South Africa: Prospects for a new Left

South African womens protest

First published in Amandla! Magazine.

Where is the organised solidarity with the workers’ movement in Ukraine, fighting the Russian occupation? Where is the movement to defend foreign nationals from xenophobia? Where is the movement against femicide? And where is the fight against extreme budget cuts that are laying waste to the lives of the poor?

Where is the resistance to the corporatisation of our universities and our trade unions, for that matter? And where is the resistance to the commodification of life portrayed in popular art and culture?

In other words: Where is the Left?

The Left exists. It is present in many of today’s struggles. But over time it has become quite marginal and isolated. 

Historic defeat

A rebirth of the Left needs to start with coming to terms with this reality. As Daniel Bensaid, the French socialist philosopher and activist, asked when reassessing socialist strategy: "What are we coming from? From a historic defeat. We do best to admit it and gauge its scope. The neoliberal offensive of the last quarter century is the cause of this defeat, as well as its consequence and its culmination. Something was accomplished at the turn of the century, between the fall of the Berlin Wall and September 11. But what was it? The end of the ‘short twentieth century’ and its cycle of wars and revolutions? Or the end of modernity? The end of a cycle, a period of time, or an epoch?"

Clearly, the Left in South Africa has suffered the same consequences of the shift in power towards globalised and financialised capital. Even so, the historic defeat of the workers’ movement in South Africa has its own specificities. It comes in the wake and as a consequence, of the collapse of the socialist distortion which was the Soveit Union and its satellite states. This had a profound impact in making the negotiated end of apartheid possible and shifting the balance of forces internationally in favour of the US and its allies. The African National Congress (ANC) in power became compliant with the new international power balance and implemented a set of neoliberal policies to appease international and domestic capital.

As Vishwas Satgar correctly explained when writing about the 2013 National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) Special Congress decision to break with the ANC Alliance: "Two decades of ANC-led neoliberalisation, which has surrendered democracy, development and state formation to capital, consolidated the strategic defeat of the Left and working class in South Africa. The ‘National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) moment’ and process, led by South Africa’s largest (more than 330 000 members) and most militant trade union, is all about confronting this strategic defeat. It is about a battle to determine the future of South Africa and reclaim the strategic initiative for the country’s working class."

Yet, it is the collapse of what Satgar calls the “Numsa moment” which makes the situation for the Left that much more difficult and complex. It is like having to rebuild from scratch. New openings for the Left had been created by the Marikana massacre, the mass strikes of mineworkers, the farmworkers’ uprising in the Western Cape, the break with the ANC Youth League and the formation of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Numsa’s break with the Alliance and the Rhodes Must Fall / Fees Must Fall student rebellions. It was as if an anti-capitalist moment was maturing in which the ANC was losing its legitimacy. Heightened social struggles and class antagonisms were creating a new conjuncture for a new Left to emerge.

And this moment occurred just as the Arab Spring was erupting. In addition, mass struggles in Europe gave rise to the new anti-neoliberal and left-populist formations which were making electoral breakthroughs. It was the time of Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and the emergence of “Corbynism” in Britain. Even in the US, there was mass support for a left social democracy in the form of the Bernie Sanders movement.

There is no space to deal here with what happened to this moment internationally. In South Africa it dissipated and the opportunity for renewing a left politics waned. It is as Stuart Hall, the British Marxist, points out: "When a conjuncture unrolls, there is no ‘going back’. History shifts gears. The terrain changes. You are in a new moment. You have to attend, ‘violently’, with all the ‘pessimism of the intellect’ at your command, to the ‘discipline of the conjuncture’."

Why did the anti-capitalist Left in South Africa fail to put its stamp on this moment? There were widespread eruptions of social struggle. Why did the Left not manage to bring about a convergence of these struggles and the possibilities that would have come from that? This question is critical and will require much more introspection and analysis than is possible in this editorial.

Suffice to say, old-style Marxist Leninist dogma was dominant, with its in-built authoritarianism. Its dominance extended to significant bureaucratic machines such as the South African Communist Party (SACP), Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and Numsa. And this killed off the green shoots of a more open, democratic and pluralist emancipatory politics. Amongst the protagonists behind the formation of the EFF and Numsa’s Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP), there may have been a break with the ANC, but not with Congress politics and practices. The young activists and cadres thrown up by the worker, community and student struggles were absorbed by these bureaucracies as they searched for a stable income and personal security.

Towards the fire next time

 It will be crucial for making left politics relevant to building an autonomous women’s movement.

The gross levels of inequality and social polarisation continue, together with the neoliberal assaults on poor and working-class people. It is very likely this will lead to new conflagrations. The ANC and the Alliance will be less able to act as a social “deflator”. When these new opportunities arise for rebuilding working class struggle and movements, there will need to be a new cadre of activists embedded in working-class movements, sensitised by and sensitive to a constantly evolving new left politics.

Such a new left politics will have several sources. It will be founded on anti-capitalist principles, established over centuries of movement building and development of socialist thought. It will be moulded by new thinking from outside of the socialist movement, not least the ecological, feminist and anti-racist movements. And it will be a synthesis of debates based on the experiences gained from both defeats and victories of working-class struggles in all corners of the world. It will have to be an open and non-dogmatic politics, able to grapple with an evolving capitalist system which is restructuring the spheres of production and social reproduction in significant ways.

Perspectives and analysis are not enough. A new left politics needs strategy and practice. For this, the Left must locate itself in the mass movements and struggles of the working classes, both urban and rural. In a context of mass unemployment, collapsing social services and an increasingly dysfunctional state, the sphere of social reproduction will be an important site of struggle. Here, it is important to recognise that the Left in South Africa has become detached from working-class communities. A programme to reconnect is essential.

Promoting mutual aid of all forms is crucial as a means of gaining the confidence of workers and the poor in politics, about which they have become sceptical and even cynical. It must be able to address the immediate crises of everyday life and build solidarity.

Our politics and practice will have to be feminist in order to relate to working-class women, on whose shoulders the burden of care falls. It will be crucial for making left politics relevant to building an autonomous women’s movement. It must be able to relate to cost of living crises, land tenure and rural livelihoods, housing, and all the other socio-economic problems impacting on women most. At the same time, it must respond to the terrible violence directed at women.

A new left politics cannot pay lip service to ecology, and especially the climate emergency, which has developed into an existential crisis for the whole of humanity. Capitalism exists through simultaneously exploiting labour and expropriating nature. Hence, ecology must be central to a new left politics.

Strategies must include suppressing the fossil fuel industry, decarbonising the economy and repairing vital ecosystems. Such a strategy will have to be based on the public control and planned allocation of resources and productive capacities. This is the only way it will be able to win workers and communities dependent on our current fossil fuel, polluting economy. In a transition to a low-carbon economy, a public pathway approach offers the clearest means of elaborating a genuine working class just transition, based on a low-carbon reindustrialisation of the South African economy.

The Marxist economist Michael Lebowitz, in an article republished to mark his untimely death, requotes Hugo Chavez on the task facing the Left in South Africa and globally: "We must reclaim socialism as a thesis, a project and a path, but a new type of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of everything."