In recent years the electoral superiority of the ANC has begun to face its first real test since we entered the post-apartheid era in 1994. As the limitations of its neoliberal development strategy have become increasingly apparent, the question arises as to whether there is an effective leftist formation that could offer an alternative vision for the country. If so, who might constitute any such leftist formation?
The answer to this question has become ever more complicated in recent years. The domestic and global political terrain has moved significantly since I first conducted some research interviews on these issues in Cape Town back in 2011. Most notably, we have witnessed the so-called ‘NUMSA moment‘ when it was felt (maybe more in hope than reality) that the left had made a real breakthrough in South Africa. After a number of false dawns in recent years, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) has recently announced that it is planning to launch a new political party of the left.
This blog post is a summary of a much longer academic article, entitled ‘What’s left of ‘the left’ in post-apartheid South Africa?’, which was recently published in the journal Capital & Class. Free access to the full article is available here until the end of this month.
The article starts from the normative premise that there is an objective need for a revival and renewal of progressive forces in South Africa. It then seeks to assess the state of ‘the left’ in two complementary senses. First, it evaluates the health of a range of self-identified leftist social forces and then it passes judgement on the extent to which they can be genuinely considered ‘left’ in any meaningful sense. The overall conclusion is that at present, although there are a range of different ‘left’ actors, an effective political formation is not present in South Africa. There is some evidence of attempts at co-operation between a range of different groups. However, at present the challenge remains of how to connect these groups to the masses, which are instead engaged in localised protest and struggle that lacks co-ordination, direction and leadership.
The first half of the article, sets out what I call ‘the realities of post-apartheid South Africa’. What was clear from the research I did for this project is that those who self-identify as part of ‘the left’ in South Africa all tend to agree on what the central problems are: poverty, inequality and unemployment. Far less of a consensus is apparent on what the obstacles are to overcoming these challenges. While members of the South African Communist Party (SACP), who hold key positions in the government, argue that a shift in the growth path engendered by changes in government policy will address these concerns, others in the left outside of the Alliance, see the continued hegemony of the ANC as the main concern.
In this section of the article, I highlight in particular the persistently high level of unemployment, how the top 10% of the population continue to enjoy more than a 50% share of total income, and how the trajectory of the post-apartheid economy continues to rely on finance, mining and retail, whilst the industrial sector has become even less significant since 1994.
These realities have endured during a period when the ANC government has, despite the numerous new macroeconomic policy launches, pursued a consistently neoliberal strategy ever since it adopted the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) plan in 1996. In 2010 with the adoption of the New Growth Path (NGP) it did appear that maybe a change of direction was afoot. However, as I argue in the paper, there remain significant continuities in approach and moreover, the NGP has been largely superseded by the National Development Plan, which was published by the government in 2012.
The second half of the article then outlines three distinct, but not mutually exclusive, categories of the contemporary left in South Africa. In the analysis of each category I seek to evaluate both their significance and their leftist credentials. The three groups are as follows:
- The left within the tripartite alliance. Here I assess all three partners within the Alliance: the ANC, the SACP and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). Of these, COSATU has represented a more leftist stance compared to its Alliance partners. However, it is constrained by its strategic political alliance with the ANC and SACP. As a result, COSATU has evolved from an organisation that pursued wider social transformation (social movement unionism) to one that increasingly prioritises collective bargaining within the parameters prescribed by post-apartheid labour legislation (political unionism). NUMSA (South Africa’s largest trade union) has been aware of such dilemmas and has long questioned the leftist credentials of the ANC government. It has now split from COSATU and is involved in the process of forming a new trade union federation. These developments may result in a more influential leftist formation that is independent of the ANC. However, NUMSA still tends to refer rather exclusively to the ‘organised working class’ and there seems only limited appreciation of the need to broaden its focus beyond those who are employed in the formal sector.
- The left outside the alliance. During the late 1990s in South Africa we began to see the emergence of what were then called ‘new social movements’. This marked a clear rupture in the South African left as a whole. Their significance lies in the fact that they operate independently of the structures of the ANC. Since the turn of the century we have also witnessed the rapid growth in so-called ‘service delivery protests’. What they demonstrate is that there is a level of resistance, however spontaneous and uncoordinated, to the neoliberal policies of the government.
The formation of the Democratic Left Front (DLF) in 2011 was an attempt at coordination. The split of NUMSA from COSATU then culminated in the announcement on 2 March 2014 of plans for the formation of a broader leftist movement known as the ‘United Front and Movement for Socialism’. Ultimately it remains to be seen whether the impetus given to the United Front by NUMSA, will allow it to more effectively realise the kinds of linkages envisaged by the DLF.
- The remnants of a revolutionary socialist left. A number of small groups in South Africa are still following a revolutionary socialist agenda. The political position of these groups remains based on a complete rejection of reformism of any kind. As a result, most of these groups eschew working with organisations that fall within the other two categories of the left. While a new left project in South Africa clearly needs to offer an alternative to the largely rhetorical stance adopted by the ANC and SACP, given the failures of vanguardism, it also needs to adopt a strategy that is likely to attract widespread support.
The article concludes by noting that the dangers of the continued absence of an effective leftist mass movement are clear. These are most evident in the populist politics of Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a new political party formed in 2013. Malema skilfully uses leftist rhetoric in speaking to precisely those people in society, the young and underemployed, who remain marginalised and disconnected from current leftist formations in South Africa.
In sum, I argue that efforts should be continued in the task of co-ordinating leftist formations outside of the Alliance. However this alone, without clear links to the mass base, will not lead to meaningful socioeconomic progress for the majority of South Africans.