Breaking the Logjam in the South African Left

Graffiti in Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo by Hennie Stander

South Africa is in serious trouble. Inequality is worse than under apartheid, unemployment is at over 40% with young people being particularly hard hit. The state has not been able to ensure a regular power supply for more than a decade, the water supply is increasingly precarious in some areas, the national airline and the Post Office have collapsed due to mismanagement, murder rates are through the roof and the educated classes are leaving the country in droves.

The collapse started when Jacob Zuma, a crude populist, was elected to power in 2009 and proceeded to turn the state into an organised kleptocracy. Zuma, a socially conservative ethnic nationalist who sometimes used the language of radical nationalism to legitimate his kleptocracy, left a trail of destruction in his wake, destruction that the inept Cyril Ramaphosa has not been able to fix since he came to power in 2018.

Many key social institutions remain broken, there has been no real economic growth for years, ordinary people live under increasingly lawless conditions and the government remains wedded to socially devastating austerity.

The ANC, which was once loved by millions, is now commonly referred to as ‘amasela’ – the thieves. The ANC no longer has firm control over the major cities which are now often governed by unstable coalitions, including  small opportunistic parties with no real programme beyond the self-interest of their leaders.

Opinion polls suggest that the ANC will not be able to win the national election next year.

On the face of it things could hardly be more propitious for a left challenge. But as the hegemony of the ANC crumbles the left is not a player in electoral politics.

The second biggest party in the country is the centre right Democratic Alliance (DA). It is a white dominated party that attracts the support of racial minorities. It is polling at around 23% but its drift to the right on racial issues, following the magnetic drift of US anti-woke paranoia, means that it will never win significant African support.

The next biggest party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), is an off-shoot from a corrupt authoritarian nationalist current in the ANC. It initially arrived on the scene promising a radical nationalist challenge to the status quo but its open embrace of the most corrupt elements in the ANC have destroyed its credibility in the eyes of many and it is currently polling at around 8%.  It recently tried to organise a ‘national shutdown’ – a mass stay away from work accompanied by protests in the major cities. The ‘shutdown’ failed, and farcically so, with tiny numbers of people showing up for the protests. This has done serious damage to the party’ standing could well weaken its support below the 8% at which it was polling prior to the failed ‘shutdown’.

There are also a host of new parties, mostly orientated towards right-wing populism and many placing a vicious xenophobia at the core of their identity. These parties, a number of whom have leaders brazenly aligned to kleptocratic modes of politics, often carry inordinate influence when coalitions are put together to govern cities when there is no outright winner in a local election. Many of these collations are chaotic and there is a real fear that this will be replicated at the national level after next year’s elections.

In this spiral of economic, politically and social decline the left is entirely absent from electoral politics. There are a few tiny sectarian organisations, with an often shrill presence in some middle class left circles, but none of them have any popular support. There are also a few left NGOs with strong international connections but they have also failed to develop any popular support and only make a real contribution via their interventions in debates.

There are, however, four left organisations with meaningful popular support.

The South African Communist Party (SACP) has around 340 000 members, many of whom have been through pretty good political education programmes. However the SACP remains in an alliance with the ANC, does not contest elections and is not present in community struggles. From time to time younger members threaten to break from the ANC and run their own candidates but so far this has not happened.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) is a federation of mostly government workers that represents close to 1.8 million union members. This is impressive and the federation has taken increasingly progressive positions on economic issues. However, it does not have an effective political education programme and it cannot be assumed that a significant number of its members have serious left commitments.

Both Cosatu and the SACP lost significant credibility when they supported Zuma’s rise to power. However in recent years they have recovered some credibility as they have opposed corruption and Cosatu has taken well informed positions on issues like austerity.

There are two large left organisations outside of the ANC. The biggest is the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa). Numsa was expelled from the ANC alliance in 2014 at the behest of the SACP for vigorously opposing Zuma. The union has close to 400 000 members and is said to be the biggest union in Africa. It is politically militant, with an explicitly communist leadership. The union has done very well to expand into a wide range of areas of work beyond the auto factories that were its historical base and is militant in its representation of workers, frequently organising strikes and regularly winning impressive gains for its member.

However, the union’s attempt to organise an independent communist party on the eve of the 2019 election failed. There was simply no time to build party structures, and union support did not automatically translate into electoral support. The party was then swiftly finished off by the very hard Covid lockdowns in South Africa and now exists only in name.

The other large left organisation outside of the ANC is Abahlali baseMjondolo, a more than 120 000 member strong movement of the urban poor, often compared to the MST in Brazil. Its politics is a mixture of communist thought (its meeting are opened with the Internationale) and a kind of radical African humanism. The movement has lost more than 20 of its leaders to assassinations, assumed to be contracted by local ANC thugs, but it continues to grow.

While the SACP, Cosatu and Numsa are all fully national organisations Abahlali baseMjondolo’s membership is largely concentrated in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, and in particular the city of Durban where it is a powerful force. It does have some branches in the Eastern Cape and Mpumalanga provinces, and is growing in Gauteng where it has branches in the shanty towns on the East Rand outside Johannesburg. The movement organises an impressive system of vibrant vocal branches and is serious about political education. It runs the Frantz Fanon Political School in Durban, based on the model of the MST political school outside Sao Paulo.

But Abahlali baseMjondolo has never contested electoral politics or actively organised support for any party. In its early years it called for election boycotts in disgust at all the parties on the ballot, and after its leaders started to be regularly assassinated it twice called for protest votes against the ANC. But it doesn’t have the sort of relationship with any party that the MST has with the PT in Brazil.

Taken together these left organisations have more than 2.5 million members. The ANC has around 600 000 members, and has not run effective political education for many years.

Of course as the failed experiment of the Numsa party shows membership of a union or social movement does not imply automatic support for an electoral project started or supported by a union or social movement. However 2.5 million members is a very solid base from which to begin building a left electoral project.

There are real challenges though. Outside of the ANC the organisational culture of Numsa is very different to that of Abahlali baseMjondolo. Inside of the ANC the young Turks in the SACP and Cosatu never seem to quite get any real traction for their push to break from the party. This is a key problem for left unity as Numsa and Abahlali baseMjondolo flatly refuse to work with any organisation aligned to the ANC.

This has produced a profound logjam in left politics, a logjam that must be broken as a matter of urgency. Perhaps one way forward is to put the question of elections on hold for now, despite the crisis, and form some sort of loose arrangement in which these four organisations can begin working together on issues of common interest such as opposing austerity and the rising tide of xenophobia organisations and parties?

Dr Imraan Buccus is a post doctoral fellow at the Durban University of Technology (DUT) and senior research fellow at Auwal socio-economic studies research institute (ASRI)