In October 2015, South Africa was rocked by over two weeks (commencing 14th October) of student protests. These protests shut down most universities, led to violent confrontations between police and students (most notably at parliament and with a march of thousands of students on the Union Buildings), and vocalized demands that President ZUMA address the call for free higher education, “insourcing” and a moratorium on fee increases for 2016. Twenty-one years into post-apartheid democracy a new generation of university student activists openly rebelled against the ANC government’s neoliberal fiscal cutbacks of public universities and reclaimed the importance of “public goods.” The use of mass mobilisation and social media, such as #FeesMustFall, led some commentators to suggest the “Arab Spring Moment” had arrived in South Africa. Students themselves in their assemblies and messaging also discoursed in the language of revolution. This manifestation of resistance is far from over and cannot be isolated. It has to be located in the crisis of national liberation politics and renewal of a new South African left.
| ||"In this context, “revolutionary nationalist,””communist” and “social democrat” are all anachronistic labels and meaningless slogans to the generation of youth rewriting history through their recent protests."|| |
For even as the 20th century variants of left alternatives to capitalism have waned, we see new manifestations of resistance struggles. Global neoliberal restructuring has given rise to a new cycle of global resistance engendering a renewed global left imagination, new practices of strategic politics, alternative forms of mass power, the rethinking of our political instruments and an articulation of transformative systemic alternatives (Harnecker, 2015; Panitch et al, 2012). This cycle is punctuated by the social movements in Latin America, the institutional left experiences from the Workers Party in Brazil to Chavistas in Venezuela to Syriza in Greece, the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and the transnational activism of global networks, movements and the World Social Forum. In these experiences there have also been defeats, setbacks and challenges. But most important for the left is its new acknowledgement of the complexity of transformation and the growing sophistication of its sense of the diversity of contexts, the timing and democratic coordination of multiple confrontations - this instead of the mere mimicking of some one-size-fits-all model of change as a basis of resistance. In fact, taken together all these new experiences provide important reference-points for building a vital anti-authoritarian new left in South Africa.
| ||"the South African national liberation left was largely shaped and influenced by the revolutionary nationalist, communist and social democratic traditions of the 20th century, which provided it with a template, identity and grammar."|| |
In fact, contrary to this understanding working class hegemony of the post-apartheid order—organized through the ANC-led Alliance was actually a short lived affair. The ideological project of working class leadership of society through national liberation vanguardism was dead by 1996, when the ANC adopted its homegrown strategy of financialised and globalised accumulation, the Growth Employment and Redistribution macro-economic strategy (GEAR). The adoption of GEAR not only demonstrated the limits of a vanguardist politics in a world of globalising capitalism, but vitiated working class agency. For the better part of the last two decades the working class has been increasingly squeezed by the imperatives of neoliberal accumulation: stagnating low wages, precariatisation, high and growing unemployment, poverty that disproportionately affects women, the Marikana massacre of mineworkers and now the destruction of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) by an ANC-SACP faction operating in the labour federation (Satgar and Southall, 2015). This is neither hegemonic working class politics nor can it be defended as left politics. Rather this is about the cooption and undermining of working class leadership of society to ensure the reproduction of a globalising capitalism and the rule of transnationalising capital through the ANC-led Alliance.
| ||"For the better part of the last two decades the working class has been increasingly squeezed by the imperatives of neoliberal accumulation..."|| |
At the same time, corruption and the theft of public money by the ruling party and its “deployees” in the state have become widespread and systemic. The license for corruption emanates from the top in the ruling ANC with the sitting President of the country and the ANC, Jacob Zuma, implicated in arms deal corruption, patronage relations to promote members of his family and more recently the R240 million Nkandla scandal in which a palatial rural home was built for him with taxpayer money. Zuma is merely emblematic, the face of a deeper crisis that accompanies corruption: the parasitic creation of a bureaucratic capitalist class with immense social distance from the masses. This disconnect is growing and expressed through violent and non-violent protest actions across civil society, including the recent student protests across the country. In short, the crisis of state and ruling party legitimacy is deepening (Dale, 2015).
Moreover, contrary to the national liberation myth in which the ANC is synonymous with “the people,” a people’s history and understanding of South Africa’s struggle suggests that all progressive South Africans (from all race groups) achieved democracy, whether through resisting pass laws, marrying across colour lines, living defiantly together in some mixed communities and struggling against apartheid through various movements. Resistance, both formal and informal, organised and unorganised, domestic and international - all these played a part in ending apartheid. At the same time, and contrary to the ANC’s articulation of African nationalism, elements from all race groups also tried to defend and reproduce the apartheid system. Who were the liberators and who were the oppressors under apartheid is a complex issue as Dlamini (2014) powerfully demonstrates. At the same time, the ANC’s embrace of erstwhile enemies such as the National Party, traditional leaders and former “Homeland leaders” further undermines the ANC’s proprietary claims over post-apartheid democracy and also reduces non-racialism to electoral expediency. Moreover, the ANC rules South Africa with such disregard for the complexities of how post-apartheid South Africa was made that through the hubris of power it is increasingly playing a role in weakening constitutional democracy and rolling back democratic gains that were fought for by all progressives, both South African and internationalist.
The ANC-led Alliance has also re-racialised and deepened patriarchal norms in South African society in hideous ways. The ANC-led Alliance’s degeneration and its maldeveloped ideological template (expressed through a claim to South African exceptionalism as the cornerstone of its “theory of colonialism of a special type”) has meant that, in its very nationalism, the ANC Alliance’s understanding of Africa in terms of the centrality of such nationalism has always contained the seeds of xenophobia. Today, in fact, the Alliance’s narrow African nationalism not only turns against ‘Pan-Africanism’ but also is increasingly about sub-national exceptionalisms linked to old ethnic identities constructed around apartheid-era “bantustans.” There is a dangerous retribalising of ethnic identity at work in the ANC’s nationalism (Jara, 2013: 272-276). This is further re-enforced by increased power given to traditional authorities and through land dispossessions happening in rural communities, this mainly in favour of extractive industries. Moreover, in such a context women have had to struggle particularly strenuously to affirm their rights, power and agency as modern citizens (Claassens, 2015).
| ||"...the commanding heights of South African capitalism are about transnationalising monopoly power, which, despite the freedom of post-apartheid democracy, is still white and male dominated. "|| |
| ||"...state power is increasingly instrumentalised merely to reproduce a South African order that meets only the needs of a few, especially those of the ANC’s own “heroic cadre” of leaders... and with the “national interest” now being deemed to be synonymous with the patronage machine of the ANC."|| |
Almost three decades of neoliberalisation has enabled important resistance against racialised and gendered forms of commodification, dispossession, exploitation and ecological destruction. In the post-apartheid context this resistance has gone through two cycles. The first cycle (the late 1990s into the early 2000s) was marked by the emergence of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), the Landless Peoples Movement and the Anti-Privatisation Forum, many of which are now moribund or trying to renew themselves (like the TAC). A second cycle has come to the fore, this marking the emergence of a much more discernible and variegated left. Beginning in 2007 (to the present) this has been punctuated by struggles for ‘service delivery’, building solidarity economies, the Right to Know, Equal Education, social justice, defense of constitutional freedoms, food sovereignty, rural democracy and rights for women, against extractivism, climate jobs, housing, rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersexed (LGBTI), the recent student protests demanding decolonisation, free education and insourcing of universities and struggles against corruption (including a Vote No campaign during the 2014 national elections). Nor is it merely a “rebellion of the poor’ (Alexander, 2010) or a “violent democracy” (Von Holdt, 2013) as suggested by some sociological perspectives. For these reductive analyses mainly focus on service delivery struggles and miss the broader range of struggles emerging in contemporary South African civil society, and miss the polyvalent character of institutional agency and the various and diverse forms of resistance coming to the fore. In fact, while there may be different tactical repertoires and institutional bases taken by these struggles, their predominant thrust addresses systemic challenges, articulates transformative alternatives and mobilizes popular power.
Second, since 2008 various grassroots activists involved in movements and campaigns, and coming out of the ANC-led Alliance, part of the independent Marxist left, the labour left and the Trotskyist left, began conversations about the global crises of capitalism and the national liberation project. The significance of this convergence cannot be understated as it is the first time that such a broad range of different traditions came together to work collectively. This gave rise to the formation and launch of the Democratic Left Front (DLF) in January of 2011. The DLF was not formed as a political party but more as a space for solidarity, building capacity for resistance around transformative alternatives, developing analyses of the contemporary crises and advancing an anti-capitalist imagination beyond neoliberalised national liberation politics (DLF, 2011). It essentially functioned as a pole of attraction as part of a process of reclaiming lost ground. While the DLF did not realize all its objectives and has become much too centered around South Africa’s Trotskyist left, it has played a crucial organising role to bring South Africa’s very divided left into a common political space to begin crucial conversations. It provided a political home for some, supported important resistance to xenophobic violence, campaigned against the wasteful expenditure of the World Cup, and gave support to several grassroots community struggles, including worker committees involved in the platinum belt and the Marikana Campaign for Justice, and the Climate Jobs Campaign. True, the DLF is at a crossroads as grassroots social forces are being realigned around the NUMSA-led United Front, some aligning to the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and as rising anti-systemic forces build their own capacities as part of the cycle of resistance. And yet the DLF has provided valuable lessons for left convergence. And it may still have an important contribution to make to strengthening the emerging alliance between community and worker struggles, as part of building the NUMSA-led United Front.
| ||"...yet the DLF has provided valuable lessons for left convergence. And it may still have an important contribution to make to strengthening the emerging alliance between community and worker struggles..."|| |
Third, the massacre of 36 platinum mine workers on August 16th, 2012 did not mark just another militant moment in post-apartheid industrial relations or a mere expression of the securitisation of neoliberal politics. For this brutal massacre and historical event was in fact a truly conjunctural development, one that gave rise to a fundamental rupture in the working class support base of the national liberation bloc of forces. The realignments flowing from this have given rise to an independent union in the platinum mining sector, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), taking away significant support for the ANC-aligned National Union of Mine Workers. In addition, Marikana has had significant ramifications for COSATU itself - contributing directly, for example, to the largest union in South Africa, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa/NUMSA (with over 340 000 members), withdrawing support for the ANC in the 2014 elections, leaving the ANC-led Alliance, and exploring the process of developing a United Front and a Movement for Socialism (NUMSA, 2014). Since NUMSA resolved on this direction at its 2013 special congress it has convened a resistance assembly to learn about grassroots movements, campaigned against neoliberal policy proposals such as the Youth Wage Subsidy and the national budget, hosted an international symposium with various left movements and parties from around the world, initiated a United Front building process, convened a conference on socialism and actively championed mass mobilisation against corruption. Today NUMSA, together with eight other unions, is also poised to lead the building of a new labour federation in South Africa after it was expelled, together with the General Secretary of COSATU, Zwelinzima Vavi, from COSATU.
There is growing consensus that South Africa’s national liberation project is exhausted, in part due to its profound capitulation to neoliberalisation. Put more starkly such national liberation politics is, like most national liberation projects, not a way forward for the working class and national-popular forces committed to transformation. Thus, while it was perhaps not inevitable for the national liberation project to end up where it has, it is in fact being eaten up by its own contradictions and limitations. Not that this, in itself, guarantees the emergence of a genuine left alternative. The EFF is a negative example in this regard. It is a product of the ANC and it has emerged by feeding off the ANC’s weaknesses, particularly through its being anti-Zuma. In its practice, however, it is a self-styled vanguard, organised around the “cult of the personality” and a militarised internal hierarchy, and lumpen in its tactical interventions in everyday politics. The EFF gestures to the left of the ANC–led Alliance, but is afflicted with the same limits and contradictions of the ANC. While it captures headlines for its disruptive and populist politics, it has not broken the mould of national liberation politics and has not captured the imagination of most South African youth, including those involved in the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement, the students demanding free education (#FeesMustFall) and others involved in the various anti-systemic movements that are on the rise. The EFF is in its essence an electoral opposition, and would really be tested if it were ever to come to control state power even at a local government level. How different, we might well ask, would it actually be from the ANC if in power?
| ||"...for an effective and meaningful left to emerge as a serious contender it will have to provide an imagination and horizon of politics beyond the national liberation template and neoliberal capitalism. It will have to constitute a new balance of forces and a political project with broad mass appeal..."|| |
In fact, there are four formidable challenges confronting South Africa’s left. But, in light of the advances that are now being made, they are not impossible to address. First, South African capitalism reflects a deep set of systemic crises that were not resolved by the national liberation project and have worsened in the context of neoliberal restructuring and deep financialised globalisation. A crucial challenge in this regard is the deglobalisation of finance to reverse the economic regression and financialised chaos that has taken place over the past three decades and to which South Africa’s political economy is articulated. Contrary to Picketty (2014: 515-539), who visited South Africa in 2015, this requires more than just increased taxation on capital but also the introduction of exchange controls, new investment laws, structurally diversifying the financial system, the introduction of a universal basic income grant and democratic planning. Moreover, it requires a programmatic politics unifying various anti-systemic solutions emerging from the new cycle of resistance in the country such as ‘free university education’, insourcing, food sovereignty, climate jobs, Right to Know proposals, equal education, and so on.
| ||"In this process of democratic convergence a new class and national popular alliance of the organised working class, the precariat, the permanently unemployed, the landless, youth, students, sections of the progressive middle class and left intelligentsia could congeal."|| |
| ||"Ultimately a 21st century South African socialism should be shaped by its rigorous appreciation of historical socialism’s limitations and the systemic alternatives required to overcome the new contradictions of globalising capitalism.."|| |
In short, non-racialism must be re-grounded in a new political economy analysis of a globalised social formation, one that evidences dangerous ecological contradictions, must be brought into dialogue with a resurgent black consciousness movement and must be the principled basis for confronting white and black privilege. In this regard, a non-racial approach to the climate crisis and the just transition is a crucial challenge for left politics in discovering a new horizon for itself. For the mere affirmation of blackness or whiteness actually becomes meaningless in the context of a scorched country and planet and ultimately the extinction of the human race. We need to find a renewed human solidarity to confront this challenge and to survive. In this regard a true, hard-won, non-racialism must be key to a struggle for systemic transformation as part of the just transition. But there remains much work to be done on this front.
Instead, transformative politics is about pre-figuring the future now through building systemic alternatives, evoking capacities for change from below, constituting new forms of mass power, rethinking the political instrument, extending and broadening democracy, reclaiming a transformed, genuinely popular, sovereignty and strengthening international solidarity. It is consistently anti-authoritarian and about democratically constituting a new working class-led counter-hegemony to sustain life. In South Africa the idea of a “movement for socialism” best embodies the logic of this politics, one within which a United Front of anti-systemic movements, an independent and worker controlled trade union federation, and a mass left party are constituted. But it is not led by “the party.” Instead such a movement for socialism is grounded in collective leadership in all its structures, a democratically conceived and commonly agreed program and a political division of labour in which a party is merely a tactical device in a mass transformative strategy. There is potential for this to be realised although whether this is what will actually happen remains an open question.