/ 18 April 2024

A viable left is critical for South Africa, given all the political failures

Brazilian President Elect Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva (lula) Meeting With Members Of The Brazilian Community In Lisbon
The author argues that South Africa does not have a party like the Workers’ Party in Brazil (above) or the Movement for Socialism in Bolivia. (Photo by Horacio Villalobos#Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

The United States is not the only country looking at the coming election much as someone tied to the railway tracks in an old film looks at the oncoming train. As the US faces the terrifying prospect of a return to the White House by Donald Trump in November we face the equally terrifying prospect of Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema taking significant power through coalition arrangements after 29 May.

If the opinion polls prove to be correct the ANC will largely be destroyed in KwaZulu-Natal and the ANC will sink to 40%, or even lower, nationally. There is a real possibility that Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party could head the provincial government in a primary alliance with the ANC or the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) or even both. Nationally the ANC could only remain in power if it allied with the Democratic Alliance (DA), the MK party or the EFF. 

The electorate is correct to turn its back on the ANC, an organisation that is deeply corrupt, has a dithering and weak president and has allowed its cadres to destroy SAA, Eskom, Transnet, the Post Office and other state-owned entities as it puts its pecuniary interests before the national good. Now that our cities are starting to crumble before our eyes any rational person would draw a line in the sand. There is also the crisis of crime and a pathetic police force. 

It is true that the ANC has behaved with great principle and dignity on the world stage regarding the genocide being perpetrated in Gaza with the backing of the West. This will win it votes from progressives and the Muslim community. But for most citizens this will not be enough, and the ANC will take a huge hit in May. 

For years many commentators have been looking forward to the electoral collapse of the ANC. But now that it is happening it seems highly likely that it could plunge the country into crisis. 

If Zuma attains meaningful power in KwaZulu-Natal, the province will face swift decline. There has been turmoil in KwaZulu-Natal for years as a result of rank corruption, political assassinations, politically backed mafias shaking down business, attacks on trucks and, of course, the small group of men who acted like some sort of  tactical military team in the riots of 2021. Now that Zuma is pushing crude ethnic politics and mounting an all-out attack on the courts, the Electoral Commission of South Africa and even the Constitution it is clear that a future with Zuma holding significant power can only mean politically organised and backed corruption and violence with devastating consequences for citizens.

The word from impeccable sources in the ANC is that if the party gets a hiding in the national election there will be a push to remove Cyril Ramaphosa and that Paul Mashatile, himself notorious for a lifestyle that he cannot explain, will ally with the EFF to form a government.

The MK party and the EFF are both authoritarian and corrupt, with the former also opening the Pandora’s box of ethnic politics and advancing far right positions on social issues. Movement towards greater power by either party would give free reign to the corrupt nationalists in the ANC and set off another round of politically backed looting cynically spun as “radical economic transformation”. There would also be a move towards greater authoritarianism and worsening political repression would be highly likely. Democracy will not survive a situation in which men such as Malema and Zuma, or others like them, take significant hold of national power.

There is some chance that the ANC could go into coalition with the DA and its Multi-Party Charter but this seems unlikely. If this did happen it would pull the ANC in a liberal direction and compound the right-wing economic policies that have left millions unemployed. The upside is that there would not be a shift towards political authoritarianism and that there would not be the same frenzied corruption that we saw in the latter years of Zuma’s presidency.

But this kind of alliance cannot solve our problems and make democracy work for the majority. That requires a social democratic or left party. The only parties that will have any real influence when the coalitions are formed are the ANC, the DA, the EFF and the MK. 

None of the attempts at making space for a social democratic or left politics will have any effect on this election. Songezo Zibi’s Rise Mzansi, which is increasingly taking social democratic positions, and has taken credible positions on Palestine and land, won’t win enough support to be a player in the coalition negotiations. 

As expected, the Labour Party, understood to have been driven by the Alternative Information and Development Centre in Cape Town and backed by Joseph Mathunjwa, has already failed. Zackie Achmat’s independent campaign appears to have fizzled out too. 

We do not have a party like the Workers’ Party in Brazil or the Movement for Socialism in Bolivia. The result is that the MK party and the EFF can speak to the real suffering of people, the real exclusion and marginalisation of the majority, and offer them a “solution” that can only make a small political elite very rich and everyone else much worse off, a “solution” that can only leave the country as damaged as Eskom and Transnet. 

The DA cannot speak to the suffering of the people because it is so obviously dominated by the interests of the white middle classes and big business.

For years commentators have given attention to the severe problems in the ANC. There is often also good critique of individual parties outside of the ANC, and their leaders. The corruption and flipflopping of the EFF has been well documented and there is some awareness of just how authoritarian the internal dynamics are in the party. 

And nobody in the media or the commentariat outside of Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, who recently gave the most astoundingly fawning and uncritical platform to a pro-Zuma hack, is unaware of just how dangerous Zuma is. The weaknesses of the DA and John Steinhuizen’s leadership are also widely discussed.

But serious analysis on the collective failure of the political opposition to generate a credible alternative to the ANC has been lacking. The structural failure of the opposition has not been taken sufficiently seriously. This failure makes it highly possible that the blow to the ANC expected in May could be the beginning of a period of major crisis for the country.

The liberal media and commentariat has long held to the fantasy that when the electoral decline of the ANC it will be matched by a rise in support for the DA. They did not understand that the DA has hit its ceiling and that it will never win the support of the majority of South Africans. They did not understand that unless a left or social democratic party emerges, a party with the capacity to win mass support and speak directly to the suffering of the majority, the space opened up by the collapse of the ANC will be seized by the authoritarian nationalists, who now have a base in the MK party, the EFF and parts of the ANC itself. 

These are dangerous times. If by some good fortune the corrupt and authoritarian nationalists do not gain serious power in the coalitions that will be formed after the election, all the progressive forces in society need to come together and ensure that in 2029 there will be a credible alternative on the ballot paper.

Just as the choice in Brazil ultimately came down to Lula da Silva or Jair Bolsonaro, the national political choice in South Africa can only come down to the likes of Zuma and Malema and their faux populism or a left alternative that is genuinely concerned about the masses of the people. In national terms neither the DA nor any liberal party will ever be able to take power. Building a viable left party is a matter of real urgency.

Dr Imraan Buccus is a political analyst.