/ 4 June 2024

Elections prove that the left needs renewed vision

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MK Party leader Jacob Zuma. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

South Africa experienced its first populist moment in 2006 when Jacob Zuma went on trial for rape. The revolting scenes outside the court were a harbinger of things to come and the price we paid for that moment was huge. 

Zuma’s kleptocratic presidency left massive destruction of institutions in its wake and began a collapse in some services. It also resulted in the Marikana massacre and regular assassination of grassroots activists. 

The Zuma moment unleashed in South Africa the demon of ethnic politics that has done so much damage in countries such as Kenya and, especially in Durban, resulted in the  outright gangsterisation of politics. 

We experienced a second populist moment with the surge in support for Zuma and Gayton McKenzie in the recent elections, both authoritarian, and indeed demagogic, populists and both, in academic jargon, ethnic entrepreneurs. 

We should not be surprised by this. The US is experiencing its second populist moment as Donald Trump aims to return to the presidency and right-wing populism is on the march across much of Europe. Millions voted for Trump in the US and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and we should not be surprised that a sizable chunk of our own electorate has voted for the three parties of corrupt authoritarian populism here, namely Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the Patriotic Alliance (PA).

But given the extremity of our social crisis and the crassness of our political elites who flaunt their wealth and their open corruption it could be argued that, if there is any surprise in the recent election, it is that there was not a wholesale swing towards authoritarian populism. As bad as things are, we are not in the situation the US or Brazil were in when figures as grotesque as Trump and Bolsonaro came to power.

Another striking feature of this election is that white capital invested huge resources in black-led, liberal projects, including Change Starts Now, Rise Mzansi, Build One South Africa, ActionSA and the independent candidacy of Marxist-turned-NGO-leader Zackie Achmat. All these projects failed — and failed badly. It is clear that astroturfing black-led liberal parties will not fly with the South African electorate, no matter how many millions of rand are invested in these projects and no matter how slick their marketing campaigns. 

The Democratic Alliance (DA) has held on to its support base but has not, despite the severe failures of the ANC government in terms of corruption, service delivery, managing institutions and keeping people safe, been able to grow that base. 

Liberalism has clear electoral limits in South Africa. It is clear that no party that does not have some sense of being committed to national liberation, whether in terms of a genuine commitment or cynical spin, will ever take full power from the ANC.

It has, in fact, been the ANC that, despite its collapse in support, has held the line against the authoritarian populists, some of whom are ethnic entrepreneurs and one of whom, Zuma, is an outright kleptocrat. 

In some ways the EFF is the best of the three authoritarian populist outfits as it does not have an ethnic base and does not have the same extreme social conservatism as the MK Party and the PA, both of which also take extreme xenophobic positions. 

But these are all authoritarian parties led by authoritarian personalities and our democracy would not survive governance by them and their leaders. MK is the most anti-democratic of the three and would, if it could, put an end to the democratic experiment that we embarked on 30 years ago. 

An MK government would be a violently repressive kleptocracy that would leave us all poorer and our society in a far, far deeper crisis than we are currently in. It would be a ruthless dictatorship from which the country would take decades to recover, once it was finally overthrown, no doubt at great cost. 

Unless it is able to undertake a process of deep introspection and change, the ANC’s decline is likely to continue in 2029. In light of the fact that its deputy, Paul Mashatile, has large, unexplained wealth, it would be naive to think that the party would easily be able to remove its corrupt elements. 

But, without radical change, the party will not recover the standing it has squandered with gross corruption, the collapse of institutions and services and the incredible arrogance of many of its leaders. 

The liberal right, in which Frans Cronje is a key intellectual, are thrilled at the prospect of the ANC going into alliance with the DA and the Inkatha Freedom Party. If this happens, they might reap short-term gains in terms of keeping the pro-market policies that benefit big business while keeping the majority poor. However, such an alliance would only deepen popular resentment and risks an even greater challenge to democracy via authoritarian populism in 2029.

MK intellectuals, such as Andile Mngxitama are also excited seeing the possibility of an MK — and possibly also EFF — alliance with the ANC, driving out President Cyril Ramaphosa and returning it to its authoritarian and kleptocratic elements, perhaps under the leadership of Mashatile. This is a path that can only result in a ruthless dictatorship of the sort that Frantz Fanon warned us against. 

At the time of writing, there was no clarity on which way the ANC would lean as it makes coalition deals for national and provincial governments. What we do know is that, at best, we have five years to build a viable alternative to authoritarian and kleptocratic populism.

We know from international experience that neoliberal parties cannot provide that alternative. The viable alternative to right-wing populism can only be a left-wing government that is seriously committed to building a more inclusive, just and democratic society. 

The viable alternative to Trump was Bernie Sanders, not the neoliberalism of “Genocide Joe” Biden. The viable alternative to the Tories in the UK was Jeremy Corbyn not the neoliberalism of Keir Starmer. The successful alternative to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil was Lula da Silva.

Our problem is that we don’t have a Sanders, Corbyn or Da Silva. We do have mass organisations of the left, most significantly Cosatu, the SACP, Numsa and Abahlali baseMjondolo, but they are divided and do not operate as part of a broader left bloc. They even act separately on issues where they are aligned, such as Palestine. We also have a very serious problem with ludicrous, but ruthless and destructive, forms of sectarianism on the left, including in universities and NGOs. 

Building a bottom-up and mass-based democratic alternative to the ANC, to the authoritarian populists and to the astroturfed liberalism funded by white capital will require real political maturity from all players on the left. 

It is now a matter of extreme urgency that the mass-based organisations of the left and the NGOs, academics and other intellectuals willing and able to work with mass-based formations, begin to meet and to strategise. 

If we don’t have a credible left party on the ballot when 2029 rolls around, our democracy might be in peril, and there will be zero chance of making progress towards ameliorating our social crisis.  

The left must accept that, after 30 years of total failure to build a viable electoral strategy, it cannot continue with its old and failed ways of working. New vision and new maturity are required, as well as a proper appreciation of just how high the stakes are.

Dr Imraan Buccus is a political analyst.