What’s Left of the South African Left?

This week on AIAC Talk, we’re debating whether the moment is right for South Africa’s left to form a new party. Watch it live on YouTube.

Photo: Tony Carr, via Flickr CC.

After its unbanning in 1990, the African National Congress (ANC) entrenched itself as the main political force in South Africa, beginning to make the transition from a mass democratic movement to a political party. In the process, it demobilized popular forces: the ANC as a political party would henceforth represent and lead the masses. It also formalized a tripartite alliance with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the federation of the most powerful trade unions, and the South African Communist Party (SACP). Together they were getting ready to govern South Africa.

The Alliance espoused a commitment to the “National Democratic Revolution”, which conceived of a two-stage process of liberation. This framework was essentially a local articulation of the classic Marxist-Leninist theory that underdeveloped countries must first pass through a stage of capitalism (realised through a bourgeois-democratic revolution where universal suffrage is extended to all citizens), followed by a socialist stage. The Alliance’s commitment to the NDR, which would involve the stabilization of capitalist relations, represented a departure from popular hopes arising during the twilight of apartheid (in the internal resistance movement, the United Democratic Front or Mass Democratic Movement, social movements like the civis and the trade unions) that the struggle against apartheid would culminate in the struggle for socialism. As South Africa’s labor movement rapidly grew during the 1980s, the extent of poverty and deprivation across South Africa’s villages, townships and cities, resulted in millions being mobilized in a struggle that not only sought liberation from the apartheid state, but the capitalist class that it represented as well.

Following the democratic transition, the popular structures of the anti-apartheid movement were either dissolved and absorbed into the ANC (most notably, this happened with the UDF which led the anti-apartheid resistance in the final decades of apartheid while the ANC was in exile), or consolidated into a vehicle for the ANC, like what happened with disparate on the ground civic organisations when they became constituted under the South African National Civic Organisation in 1992. In addition, the ANC swallowed rightwing groups like ethnic parties (the coloured Labour Party or elements of the National Party, which had governed South Africa during apartheid), former homeland politicians and traditional authorities. The latter would become organized under the Congress of Traditional Leaders and, like under colonialism and Apartheid, be salaried by central government. The late 1990s and early 2000s therefore was a moment wherein many formations re-evaluated the strategy of organizing with and through the Alliance in the face of its disappointing volte-face away from a policy of economic distribution. 

As such, a structural shift occurred where the South African left fragmented into basically two camps: left within the Tripartite Alliance and the independent left. The independent left has a longer history in South Africa (think intellectuals like Neville Alexander or the various movements deemed “Trotskyist” or black consciousness during the long 20th century) but it got a new impetus from the proliferation of social movements in the early 2000s that mushroomed against the growing failures of the ANC to deliver the popular reform it promised. While many of these were primarily located within working class communities, these institutions were not typically rooted in factory floor organising but rather in grassroots and community organising, usually around single issue struggles like access to antiretroviral medication, housing, or electricity. Think the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, the Anti-Privatization Forum, Anti-Eviction Campaign and groups like Abahlali Basemjondolo, which organized shack dwellers. Even the Treatment Action Campaign, the only one of these groups that became a national movement, can be considered part of this independent left.  Further, the most developed and active layer of cadre within them were usually middle-class activists (largely white), well-placed to advance these causes due to their access to resources and donor networks, as well as from the pedigree of formerly being anti-apartheid activists (usually associated to the ANC itself).

The interplay between the Alliance left and the independent left continued to shape the development of the South African left well into South Africa’s post-Apartheid existence. The economic leadership of the ANCs has mostly brought about rapid deindustrialisation, the consolidation of an extractive and financialised minerals energy complex, and the creation of a black bourgeoisie through the advent of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) initiatives which sought to deracialise South Africa’s capitalist class by making affirmative action policies compulsory for most South African companies, especially those seeking to do business with the government. Although significant changes have happened for the poor, especially by way of basic service delivery, these have been motivated by the goal of minimum provision for social stability rather than equality, and unemployment, poverty and inequality have increased, all exacerbated by COVID-19 (and set to worsen as President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government pushes through an austerity agenda in its wake). 

Following the Marikana massacre in 2012 (a turning point in post-apartheid South African history), the largest union in South Africa, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) broke away from the Tripartite Alliance in 2013. At once, it resolved to form a new working class party. It spearheaded the formation of the United Front, a wide coalition of workers, the unemployed, rural people, civic organizations, academics and activists that would unite workplace and community struggles and lay the groundwork for a worker’s party. The project stalled, and feeling that it had been taken over by NGOs, NUMSA left, throwing the UF into quiet death. In 2017, NUMSA then also played a hand in the creation of the South African Federation of Trade Unions ot SAFTU (the new union federation’s secretary general was Zwelinzima Vavi, a former COSATU general secretary) so as to displace COSATU as South Africa’s largest trade union confederation. Right then, the sense that a new party was on the horizon began to lift, and at the end of 2018, the Socialist and Revolutionary Workers Party held its pre-launch convention with delegates drawn primarily from SAFTU.

But after the SRWP’s humiliating defeat at the 2019 general election following a rushed campaign (it amassed only 25,000 votes, below the threshold required to obtain at least one seat Parliament), South Africa’s left is once again left roaming in the political wilderness. (It is worth noting that the only independent left politician that ever won office was Trevor Ngwane, a former ANC city councillor who ran as an independent in Soweto and won; Ngwane was instrumental in the founding and brief success of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee.)  

At the same time, the Economic Freedom Fighters, formed in the wake of Marikana, occupied that space usually taken by left groups and the trade union movement and after 2015 younger people, especially university students and intellectuals, found a home in politics that combined black consciousness and radical feminism. The latter politics, though it harked back to Steve Biko and BC, also revived the politics of the black nationalist Pan Africanist Congress, but also, notably, drew on discourses from black politics in the United States. Of all these groupings only the EFF managed to capture mass sentiment which carried that party to the third largest in parliament and to act as kingmakers in coalition governments in a number of cities at the expense of the ANC. The EFF, however, displays a mix of populism, intolerance, nationalism and jingoism, that are as far from Leftism as you can imagine.       

To face the worsening political, social and ecological crisis before us (that most acutely affects the poor and working-class), requires effective and coordinated action from South Africa’s progressive forces. What should be the vehicle for this? As Niall Reddy recently wrote (his was the inaugural post in a series of republications, as part of Africa Is A Country’s partnership with the South African Left publication, Amandla), “Social strains look set to keep accumulating. But assuming that any crisis they produce will  automatically redound to the Left’s benefit would be folly. That will only happen if we have the political vision and the organizational capacity to ensure that class becomes the fault line of social polarization. And for that we need to face up to the challenge of constructing a new party.”

So in this week’s AIAC Talk, we’re joined by Niall, Mazibuko Jara and Tasneem Essop to discuss and debate the question of whether South Africa’s left needs a new party. Some are not convinced – as this editorial of South African publication New Frame claims, “Party politics as a whole is an expression of the failures of the past quarter of a century and carries no possibility of a viable way forward, let alone any emancipatory prospects.” Instead, “a Left that could find a way out of the gathering crisis would need to be rooted in genuinely popular organisations, grounded in democratic practices, able to speak to the lived experience of the escalating social and political crisis and directly articulated to actual, existing struggles – from workplaces to communities and campuses.” Or, should we be persuaded by AIAC Talk co-host Sean Jacobs, who, claiming that South Africa needs democratic socialism, wrote with Benjamin Fogel that, “Like it or not the majority of South African believe in democracy. Dismissing their belief as false consciousness and elections—which so many fought and died for—as a mere trick of the bourgeoisie, insults our struggle. Any future left project needs to begin with the premise that 1994 marked a victory for democracy and progressive forces, something that should be built upon rather than rejected or dismissed.”

Niall Reddy, from South Africa, is a doctoral student in sociology at New York University, Tasneem Essop is a researcher at the Society, Work and Politics Institute (SWOP) at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and Mazibuko Khanyiso Jara is an activist, trainer and popular educator and a former national spokesperson of the South African Communist Party also serving on the Amandla editorial collective.

Stream the show the show on Tuesday at 18:00 in Harare, 17:00 in London, and 12:00 in New York on YouTubeFacebook, and Twitter.

On our last episode, we were joined by Bongani Nyoka and Joshua Myers to investigate Archie Mafeje and Cedric Robinson, two scholars and activists whose efforts to challenge Eurocentrism in political thought are becoming more widely known. Clips from that episode are available on our YouTube channel, but as usual, best check out the whole thing on our Patreon along with all the episodes from our archive.

If you were wondering where we’ve been, we took a break after the Easter weekend to rest up a bit but also to inaugurate the first broadcast of our new partnership with the Ghana Studies Association – we hope everyone got the chance to do as well.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.