There has been much effort to try and characterize the nature of the unrest that has gripped South Africa in recent weeks. Following the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma for contempt, the country exploded into a period of disorder that brought flashbacks of the violence that engulfed South Africa before its first democratic elections in 1994. Some elements of this wave bridge then and now: the strategy of coordinated attacks on vital infrastructure, the weaponizing of deep racial and ethnic tensions, and the conditions of widespread poverty and inequality that serve as their background. The difference is that, when Nelson Mandela graced television screens to address the nation to appeal for calm after the murder of Chris Hani, it was a moment that put South Africans at ease—that reminded them that the postapartheid state in the making gave much reason for hope and that the African National Congress (ANC) would lead all into this brighter future. But when President Cyril Ramaphosa first addressed South Africa on this occasion, his presentation was flat and lethargic, representative of an ANC that is spent and left with little to offer the masses.
The available evidence suggests that the violence was predominantly orchestrated by supporters of Zuma as a plot to either extract concessions from Ramaphosa in favor of Zuma (such as that he be pardoned), or to sink the Ramaphosa government altogether. This is a dramatic confrontation between two factions of the ruling party: one, the so-called wing of “Radical Economic Transformation” (RET), represents a politics of faux radicalism that advocates a united front of the black tender-based capitalist class allied with the working class against the white-dominated private sector. It mostly serves as a rhetorical device to provide ideological cover for a system of political patronage in which the state becomes a site for accumulation. Ramaphosa’s camp, then, is associated with anti-corruption and the return to a mythical, clean capitalism where states and markets are neatly disentangled.
Many South African commentators have identified the RET faction as populist. In South Africa, this mainly functions as a dirty word, a floating signifier for a crass, antidemocratic political style where all power is vested in the grip of a charismatic leader—whether it’s Zuma or Julius Malema, the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), South Africa’s third-largest party which increasingly cohabits the same space as the RET faction in South Africa’s political field. In the last 10 years, “populists” have been the standard-bearers for the myriad ills afflicting South African politics today: systemic corruption bleeding out state resources and hollowing its capacity, social polarization through racialism and xenophobia, and the machismo which contributes to the country’s escalating rate of gender-based violence.
Indeed, the political trajectory the country now travels exhibits some of the hallmark beginnings of a full-fledged populist moment. The most recent general election in 2019 showed cracks in the center; the ANC and the Democratic Alliance (DA), the largest parliamentary opposition party, fielded their worst electoral performances to date. Though this is hardly enough to count as evidence of “Pasokification,” there is palpable inertia afflicting the mainstream parties. Despite coming to power promising to expel corruption, Ramaphosa looks mostly powerless to control members of his own party. Before this spate of violence, his hands were full with managing the fallout from a scandal in which Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize (who is mostly well-liked and viewed as competent given his professional health background) was placed on leave following revelations that he played a role in awarding an improper contract worth $10 million to a communications company run by a former aide.
While ANC comrades continue to use the public purse to fill their coffers, the party is moving forward with its plan to drain the pockets of citizens. In sharp contrast to governments elsewhere that are using the exigency of the pandemic to increase public spending, the ANC is reining it in—with steep cuts to the public sector, education, and health planned. The DA, on the other hand, has been bleeding support due to its misplaced obsession with right-wing American identity politics and concomitant efforts to rebrand as a culture-war fighting force (the de facto party leader, Helen Zille, sets the tone). In the corridors of elite public opinion, the ANC is roundly derided and the DA is routinely mocked. Of course, both parties have loyal voting bases that give them enduring electoral dominance. But for some time now, the political forces seen as lively and creative are either fresh players like the EFF, African Transformation Movement, ActionSA, and Patriotic Alliance, or the RET faction spiritually led by Zuma (read more about the unrest precipitated by his arrest here, here, and here).
These aforementioned groups are drawing from the populist playbook in more identifiable ways, specifically with regard to their ideological focus and political form. In terms of the first, they are marked by a tendency to make identity the dividing line of society. The EFF, for example, conceives of South Africa’s fundamental social cleavage as proceeding on racial lines. South Africa’s political dysfunction is attributable not just to nagging, racialized inequality, but that the “national question” (the debate on South African nationhood) remains unresolved. In other words, all political conflict is an expression of an irreconcilable, transhistorical antagonism between settler and native. Unless and until there is some kind of thoroughgoing redistribution of resources that makes the color of economic and cultural power in South Africa noticeably black, social instability will abide.
As already alluded to, the EFF is but a more sophisticated extension of the RET faction. The latter is by no means a stable or coherent one and mostly encompasses a loose network of people that stand to lose if patronage is seriously curtailed through legal and policy interventions. But the normative framework deployed by proponents of RET and the EFF is the same insofar as it diagnoses South Africa’s problems as stemming from wealth being far too concentrated in the hands of the white minority. The problem is not the unequal distribution per se, but the perceived unfairness of resources being predominantly owned and controlled by “non-indigenous” South Africans—i.e., whites and Indians. The programs touted as vehicles for redistribution—be it land reform or nationalisation—are not pursued as egalitarian initiatives, but as projects for reclaiming national sovereignty as a “black”—specifically “African”—race.
These tropes clearly mirror the strategies of populists elsewhere, but do they resonate with the masses? Notwithstanding its impressive electoral growth since starting in 2013, the EFF seems headed for a plateau. After its noisier initial years as one of the biggest adversaries of Zuma, it now looks stuck. One reason for this comes from an overreliance on its online presence, itself a quality of the populist political form. As a “digital party,” the EFF commands a large social media following with a unique ability to shape the agenda of the digitized public sphere. But this hasn’t translated into much political influence, as the party has mostly eschewed the base building required to actualize its (once) ambitious political program.
Nowadays, the EFF is largely content to organize protests against racism at South African schools (which are mostly counterproductive and involve little consultation with the victims) or against the national health regulator (endangering members’ lives during a pandemic while demanding that scientific decisions about vaccines be decided by political whim). This, under normal circumstances, is perfectly fine for a political party to do. Yet the fact that this constitutes the bulk of the EFF’s activity during an unprecedented social and economic crisis makes the party either laughable or suggests something about the true nature of its political priorities. Basically, the EFF is not really as anti-systemic as its leaders make it out to be, and it only seeks a transformation of South Africa’s elite.
The EFF appeals to working-class voters with its rhetoric, but because it lacks any roots in working-class society it has grown increasingly disconnected from it. It has mostly projected the idiosyncratic views of its top brass, and with expected inconsistency—for example, during this violence, some of its senior members have called for Zuma’s pardon, others have shamed his kleptocracy, and others have represented him in the court proceedings attempting to prevent his arrest. The EFF seems unsure of its identity—iffy about how far to follow its ostensible commitments to accountability, the rule of law, and Pan-Africanism, versus how much to pander to fashionable discourses. It is no wonder that it has started to tacitly embrace right-wing talking points to shore up against possible decline.
The communal racial violence of mid-July will certainly give ammunition to those keen on packaging South Africa’s divisions as primarily a conflict between its four racialized groups—black, white, Indian and coloured. But outside of specific regions—such as KwaZulu-Natal, where tensions between blacks and Indians have deep historical origins—race-based concerns don’t figure as much in the political concerns of the majority. One guess as to why this is so is that although white South Africans are still seen as the symbol of wealth and inequality, there is an established, if not bitter, commonsense understanding that they are so integrated into South Africa’s social and economic fabric that for better or worse, they are here to stay. Though they might hoard their wealth or practice versions of “redlining” (to keep black residents out of certain neighborhoods or police blacks’ movements using private security), they are accepted as being a positive force in the country overall. It is telling, for example, that most South Africans look disapprovingly to Zimbabwe as a worst-case scenario of white flight that a hyper-racialized polity would precipitate.
It is here that savvier populists are breaking ground, with immigration selected as the prism of choice to explain numerous social ills like joblessness, crime, and communal disintegration. That South Africa’s political class scapegoats migrants is nothing new. What’s distinct about the moves made by emerging outfits is the latent effort to forge an anti-immigrant alliance across class lines, between the townships and suburbs. Some characters that have more explicitly drawn on these themes are those like Herman Mashaba, whose anti-immigrant record is well-established. When he was with the DA, Mashaba’s political commitments placed him in the tradition of high-minded, pro-business, by-your-bootstraps black conservatism (he made his money selling hair straightening products).
However, his new outfit, ActionSA, exhibits a more “catch-all” character, with its policy platform spanning issues both left and right: from climate change, land reform, and housing, to immigration and the rule of law. These maneuvers bear a strong resemblance to the non-partisan populism of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy, which straddles both left and right and draws the line of social antagonism between ordinary citizens and the political establishment. Ahead of local government elections scheduled for October this year, ActionSA announced that it would appoint its mayoral candidates through a digital voting system that allows registered members to pick them—a copy-paste of Five Star’s experiment with direct democracy, the Rousseau platform (former DA leader Mmusi Maimane, who left the party for similar reasons as Mashaba, has also launched a citizen populist outfit called the OneSA movement).
Often attached to such anti-immigrant sentiments are law and order discourses, although they also have a logic of their own; these discourses will no doubt have stronger allure in the wake of the recent unrest. Images of quickly mobilized vigilante groups in predominantly white or Indian neighborhoods show the success of the siege mentality that parties like the DA have pushed to exploit suburban paranoia. Since 2008, white South Africans have increasingly become militant, because where they once had the economic muscle to opt out of society—through gated communities, private schools and private healthcare—the COVID squeeze has subjected them to the generalized precarity enveloping everyone else. In the securitized enclaves to which they now make a desperate retreat (enclaves that increasingly also have black residents), black South Africans are marked as “foreigners” and increasingly put through the humiliating trial of racial profiling. (In the recent violence in Kwazulu-Natal, for example, armed white residents patrolled entrance roads to their suburbs demanding black residents show IDs and in some cases shooting at blacks.)
Though images of self-organized, armed groups in middle-class suburbs are new and horrifying, they have been a mainstay in South Africa’s townships and rural areas given the general pattern of poor service delivery that policing forms a part of. A notable development was when minibus taxi associations mobilized their ranks to defend shopping malls against looters and to help with cleanup operations (in contrast, taxi violence has rocked the Western Cape, a province that the looting didn’t reach). The security forces’ inability to quell this recent eruption of violence will only harden perceptions of state failure and pave the way for unaccountable non-state actors to mete out violence and law enforcement in South African communities. Accompanying this will be renewed calls for a more punitive criminal justice system to properly “deal” with criminals.
More traditional right-wing formations, like the Christian evangelical African Transformation Movement, explicitly advocate for the return of capital punishment, as well as the empowerment of traditional leadership—and, surprisingly, for a state bank (not unlike the EFF’s call for the nationalization of the reserve, or central, bank). There are also groupings like the Patriotic Alliance, led by gangster-turned-businessman Gayton McKenzie, which is making inroads with coloured communities in Johannesburg (ousting the DA in by-elections in suburbs like Riverlea and Eldorado Park). McKenzie has also made imprisoning undocumented foreigners a focus, declaring, “We shall build walls like Donald Trump. We shall put soldiers there.”
What gives these groups traction is less their own ingenuity or organizational strength, but rather their ability to capitalize on the economic insecurities, cultural anomie, and political discontent which pervades all corners of South African society. Popular mobilizations these days look less like well-organized masses taking to the streets united by a shared cause and vision, and more like motley crowds spilling over from Twitter, where hashtags determine the shape of mutual grievance—#PutSouthAfricansFirst, #RacistBanksMustFall, and now, #ShutdownSA. Like all populists weaponizing popular frustrations, questions linger about their ability to move in a sustainable political direction, since they by nature flourish in a climate of disorganisation and ill-defined disaffection.
Put another way, populists, rather than representing an exogenous development, are products of the prevailing conditions. The patterns are global: the decline of parties and civil society organisations like trade unions as a result of neoliberal globalization. The manifestations are local and have as their key dynamic the political decay of South Africa’s ruling coalition. Although the Tripartite Alliance (the ANC; South African Communist Party, or SACP; and Congress of South African Trade Unions, or SAFTU) entered South Africa’s democratic era as the most vibrant social force, its grassroots institutions are now withered and sickly. Dominated by ghost members, local branches are now undemocratic vehicles for power plays and patronage dealing, and the trade union movement is fractured between those loyal to the ANC (under the Congress of South African Trade Unions, or COSATU), and those oppositional to it (under SAFTU). The ANC’s wane and increasing dysfunction matter not just as an object of political intrigue, but because they affect the possibilities in the political field as a whole.
Populism arises out of this political void; it represents an earnest attempt to “rethink mobilization in an age of demobilization.” A well-accepted definition is hard to come by, but instead of viewing contemporary populism as the force corroding democracy (though some populists do, such as Viktor Orban in Hungary or Narendra Modi in India), populism arises from the erosion of democracy wrought by thirty years of neoliberalism, which retooled the state to shield the market from political contestation. Populism is not solely a right-wing phenomenon as it is often thought of. More accurately, it is just the dominant organizational form of our age.
Those content to simply hurl the label as an epithet reveal an anti-majoritarian inclination, a longing for the heyday of post-ideological consensus at the peak of neoliberalism. Since its unravelling with the 2008 financial crisis, politics—understood as the conflict of different societal visions beyond the mere administration of government—has been returning in fits and starts. Conditioned by neoliberal depoliticization, populists have mostly struggled to advance a coherent vision and at best can only offer firm repudiations of the status quo. Where intermediary institutions would have once played the role of interest formation by helping individuals become groups through shaping shared political commitments, populists are only able to draw from the surface of inchoate social grievance. Thus the usual recourse to identity as a framework for understanding social conflict, for those markers which previously expressed competing interests, like class, have become objectively displaced. Identity provides an anchor for vague discontent, but it can hardly provide the roots for real politics.
Still, it is hard to see a path to power for most of these right-wing populists, mainly because the ANC’s hegemony is spectacularly resilient. But perhaps the mistake is thinking that power is what they want. Some likely just want a piece of the pie that is the expansive and lucrative ANC party-state; others are simply interested in becoming coalition players and advancing their policy hobby horses. Though many personally brand as outsiders—like the EFF’s Julius Malema, for example—many are one-time insiders in search of a route back in. Their significant effect on the South African political landscape, however, has been to set the terms for how social antagonism is popularly framed and understood. Even Ramaphosa’s presidency has involved him casting his political agenda in populist terms, with talk of “inclusive growth” and building an economy that works for the majority. Of course, the ANC is well-practised in talking left and walking right. (For his part, Ramaphosa recently admitted the government is giving serious consideration to a basic income grant—whether this is more than just placation remains to be seen).
Where is the South African left amidst all this? The South African left has been in disarray for a long time. Its popular structures were mostly tethered to the ANC; following the democratic transition, they were either dissolved (most notably, this happened with the United Democratic Front which led the anti-apartheid resistance in the final decades of apartheid when the ANC was in exile) or consolidated into a vehicle for the ANC, like what happened with different civic organizations on the ground when they were absorbed into the South African National Civic Organisation in 1992. The late 1990s, therefore, was a moment where many formations reevaluated the strategy of organizing with and through the Alliance, in the face of its disappointing volte-face away from a radical policy of economic distribution.
As such, a structural shift occurred where the South African left fragmented into the left within the Tripartite Alliance and the independent left. The independent left emerged 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 (e.g., the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, the Anti-Privatization Forum, Anti-Eviction Campaign, groups like Abahlali Basemjondolo, which organized shack dwellers, and the AIDS movement). Even the Treatment Action Campaign, the only one of these groups that became a national movement, can be considered part of this independent left. The culmination of this rift came through the “NUMSA moment” in 2013, when the largest trade union affiliated with COSATU, the National Union of Metalworkers South Africa (NUMSA), broke away from the Tripartite Alliance. At once, it resolved to form a new working-class party and 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 workers’ 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 also played a hand in the creation of the South African Federation of Trade Unions 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 (SRWP) 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 in parliament), South Africa’s left is once again left roaming in the political wilderness.
Since then, many have been wondering about what it would take to revive the South African left with its constituent social movements. Though it is admitted that the historic weakness of the labor movement is both a fact of political failure and a result of neoliberalism’s transformation of work, it is much harder to confront the extent to which it also reflects a broader and graver crisis of political mediation in general. Not only parties and trade unions, but all intermediary institutions that once formed the lifeblood of social and political life—traditional media, civic organizations, churches, sports clubs and even neighborhood committees (what German historian Jan-Werner Müller calls the critical infrastructure of democracy)—are all in decline.
The vast majority of the South African population, without a vehicle for political visibility, is mostly illegible to the public sphere. The decline of traditional media has accelerated social media as the battleground of ideas, where disinformation is widespread but the barriers to entry are still high. Since the spate of unrest, reliable facts have been hard to come by on the extent of lives lost and which infrastructure was targeted. Additionally, it is even harder to paint an account of exactly who was involved, and why—to have a sense of motivations and incentives on the ground. Traditional media outlets, for example, no longer have ties to community media that would ordinarily play the role of conveying the holistic picture of their social situation beneath surface-level reportage.
The escalating dominance of social media disinformation was already on display just before the unrest, when a senior journalist at one of the country’s mainstream newspapers published a story about a black woman giving birth to 10 children and thus breaking a Guinness World Record. The story turned out to be fake and probably linked to the ANC’s factional fights, but many of the journalist’s social media supporters dismissed his critics as racist (he is black). To this day, nobody knows what actually happened—a testament to how difficult it is to have a handle on what is going on in South Africa today. But rather than view the country as now suddenly victim to the era of post-truth, these challenges reflect a collapse in what Dylan Riley terms the “material and social conditions for the production of claims.” In the new public sphere, everything is chaotic noise because no groups are being clearly spoken for.
The decomposition of social institutions leaves what remains of the South African left disconnected. As Mazibuko Jara (who was expelled as Communist Party spokesperson for disagreeing with the SACP’s support for Zuma) explains, “The Left lacks a popular narrative that connects directly with how people are experiencing the crisis. We need to build this narrative for now, for moments when struggles flare up, and for the long term.” Jara’s point can be extended to the insight that politics is not just the site for discovering one’s economic interests, but also for developing a worldview—for finding explanations for why the world is the way it is, for developing tools for understanding why it changes when it does. Where populists have been successful, it is because they have developed powerful—if not ultimately shallow and incorrect—accounts of why people are where they are and what they have to confront in order to be somewhere better.
Put another way, they provide stories with protagonists, though often cast in simplistic terms as Manichean struggles of good versus evil—the struggle of the downtrodden black majority against a powerful network of white monopoly capital, or of hardworking South Africans against lazy and greedy foreigners, for example. Often, contemporary stories cross over into the land of conspiracy and mythmaking. The dearth of substantive political narratives today reflects the hole opened at the end of history, i.e., the notion that society is without a telos, no longer working towards something better and greater—that liberal capitalism is as good as it gets. The fall of the Berlin Wall made obsolete the grand narratives that supplied meaning to most of the world during the twentieth century: capitalism versus communism, colonizer versus colonized.
I would like to suggest that Jara’s intervention—a response to Niall Reddy’s call for a new left party—reads like an endorsement for left-wing populism in South Africa. What would it mean for the South African left to undertake a populist political strategy? One way in which populism appears incompatible with the political ambitions of the left is that to be left is to be by definition counter-hegemonic. While the right is only interested in tinkering around the edges of the social order, the left wants to transform it entirely—and so is faced with the challenge of having to create durable organizations capable of building power in the long term. Speaking of the fall of left populism in Europe (considering the decline of SYRIZA in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Die Linke in Germany, La France Insoumise, and Labour under Jeremy Corbyn), political theorist Anton Jager puts the predicament well: “In a certain sense, left populism tried to synthesize what couldn’t be synthesized—too ‘left’ to fully profit from the breakdown of the traditional party system, and too ‘populist’ to answer key organizational questions.”
But is Europe the only model for what left-wing populism could look like? Elsewhere, left-wing populism looks resurgent. Though the rise of right-wing, neoliberal populist governments in Latin America following the “Pink-Tide” moment has led many to declare the end of left populism there, the return of the Peronists to power in Argentina, the resurgence of the Movement for Socialism (MAS) in Bolivia in the shadow of a 2019 coup, and recently, the presidential ascendancy of left-wing trade unionist (and school teacher) Pedro Castillo in Peru (while in Chile, a process of radical constitutional reform, propelled by the popularity of radical feminists, is underway) suggest a steady left renewal in South America. Even in Brazil, Lula da Silva’s exoneration and return to politics gives reason to believe the trend will continue (with a likely run in next year’s presidential elections, he outperforms Bolsonaro in almost every poll).
As Thea Riofrancos discusses, the Latin American case demonstrates a way to progressively construct a political subject out of “the people.” But instead of the blood-and-soil formulations of the right, they “comprised a heterogenous bloc of the exploited and excluded, the discriminated against and dispossessed.” The need for doing so arises by necessity in places like Latin America, Asia, and Africa, where the structure of capitalism subordinates most outside of the traditional wage-labor relation. South Africa’s consistently high unemployment rate has meant that trade union organization is an option foreclosed to many, and for those employed, union rates are at their lowest (in 2018, only 29.5% of employees were members of a trade union). Much as rebuilding the union movement is an urgent task, it no longer seems capable of “grounding socialist politics in a mass base” as Reddy maintains (not in the short term, at least).
So, then, how to mobilize the masses of unemployed, precariously employed, and downwardly mobile? In defence of left populism, Venizelos and Stavrakakis maintain that “within societies marked by multiple divisions, inequalities, and polarizations, populism thus indicates a discursive practice that aims at creating links between the excluded and suffering in order to empower them in their struggles to redress this exclusion.” Thinking back to the United Front, and its earlier inspirant the United Democratic Front, what are these if not South African instantiations of left populism, even if not self-consciously so?
This is not to impose contemporary frameworks on the past; in fact, such ideas are themselves reflected in debates at the time. For example, Steven Friedman in Transformation, discussing the mid-eighties debate over whether the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU, formed as an outgrowth of intense union mobilisation in the 1970s known as “The Durban Moment”) should remain autonomous and focus on class struggle or join the popular front against apartheid led by the UDF, frames it as a disagreement between “workerists” and “populists.” In The New Left Review, John Saul pushes back against this framing, instead preferring Ernesto Laclau’s term of “popular-democratic,” noting that it “captures better the positive thrust that expressions of nationalism, racial consciousness and democratic self-assertion are capable of having in South Africa. Moreover, such popular-democratic assertions can also give positive conceptualization to the kind of broad alliance of classes and class fractions (workers, peasants, petty-bourgeois, etc.) which can be most effective in mounting the struggle against the anti-apartheid state.”
Since then, things have changed: Laclau (along with his widow and longtime collaborator, Chantal Mouffe) became the principal advocates of left populism, while the ANC has abandoned the left populism of the national liberation movement. Its populist currents today are not revolutionary, but patrimonial and clientelist. Still, the dream of national liberation powerfully endures in the popular imagination. Ignoring the opportunists who wield it cynically (Zuma, for example, was comparing lockdown restrictions to apartheid-era states of emergency at a press conference just before his arrest), many understand the post-apartheid condition as fundamentally unchanged. Understood through this lens, demands for change are vocalized as demands for social inclusion and economic freedom, for the real democracy that was promised, to be realized.
This is what distinguishes populism in the West against populism in the Third World: while populism in the former arises from the void left from the attrition of mass party democracy and robust welfare states, populism in the latter stems from the absence of it. Much as South Africa is undergoing the same disintermediation that characterizes everywhere else, it barely had political mediation to begin with. At least, not to the extent exemplified by postwar social democracy, with its stable employment and institutionalized class conflict (through bargaining councils and the like), as well as the collective provision of social needs like education, health care, and transportation. What the contemporary cry for freedom expresses is the longing for national integration, to form part of the political community in a deep and meaningful way beyond simply having the right to vote.
It is no surprise, then, that the “land question” has so much affective force. It’s a container for a whole host of issues at once—the historic injustice of land dispossession, the deprivation of food sovereignty, and the alienation of the multitude. Some attribute it mystical importance, noting the significance of being connected to the land in traditional African belief and custom. More straightforwardly, though, it is because the moment of dispossession marked the moment of something which has since not been recovered: the loss of self-determination. South African society is structured such that self-determination—the ability to set and pursue your own ends—is decided by class position, which is in turn shaped by our recent past of racial hierarchy.
A left-populist strategy could address the need for self-determination (individual and collective) by aiming not for the restoration of national sovereignty (an empty idea that belies the obsolescence of the nation in the age of globalization), but popular sovereignty. Left populism turns out as a kind of republicanism from below, representing a claim to full citizenship rather than the partial and burdened citizenship of apartheid. The historian Erin Pineda makes the argument that America’s civil rights movement should be interpreted as populist: its claims, she argues, “did not press an exclusive idea of peoplehood—a deserving black minority, the true people, against everyone else—but advanced the idea that mobilizing from the perspective of those who bear the brunt of the “malignant kinship” held the key to freeing everyone.”
At the moment, the South African left mostly proclaims the death of the national liberation project. But instead of dismissing it, why not reclaim it? To do so would already be a modest advance; it would disabuse us of the false impression projected by the ANC that national liberation is synonymous with it. Reclaiming the narrative of national liberation is not simply to dogmatically assert it in the abstract, but to ground it in concrete struggle. The South African left has repeatedly been faced with the puzzle of how to discursively unite workplace, community, and student struggles. Not ignoring the fact that the reasons for a rift between the different sites of struggle are deeper, the populism of the “mass democratic movement” actually presents a viable model for giving them coherence. What would it mean to revive it in a contemporary context? To render struggles for housing, water, basic income and free education, not as socialist (too removed), or anti-capitalist (too vague), but as part of an ongoing liberation struggle which now significantly takes aim at the erstwhile liberators?
Neoliberalism’s devastation manifests not only economically, but psycho-politically as well. When all of life is subject to the vagaries of the market, it produces not only a precarious existence but a devastating feeling of powerlessness. This widespread dissolution of agency is what a new left political project should appeal to, and in South Africa, it’s questionable whether real political agency has existed for most. To the extent that it did, it was felt most potently during the peak of the anti-apartheid movement, the most complete practice of collective agency in South Africa to date (the HIV/AIDS struggles of the 2000s follows). National liberation was understood as a process—whether in the ANC’s stagist framework of the “National Democratic Revolution” (that ultimately shaped up to be a chimera), or, more simply, as requiring the undoing of apartheid’s deliberate policy of social and economic underdevelopment. It was never going to be enough to aim for minimum provision and sufficiency—the dream of national liberation has equality as its premise.
Whereas the now-disintegrated national liberation coalition of the ANC established the black bourgeoisie as its hegemonic element, Jara argues that “nation-building, for the working class, should mean unifying itself nationally as the leading class whose developing culture, aspirations and economic interests become increasingly those of the overwhelming majority of our people.” His argument that the “working-class must construct an African nation” calls back to the nature of organization in the anti-apartheid struggle. Whether the social formations of the anti-apartheid movement were deeply embedded in communities, or whether claims of such are exaggerated, their direction was not just to oppose the apartheid state but to form a counter-society in the absence of state provision.
It is these energies that the ANC quelled when it entered into government. Indeed, the ANC is the cautionary tale of capitulation that haunts many left-populist forces today. Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, writing of Syriza’s failure in Greece, insist that “insofar as the Syriza government has failed the most crucial democratic, let alone revolutionary, test of linking the administration up with popular forces—not just for meeting basic needs but also for planning and implementing the restructuring of economic and social life—there were all too few on the radical left outside the state who saw this strategy as a priority either.”
Yet the failure of national liberation populism does not fall into the “too left, too populist” dilemma identified earlier. Rather, in postcolonial contexts, national liberation movements were not left enough. This is no accident, and expresses a tendency Frantz Fanon predicted in his seminal text, Wretched of the Earth. Though the national liberation project is easily co-opted by the national bourgeoisie for its own economic interests, Fanon does not want us to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, he maintains a difference between national liberation as sterile elite capture and national liberation as collective ownership over the goals of anticolonial struggle.
How this comes to pass cannot be stipulated in advance. The profound explosion of rage in South Africa—for now, mostly knee jerk, inchoate, and driven by desperation—indicates that the once passive masses have reached their breaking point. Mobilization to channel this anger into a progressive direction must be centered on demands that address people’s immediate needs. Doubtless, future campaigns will organize for basic income, for free decent services including water, electricity, and sanitation, and against the imposition of austerity. But what is the glue that binds these aspirations together? What is the imaginary which gives them impetus?
Everyone bemoans the weakness of the South African left, but how to rebuild it in such hostile conditions? By now, populism looks less like a model of organizing the South African left can make use of, and more like the default template in a country whose political traditions are still young, whose democracy is still nascent. Populism here takes its form as national liberation, but its substantive articulations vary—from the now widely discredited “Rainbowism” that papered over racialized inequalities and fetishized liberal constitutionalism (itself receiving another lease on life at the moment, at Ramaphosa’s advantage), to the RET economic nationalism that makes race foundational and denigrates liberal constitutionalism. Is there another way that transcends both?
It goes without saying that the South African left needs to get its house in order. What’s different is that this task is more urgent than ever. Not only does it need as expansive a coalition as ever to advance the structural reforms necessary, but it needs to do so quickly given the pace of social and ecological collapse. It simply feels too late to only opt for the road of long and patient organizing entailed by rebuilding the labor movement. Even so, a new left-wing political project in South Africa must address not only the material needs of people, but must be underpinned by a philosophical outlook—an answer to the question, what is this all for?
If there is one thing the explosion of unrest has clearly demonstrated, it is the failure of the South African left to become a recognizable social force after apartheid. An effort to rebuild the left in South Africa must take into account the constraints of our historical conditions, have a pulse on popular consciousness, and advance a vision that raises expectations about what society could look like and what people should expect from it. The case for appropriating national liberation is the case for the South African left to go beyond itself, to go beyond its self-concept as marginal. It needs to become majoritarian in spirit and character, while remaining firmly principled. It needs to first speak to the people before it can speak for them.