Looking Leftward at the South African Elections

Amid mass unemployment and soaring inequality, voters in today’s South African election are getting sick of the ANC’s broken promises. But there’s no real alternative for them in sight.

South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks to the media in Downing Street following a meeting with British prime minister Theresa May on April 17, 2018 in London, England. Jack Taylor / Getty

Twenty-five years since South Africa’s first democratic election, the country reels in anxiety. Poverty levels sit at 55 percent overall, while potential destitution hangs over another 76 percent of the population. South Africa has recently been again awarded the title of most unequal country in the world, with recent research finding that 10 percent of the population owns 90 percent of the country’s wealth and 50–65 percent of the country’s income.

Violence and unrest result. The country is plagued by regular and increasingly militant protests and haunted by political killings, as political activists and politicians, particularly those pursuing careers within the governing party, increasingly seek subsistence through the state machinery. Gender and racial discrimination continue due to entrenched apartheid-era hierarchical and patriarchal workplace environments. Meanwhile, health and education systems have crumbled. Regular power cuts and public transport failures add to South Africans’ woes.

One need not venture far from the nation’s capital cities to find rural communities that are virtual wastelands. Black Economic Empowerment, a program adopted by the ANC ostensibly to address racial inequality, has only produced an elite black class nurtured by extraordinary corruption and cronyism. Each day, revelations of government officials’ corruption and compromised institutions are revealed through the work of the Zondo Commission of Inquiry, an official commission established in 2018 to investigate allegations of “state capture.”

Trust in democracy is waning. Six million “born frees” between the ages of eighteen and thirty (approximately half of that population) are not registered to vote. Only 21 percent of South Africans trust their government (the number rose slightly after former president Jacob Zuma left the government last year). South Africa is participating in a global drift towards democratic fatigue, opening itself up to the prospect of a right-wing, authoritarian turn.

South Africa’s democratic system came under severe attack under Zuma’s rule. While democracy has survived, potential disaster still looms. South Africa’s deep social and economic crises provides fertile ground for all sorts of opportunists. The rise of a new evangelical political wing with authoritarian and conservative leanings, and the ruling party’s continued appeasement of traditional leaders (17 million South Africans live under the sway of these “tin-pot dictators”) add to the potential for a a mass-based right-wing movement to take root.

South Africa is on a well-worn path of postcolonial decline. India — also in the midst of an important general election — may provide insights into the future of the “rainbow nation”: wherein the failures of a progressive liberation movement to achieve meaningful social reform opens up space for a jingoist, xenophobic, religious nationalist and authoritarian movement. Bolsonaro’s Brazil, and the postcolonial experiences of Uganda, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, all represent distinct possible futures.

An Uninspiring Election

Political discourse during this election has been dismal. All major parties have sidestepped mature political engagement and instead offered up spectacle, outlandish promises, race-baiting, and outright regressive opportunism. Examples include the center-right Democratic Alliance putting a giant statue of one of the Gupta brothers — the family implicated in multiple accounts of “state capture” — outside the church where the ANC was formed in 1912. Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema has stated “Vote EFF because EFF is not afraid of white people.” Moreover, both the ANC and the opposition are beating the anti-immigration drum.

The DA, the country’s major opposition party, is a mess. The party is divided between its liberal wing and an increasingly vocal contingent calling for race-based quotas and redistributive spending. Earlier in the year, its policy head resigned due to a lack of serious policy development. Another regular liberal critic has bemoaned a growing anti-intellectual culture in the party.

The DA seems to be imploding from internal struggles; their recent conflict with a former Cape Town mayor has already led to the birth of a new political party, GOOD. The DA are unlikely to improve their portion of the vote and their candidate Mmusi Maimane, a former motivational speaker and evangelical lay preacher, is a political lightweight who lacks vision and substance.

In the absence of real opposition, the ANC will win the election. While the politically ambiguous Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) — the third-largest party — is predicted to grow, it still poses no real threat to the ANC’s hegemony. It could be well placed to negotiate as a coalition partner, and there has been speculation about a possible “return home” of the EFF’s leadership to the ANC. Whether these prospects bode ill or well for the Left is another question.

Ramaphosa From Left to Right

There is little trust in democracy, but there is faith in the charming, politically astute, and statesmanlike Cyril Ramaphosa, a once-militant trade union leader turned billionaire businessman. He is the only politician to enjoy a positive trust score among South African voters, attesting to his uncanny ability to secure support across political divides.

There are biographical reasons for this: Ramaphosa’s personal history speaks to the political desires of three social forces in South African society: the labor activist (he was the founder of the National Union of Mineworkers [NUM] during his youth); the aspirant black bourgeois (today he is now one of the country’s richest people); and the hope for peaceful, and profitable, management of a new black government and elite (as represented by the interests of the local white corporate elite).

Ramaphosa’s ability to negotiate through antagonistic, even contradictory, interests is unquestionable. He was, after all, the ANC’s chief negotiator with the apartheid regime. Today, he slips comfortably from labor rallies to glossy corporate events, where he is warmly welcomed. But Ramaphosa’s hold on power is tenuous. This is revealed in his narrow victory over the other ANC president hopeful Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (the ex-wife of former president Jacob Zuma) at the ANC elective conference in 2017. This weak hold is confirmed by the composition of the ANC parliament list, which includes noted Zuma allies.

The fight for the ANC, moreover, is taking place from within and without. New Zuma- aligned small parties like Black-First-Land First are fighting a proxy battle for the ANC, armed with vague, pseudo-radical slogans about “Radical Economic Transformation” and anti-imperialism. Even the EFF, led by former ANC Youth League leaders, can be viewed as part of the evolving story of the ANC. It may even be crucial to the fate of the ruling party and its competing factions.

On the right, voices of capital like the editor-at-large of the business-friendly Tiso Blackstar media group have long argued for backing Ramaphosa wholeheartedly, both to kill off the worst legacies of the Zuma era and for Ramaphosa’s pro-capital policy positions. The Economist agreed, giving Ramaphosa its full endorsement. For Collin Coleman, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs in sub-Saharan Africa, Ramaphosa “is the last hope for democracy.” Yet some on the Right argue that Ramaphosa stands no chance of beating corruption in his party; still others maintain that the president is, in fact, a dangerous socialist in disguise.

The debate on the Left is the inverted mirror image of the above. Those inside the Tripartite Alliance of the ANC (the South African Communist Party [SACP] and Congress of South African Trade Unions [COSATU]) back Ramaphosa to curb corruption and open policy space for progressives in his new administration. The rest maintain that the ANC has gone beyond the hope for renewal. For some, Ramaphosa is a convinced neoliberal, and the Left should expect no real leftward policy shifts.

Ramaphosa, meanwhile, has proved himself able to perform his delicate balancing act with alacrity. His trump card, for now, is his image as a valiant anti-corruption warrior. Yet is it possible, even with the best intentions, for him to clean house?

Corruption, “State Capture,” and Historical Accumulation in South Africa

Although Ramaphosa has scored some early anti-corruption victories, separating the wheat from the chaff within the ANC will not come easy. Indeed, Ramaphosa’s previous successful presidential campaign depended on the support of ANC figures linked to corruption. Yet even an institutional purge of all those linked to the Zuma-Gupta network will not eradicate corruption, because corruption is embedded in the DNA of the South African political economy.

Corruption — or “state capture,” as it has come to be known — is endemic to South Africa’s historical processes of statecraft. One need only to walk down St Georges Mall in Cape Town and notice the bronze five-pointed stars that remain lodged in the brick paving with the letters “VOC” — the Dutch East India Company — gleaming. This is a reminder of the corporate and elite interests that have shaped the country’s history of colonialism, apartheid, and racialized capitalism. Mining and its related industries (the Minerals-Energy-Complex, or MEC) have featured prominently throughout.

The ANC’s embrace, in the transition from apartheid, of conservative economic policies under the influence of the MEC ultimately left no channel to achieve economic redress other than parasitic capital accumulation facilitated within and by the state. The program of Black Economic Empowerment occurred originally through parasitic accumulation linked to the private sector (who devised the policy in the first place). After Zuma’s rise to power, it shifted into the state apparatus itself — state-owned enterprises (SOEs) like Eskom and Transnet were increasingly used as vehicles of black elite accumulation.

In the absence of an alternative accumulation path, South Africa will remain stuck between two economic trajectories, neither of which address the contradictions of a society produced by hundreds of years of settler-colonial rule: deeper marketization or rampant primitive accumulation. The former continues to be advanced by dominant financialized capital in South Africa, while the latter is promoted by incipient elites to plunder state institutions and private corporations. Attacking corruption, therefore, means going to the heart of the historical accumulation patterns of the South African economy.

Social Compacting?

Ramaphosa has acknowledged the need for a new accumulation path, calling for a “social compact” to be forged between capital, labor, and the state to unlock economic development in an “inclusive economy,” ostensibly under the watch of a “developmental state.” There is nothing novel about this. The postapartheid era is replete with such initiatives (sometimes even statutory bodies) that bring together representatives from the state, organized labor, the business sector, and civil society, etc. — NEDLAC most conspicuously — all of which have failed to live up to their promise.

Social compacts are, moreover, not delivered abstractly but are forged through class struggle. A probe at exactly what policies the new administration plans to advance for “inclusive growth” reveals a strategy not dissimilar to the neoliberal orthodoxy that has dominated economic policy since the 1996 macroeconomic policy framework, Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR). This suggests an emerging compact serving capital over labor and the unemployed.

Parallels exist in both substance and procedure to the GEAR moment. In late 2018 the Minister of Finance convened a roundtable on economic policy at the Treasury, with no invitation extended to many progressive economists in the state, academia, or civil society. A group of economists — including some who attended the meeting — responded with a letter highlighting the similarities with the way the GEAR economic policy was decided upon in a non-consultative way.

The Budget Speech by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni that followed shortly after confirmed the trepidation of progressive economists. The budget declared that “fiscal prudence provides the basis for economic recovery.” It included spending cuts on vital social programs including education, health, and housing, and no tax increases on businesses or the wealthy. Although it did not call for the outright privatization of SOEs, it hinted in that direction — and the minister has made no secret of his personal preference for privatization.

Other neoliberal orthodoxies have been vigorously defended elsewhere. The South African Reserve Bank (SARB) governor denigrated as “populist” anyone who dares question the central bank’s narrow price stability mandate. Yet a narrow inflation-targeting agenda has been crucial to maintaining high returns on financial assets. This has ensured the financialization of the South African economy and the tempering of productive fixed investment since the transition.

At the same time, while land expropriation without compensation is embraced by the ruling party, there is no clear sign that this will challenge the historic elite-driven process of land reform. The showdown between the Xolobeni mining community and the Department of Mineral Resources over the presence of mining ventures on Xobeni land, for instance, indicates the administration’s attachment to extractivism.

Clearly, any social compact forged by the Ramaphosa regime will be forged with the Left on the back foot. Where and how can an alternative economic and social trajectory be promoted? Is there an electoral option?

The Tripartite Alliance for Ramaphosa

The Tripartite Alliance partners that comprise the ANC government consist of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). They hold that the president can save the ANC while also implementing progressive policies in workers’ interests, like the National Minimum Wage instituted at the beginning of the year, which the president played a key role in developing. Ramaphosa made his electoral overtures to the Tripartite Alliance at COSATU’s May Day rally. He promised that workers will soon “share in the riches of this country.” 300 billion rand in investment that companies pledged at an investment conference would be used to serve workers by creating more jobs. But the character of Ramaphosa’s investment drive has come under scrutiny.

The alliance’s judgement has failed in the past. It made the “cardinal mistake” of backing Zuma against former president Thabo Mbeki. In so doing, it fundamentally miscalculated Zuma’s progressive qualities in its anger about what the SACP called Mbeki’s “1996 class project,” a phrase coined to depict the slide to neoliberalism under Mbeki’s presidency. Is it making a similar error with Ramaphosa?

COSATU have already lamented the “resurfacing of 1996 class project” under Ramaphosa’s watch before embarking on a national strike earlier in the year. The SACP, for its part, far from threatening departure from the alliance as it did in the final moments of the Zuma years, is now defending its relationship with the ANC in grandiloquent historical terms. The National Democratic Revolution (NDR) remains the party’s theoretical program. The call for a “radical second phase of the NDR” has been a recurring rhetorical theme, but with little practical bite.

And the party is divided on political strategy. In the Zuma years, members of the Young Communist League (YCL) became increasingly agitated with the alliance. The party’s new commitment to a Left Popular Front is perhaps an outcome of an uneasy balance between the youth and the leaders in the SACP. It is also perhaps due to the dwindling power of the SACP within the ruling party following years spent as Zuma’s attack dogs. Party leaders have acknowledged that the relationship with the ANC may be at its worst since the 1930s.

If developments within the ANC postelection turn sour, the SACP will be forced to cut ties with the ANC or risk departures from a frustrated rank and file. If a split does occur, the party will be forced to reevaluate party programs and ideologies, not least its self-designated title of “vanguard” of the working class.

Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party

Unlike its former partners within the Tripartite Alliance, the large and militant National Union of Metal Workers (NUMSA) gave up on the ANC, splitting officially with it in 2013. NUMSA’s split from COSATU led to the formation of a new labor federation, SAFTU, in 2017, with former general secretary of COSATU Zwelinzima Vavi at the helm. NUMSA, the largest union within SAFTU, had promised to form a workers’ party to contest the 2019 elections and finally launched the SRWP only a month before the polls opened.

The SRWP’s late entry into the electoral scene makes it difficult to evaluate; information on party policy and promises have not been publicly shared. SRWP representatives have claimed an unambiguous commitment to socialism, claiming a position further to the left than the Alliance and the EFF. From what has been shared of the SRWP manifesto, the party promises to nationalize the South African Reserve Bank and nearly everything else in sight, raise the national minimum wage, replace private “colonial” education with “socialist education” and — a bold one — abolish unemployment in five years.

Many of the policies are not only politically infeasible, but are also out of sync with the need to reimagine socialism in changing economic, social, and political conditions. People looking for a new home in left politics require a party able to deal with the shifting nature of the working class, new forms of precariousness, and oppressions of gender and race. Moreover, the SRWP’s call for an extractivist development path that centers minerals resources is, in particular, out of sync with the imperatives of confronting the climate crisis.

The SRWP has not managed to unite the Left under its banner, and its secretive construction suggests the same old vanguardism — the idea that the working class should be led by an elite layer of enlightened cadres — that has long afflicted left formations in the country. Within SAFTU, concerns about NUMSA’s material and ideological dominance were raised from the early days of the new trade union federation. NUMSA has also been accused of conservative business unionism, as well as a regressive position towards climate change and the need for a just transition. SAFTU has failed to endorse the SRWP, with Vavi claiming that his federation did not had sufficient time to discuss the matter internally.

Keeping the Debate Alive on the EFF

In this context, the EFF appears as the only Left option. Yet can we say that the EFF really is a left-wing formation? Some have insisted on calling the party fascist or proto-fascist or, at the very least, maintain that it is subject to “creeping fascism.” Others prefer “pseudo left,” “Afro-chauvinist,” or simply black nationalist.

The EFF have been fingered in acts of crude race-baiting, attacks on journalists, authoritarianism, and patriarchy. The leadership has been accused of being complicit in the VBS bank scandal, which devastated the earnings of many poor black South Africans. Much has been made of the EFF picking up the “youth” vote, but their own youth constituency are also critical of the leadership’s behavior. Former EFF members have also raised alarm bells about authoritarianism and corruption in the party.

These fatalistic and dismissive criticisms of the EFF have been dismissed by some on the Left as overly rash. Critics cite the EFF’s growing base: its articulation of anticapitalist politics is gaining ground with a significant constituency. The party’s militant promotion of radical land reform policies and nationalization has already reaped dividends, forcing the ANC’s hand on “land expropriation without compensation” and the nationalization of the SARB. The EFF have also in principle committed to a “just transition” to an environmentally friendly economy.

There are sensible reasons to be cautious before dismissing the potential of the EFF. Yet there are issues worthy of discussion. For example, it is not clear why the EFF’s growing base should be interpreted as an argument in favor of supporting the party electorally. When one considers how erstwhile left movements have historically devolved into authoritarian and nationalist parties, mass support was a prerequisite and not an anomaly. Mass enthusiasm for radical sounding slogans does not necessarily translate into actual progressive policies and outcomes.

It is not yet clear exactly who is attracted to the EFF and why. A portion of EFF’s base may be attracted to socialist slogans, and the Left needs to be organizing them. But that doesn’t necessarily imply endorsing the party. One can win ground with this base without giving up criticism of the EFF.

In addition, when one probes the EFF’s manifesto, one sees less an enthusiastic call for socialism and more a militant black empowerment scheme that would doubtless be victim to the same contradictions that has bedeviled the ruling party’s BEE policy. Indeed, while the EFF calls itself a revolutionary socialist party, the word “socialism” is nowhere to be found in its election manifesto. And the party’s actual position on climate justice is contradictory — for some, even opportunistic — expressing a commitment to resource nationalism and extractivism while embracing the One Million Climate Jobs initiative.

At the very least it is politically prudent to keep the debate about the character of the EFF and how to approach it alive beyond the elections.

The Left Has Never Been so Weak

As a whole, the South African left has never been so weak. Its best hope of building power probably resides outside of electoral politics. Yet even here problems are plentiful. Social movements — which have won many impressive victories in recent years in education, housing, and other areas — have not coalesced into a coherent social bloc.

The Left has ultimately failed to find and build a stable constituency. It has not harnessed the glaring failure of postapartheid capitalism to win over the poor and working class en masse. It has not made significant inroads into convincing the numerically substantial, economically vulnerable sectors of the population or the middle class that a left politics would advance their interests.

Part of the problem is media bias — the alarmist notion that the country is on the verge of falling off a fiscal cliff, for example, has gotten far more coverage than visions of an alternative and progressive budget. Yet this doesn’t fully explain the Left’s inability to promote its vision in the public domain; serious effort is needed to grow and promote left media in the country, particularly for working-class and poor communities.

Failure has serious consequences. The Bell Pottinger scandal, in which a foreign company attempted to shape public discourse in favor of former president Zuma by stirring up racial tension, illustrates just how easily radical, left-sounding slogans can be appropriated by nefarious political forces in the absence of robust left political discourse. This extends to present-day slogans like “land expropriation without compensation.”

Moreover, we are increasingly seeing “radical” ideas and issues being framed in conservative terms, perfectly consistent with the maintenance of the status quo. Such is the case with inequality and land reform; more progressively oriented elites insist that these should be resolved in order to provide more fertile avenues for the market to flourish and not to bring about fundamental social change, as a left voice would insist.

The Left’s failure to win over a substantial base is also related to the fact that its ideas have not kept pace with a changing political and social reality. The entanglement of the Left in both politics and theory with manifestly abhorrent political tropes — authoritarianism, racialism, nativism — is a cause of deep concern. This is probably rooted in its current political weakness: without the ability to set the terms of debate, every political choice is inevitably bound up with compromise. It is also rooted in a naive attachment to old theories and forms of organization.

Elsewhere, in the US and UK in particular, socialism has undergone a profound reawakening. However, the new socialism has in many ways overturned the politics of old and questioned the statism and vanguardism that underpinned it. There is little sign of this happening in South Africa and commentator Steven Friedman is right when he says the South African left “shows no sign of the hard thinking and doing it would need to become a power again.”

Beyond the Elections

Issue-based struggles may be the best hope of building left power and forging future unity. Confronting climate change is a priority. No political party — on the Left or the Right — seem ready to challenge dependence on extractivism and a high-carbon economy. Might climate justice be the issue that sparks broader left unity across electoral and political divides? The severity of the threat posed by ecological disaster could help make this happen. There are other worthwhile battles to be fought, over housing, education, and land reform for elites, as well as combating xenophobia, patriarchy, and racial discrimination.

Can the Left recommit to a politics that is vigorously antiracist but nonetheless non-racial in praxis and ideal? There are people within South Africa’s history to look for to direction on this, such as Neville Alexander and others. Defending democratic values in South African society also constitutes another front of struggle. The Left should lead a vigorous defense of the country’s democratic public space in the context of vicious attacks on journalists and authors. Such a defense does not amount to liberal apologia.

Finally, in an era in which narrow identitarianism and cultural relativism have penetrated political discourse, can the Left articulate and defend a universalist politics and an internationalism that is unafraid to speak about common purpose, even while it attends to concrete anti-sexist, antiracist, anti-imperialist, and anti-homophobic struggles?

In the absence of an obvious alternative, the Left faces a tough decision today. The future, however, must be about building a new form of politics. A return to the best moments of democratic socialism and mass participation found in the early days of COSATU, in sections of the Black Consciousness Movement and the United Democratic Front, could be grounds for inspiration. Yet drawing lessons from the past should not slip over into a romantic nostalgia. New realities and past failures demand new thinking.

The South African left is fighting a rearguard action. Failure to build a left alternative will quicken the pace of social decline.