Conference of the Democratic Left: Unite to make another South Africa and world possible!

The following call was issued by the Conference of the Democratic Left, a left unity project in South Africa. It first appeared at the Conference of the Democratic Left web site.

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A call to a national people’s conference against capitalism and for democratic left politics

A Call for united anti-capitalist action …

This is a call to come together in unity in a Conference Against Capitalism and for Democratic Left Politics.

1.   The world is in crisis

Global capitalism threatens our world with disaster. If it is left to plunder the natural resources of our planet and pollute the atmosphere, the oceans and the soil, life itself will be under grave threat.

The current global economic crisis represents the exhaustion of a system that is driven by profit and competition. The basic tenet of capitalism is to grow endlessly with no regard to natural limits, to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few. It explains why wherever we look we see the crisis and decay of the system: be it financial, energy, food, environment, cultural and social. War, global warming and health pandemics threaten the annihilation of humanity within a couple of generations.

This is equally true for South Africa. In spite of the break with apartheid and the establishment of political democracy, the situation for the working people and the poor gets worse. This is because the same crisis-ridden model of development is imposed. The high levels of corruption accompanying the transition from apartheid must be seen not just as greed but an outcome of the failure to redistribute wealth. Government tenders and patronage are the vehicles for accumulation by a minority in the face of the extreme monopolisation of the economy. Polokwane [the African National Congress national conference that replaced President Thabo Mbeki with Jacob Zuma] does not signal a break with a system that has seen a rise in social inequality, social decay and a resurgent social conservatism in the form of ethnic politics, xenophobia, attacks on women and reproductive rights, homophobia, religious fundamentalism, etc.


  • 60 million workers are likely to lose their jobs this year
  • 50 million more people in the ‘Third World’ are likely to be plunged into poverty

In South Africa:

  • More than 500,000 jobs have been lost since the start of the recession in October 2008;
  • We have become the most unequal society in the world;
  • We exceed the world in violence against women and children;
  • Despite building of houses, more than 2 million families lack decent housing, the same number as in 1994;
  • We have one of the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates in the world.

The promise of a better life for all has not been realised. As long as the ANC government refuses to confront capital and redistribute wealth, poor communities will continue to be down-trodden.

The rise of a new global left in the context of the World Social Forum, the emergence of left parties (socialist, green) in Latin America and Europe and new anti-capitalist social movements challenge our dogmas.

Another South Africa and another world, free of violence and exploitation, is possible. We have to overcome our disillusionment in the politicians and policy makers.

The future rests in the hands of the working class, the dispossessed, the unemployed, the youth, women and rural people as well as radical intellectuals. But only if we wrestle for power and the right to shape a new agenda rooted in the power of a gigantic movement resting on independent autonomous mass organisations of working people. We must struggle to give meaning to the slogan “we are our own liberators”.

2.   Build a platform of struggle and politics of the people!

In a number of forums where the acute problems confronting our people are being discussed the idea that we must draw together left and progressive forces into a united front to confront the ravages of global capitalism is growing. In this task of shaping a new agenda that can make a radical break with disaster capitalism 60 activists from trade unions, social movements and a wide range of radical political organisations and currents came together in October 2008 to begin this process.

It was agreed to work towards developing a new programmatic platform of action on an anti-capitalist basis for democratic left politics The intention is to create a platform that can:

  • Build a political consensus on the challenges posed by the current international and national situation;
  • Take forward national and international struggles;
  • Work towards developing a grassroots democratic eco-socialist, feminist, political program;
  • Develop strategies for overcoming race, gender, age, sexual orientation and other divisions within  South African society and particularly amongst the working class;

As a means of uniting and strengthening the ability of the working class and progressive social forces to struggle around the issues affecting them.

We must struggle to rekindle the mass movement of the 1980s which brought apartheid to an end. We recognise that the conscious forces of transformation are still weak, but believe that such actions can eventually unite class struggle forces in all working-class movements not least from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP).

3.  We need a people’s conference, solidarity and united front

The Conference of the Democratic Left is not an event and neither is it about merely sharing intellectual ideas. What is envisaged is:

  • A process of bottom up deliberation, debate in which voices from below shape outcomes and collective action. The organising of the Conference of the Democratic Left is about creating local forums, provincial forums and a national platform. The Conference of the Democratic Left is merely one moment in an exciting, vibrant and self-organised process.
  • This is a conscious political initiative informed by a recognition that we all fought for the liberation of South Africa. The Conference of the Democratic Left is an affirmation of democratic pluralism and is a process which seeks to elaborate political objectives, practices, alternatives and new ways of engaging in left politics. It aims to create a united front around a programme of action while preserving the autonomy of constituent organisations.

We engage in this process humbly and with modesty, conscious that we do not have all the answers to the complex challenges facing humanity.

4. National and provincial convening committees

The Conference of the Democratic Left will be convened from March 20 – 22, 2010. An interim national convening committee has been established, and provincial convening committees are in the process of being established. These are facilitation structures which will further evolve through adding members in the context of the process.


You are invited to participate in the forums and platforms of this initiative convened by the coordinating structures. Convening Committee members will be coming to you, in communities, in factories and farms – in social movements, unions, religious organisations and community groups as we go forward to the National Conference of the Democratic Left to hear your voices and to be influenced by you.

The National Conference of the Democratic Left aims to become a vehicle for the self-organisation of the excluded, the exploited, the discriminated and poverty-stricken majority in South Africa (including all progressive strata) with the power to radically transform South Africa along eco-socialist and participatory democratic lines.

Begin at the bottom left

By Mazibuko K. Jara

March 12, 2010 -- For someone like me, nearly a year of a Jacob Zuma presidency would be an easy, triumphant moment to ask the South African Communist Party (SACP) and Cosatu whether the Zuma path to power was worth it. But this would amount to cheap politicking and lead nowhere.

But there is an important lesson: change cannot ever be the outcome of the big man. Fundamentally it is a product of the way in which power is configured in a society.

The Zuma path was not about the reconfiguration of capitalist power or a break with ex-president Thabo Mbeki's neoliberal and technicist approach.

In pursuing the Zuma path both the SACP and Cosatu had a blind spot: they ignored a basic issue concerning the conditions under which political elites in capitalist societies have been forced to advance developmental programmes. The removal of Mbeki has not changed the framing pre-1994 property relations.

Change in personnel at the top is useless in dealing with class power that is rooted in the monopoly ownership of the economy, the power of financial capital, the exploitation of cheap black labour and a permissive state. As Adam Habib put it to Amandla: "Individuals, wherever they are, simply reflect the institutional constraints of the balance of power within … society".

Indeed, the removal of Mbeki could have opened up a space to create the political conditions conducive to thoroughgoing change if a mass movement built around basic demands and transformative policies had accompanied it.

Even going forward, the SACP-Cosatu focus remains on "keeping our man" in the job. Still absent in their strategy is a willingness to consider a political project outside the ANC.

The past 11 or so months of a Zuma presidency have shown us a government that is not about to challenge the inordinate power of capital. This can be seen on so many fronts: a commitment to two-tier labour-market policies; a lack of responsiveness to the needs of local communities; a foreign policy aligned to global corporate interests, such as at the Copenhagen climate change negotiations; and in the countryside entrenching the power of undemocratic tribal authorities at the expense of the rights of modern citizenship and, particularly, the rights of women.

Within a neoliberal framework, the global crisis has also cut Zuma's space to manoeuvre.

But that cannot be an excuse as Mbeki faced similar pressures, and the discrediting of neoliberalism offers space for alternative policies.

This past year has also shown us a besieged, unstrategic and unstable ANC-SACP-Cosatu alliance leadership. Even in subjective terms, the negative psychology of such an encircled political leadership reinforces its lack of political will and incapacity to build popular power, undo the neoliberal economic policies of the Mbeki era and energetically drive a genuinely transformative agenda.

Meanwhile, capital has not rested -- it has continued to act on and through the state to block any post-Polokwane transformational momentum that may have been flickering. As part of its strategy, capital can actually afford to have an SACP and Cosatu blowing hot and cold -- in reality they are co-opted into what remains a neoliberal government. To illustrate this: the potentially transformative National Health Insurance proposal is now tilted towards becoming an accumulation site that could address the profit crisis facing private hospitals and medical aid schemes instead of delivering a universal, decommodified and quality public health system.

Another glaring example concerns the continued power of the coal industry to determine our energy policy. Such a subversion is possible largely because, at critical times in the post-Polokwane period, key moments and platforms in which to mobilise and harness the voices, interests and power of the popular forces were lost. In addition the space has increased for the political elite to ride shamelessly on mass support to open the doors of wealth accumulation wider -- as can be seen in the defence of ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema as a deserving black businessman.

The Zuma path represents a serious strategic shortcoming on the part of both the SACP and Cosatu. Objectively, the trajectory of the Zuma path has fashioned the political role of the ANC to be about managing a more legitimate capitalist society and state, while keeping the SACP and Cosatu onside.

A populist ANC in rhetoric and yet conservative in its economic policies is consistent with this objective. This is an ANC that will rant and rave rather than unlock a radical programme of redistribution.

This critique is not to deny the ANC-led alliance's potential still to advance its social delivery programme, which would improve the dire conditions of the people. Although such a legitimate programme is important and should be supported, it would still fall far short of the very necessary anti-systemic transformation of the social, economic and political foundations of this society.

Outside the ANC-led alliance, the post-Polokwane scenario has also underlined the broader weakness of the left and the mass movement. Mass protests largely amount to winning piecemeal concessions from the state rather than creating political conditions conducive to thoroughgoing change. There is still no other left-wing political pole that could contribute to the building of a mass movement that would challenge crisis-ridden capitalism and struggle for a feasible, socialist alternative.

In the face of all this, it is not left-wing infantility to underline the need for a serious class project that would begin at the bottom and be a vehicle to meet immediate demands and build a mass movement for transformative policies.

No matter what the balance of forces is inside the ANC-led alliance, without such a project there will be no social force with the weight and voice to block compromises with capital and secure radical changes in favour of the working class. As any trade unionist knows: "What you have not won on the battle­field, you are unlikely to win at the negotiating table."

If anything, this is the language that the SACP and Cosatu should have no difficulty recalling and heeding. The future demands a course of struggle that goes beyond the limitations of the Zuma path.

[Mazibuko K. Jara was recently expelled from the SACP and is part of the conveners of the Conference of the Democratic Left. This article first appeared in South Africa's Mail & Guardian on March 12, 2010.]


it is unfortunate that the sacp limpopo has been disbanded and therefore we as members cannot sure whether we have a political party or not. the vanguard of workers has become the vanguard of the capitalist. i do not think the sacp has vision for the masses. i only see the sacp which has lost direction. it is not the sacp that we know of which i am a member. the decision that the sacp took of fighting the war against capitalism from within the alliance it does not do the sacp any good. in fact the sacp is going to die without even contesting the elections. iam saying this with a heavy and painfull heart because i for one i am a socialist at heart. whatever is happening to the sacp is the same with cosatu. these people in the executive commitees think that the members are stupid. we might not have been there during struggle time but we are not stupid. therefore we call the conference for the democratic left to consider starting a socialist movement where every political party with a socialist objectives can participate in the interest of socialism