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Dan Connell starts by giving examples of the two perspectives: "Viewed from one angle the South African Left appears to be in a downward spiral from which it might not recover ..." and "From another perspective, however, the Left can be seen as being in a rather strong position, perhaps the strongest ever, to effect structural economic and social change in South Africa..." and states that "In fact, both views of the state of the Left are true, as far as they go: the Left is in trouble, but it is stronger than it seems at first glance. Part of the problem in assessing the Left lies in recognizing the limits to what is possible in this period, in both the South African and the global post-Cold War contexts." His concluding comment is: "Will the Left, and in particular the SACP, play a leadership role in this, or will it take a low profile in an attempt to protect its position in the liberation movement and in the state? This is one of the key places where we will test the mettle of the Left, but the evidence is not likely to be sufficient to draw conclusions for several years. A last question one might ask is: where will the solidarity movement be then?" (jbv)

vol 10 no 4

What's left of the South African left?
Dan Connell


Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 10, No 4, May 1995
Page 19
"Essay"

WHAT'S LEFT OF THE SOUTH AFRICAN LEFT?

BY DAN CONNELL

Dan Connell, the author of "Against All Odds: A Chronicle of the Eritrean Revolution" (Red Sea Press, 1993), is researching a book on movements for democracy and social justice in Eritrea, South Africa, Palestine and Nicaragua on a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Viewed from one angle the South African Left appears to be in a downward spiral from which it might not recover:
* The national liberation movement, embodied in the African National Congress, is drifting steadily rightward.

* The South African Communist Party, submerged in the ANC, seems to lack the distinct identity, profile and program to guide the country in the direction of socialism.

* The small parties to the 'left' of the SACP exist only on the margins and have little relevance to South Africa's political life, whatever their positions and programs.

* And the popular movement, once the driving force in the liberation struggle, is in tatters - worn down by the transition process, emasculated by a totalizing liberation movement, stripped of its best leaders by the new government and by capital, and abandoned by foreign patrons whose funding now flows to the government, if it flows at all.

From another perspective, however, the Left can be seen as being in a rather strong position, perhaps the strongest ever, to effect structural economic and social change in South Africa:
* The liberation movement now holds the presidency, the overwhelming majority of seats in Parliament, the majority of cabinet positions and all but two regional governments, with the SACP in a pivotal role to influence their direction.

* The party's membership has skyrocketed from 2,000 at the time of the unbanning in 1990 to 60,000, though it is anyone's guess as to how many are active.

* The commitment to democratization is hegemonic in the culture-at-large and can only be attacked obliquely.

* A comprehensive Reconstruction and Development Programme is on the table, both as a program of action for the Left and as a benchmark against which to measure the ANC-led Government of National Unity's performance.

* COSATU remains strong, particularly at the shop steward level, if also confronted with complex new challenges and problems.

* The culture of mass engagement is deep-rooted and widely shared, even if many popular organizations and institutions that developed during the anti-apartheid struggle are in crisis, and even if the new government is uncomfortable with independent, popular initiatives.

* And a lively exchange of ideas is in progress within the broad Left that ranges from strategy and tactics in the current political transition to the definition of socialism itself, as well as the road to get there.

In fact, both views of the state of the Left are true, as far as they go: the Left is in trouble, but it is stronger than it seems at first glance. Part of the problem in assessing the Left lies in recognizing the limits to what is possible in this period, in both the South African and the global post-Cold War contexts. Certain aspects of the Left's apparent weakness are also the inevitable consequence of the prolonged transition to democracy that got underway in 1990 and that will continue well past the elections of 1999. Others, however, are the result of miscalculations and tactical errors made during the early phase of this transition and need either to be corrected or compensated for now. In any event, the South African Left is entering uncharted territory at a moment when there are no simple signposts or ready formulas to tell them or us precisely what to do and where it will lead. Under these circumstances, it is far too early to render final judgments.

What is certain is that the next stage will be long and extremely complex. The democratic opening that culminated in the 1994 elections represented neither a decisive victory nor an absolute defeat for either side. As a result, the transition reflects the continuation of a struggle in new form between essentially the same class antagonists, albeit with less stark and absolute racial definition. To go forward, the Left will need new leadership, new cadres, new ideas, increased strength in the popular movement, which will have to be mobilized in new forms around new issues and objectives, and sustained solidarity from abroad. It will need to contest for power on new and unfamiliar terrain, for which it is not well-prepared, operating on several levels at once against an opponent much better-suited to this and far better financed, though it is worth recalling that this same opponent once held a similar advantage in the anti-apartheid struggle.

A key challenge is to shift this terrain beyond government and the multiplying, expert-driven forums being set up to deal with (and absorb) the principal contradictions that divide South African society and to extend the struggle back into the factories, the communities, the schools and other such venues, where the Left has latent strength and considerably more experience. This is complicated by strong opposition to extra-parliamentary popular protest from within the liberation movement itself, including from Mandela, who has characterized it as "social anarchy," but protest is only a piece of the challenge - mass organizing that produces tangible changes in people's lives is the central task, whether or not it takes protest to achieve it. The ability to do this effectively is hampered as much by the disarray in which the popular movement now finds itself as by actions or policies of the government. If one is looking for measuring sticks by which to judge the strength of the Left and its prospects for the future, its ability to reconstruct and lead the popular movement over the coming 2-3 years will be one of the best tests, though the simultaneous efforts to transform the state, the armed forces, the civil service, and the legal and judicial systems, while writing a new constitution shouldn't be under-rated. And if the Left fails in this challenge, there is no shortage of demagogues ready to step in to whip up popular dissatisfaction for their own quite different ends.

A seven-week tour of South Africa in February and March, my third visit in ten years, revealed a decidedly mixed political bag. There was cynicism and disillusionment among some, particularly on the Left fringes (within and without the SACP). There was deep frustration in many of the townships and informal settlements among those who had hoped for tangible results from the elections a year ago and who have seen little or nothing come of them yet. Many parliamentarians from the Left were running so fast to keep up with the pace of their daily workloads that they had precious little time to reflect on the situation long enough to develop and articulate new strategies, let alone to assist in the sort of mass mobilization that had characterized most of their work in a previous political life. It was in the factories and the communities, however, that I found the most compelling evidence that there is still life on the Left, especially in the SACP.

While there is a spirited debate over the party's independent role and identity throughout the country, few seriously propose an alternative to it. As journalist Hein Marais put it: "The SACP is the reservoir of Left history and aspirations in South Africa." What Marais and other left independents argue is that the left current within the party needs to be strengthened for it to challenge the rightward trend of the ANC and to provide effective leadership to a re-emerging mass movement. Other left critics within the party, notably in NUMSA, the metalworkers' union, argue that it is time for the party to either leave the strategic alliance with the ANC and COSATU or act to transform it in such a way as to give the party a far more independent identity as a working class formation within the alliance.

Already the effort by capital to blur racial divisions while heightening class differences is evident. While the gap between white and black income is closing, the over-all gap between rich and poor is widening. Few doubt that capital's main strategy is now to nurture and co-opt the new black elite. The principal debate on the Left comes up over whether the ANC leadership is on an unalterably rightward course and whether it is time for the SACP to come out of the closet and contend for power on its own before this emerging elite is so thoroughly entrenched that such struggle will become impossible. This might involve running candidates in elections in some areas. It might involve staking out independent positions on critical issues of the day, such as health policy, housing, access to higher education or the privatization of key utilities or enterprises. Certainly, it would involve playing a much more critical, public role toward the ANC and the government and, according to most left critics, would have to include a more explicit programmatic commitment to struggle for socialism.

Party leaders, for their part, insist that this is no time for a break-up of the alliance. They argue that the national liberation struggle is not yet concluded, that the movement holds position for the next phase of struggle for democracy but not power, and that it is by no means settled how the struggle will come out. However, in a departure from past theoretical insistence that the lines between the two revolutionary stages are fairly sharp, they maintain that it is possible and necessary to struggle for socialism in the present transition period, and they say the party is already playing an independent role in pushing for socialist-oriented policies within the alliance.

The "Strategy and Tactics" document drafted for the April party conference spells out a number of examples for this, under the call to build socialism now. They centre on efforts to roll back or transform the market and to "socialize" sections of the economy, by which the party means bring sections of the economy under popular control, not necessarily under the state. These concepts are premised on the formulation, floated last year in a paper by Jeremy Cronin, that socialism is a transitional stage of development in which elements of both the dying system and that which is emerging co-exist, as was the case with the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and that the state is not simply a monolithic instrument of class rule, which can be captured or lost by one class (or the party purporting to represent it) in a single, cataclysmic political moment. Rather, it is a complex and continuing site of class struggle. The main danger of such a formulation, as Cronin himself points out, is "boundless reformism." At the same time, an important consequence is that it gives the popular movement strategic significance in the struggle for socialism, beyond simply providing the troops for the seizure of state power or the levers to manipulate in support of those already struggling within the state.

The draft document also contains a call to give the struggle against gender oppression far more attention in this and future stages of struggle, insisting that "there can be no consolidation of democracy, still less an effective advance to socialism, unless we also, simultaneously, overcome patriarchy and actively transform gender relations." The representation of the struggle against patriarchy as a strategic objective is in part a result of internal party struggles - during which women in the leadership won the right to screen all major documents for gender content before they're circulated - and it is increasingly reflected in the speeches and pronouncements of party leaders, women and men. What remains to be seen is how this commitment will be implemented at ground level.

Meanwhile, Cronin and others insist that the party is having considerable influence within the liberation movement now, despite the ANC's rightward drift, which they readily acknowledge. They point in particular to the RDP, which arose initially out of an attempt by COSATU to draft a pact with the ANC to guarantee that it would not backslide on workers' issues once in power. The RDP evolved, with considerable input from the SACP and with an extraordinary degree of popular consultation, into the program of the ANC, though it has been stripped of much of its class content in a government "white paper" that spells out the state's implementation plans. Nonetheless, the base document remains as a blueprint for popular mobilization.

"To retreat out of the ANC now," Cronin continues, "would be to hand victory to our strategic opponents, whose agenda is also to capture the heart and soul of the ANC, and they are having some successes. If the party and the Left were to move out of the ANC and constitute some other force - the SACP by itself or some kind of new formation, a workers' party is one that has been offered - it would be to play completely into the hands of our opponents. The masses are behind the ANC, and Left forces need to be there, where the people are."

As to suggestions that the party field its own electoral candidates to challenge the ANC, Cronin argues that the people are not prepared for such non-antagonistic competition among allies - if it were to be so - and that to attempt it when people are just beginning to gain experience in electoral politics would open the possibility of even more manipulation by the opposition of the kind that took place in the last round, where the IFP effectively stole the elections in Natal and the Nats tricked the electorate in the Western Cape by playing to the ethnic fears of the "coloured" voters.

Whatever the SACP does as a party, the prospects for it and the Left in general will depend very much on the strength and character of the popular movement, which is at a crossroads of its own. The movement has suffered major setbacks, losing not only much of its human and material resources but its sense of purpose and identity. That this happened is hardly surprising - it is a problem that confronts all liberation struggles at the moment when they shift from resistance to governance and become detached from their base. The real question is whether or not the popular movement can be rebuilt in a new way to deal with new conditions and challenges and whether it can do so with enough autonomy from both state and party control that it can generate and sustain its own dynamic momentum.

The problems started with the return of the liberation movement in 1990, which almost immediately took over and dismantled many of the organizations that had powered the protest movement. The unbanning caught many popular movement leaders off-balance - people who had what Cronin terms a "B-team" mentality, seeing themselves as stand-ins for the first string in exile. This was notably the case in the women's and youth movements, where there had been strong grassroots organizations with their own distinct and diverse agendas, but which were folded into the ANC and then turned almost overnight into vehicles for mobilizing their constituencies for political agendas set at the centre, starting with support during the protracted negotiations and continuing through the national elections. Their main tasks centred on fundraising, membership-building and voter registration. At their worst, the leagues served - then and now - merely as platforms on which to advance individual careers and ambitions. "The only thing the Women's League campaigned for in the early '90s was greater representation on the ANC delegation at the World Trade Centre negotiations, so it became a very elite politics," says one high level SACP leader.

After waffling for almost two years, COSATU voted to retain the independence of the trade unions and to demand a role as an institutional partner in a strategic alliance with the ANC and the SACP. COSATU now faces problems of coordination among its diverse affiliates, a growing gap between leadership and base, and the need to rapidly develop new layers of leadership at all levels, but it is better positioned than most popular organizations to do so because of its strength on the shop floor, where its leadership is continually being renewed. A key issue for the trade unions is how to keep the membership engaged in political struggle when the new tripartite economic forums with representatives of business, the state and labour have the effect of marginalizing the base from the process, much as happened to the popular movement during the negotiations prior to the elections.

The civics, too, decided to stay independent, though they reorganized in 1992 into a unitary structure that carried with it many of the same centralist tendencies as those in the leagues, squelching local initiatives and in some cases serving as vehicles for careerism. The future of the civics remains unclear as the country heads into local elections, which will add yet another layer to the competing organizations that aspire to represent and respond to community needs. There are already problems at the community level in distinguishing the role of the civics from that of the ANC branches (not to mention the branches of the SACP, whose main task is often to keep the ANC branches alive), and there are now civics forming which are patently undemocratic and anti-ANC.

All the popular organizations, including the trade unions, were hurt by the movement's entry into government - not only at the national level, but also regionally. Many were stripped of their most skilled and experienced cadres. Even when new layers of leadership existed, as in the trade unions, many lacked specific knowledge of issues coming before them and acted erratically. Some organizations collapsed altogether in the face of these losses, notably in the alternative media. And there was further leakage to business, as people opted for salaried jobs over the movement-style subsistence wages and lifestyle to which they had been long accustomed. The October local elections will add to this problem, and there will undoubtedly be further losses to business, as the drive by capital to create a new black elite accelerates.

One can bemoan these losses, but not object to them, except in certain circumstances, for access to well-paid jobs by the black majority, especially Africans, is long overdue.The problem, as one SACP leader put it, is conflating elite affirmative action with structural transformation. It is also unreasonable to expect some activists to continue to work for next-to-nothing, as comrades move into cushy jobs. The movement will have to adapt to this and find ways to reward those who choose to stay and slog it out in the trenches. Those in salaried positions will also have to kick back more than they are doing now to those who remain behind. (I was told that ANC members in government give 10% back to their organization, while SACP members tithe themselves 15%, though I have no idea how SACP members deal with dual obligations.) Allowance will also have to be made for family and other obligations over what is clearly going to be a protracted struggle.

One problem this movement has is too many meetings. As one activist put it, "We equate meetings with democracy." It is not uncommon to find the most engaged organizers attending two and three meetings each day, including plant-based shop steward meetings, COSATU meetings, ANC branch meetings, SACP branch meetings, civic meetings, executive committee meetings and a host of others, often discussing the same issues. This holds dangerous potential for fostering exclusivity in the political leadership, especially as it affects women.

If the formal commitment to women's emancipation, so impressive in all the documents this movement produces, is to have any substance, this will have to give, as few women, unless single with independent sources of support, can devote this kind of time to meetings. By way of example, one woman on the SACP Central Committee was pointedly discouraged from running for re-election this year because she was forced to miss many CC meetings due to competing commitments, even though in each instance her reasons were deemed acceptable.

She is one of four elected women members (out of 30), and her experience is not untypical. An entire branch of the ANC Women's League in Johannesburg folded up last year because its members were being pulled in too many directions by competing organizational demands, according to Shamim Meer, one of the branch's organizers and a founder and former editor of Speak magazine, which also shut down last year.

Related to this is the loss of funding that the popular organizations have suffered. This is a real problem that needs to be addressed, but it also reveals a serious weakness carried over from the anti-apartheid era. This movement received more outside funding than any other liberation movement in history, with the possible exception of that in Palestine, and it came to depend on it for its existence. The challenge now is to find ways of operating without large-scale outside funding, to develop a level of self-reliance that permits political independence. Organizations will have to downsize and professionalize, relying more on part-time volunteers and small numbers of full-time, skilled, paid staff. They will also have to find sources of funding from South African constituencies, a task which could be made easier by new policies at the government level, such as changes in the tax code. However, this will take a recognition by government - under pressure from below - that the independence of popular organizations is important.

Still, the most serious loss to the popular movement is the political glue that held it together - the struggle against formal apartheid. What there is now to replace it is the struggle for economic and social equality manifested most insistently in efforts to improve daily life. The SACP has committed its main efforts in this regard to the RDP, and it will be judged on its ability to make this program work in the interests of the working class and the poor. The party has targeted the new RDP Councils - with representation by all organizations operating in a particular community, from ANC branches and sectoral formations to NGOs and religious institutions - as the community forums of the future, where people's needs will be most clearly articulated and advanced.

Reconstructing a women's movement will be more difficult, since any attempt to start a national organization is certain to be seen as a challenge to the ANC Women's League and attacked on that basis. The more likely scenario will be for organizations of women to develop around specific issues and concerns, like housing or health care, in much the same way that the very strong women's movement in Brazil developed in the 1980s. These issue-based groups could launch specific campaigns and alliances around common objectives, such as the alliance that developed around the South African Women's Charter or the more grassroots-based coalition represented in the National Land Commission.

It was encouraging in this regard to find former activists of the Natal Organization of Women meeting regularly to figure out how to restart the important grassroots mobilizing they were doing in the 1980s before they voted to dissolve the organization into the ANC. The Women's League never took up the project work that NOW had made the cornerstone of its eminently successful mobilization. Here, too, the question is: what resources will the SACP deploy to further this organizing process, and what will the party do if this provokes the ire of the Women's League?

The coming years will be a time for consolidation and repositioning for the South African Left. We are not likely to witness dramatic breakthroughs. Instead, there will be less visible community organization, institution-building, leadership development and cadre development. The SACP is talking about running semi-annual political schools for activists in the mass movement, though they say they cannot afford a full-time cadre school. "We have to find a way to develop cadres that can understand how to be active in the new context - how to engage the powers that be, whether in the state or outside, without being co-opted," says Langa Zita, who will shortly take charge of the party's political education program.

"At the political level, we have to defend the space we have - the democratic dispensation," Zita adds. "But we must seek within that process to consolidate and defend the legitimacy of mass struggle. Once everyone knows that if you provoke the popular masses in South Africa, they will respond, you are creating an environment to begin to think strategically. Without an active base, you are toothless."

Zita is one of those in the SACP who also argues that the subordination of the party's identity to the ANC throughout the exile years was a "strategic error," though he opposes any moves that might jeopardize the alliance. Instead, he says he wants to see the party develop its own mass base, to stand up and criticize Mandela, if that is what seems to be called for, and to act within the ANC as an organized force for working class interests. "The issue is not to break the alliance but to transform it into something like a patriotic front," he says.

The trade unions, too, face new challenges, against a backdrop of strong pressure from capital and from the state to forego actions that disrupt production in order, so goes the neo-liberal argument, to strengthen South Africa's ability to compete in the global market. In this context, NUMSA's 1995 campaign - the first in two years, complete with T-shirts, buttons and banners - may be a model of how the unions can reactivate the locals and draw the membership into direct participation again. Behind the slogan "Close the Apartheid Wage Gap," the main objective is not to raise wages, apart from cost-of-living, but to shrink the number of grades for workers in the metals and auto industries from 14 to five and to reduce the grade differentials to no more than 10 percent in an effort to address worker inequality. This will be linked to a drive to gain access to more skills for those in the lower grades. In March, the major COSATU affiliates also met to coordinate wage demands, positioning them to act in concert in the event they determine strike action is necessary in the up-coming bargaining cycle. One question here is: will the SACP lead or follow in this mobilization?

The coming period will also provide the country's progressive NGOs with a critically important capacity-building challenge with regard to the popular movement, at a time when the government will be trying to co-opt the NGOs into simple delivery channels and foreign funders will seek to build them into interlocutors with the grassroots, substituting, if not overtly undermining, a re-emergent militant popular movement. Inevitably, this will lead to confrontations with the new government. Will the Left, and in particular the SACP, play a leadership role in this, or will it take a low profile in an attempt to protect its position in the liberation movement and in the state? This is one of the key places where we will test the mettle of the Left, but the evidence is not likely to be sufficient to draw conclusions for several years. A last question one might ask is: where will the solidarity movement be then?

- 30 -

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