformation Movement and uMkhonto weSizwe — or to the “blue alliance” on the right of centre, the Democratic Alliance-led cluster of Christian democratic parties that includes ActionSA, Inkatha Freedom Party and the Freedom Front Plus? 

Both of these formations are right of centre; the crude nationalism of the EFF is not politically progressive in any meaningful way. Disruptive and destabilising anti-establishmentarian conduct is not the same as democratic socialism, regardless of the vim with which the revolutionary slogans are delivered and the red berets are paraded. 

Hitherto, the question of who should hold the centre ground and the left-of-centre space was answered by the ANC. But social democrats in the ANC are not in the ascendant. Thabo Mbeki’s attacks on Ramaphosa and on the political culture of the ANC may easily be dismissed as the rancid and disingenuous ranting of a frustrated and increasingly embittered old man, but he is not wrong in his analysis: Ramaphosa has failed to renew the ANC and the party is now dominated by venal opportunists (“compradors” in the more elegant language of Marxist heuristics) and downright criminals. 

As this political space — a potential vacuum — opens up, the question should be not so much “Who will fill it?”’ but “What (idea) will fill it?” What could prove to be a philosophy that could not only unite a range of political actors, both inside and outside of parliamentary politics, but also attract activists, members and, above all, those four million voters (plus a few of the 10 million who remain unregistered to vote, six million them aged 29 or less)? 

One answer could be the simple idea of “fairness”. In April, a compelling book titled Free and Equal: What Would a Fair Society Look Like? was published. Written by a young British philosopher Daniel Chandler, the book adopts the work of the great liberal philosopher John Rawls, and adapts it to the modern era as a counterpoint to the dominance of neoliberal thinking. 

At the heart of Rawls’ theory is a strikingly simple idea — that society should be fair, Chandler explains. Rawls argued that if we want to know what a fair society would look like, we should imagine how we would choose to organise it on the basis of not knowing what our position would be — rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight. 

South Africans struggle with this, such is the hard lock of historical and contemporary race and class divides. 

As Chandler explains (in a 14 April piece in The Guardian), Rawls’ answer to “this arresting thought experiment — the ‘original position’ — took the form of two ‘principles of justice’, relating to freedom and equality respectively” (which just happen to be two of the fundamental principles enunciated by South Africa’s Constitution, with dignity being the third). 

The point is that if we were honest and imaginative enough to put ourselves in the shoes of an immigrant or refugee on the streets of Hillbrow, we might well have a different attitude to the basic liberties that should be protected when being handled by the “home” authority. 

Equally, if we were to wrap ourselves in the threadbare blanket of a homeless person on the streets of Cape Town, we might well come to acknowledge that the way that we organise our economy — with resources so heavily skewed in favour of a tiny minority — is neither sensible nor fair. 

And, if we were to imagine being born in 50 years’ time, then we might well more readily endorse sustainability as a guiding principle for ensuring the stewardship of ecological infrastructure necessary for wholesome human life on Earth. 

This is not a socialist clarion call. Far from it. As Chandler expounds: higher pay for some people may still be justifiable and “fair”, but “only if this ultimately ends up benefiting those who have less — not just by a little, but as much as possible”. 

As such it represents a “unifying alternative to ‘identity politics’, which has seen the rights of the weakest pitted against one another” in a dismal race to the bottom. 

What it does is bridge liberal and social democratic thinking in a way that could command a broad sway of support across the centre ground of any democratic society, including South Africa’s.

It may not be this. Politicians who hope not just to prosper in next year’s election but to contribute to breaking the mould of South Africa’s political paradigm will do well to spend some time over their summer holidays contemplating the underlying “why” of political existence. 

What, besides the pursuit of power, do they really stand for? 

And how can a compelling new value proposition be put to the South African electorate that can cut through race and class divides — because there lies long-term political and electoral nirvana? 

Change may or may not be starting now. But what is clear is that absent a compelling idea, and an organising political philosophy around which millions of voters can be mobilised, the moderate and centre-left ground will become a desert — dry and abandoned — as South Africa’s political equilibrium point shifts decisively to the right.

That, too, will be part of the ANC’s legacy. 

Richard Calland is a visiting adjunct professor at the Wits School of Governance, an emeritus associate professor at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.