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South Africa: Ronnie Kasrils calls for 'no vote' for African National Congress

Former ministers Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge and Ronnie Kasrils at the media launch of the Vukani! Sidikwe! (Wake Up! We are Fed Up!) Vote No! campaign at Wits University. Photo by Antoine de Ras.

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April 21, 2014 -- Former leading member of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and former government minister Ronnie Kasrils, together with another former minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, has launched the Vukani! Sidikwe! (Wake up! We are fed up!) Vote No! campaign. It calls on South Africans to "vote no" at the May 7, 2014, general election to the corruption and neoliberal economic policies of the African National Congress (ANC) and the right-wing oppostion, the Democratic Alliance (DA). Kasrils' call has provoked widespread debate on the South African left and condemnation from the SACP and the ANC.

Below, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal publishes an article by Kasrils on the reasons behind the campaign, as well as some commentary from the left.

* * *

By Ronnie Kasrils

April 20, 2014 -- On returning home from exile Chris Hani referred in many a speech of the need for political tolerance. What a contrast to the current leader of the SACP, Blade Nzimande, and the invective he spews at his opponents or those he simply does not agree with. The Public Protector tells “white lies” and comrades who oppose the ANC are insulted as “factory rejects” and “enemy agents”, similar insults hurled at Hani in 1969 for speaking out against corruption and nepotism in the then ANC. ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe descends to similar abuse, detracting and undermining serious political debate.

What sad commentaries these two and their acolytes let loose as they rush to divert attention from the real substance of debate and desperately try to cover up the rotten state of affairs in the ruling party and government as the time comes for our fifth national election in a democratic South Africa. What has led to this current situation in which longstanding members of the movement have taken a dramatic step to call on the public not to cast a vote for the ANC?

The massacre at Marikana and the obscene expenditure at [President Jacob Zuma's compound at] Nkandla are two of the most publicised events that come on top of a long series of scandals involving Zuma and numbers of senior party and government officials. Good comrades within the structures of the movement have not been able to challenge these developments, let alone speak truth to power.

They believe that by remaining within the movement and raising the issues they can alter the disastrous state of affairs, but to many of us the rot has gone too deep. The ANC, which we once thought of as being an exception to the rule, looks like going the route of other liberation movements that have lost their way.

This is why the Sidikiwe-Vukani campaign came into being. It calls on all registered voters to turn out at the polls on May 7 to make their mark in protest at the levels of corruption and the disastrous economic policies pursued by both the governing ANC and the major opposition, the Democratic Alliance.

Contrary to misleading media reports and to similarly misleading and often abusive comments from within the governing party, this campaign does not -- and never has -- advocated abstention from the electoral process. As democrats, we are encouraging the greatest possible involvement, calling on those millions of South Africans who usually abstain, to come out and vote.

But we say: don't vote for either of the two major parties that have worked in ways that contradict the spirit of the Freedom Charter and the Bill of Rights. At the same time, we are under no illusions that our call will result in the ANC losing the election nationally or the DA probably remaining the main opposition. I personally respect Helen Zille, but as a socialist I reject the DA's economic policies.

So we want to send a warning to the ANC that it can no longer take its traditional support base for granted. Many people are heartily fed up with the way the country is being run and with the policies pursued by both major parties, with the evident corruption at official levels and an electoral system that has alienated millions of voters.

As a result, there seem two choices: either vote tactically for a minority party this time round or spoil your ballot by writing NO across it. Whatever you do: become involved in the democratic process -- it is your right.

Many of the matters we are complaining about have been raised within the ANC over the years, but there has been no improvement. In the light of recent scandals, things have become worse and I felt I could not longer remain silent.

From my point of view, therefore, the campaign is an example of tough love: I wish to do all I can to pull back, from the brink of disaster, the movement to which I devoted all of my adult life.

Nelson Mandela gave guidance when he said the people have the right to vote us out of power if we fail to deliver. Chris Hani said the same thing when he became secretary general of our once proud communist party.

He once noted: “If that ANC government doesn't deliver, I won't hesitate to march against them.” He would then chuckle and add: “Look, it's going to be our government, the people's government, they won't tear gas us or shoot us like this apartheid bunch.”

How infinitely tragic was that last remark.

Democratic Left Front on the Vukani! Sidikwe! Vote No! campaign

Statement of the Democratic Left Front 

April 19, 2014 -- Though the Democratic Left Front (DLF) is not standing in the 2014 elections we cannot and will not be silent. We support the vote no campaign as articulated by Vukani! Sidikwe! This is a step forward in breaking with support for parties that collaborate with or represent capital and its interests.

The Vukani! Sidikwe! Vote No! campaign must be placed in context. As we mark 20 years since the end of apartheid and the advent of democracy, there is a deep rupturing of the post-apartheid social consensus in the face of intensifying class struggle. The signal for its end was the Marikana massacre and the great mineworkers’ strike and farm workers’ rebellion of 2012/2013, as well as the low-intensity service delivery revolts that have spread to all corners of the country.

It’s not just the negotiated settlement that is rupturing but the legitimacy and effectiveness of the ANC and the Tripartite Alliance as the political guarantor of the 1994 historic compromise. The Vote No Campaign led by some of the most committed and honest leaders of the ANC and the SACP is further evidence that Zuma’s ANC has become too ghastly to contemplate.

This initiative is providing a wake-up call for the thousands of honest cadres and activists who fought for the liberation of our country and built the mass democratic movement, and who believe South Africa has to break the shackles of capitalism and imperialism to be truly free. It is an opportunity for our compatriots to regain their voice.

This is not a call for abstentionism. On the contrary this is a call for intensified activism, for political renewal that goes beyond placing a cross on a ballot paper every few years. Those who decry this campaign for turning its back on those who gave up their lives for fighting for the vote are just being opportunistic. Though the franchise is very important, our liberation struggle can never be reduced to the vote alone. Fundamentally it was a struggle to unite workers, communities and youth through regaining control of the wealth of the country. Our struggle continues and the vote, parliament and government are sites of different moments of struggle as we march to fulfill the forgotten aspirations of our liberation struggle.

When it comes to the election the Vukani! Sidikwe! Vote No! campaign provides opportunities for the millions disaffected by an ANC that has bought into the game and which plays by the rules of the global elite and the rest of the one percenters. The call for votes to either be spoilt or given to smaller parties is understood as tactical as part of a holding operation until a credible left and radical electoral alternative emerges.

And who are the smaller parties we believe those who exercise their vote should tactically support? These are parties that say yes to a living wage of R12,500. These are parties that fight with our people for radical land and agrarian reform and for decent public services. These are parties that campaign for nationalisation of the heights of the economy under popular control and say no to capitalism.

Breaking with the ANC is neither to be cold nor to enter the political wilderness but to join many committed activists that never believed the negotiated settlement ended the struggle for freedom. It is to be in solidarity with a generation of new activists embedded in hundreds of trade unions, social movements and popular organisations that take on the good fight for social justice.

We see Vukani! Sidikwe! Vote No! as a bridge that will help our comrades trapped in the wilting and discredited Tripartite Alliance to cross over to begin the long path of renewal of the progressive, anti-capitalist and socialist traditions of our struggle for emancipation. The embrace of people fighting for their dignity 20 years after the end of apartheid is very warm. Working in solidarity with those fighting for a living wage, decent work, shelter they can call home, for land to grow their food and feed their families, for education that opens the doors to knowledge, literature and culture, for safety and security that guarantee women and children can walk our streets freed from fear, for decent public services, for a society free of corruption, is to be warm.

As the DLF we believe the Vukani! Sidikwe! Vote No! campaign can be an important step among several towards the building of an anti-capitalist electoral platform for the 2016 local government elections.

Vote No

By Richard Pithouse

April 16, 2014 -- South African Civil Society Information Service -- In recent days Ronnie Kasrils has been referred to as "a rebel, a Judas, a scoundrel", as "Satan", and as a "disruptive, reckless and counter-revolutionary" figure spitting on "the long struggles and the sacrifices of our people". Alistair Sparks, who is routinely introduced as "Respected journalist Alistair Sparks" despite the fact that he’s often little more than an unthinking hack for conservative orthodoxies of various sorts, has opined that the campaign led by Kasrils and Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge will not make an "iota of difference" and that the “ANC will not be shaken at all". He’s right in so far as the campaign is unlikely to make an iota of difference to who wins the election and by how much. But the often cartoonish vitriol directed at Kasrils in particular, as well as the "Vote No" campaign in general, shows that Sparks is entirely wrong about the ANC being left unshaken by the campaign.

The ANC’s moral authority and its hold on the idea of the nation, along with popular hopes for its redemption, were never absolute but for a long time they were overwhelming. But they are both in precipitous decline. On the electoral front, COPE [Congress of the People] and the EFF [Economic Freedom Fighters, led by Julius Malema] have split off, on the trade union front AMCU and National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) have stepped out of the fold, there is mass protest on the streets, some of it taking the form of sustained independent organisation, and in the symbolic realm Jacob Zuma is squandering the symbolic capital built up over a century with the same sort of abandonment as his architect squandered public money on Nkandla.

It is no small thing when figures like Pallo Jordon and Mavuso Msimang make their disquiet clear. It’s no small thing when the ANC, despite having turned the South Africcan Broadcasting Corporation into its own instrument rather than a public project, setting up its own newspaper and effectively buying a good chunk of the established press is still unable to find any credible intellectuals to sing its praises in the public sphere. It’s no small thing when its president is booed in public and its leading figures booed, insulted or chased out of communities when they go campaigning.

On Saturday, Gwede Mantashe lost his cool campaigning on hostile ground in Soweto. Potential voters stood firm on their critique of Nkandla, corruption and unemployment. In an exchange that neatly illustrated the contradictory political potential in growing popular anger one resident asked what the ANC was doing about ‘foreigners’ while another declared, “We feel like outsiders, foreigners, non-South Africans”.

Last month, in Jacksonville in Port Elizabeth, Zuma was booed and heckled by an angry crowd. John Fillies, a local resident argued, “We are victims of a corrupt state. We live in shacks while those we voted for are living in luxury. Zuma should not have come here. We don’t want him here, he is not welcome in Jacksonville until we have decent houses like other people.”

A couple of days before that the police and ANC officials opened fire in Bekkersdal, at a taxi rank now named Marikana, as angry residents protested at the ANC’s presence in their community. In October last year Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane told protesting residents in Bekkersdal that “People can threaten us and say they won’t vote but the ANC doesn’t need their dirty votes.” Thabang Wesi from the Bekkersdal Concerned Residents Association responded that “If the ANC does not need our dirty votes anymore, it is fine. We will take them to other political parties that will wash them and once they are clean utilise them effectively, taking care of the voters, unlike the ANC.”

In moments like this the wider process in which the ANC is steadily losing its once grand stature are illuminated with striking clarity.

The "Vote No" campaign certainly resonates with a growing popular sentiment. It’s very common to hear people, usually expressing a personal view but sometimes part of a collective project, declaring that they will not vote. And since 2004 organised popular movements have often actively called for a boycott of the polls. Of course the "Vote No" campaign is asking for spoilt ballots or votes for smaller parties other than the DA. But the sentiment animating this, a desire to withdraw support from the ANC, sometimes in the hope of waking it up, is often the same as that informing decisions not to vote at all.

The "Vote No" campaign also has a certain resonance with NUMSA’s decision not to campaign for the ANC, or to offer it financial support, during this election.

Nonetheless the "Vote No" campaign is not rooted in popular organisation and struggle. It is a move on the part of a dissident elite, some of whom have drifted into the kind of dubious version of left politics that takes the form of bussing in poor people to attend NGO meetings over which they have no control and pretending, perhaps to themselves as much as anyone else, that this paternalism – a world apart from mass democratic politics – constitutes movement building. But while this campaign is located at a considerable organisational distance from the struggle on the streets, our public sphere is very much an elite space and people of the stature of Kasrils and Madlala-Routledge have a genuine capacity to shake it up.

José Saramango, the communist writer, and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, began his final novel, Seeing, first published in Portuguese 10 years ago, with an election in an unnamed city in an unnamed country. The novel opens on election day and there’s a hard rain, an almost Biblical rain falling. No one comes in to vote. At around four in the afternoon voters start trickling in. When the votes are counted 70% are blank. Error is assumed and a second election is set for a week later. This time, despite considerable pressure from the media, 83% of the ballots are blank.

The politicians suspect an anarchist conspiracy. With the legitimacy of the politicians called into question they turn on the people and there are arrests, interrogations, an avalanche of propaganda and even a siege of the city as the politicians become ever more desperate to insist that the people must offer them the ritual show of support on which their power rests. The point of the novel is that the power of the political class in certain kinds of democracies depends on people accepting the reduction of democracy to the prospect of making a choice from a set of entirely inadequate alternatives. The novel has acquired a certain contemporary resonance in recent years as electoral boycotts have been staged against the venality of the political class, its intersections with corporate and other elites, and its complete lack of social imagination, in countries like Greece, India, Mexico and Spain.

The "Vote No" campaign does not assert electoral abstentionism as a principle. On the contrary the suggestion that votes are either spoilt or given to smaller parties is understood as a conjunctural and tactical intervention that is in part a holding operation until a credible electoral choice or choices emerge and in part an attempt to make it clear that there will be fertile ground for credible alternatives.

The campaign can’t claim to be genuinely rooted in popular struggle and organisation. But the hysterical response to it from the ANC is telling. It shows that as the party limps and stumbles into its decline, sustained by the idea of the ANC rather than its tawdry reality, and buttressed with patronage and repression, it feels itself to be vulnerable to symbolic interventions that mark out the steady accumulation of withdrawal from participation in its fantasies about itself. It’s clear that the ANC sees heretical ideas that have the temerity to question the notion that this election offers voters a credible choice, one that would, as its slogans imply, meet the approval of Nelson Mandela and Chris Hani, as a threat to its political legitimacy.

[Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.]

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