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Hein Marais, in a bracingly contentious open letter to the South African left, reminds it (and us) that the people of South Africa may be well ahead of the politicians in projecting the possibility of launching a genuine alternative to the Washington Consensus and its regional counterpart, the local state elites' tired nostrum that ``There is No Alternative'' (TINA). (jbv)

vol 14 no 2

Fiddling while neo-liberalism burns?: A letter to the South African left
Hein Marais


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Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 14 No 2, March 1999
Page 10
"South Africa"

FIDDLING WHILE NEO-LIBERALISM BURNS?
A LETTER TO THE SOUTH AFRICAN LEFT

BY HEIN MARAIS

Journalist Hein Marais is the author of the important recent book South Africa: Limits to Change - The political-economy of transition. It is published by Zed Books, and distributed in North America by St Martin's Press.

Internationally, 1998 was a year of corners turned - disastrously by the juggernaut of capitalism, hopefully by the European left, and indecisively by the political administrators of the industrialized world.

As sundry economies crashed and fell through the floorboards, Max Weber's description of capitalism as "mechanized petrification embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance" suddenly regained a topical and authoritative ring - even in South Africa, though you had to prick up your ears to notice.

There, a thin - some might say "morbid" - smile edged onto the faces of the South African left as the Washington Consensus collapsed and the ANC's bulwarks of orthodoxy sprung leaks. By the end of the year, even the ANC's leaders could no longer avoid publicly acknowledging the "need for fresh thinking, new leadership and greater flexibility in economic policy-making."

"We see a coherent and broadening campaign against neo-liberal economic policies and that debate's now moved inside the ANC," says the SA Communist Party's Jeremy Cronin. "Partly it's due to global developments, but it wouldn't have happened here if the left had not stood its ground."

The traditional left

Cronin's words are a handy yardstick for just how deep into the embrace of convention the ANC government has snuggled - and how narrowed the traditional left's vistas have become.

Correctly or not, the fate of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) plan has become an index of the left's verve. Midway through 1998, the prognosis seemed good from that point of view, if a little confusing.

Presidential communications head Joel Netshitenzhe put out a discussion paper which, in plodding and pedantic fashion, did little more than remind his comrades of a few vintage truisms that used to be the meat and potatoes of ANC discourse only a decade ago.

"The state is not a neutral, non-partisan entity, but it is an instrument that is used to pursue the interests of a class or group of classes," he wrote, adding that "the core of any revolution is the issue of property relations" and that "the battles around political power are in the final analysis about socio-economic resources and their allocation."

Coming as a veiled riposte to Thabo Mbeki's 1997 paper "The State and Social Transformation" - a kind of paint-by-numbers "Third Way" text - Netshitenzhe's intervention put some bounce back into the step of SACP types. They needed it, having just endured a savage attack by Mbeki at their July congress.

Then, in an October Tripartite Alliance meeting, another minor foray was launched - in the form of an economic discussion document which asserted "the possibility (and the necessity) for the progressive movement ... to question what was until the most recent period the unquestioned economic global paradigm."

Leaving aside the fact that this "paradigm" had for years not only been questioned but resisted by some states and by a multitude of social forces around the world, the mere debating of the document in top alliance ranks lifted spirits.

Reverse GEAR

A felicitous moment seemed to have arrived. As the global economic crisis worsened, former point-men of neo-liberalism were queuing up to preside over the wake of the Washington Consensus. Fed-up with being stuck in a fiscal boot camp being run out of the finance ministry, several SA government departments were beginning to grump about GEAR. Cosatu still blustered publicly about the "reverse GEAR." Statistics SA announced that 498,000 jobs had been lost since 1994 while economic indicators place SA on the brink of recession. Meanwhile, an unfriendly dialogue - carried out mainly by academic proxies - was developing between the finance ministry and Reserve Bank around monetary policy.

The moment went begging. When it mattered - particularly in alliance and ANC executive meetings - Cosatu and SACP leaders contented themselves with the vague suggestion that some "counter-cyclical measures" might be stirred into GEAR's broth. At the November Job Summit, macro-economic policy was off the agenda, replaced by a package of welfarist projects that still await scrutiny and implementation. And with time-worn dexterity the ANC engineered a truce with its disgruntled allies in the run-up to the 1999 elections. Temporarily perhaps, the argument was again been settled by the injunction: "Unity at all costs."

What about the bright side? Organized business' push for greater flexibility in the labour market has been blocked for now, thanks mainly to Cosatu's diligence. The Basic Conditions of Employment Act was passed over the heads of business, at last imposing on capital some forms of accountability that become a democratic society. And the feisty Blade Nzimande's replacement of the ineffectual Charles Nqakula as SACP general secretary brought the prospect of a party that could occasionally draw the line, instead of toeing it.

The traditional left - still stuck in the mould of the Third International - wedged ajar a few more doors in the corridors of power. But doors open and shut. That such modest developments should cheer up this left came, really, as a kind of back-handed confirmation of just how remote the dreams of a left-driven transition became in the 1990s.

"At the ideological level we're winning some battles, but at the organizational level we're still a long way off from the point where we can really achieve the programmes and results in the ways we imagine them," cautions the National Union of Mineworkers' research chief, Devan Pillay.

Other voices

Of course, it's still fashionable to smack the South African left about the head with the claim that it has to come up with "viable alternatives." The fact is you just have to know where to look.

For the left is indeed beavering away at alternatives. The new labour regime attests to this, as does the local Jubilee 2000 campaign (and its proposal to restructure the public service pension scheme and free up billions of rands for social spending), the counsel sifted from last year's Poverty Hearings (staged by the SA NGO Coalition [Sangoco]) and ongoing efforts by the same Sangoco's "Economics Commission" to design a new framework for economic and social policies.

But several aspects of this bear emphasis. For one thing, the SACP has had little more than a walk-on part in these endeavours. Progressive civil society - mainly in the development and religious sector - increasingly is stepping into the breach. And, no matter the speeches and tub-thumping, the ANC government still seems in thrall to the notion that "There Is No Alternative," at least not at the national level. (Mind you, on the global front there does seem to be a nascent, positive drift in the making. The odds were always stacked against the South African government's extravagant bid last September to exhume the Non-Aligned Movement and recast the North-South balance of forces. Much wiser is its subsequent emphasis on quietly hammering together a G-8 of the South which just might also, eventually, lever some space for progressive shifts nationally.)

A good part of the blame for this paucity of imagination has, then, to be laid at the door of the traditional left. A decade after 1989, this left still stands as a woozy reminder of Ellen Meiksins-Wood's lament a few years back that "it is not only that we do not know how to act against capitalism but that we are forgetting how to think against it."

Compounding this failure is an equally debilitating and enduring refusal by the left to examine critically its own preconceptions about what constitutes effective political practice. For example, the SACP's auto-critiques have not yet matured into an examination of its statist principles.

As a result, its activism remain focussed almost exclusively on the state, a route that reinforces the ANC's disciplinary hand and helps alienate the party from ordinary South Africans. Both the party and - but to a lesser and perhaps more understandable extent - Cosatu concentrate their resources on influencing policy. But much of this effort occurs behind the enclosures of institutions and (in the case of the tripartite alliance) of structures shielded from the public gaze. The combative energies allowed to escape those confines are too feeble or arcane to quicken hearts outside.

Deeds or declarations

Little wonder that, in the war of ideas, the left still holds the short end of the stick. For every Cosatu or SACP member willing to wear a T-shirt that says "Build Socialism Now" (or any other progressive affirmation), thousands of others go about happily swaddled in corporate advertising slogans and insignia. Subliminally they're making some kind of statement. The traditional left, though, isn't listening.

Out there in the "real world," talk of the left is still a cue for a dismissive snort or sympathetic snigger. Partly this reflects a dominant ideology of fatalism married, as it always is, to the advice that "Looking After Number One" is what matters. But it's also fuelled by the traditional left's tendency to express itself through stiff acclamations rather than dialogues, and by its substitution of declarations for deeds.

"Our challenge," says Zane Dangor of the Development Resource Centre, "is both practical and ideological. The two aspects cannot be divorced. We can only build widespread respect for left perspectives through practical mobilization."

This will be the left's litmus test as it crosses the threshold of the millennium: to spark the imagination and enlist the (always loose and provisional) allegiances of ordinary South Africans who float on the fringes of organizational life.

Still a work-in-progress is the cobbling together of a national popular alliance, centred on leftist (or even leftish) forces and geared at a thoroughgoing redistribution of wealth, power and opportunity. Whether those forces' programmes are labelled "socialist" or "social-democratic," "reformist" or "revolutionary" is not the point. What matters are the content and quality of their actions, not simply the purity of their theory.

Remedies?

As good a starting point as any, it seems, is to finger some of the debilities that still hobble the left and to propose a few remedies.

* Nowhere is the phrase "with friends like these, who needs enemies" truer than on the left. It needs to achieve a less hermetic and more elastic self-definition. A cease-fire in the sniping between "socialists" and "social-democrats" would be a good beginning. Let those distinctions be demonstrated and tested in action, and not simply as rhetorical affirmations. We will discover that our affinities and the scope for united resistance (conjuncturally at least) eclipses a ritualistic emphasis on difference.

* It's time to ditch the notion that the left refers narrowly to certain trade union organizations, the SACP and a few light-weight ultra-left groupings. The definition is plain inaccurate. If the left has turned a corner or two in the past 18 months, it wasn't with the party or Cosatu at the steering wheel.

The successful battle around child welfare grants in 1996 was waged by a loose grouping of development organizations and churches. One of last year's landmark activities, noted earlier, was the Poverty Hearings staged by Sangoco and drawing especially on the almost forgotten strengths of progressive churches. As also noted, Sangoco, along with progressive researchers, is now spearheading a bid to draft the outlines of alternative economic policies. Although originating in ecumenical circles, the international Jubilee 2000 anti-debt campaign locally has attracted an impressive range of local development groups and activists (including, happily, a handful of SACP organizers).

Once tunnel-vision is abandoned, the left appears more eclectic and vibrant than common wisdom concedes. with many sectors capable of effective organizing while also uninhibited by the dread and self-disciplinary impulses that afflict the SACP and, to a lesser extent, Cosatu. A popular alliance is there for the making - not under the aegis of Big Brother formations but as democratic and pluralist fronts mustered around specific campaigns.

* For the dominant left organizations, beavering away at policy and trying to bend the ears of "comrades" in the ANC and government (all with the integrity of the alliance in sharp and commanding focus) has for too long meant forsaking stern action on social issues.

The government's decision to withhold funding for AZT treatment for HIV-positive pregnant mothers in the same month it OK'd a R30-billion arms spree was unconscionable. Neither Cosatu or the SACP mustered more than a shrug in response. Their absence from the "Moral Summit" meeting held between church and government spokespersons was puzzling, as was the distance the SACP kept from the Poverty Hearings.

This state of affairs will probably persist until Cosatu and the SACP admit that the tripartite alliance retains meaning only insofar as it enables (rather than constricts, as it does now) the vitality of an effective popular front. Soon, very soon, they will have to bite that bullet.

* The left should slam the lid on the tiresome diatribes against the petit-bourgeoisie and recognize that sections of the middle classes are potential fellow-travellers (and even outright supporters) of our initiatives. In leftist projects historically, they've been the wild cards - neither definitively on-side or opposed.

"It's the way we approach, promote and practice left positions that will begin to win over parts of these classes," believes Dangor. "People carp about deteriorating health services, for example, without being made aware that if we socialized health care and stopped the cutbacks we could turn it around. Instead they blame it on the `radical' ANC. We're losing people by not coherently explaining the background to these things."

One of the missed opportunities of 1999 was a popular campaign against high interest rates that bludgeon everyone except the managers of financial capital. It went begging. Until the left draws sections of the middle classes closer to its ambit, it will remain an also-ran in the contest for hegemony.

Into the new millennium

In sum, an earnest and humble dialogue must be re-opened in the left - a dialogue aimed not at maximum consensus but at maximum collaboration between a variety of actors that share a basic commitment to a just, democratic and equitable society. A conference this year under the banner "The Left: Into the New Millennium" would not be a bad place to start.

Some opportunities surely were missed last year, but others broke the surface. The ideological lock-down imposed by two decades of neo-liberalism is ending. Progressive civil society is finding its voice. Inside the ANC and more broadly in society, colours are being nailed to the mast.

But the left has left few decisive marks on a transition which, after elections in mid-year, will shift into third gear with Mbeki at the wheel. It's too early to tell, but turning corners then might require levels of invention and temerity that have been way too thin on the ground in the past five years.

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