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What is 'left' about 'the left' in South Africa?

There was uproar over SACP general secretary and government minister Blade Nzimande's 1.2 million rand luxury BMW. Cartoon by Zapiro. For more Zapiro cartoons, please visit

By Dale T. McKinley

November 5, 2009 -- For several years now, but particularly since the ascendancy of Jacob Zuma and his South African Communist Party (SACP) and Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU) allies within both the African National Congress (ANC) and the state, ``the left'' in South Africa has come to be almost completely associated with (and presented as) the SACP, COSATU and, to a lesser extent, the ANC itself. Even though this state of affairs ignores a wide range of organisations and people that can stake a serious claim to being part of ``the left'', the fact is that contemporary politics in South Africa are dominated, in one way or another, by these three alliance partners. As such, it is a good time to pose a critically important question: What is ``left'' about ``the left'' in South Africa?

Dictionary definitions of ``left'' such as "politically radical", "liberal" or "communist" do not help us much because they do not provide any kind of underlying, common attribution. This is why people and organisations which are light years apart on both the ideological and practical policy/struggle front can all be called ``left'', ranging from President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party in the USA to Kim-Jong Il and the Workers Party of Korea, and in South Africa, from the ANC to the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front. The result is that the term ``left'' has, over time, lost most of its real ideological and practical meaning. 

The term itself only came to have any substantive meaning and location in the historical context of the various oppositional struggles borne out of, and parallel to, the rise and development of the capitalist system and its accompanying ideology. As such, at its basic definitional minimum, the ``left'' must refer to any social/political force or individual that professes adherence to an anti-capitalist ideology and practically struggles against the capitalist system and for a non-capitalist alternative. Beyond this, it is axiomatic that there are an array of tactical, organisational and more specifically defined intra-ideological differences amongst ``the left'', whether in South Africa or anywhere else across the globe. 

Stripped of this basic anti-capitalist contextual and practical foundation, the term ``left'' has mostly become a crudely convenient and vacuous political label or self-anointed attribute that obscures any critical understanding and analysis of the character and content of what is ``left''. Nowhere is this more apparent that in relation to an ANC that is so clearly not anti-capitalist. It is why Jacob Zuma, in his response just last week to charges that the SACP and COSATU were ``taking over'' the ANC, can state without any fear of contradiction or embarrassment that, "the point that many people fail to grasp is that the ANC, by its own definition and by any objective standard, is in fact an organisation of the left. It is a multi-class national liberation movement with a bias towards the working class and poor."

If something is repeated often enough and without any critical response/appraisal, it usually becomes accepted ``truth'' and/or reality. In this way can a whole range of (weak) social-democratic political parties wholly committed to upholding the capitalist system, amongst them the ANC and the British Labour Party, come together in the ``Socialist International'' to loudly and proudly proclaim their ``left'' credentials. Seldom has there been a more oxymoronic gathering. Combined with Zuma's personal ideological schizophrenia, a ``condition'' which allows him to simultaneously be the (perceived) champion of the working class and the political guarantor of capitalist stability and accumulation, it is no wonder there is such ideological confusion and corresponding factional conflict within the ANC.


Things are a bit trickier though when it comes to the SACP and COSATU. While their constitutions, key programmatic documents and public statements are clearly infused with an anti-capitalist ideology, it is in the realm of their practical politics and related strategic orientation where serious questions have to be asked. If we accept that a ``left'' organisation means being anti-capitalist in both form and content, then it must, by default, have a dominant, practical organisational strategy that is embedded within the lives and struggles of those who are not, in productive, material, ideological and social terms, capitalist. This is clearly not the case with the SACP (and to a lesser extent, COSATU), whose main strategic orientation for many years now has been to embed itself within a battle for power, access and influence amongst an elite ANC cadre and within an ANC that has no interest in getting rid of the capitalist system. 

Of course the SACP argues, as it has done in a strategy document recently released by its central committee, that the ``left'' within the Alliance (read: the SACP and COSATU) has been largely responsible for "the political and organisational defeat of the leading cadre behind the '1996 class project'" (read: the capitalists). Evidently, this is supposed to prove (especially if repeated ad nauseum) both the anti-capitalist credentials and organisational strategy of the SACP and COSATU.

The immediate question that arises though is, what was/is Zuma and many of the key SACP members and leaders within the ANC and state if not a ``leading cadre'' of that same ``class project'' over the last decade or so? Further, what about the SACP and COSATU’s own active involvement in and cooperation with these declared class enemies and their selective silences when it comes to the practical policy consequences of the ``1996 class project'', on the organised working class and majority poor?

Capitalist government

Ironically, it is Zuma who has provided, indirectly, the most recent and telling confirmation of the ideological and thus organisational hypocrisy of the SACP and COSATU leaderships in their holier than thou ``left'' crusade. Rejecting the SACP and COSATU's claims that Planning Minister Trevor Manuel is personally responsible for the ANC and state's (capitalist) economic policy, Zuma stated: "As soon as we start associating government policy with one individual, we risk forgetting that these policies are developed collectively and reflect an organisational position."

What this so unmistakably exposes is that the Alliance ``left'' has, for far too long, had it both ways. On the one hand, constantly shouting about a lack of consultation and publicly rejecting the state's capitalist-friendly policies. On the other hand, a convenient silence about the fact that their own leaders have always been a part of the leadership within the ANC and the state and thus the collective debates and decision-making processes. In real, objective terms (and by their own proud ideological and programmatic admission), the SACP and COSATU are part and parcel of an ANC which makes and implements the capitalist policies that they then turn around and attack and disown.

Given this kind of chameleon politics it is not surprising that ``the left'' alliance twins have never been very keen on defining what ``left'' means. This is mainly because any change, however slight, in the institutional character and policy content of the ANC and/or state's capitalism which could provide some additional succour to the poor/working class is interpreted and presented as a victory for ``the left''. To do otherwise would be to undermine the larger programmatic position that it is imperative for the SACP and COSATU to remain in alliance with the ANC as well as the entire theoretical construct of the ``national democratic revolution'' upon which the alliance rests. 

Perhaps though, it is the nexus between the personal and the political that presents the most uncomfortable conundrum for this ``left''. Historically, those identified with ``the left'' have been expected to hold both their personal and political lives to a higher ethical standard. Given ``the left's'' professed adherence to an anti-capitalism that is supposed to be intrinsically non-accumulative as well as embracing of socioeconomic and human equality/justice, it is an entirely legitimate expectation. Yet, when the workers and poor, most of whom are simply struggling to survive, witness the ANC ``left'' in cat fights over who gets the biggest share of public monies, see South Africa’s top ``communist'' leader vigorously defending his lavish lifestyle choices and hear the top unionist rationalising his 100% salary increase while his subordinates get 15%, it is not hard to understand why there is such widespread scepticism about ``the left'', its leadership and its politics among the very people whom that ``left'' claims to represent. 

The ``left'' likes to talk about revolution. While both South Africa and the world at large could do with a social and political revolution, it is ``the left'' itself that is in dire need of its own revolution. Otherwise, there might not be much left of ``the left''.

[Dale McKinley is an independent writer, researcher, lecturer and political activist based in Johannesburg. This article first appeared at the South African Civil Society Information Service website. It is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission.]

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