/ 9 March 2024

Will South Africa’s new left Labour Party make headway?

Marikana Massacre 5th Year Commemoration
There is another attempt at building a left party under way now that Joseph Matunjwa, of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), has announced a new Labour Party. (Photo by Gallo Images / The Times / Masi Losi)

Our best political commentators predicted that the project by a group of white billionaires to influence the outcome of the election with Roger Jardine stepping into the leadership of the Multi-Party Coalition would end in farce. Few could have predicted how swiftly it would happen. People with very big money made a very big error of judgment.

Now that the project to propel Jardine into power has ended in a fiasco the remaining parties favoured by white capital are the Democratic Alliance (DA), ActionSA and Rise Mzansi. The DA’s standing is in sharp decline though, because John Steenhuisen does not have the support of the party’s main funders. ActionSA can only go so far as a result of Herman Mashaba’s frequent descent into grim forms of Trumpian populism, and in particular his appalling xenophobia. 

That leaves Rise Mzansi as the party most likely to enjoy the support of capital. Its leader, Songezo Zibi, is, as Peter Bruce has argued, certainly the most intellectually gifted of any of the party leaders and it’s a real mystery why the DA’s big funders shifted their support to Jardine rather than Zibi.

It is not just the parties of white capital that are in disarray though. Until recently it seemed that neither labour in particular, or the wider left in general, would have a party on the ballot. The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa’s (Numsa’s) Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) launched far too close to the last election and swiftly crashed and burned, while labour federation Cosatu’s base in civil servants keeps it loyal to the ANC. 

There is another attempt at building a left party under way now that Joseph Matunjwa, of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), has announced a new Labour Party. It is not yet clear if Amcu’s membership has been included or whether Matunjwa has offered the party his support in his personal capacity. 

The Labour Party is widely understood on the left to be a project of the Cape Town based NGO, the Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC). The AIDC has been trying to build a left party for many years and initially had its eyes on Numsa’s large membership. This did not work out well and the NGO ended up in conflict with Numsa. It was also unable to bring Abahlali baseMjondolo into its project. It now seems to have turned to Amcu in search of a mass base. 

It is not yet clear what other organisations are backing the new party but no doubt more will be revealed at the party’s launch. It will certainly be a good sign if it has been able to bring in a wider array of organisations, and a good number of credible grassroots activists. The support of left intellectuals will be important too.

The impulse to locate a left party building project in a union makes good sense, but the problem is that Amcu is not a democratic union, has been rapidly shedding members to other unions and has often been linked to the assassinations of unionists that plague the platinum belt. 

Amcu denies that it is behind assassinations but there is certainly a commonly held perception that it is involved in intra-union violence. All this means that a link with Amcu is unlikely to win the new Labour Party much confidence among the working class and left intellectuals, let alone broader society. The key movers behind the latest attempt to build a left party would do well to move away from Amcu and try to build a broader base of support, including among credible activists with community support and respect.

There are only four mass-based organisations in the South African left: Cosatu, the South African Communist Party (SACP), Numsa and Abahlali baseMjondolo. Cosatu and the SACP remain loyal to the ANC and so will not be available to join the new Labour Party. Numsa’s membership will not be available to them either given the history of conflict with the AIDC. 

The unconfirmed word on the left is that Abahlali baseMjondolo, under pressure from its members to form a party for the 2029 elections, sees Amcu as a thuggish and undemocratic organisation and will not be impressed with the new party. This is not surprising given Abahlali baseMjondolo’s painful history of having its leaders assassinated by local ANC structures. 

South Africa desperately needs a credible left party to complete the realignment of our politics that is under way with the liberals starting to connect around the Multi-Party Charter and the corrupt and authoritarian nationalists in the uMkhonto weSizwe party and the Economic Freedom Fighters moving towards alignment. The affiliation with Amcu is not a good start, and the fact that none of the mass-based organisations of the left will be receptive to the new party makes its road ahead difficult.

To attain success the Labour Party will have to quickly build a base and identity beyond Amcu, and try to build its constituency among unorganised factions of the working class and the poor by taking up their day-to-day struggles. With sufficient determination this is doable, but it will require a national group of committed, skilled and resourced activists. If the Labour Party does have this kind of cadre in place then it could possibly build towards the 2029 election. It seems far too close to this year’s election for a new party to make any headway on 29 May though. This is especially so for a party that won’t draw in the millions that the liberal parties draw in from capital and the millions that the corrupt nationalists draw in from those who have looted the state and wish to continue looting the state.

Nonetheless, we should welcome a second attempt to build a left party after the failure of Numsa’s SRWP. A rational politics requires a rational alignment of parties and the absence of a genuine left party has given space for corrupt nationalists to misappropriate some of the language of the left to mask their avaricious political agenda. If the post-ANC political future is just a contest between liberals backed by white capital and corrupt and authoritarian nationalists backed by those who have looted the state it will be a very sorry situation.

When a left-wing government was elected in Ecuador in 2007, the murder rate was swiftly reduced from 15.9 to 5.8 per 100 000 people. Poverty decreased by 51.9% in Lula da Silva’s first term in office in Brazil from 2003 and 2011. Under Evo Morales, who was the left-wing president of Bolivia from 2006 to 2019, extreme poverty was reduced by more than 60%. Lula and Morales were also able to redistribute vast tracts of land to the poor, to open university access to the poor and combat racism.

There is no reason a left-wing party in South Africa cannot build towards attaining state power and making similar advances for our society. Admittedly we do not have a charismatic figure such as Morales or Lula to lead a left project, but with enough people doing day-to-day organising it is certainly possible to build a left party. 

Unless the Labour Party can pull a rabbit out of a hat, which would be a good thing for our politics, it looks like the left will continue to fail to cohere and build a viable electoral strategy for the foreseeable future.

Dr Imraan Buccus is a political analyst