/ 24 April 2024

Abahlali baseMjondolo has made a terrible tactical error by backing the EFF

Shack Dwellers Movement Protest Against Alleged Theft Of Covid 19 Funds In South Africa
The large socialist shack dwellers' movement, in its bid to oust the ANC, may face the prospect of the Economic Freedom Fighters going into a coalition with the uMkhonto weSizwe party in KwaZulu-Natal. (Photo by Darren Stewart/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

S’bu Zikode has been the leading figure in civil society in the last 20 years of democracy. He has, displaying huge personal courage, led the building of Abahlali baseMjondolo, one of the largest and most effective movements of the urban poor in the world. Zikode has endured torture, assassinations attempts and long periods underground. More than 20 of his comrades in the movement have been assassinated or killed by the police.

Abahlali baseMjondolo, with more than 120 000 dues paying members, is not just the largest organisation in South African civil society, it is among the most effective and has secured land for its members. It has also frequently given moral leadership in times of crisis, and has kept principled positions on issues such as xenophobia year after year. It is also, without a doubt, the most democratic organisation on the South African left, and an organisation that holds an important place in the global left. 

I have had the good fortune of getting to know Zikode quite well over the years. He has taught programmes that I’ve worked with and visiting students are inevitably blown away by him and the organisation that he has built.

I share the view that Zikode is the most morally credible figure in our public life and have huge respect for the man and his achievements. The fact that the movement has survived the extreme level of repression that it has faced is incredible and a large part of that is due to Zikode’s personal moral strength.

Remarkably the movement has managed to survive and grow over 19 years without making any major mistakes. But I do think that they have now made a terrible mistake in deciding to cast a tactical vote for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). 

Before I explain my reasoning I must acknowledge that, like many other left intellectuals, I thought that the movement had made a serious error in political judgment when they abandoned their previous “no vote” position to make a tactical vote for the Democratic Alliance (DA) in 2014. At the time the movement was very clear that this was solely a tactical vote to punish the ANC for repression. The movement had suffered severe repression from its formation in 2005 but in 2013 repression worsened as its leaders started to be assassinated. I understood the logic of the argument about a tactical vote but argued that even a temporary tactical association with a white dominated liberal party could never be justified.

I now concede that I was wrong. The list of political assassinations in South Africa on Wikipedia shows that three members of Abahlali baseMjondolo, including an important leader, were assassinated in 2013, along with a fourth activist who was close to the movement but not a card carrying member. The police also murdered a young girl who was a member of the movement that year. The following year they lost another leader. Abahlali baseMjondolo took the decision to vote for the DA in protest against these six murders. 

Their protest vote worked. I heard from impeccable sources in the ANC that intense pressure was placed on the local party structures to stop the killings and they did stop after the election. There were no assassinations in 2015 or 2016 but they did resume again in late 2017. This period of relief from assassinations gave the movement time to rebuild and repair and it may well not have survived without that break from murderous repression.

In light of this history we should all understand that tactical votes can be effective. And in view of the fact that Abahlali baseMjondolo lost five members in 2022, three to assassins and two to police murders, the desire to mobilise another protest vote against the ANC makes sense.

The way in which Abahlali baseMjondolo prepared to make a collective decision on a protest vote was extraordinary. The process ran for over two months and included numerous meetings, some very large, and two open to the public. The movement flipped the usual script in which parties present their manifestos to potential voters and prepared its own list of 20 demands to present to the political parties. This list of demands has huge legitimacy because it came out of a democratic process involving thousands of people. 

This is all highly impressive, and this remarkable process must be respected. In fact it is a model for other organisations such as trade unions. However, while I acknowledge that Abahlali baseMjondolo is the most democratic organisation in our politics and that the decision to make a tactical vote for the EFF was generated through this process I still think it was a mistake.

Most of the reporting on the Abahlali baseMjondolo decision to make a tactical vote for the EFF has ignored their detailed statements on the matter. This is unfortunate because they are very clear that they are not endorsing the EFF, that they don’t trust any of the parties and that they don’t see any of the parties as aligned to their socialist politics. They also say that their members have made a clear demand that the movement begin a process of trying to facilitate the emergence of a left party before the 2029 election. 

The movement’s statements explain that their primary aim is to punish the ANC for the murders of its members. They also say that they see the uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party as even more dangerous than the ANC and that they cannot consider a tactical vote for the DA because of its reactionary positions on land and Palestine. They are a little less clear on exactly what they hope to achieve by presenting their own list of demands to the parties but the logic here seems to be to push the parties to the left as they compete for their vote. 

They explain that the parties that responded to the movement’s demands were questioned in an open public meeting and then were “marked” on their responses, and that the EFF came out best despite the movement’s severe differences with the party on a number of questions such as corruption. 

I understand that if a movement aims to cast a tactical vote to punish a ruling party for repression it makes sense to make their vote for a party that is an actual threat to the ruling party. Because the DA and the MK party were excluded from the process there were only two real choices for Abahlali baseMjondolo: the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the EFF.  

It would be unthinkable for a movement as ethnically diverse as Abahlali baseMjondolo to support the IFP and so simple logic meant that it had to be the EFF. The video footage of the announcement of the decision at the movement’s UnFreedom Day event in Durban on Sunday makes for interesting viewing though. The numbers are huge; possibly as many as 15 000 people were there. When leaders chant anti-ANC and anti-MK slogans the response from the audience is excited. But when the decision to make a tactical vote for the EFF is announced most of the people in the camera frame sit silent and impassive.

The movement seems to have found its own decision painful. This is not surprising. The EFF is corrupt, authoritarian and unprincipled — the polar opposite of Abahlali baseMjondolo in many ways. There is something tragic about a democratic movement reaching the conclusion that it must vote for a corrupt and authoritarian movement such as the EFF to punish a ruling party that has been murdering its leaders for years. There seems to be no doubt that if there was a credible alternative the movement would have made a different choice. 

But while a tactical vote against the ANC makes sense, and while making that vote hurt the ANC by casting it for one of its real rivals rather than a small party makes sense, the problem is that 2024 is not 2014. In 2014, a vote for the DA ran no risk of putting the party in government. It was a risk free way of giving the ANC an urgent wakeup call, and it worked. 

This year we are in a very different situation. The polls show the MK party could win more votes than any other party in KwaZulu-Natal. The EFF has been growing closer to the MK party and could well go into coalition with it, raising the terrifying prospect of the latter running the provincial government. Repression under the MK party would certainly be worse than under the ANC. This is a risk that we cannot take and it is for this reason that I fear that Abahlali baseMjondolo has made a tragic mistake. I fear that its overwhelming desire to rid us of the ANC has blinded it to the risk of an even worse future under an MK party and EFF alliance.

Dr Imraan Buccus is a political analyst.