A Sombre Mood in South Africa Thirty Years After Apartheid

Photograph Source: Ernest Cole – Public Domain

As I write in Durban on 27 April South Africa is commemorating the third decade since the end of apartheid. The mood is sombre. Millions remain excluded from economic opportunity. Unemployment is at over 40%. For the youth the rate is over 60%. More than a quarter of children under the age of five have stunted growth due to hunger. The country has one of the highest murder rates in the world and an extremely violent and corrupt police force.

Freedom Day is a national public holiday celebrated each year on 27 April to celebrate the anniversary of the first democratic election on 27 April 1994. It has been contested from below since 2006 when Abahlali baseMjondolo, a powerful movement of the urban poor, began to mourn ‘UnFreedom Day’ while the state celebrated ‘Freedom Day’. This year around 15 000 people showed up for an ‘UnFreedom Day’ rally on land occupation in Durban and the event was covered live on national TV.

Ten years ago the black middle classes, of which I am part, were still in the mood to celebrate Freedom Day. For many of us our lives are fundamentally different to those of our parents and we enjoy opportunities and lifestyles of which they could only dream. But today even the black middle classes are disillusioned. The collapse of public services and infrastructure means that education, health care, security, electricity and now even water are increasingly privately sourced by those with the means placing even well-paid professionals under severe financial stress. The middle class is awash in debt and fearful of the frightening levels of crime.

The left had cogent critiques of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) from the beginning of its time in government, and radical intellectuals like Neville Alexander, Martin Legassick and David Hemson developed important critiques of the ANC in the 1980s. I embraced all those critiques but do acknowledge that it is a material fact that things were getting better for many people during the presidencies of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, and that Mbeki made great strides in deracialising and professionalising the civil service. Things have got so bad that many of us now look back to the Mandela and Mbeki presidencies with more than a little nostalgia. Aside from his tragic misstep on AIDS, Mbeki was the most effective president since the end of apartheid. But that progress came to a screeching halt when Jacob Zuma, a ruthless kleptocrat, became President in 2009.

Zuma mixed neoliberal economic policies, including damaging austerity, with massive corruption, corruption at a staggering scale, to the mix. He also sharply escalated state repression, most infamously with the massacre of 34 mineworkers during a wildcat strike on the platinum mines in 2012. Grassroots groups such as the Amadiba Crisis Committee and Abahlali baseMjondolo were also hit with assassinations and a number of honest civil servants were assassinated.

In my many years as a trade union educator I saw the depths of the cynicism that set in among the organised working class during the Zuma years. That disillusionment was even more profound among Abahlali baseMjondolo, which has lost more than twenty of its members, including many leaders, mostly to political assassinations and police killings. If the industrial working class was deeply unhappy the poor were simply desperate.

The widespread euphoria when Zuma was finally removed from office in 2018 fizzled out as the ANC struggled to recover its integrity in the wake of the disastrous nine years under Zuma. It’s one shining achievement was taking Israel to the International Court of Justice. This brave act was welcomed by the left around the world and strongly supported by the ANC’s sternest left critics at home, including Abahlali baseMjondolo and the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA), the largest trade union in the country.

Aside from some religious fundamentalists there is overwhelming support for Palestine among black South Africans and this was a moment in which the ANC could have recovered its moral centre. It was not able to expand this new sense of moral credibility into its domestic policies and practices though. It is true that its position on Palestine has won back some support for the party, perhaps particularly among Muslims, but the latest polls in advance of the election on 29 May show that the ANC is heading for a serious collapse in support.

The latest poll, released the day before Freedom Day, shows that the ANC is on track to win around 40% of the national vote. This will be the first time in thirty years that it has been unable to win an outright election victory. It will now be forced into a coalition government. At national level there are four other parties with other enough support to be real contenders for inclusion in the coming collation government.

The Democratic Alliance, which is polling second with around 22% of the vote, is a liberal party that remains white dominated even though most of its votes come from black voters. It has always supported neoliberal economic policies and has recently been sucked into the general capture of white liberal opinion by the hysterical pro-West (and therefore pro-Israel) politics driven by a set of reactionary white managed NGOs such as the Institute for Race Relations and the Brenthurst Foundation. The former has Chester Crocker as an ‘honorary life member’ and the latter, which openly operates in the orbit of the National Endowment for Democracy, has a former NATO advisor as its head and Richard Meyer, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the US, on its board.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are polling third at around 11%. Some on the left have argued that it has fascist characteristics while others see it as a form of authoritarian nationalism. Everyone agrees that is crudely opportunistic, bald-facedly corrupt and highly intolerant of critique. It has sometimes engaged in xenophobic and anti-Indian politics. The EFF is aggressively opposed to white privilege though, and as a result has attracted the support of some alienated young people, often unemployed graduates, who see it as a wrecking ball swinging against enduring systems of exclusion. No credible left intellectual considers the party to be left though. It’s leader, Julius Malema, is more like a wannabe Vladimir Putin than a wannabe Lula da Silva.

Jacob Zuma’s new party, the MK Party, is polling fourth with around 8% of the vote. Zuma represents a viciously kleptocratic political class determined to regain access to state budgets. It masks this with a hard right wing nationalism that is violent, grossly xenophobic, and so far to the right on gender that it has proposed to send unmarried pregnant young women to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. The party also wants to do away with constitutional democracy and place aristocratic authority over the authority of elected members of parliament.

The MK Party also has an alarming ethnic element to its politics. This means that it will never be a real national force, but some polls suggest that it could win the majority of the vote in Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal. This is frankly terrifying and could only mean the organised looting of the state and ever more violent repression. Political gangsterism and ethnic mobilisation are an extremely worrying pairing.

The only other party with any meaningful national support is the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) which is currently polling at just over 4%. It is a right-wing Zulu nationalist party that, like Zuma’s party, is only really a player in KwaZulu-Natal where it seems that it may come second to Zuma’s party on the provincial ballot.

There is no left party in the running. This is quite astounding for a country that has such a rich radical tradition and which is often described as the most unequal in the world. One reason for this is that the Communists and public sector workers remain affiliated to the ANC. The left outside of the ANC does have two mass organisations, NUMSA and Abahlali baseMjondolo. They are very different. NUMSA’s leaders were trained by the Communist Party before the union was expelled from the ANC alliance in 2013 . The union remains firmly Marxist-Leninist while Abahlali baseMjondolo advocates for a bottom up form of  socialism driven from democratically organised land occupations. Neither organisation has been able to formulate a coherent electoral strategy.

Abahlali baseMjondolo started calling for its members to vote against the ANC from the 2014 election after its leaders started to be assassinated in 2013. It has repeated this call to vote against the ANC in every subsequent election but, in an indication of its growing desperation as more of its leaders have been assassinated, it has now called for tactical votes for three different parties in three elections. But while calling for a tactical vote against the ANC to protest repression is understandable, and was effective in the 2014 election, this is not a positive electoral program. It is a desperate rear guard defensive action.

NUMSA ran a quickly thrown together Leninist party in the 2019 election but, although the party’s inaugural conference was impressive, it was launched far too close to the election, failed miserably and then withered away during the stringent Covid lockdowns.

There is also a small but vibrant left in universities and various civil society organisations. It has developed many important critiques on economic questions but is notoriously sectarian and wages brutal intra-left wars and witch hunts with far more effectiveness than its attempts to organise. There are severe and possibly irreconcilable tensions between it and the mass based organisations of the left outside of the ANC. At the moment there are scant hopes that a left revival could come from this quarter but all left projects need intellectuals and one can only hope that it can overcome its damaging sectarianism and repair its relationship with the mass organisations.

There are no signs that the Communist Party and the mostly public sector unions that remain aligned to the ANC will break with the party. NUMSA does not appear to be trying to rebuild its failed party. Abahlali baseMjondolo has said that its members have demanded that “the movement should, working with like-minded membership based organisations, begin a process of considering how to build a political instrument for the people, a political instrument that aims to put the people in power rather than a new set of individuals”.

It does have influence beyond its 120 000 paid up members and gives leadership to an array of much smaller grassroots groups representing street traders, migrants, sex workers, residents of old migrant worker hostels, and the like. But unless the organisations of the poor, the trade unions and the middle class left can find a way to come together it seems unlikely that there will be real progress in building a party that will have a real chance to effectively contest the 2029 election. At the moment this looks to be a highly unlikely prospect. If the South African left is to have any chance of mounting an electoral challenge in the 2029 election extraordinary political vision and maturity will be required from all its different players.

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)