South Africa: The way forward for the left (plus: Zabalaza for Socialism — Building Towards a Movement for Socialism

[Editor’s note: South African human rights activist Salim Vally will be speaking at Ecosocialism 2024, June 28–30, Boorloo/Perth, Australia. For more information on the conference visit]

First published at Amandla!. This is an edited version of a presentation to the Extended National Committee of Zabalaza for Socialism (ZASO). The founding document of ZASO can be read below.

The May 29 national election is going to have a profound effect on shaping the medium-term political landscape in the country. That means that it’s going to have a profound effect on how to go about trying to construct a Left party. And there are major strategic issues to discuss in relation to that. And I want to talk about the kind of principles that will have to underpin how such a party operates, as an exercise in imagining some distant future we want to see.

I think these questions have immediate relevance for us. As we have said, the overarching objective of ZASO is to try to catalyse a new political organisation. That means we have to be able to go to other activists and organisations on the Left with a compelling vision of what a new political party will look like. Why it will succeed where so many other similar ventures have failed in the recent past. And why people should be willing to invest their time and energy.

It doesn’t mean we have to have a blueprint. But we have to be able to make the case compellingly for why the moment is now for a Left political party. And the principles under which we do it are going to be heavily shaped by the political conjuncture that’s going to be shaped by this election.

What is this moment?

I think we are in a moment of recomposition. It’s a moment of profound shifting and change in the political landscape. And the dominant trend is one in which a party that was overwhelmingly dominant historically, the ANC, seems almost guaranteed to get below 50%, and will be forced into a coalition of some kind. It’s going to be an historic defeat.

But there’s no new party ready and able to fill the vacuum. So instead, we have what is likely to be growth at the margin for the other established opposition parties (the DA and the EFF). And then a battery of new, smaller political parties entering the arena, each claiming a little handful of the electorate (1% or 2%).

But there’s a bigger dynamic going on here: the largest chunk of the ANC’s own coalition is drifting away from the party. They are essentially de-aligning. They’re not throwing their weight behind any of these new contenders. They are going to sit this election out. They don’t see anybody who’s actually representing their interests.

So the vote is going to get divided amongst an extremely large array of parties. But why this fragmentation? Part of it obviously has to do with the weaknesses and limitations of the existing opposition parties. If we had a more effective opposition, then there would be a chance that the ANC losses would be the victories of one of these parties. But they don’t so far seem able to capitalise.

But there’s a deeper underlying factor at play. And that’s the fact that South African society is defined by relatively deep and profound social cleavages—issues that really divide society politically. That has been partially obscured by the ANC’s very broad church coalition. But now, as that coalition fragments, things are becoming much clearer.

Parties like the DA are hitting a ceiling, because they obviously want to try to appeal to a black electorate, but that offends some of the white power brokers in the party. Another major cleavage that is almost a structural feature of society is the ANC’s patronage machinery.

It is a major economic force in this country. It has really created divisions in communities all over. On the one hand, those who benefited, and on the other, those on the outside who see this as an engine of corruption.

These new parties are not finding a way of navigating through the major divides in politics. When they come down on one side of an issue, it immediately isolates them from voters on the other side.

The other big issue is institutional: our electoral system provides very low barriers to entry. If you can get 1% of the vote, you have representation. Now we’re entering an era of coalitions, it’s easy to leverage up that very small chunk of representation. So every little political entrepreneur who fancies themselves as a popular person is going to throw their hat into the ring and try to get whatever they can. Hence the fragmentation.

Opportunities for a new party of the Left

This creates both opportunities and challenges. It benefits us because it’s better to be starting off in a relatively open political field, in which many of our contenders are small parties with a relatively small resource base. And in which, more importantly, there’s a giant chunk of the electorate that is unaffiliated. If you’re trying to launch a new Left party, you’re trying to convince people who have no political home to join you. Convincing people to leave their existing political home is much harder.

The ANC doesn’t deliver anything, but it continues to win large majorities because of the deep loyalty some of the electorate feels towards it. But this is not a situation that will last. Some, or one, of these parties is going to start to gain momentum, to win more votes, more supporters. And it’s going to translate those votes and supporters into greater resources. And it’s going to build on that momentum. And the political field will be carved up. And then eventually the larger parties will start raising barriers to entry. They’ll make it more and more difficult for new political parties to enter into the field. And they’ll use all of the chaos around these coalitions as a justification for that.

So it means that there’s an opportunity, but it’s an opportunity that has a dwindling time frame. It’s an opportunity we’ve got to seize now before it disappears.

The challenges

The big challenge lies in a ballot paper that’s now 350 parties long. We’re going to face the challenge of what the political scientists call party identification. When you launch your political party, you have to create some kind of brand for this party that allows it to stand out to voters now.

Leftists typically don’t like this language of branding. They think we’ll just come with a programme that really represents people’s interests, and we won’t have to do any of this work that other parties do to sell themselves. But ultimately, to succeed, we have to reach ordinary voters. We have to appeal not just to people like ourselves who are activists, people who live, sleep, drink politics. We have to appeal to the majority of the population who actually detest politics – politics is a bunch of people lying to them, and then wrecking their existence. And to do that, we have to be able to build a clear identity that’s going to distinguish us from the others.

We might be the only genuinely Left party out there—the only party that really wants to represent the interests of working people. But parties that use the language of the Left while walking Right will be all over the place.

So what does that mean? What should our programme be? The only way that we’re going to be able to discover the nature of an effective programme and manifesto for a Left party is by deeply embedding ourselves in communities and workplaces, and testing out our positions.

Two principles

There are two principles that I think have to guide us as we start to craft these policies. And these are principles that really apply to strategising in all sorts of domains.

The first principle is that we have to choose. If we are going to eventually build an effective electoral force in this country, we have to craft a manifesto and programme that selects clear priorities. Prioritising is the essence of strategy.

Without priority, you’re not choosing a strategy. Resources are finite. Prioritising is central to how you build political identity, how you build the brand, or new party.

Choosing a message to focus on doesn’t mean that we stop caring about any of the other issues. And it doesn’t mean that we stop putting them into our campaign. But it means that we have to be very effective in how we choose a message.

The second principle is that to be effective on the Left, we have to be two metres ahead of the masses and not 2,000 metres. In electoral politics, maybe you can only be one meter ahead. That doesn’t mean we can do what bourgeois parties do—conduct a poll to find out what the majority of people want and put that in the manifesto. We can’t do that because we want to transform the world in a way that makes it better. If it turns out that some of our issues are not popular, we don’t just jettison them; we have to find ways to make them popular. Our politics have to be responsive to where people are at today. We can’t just imagine some future electorate will simply want to follow Marx and overthrow the bourgeoisie.

And we have to face the fact that current opinion polls show that certain of the issues that we on the Left care very deeply about, and that should be very central in any political platform, turn out to be issues that don’t rate very highly when you ask people to name their priorities. For example, land reform, turns out to be very low down this list.

When people rank an issue low, it doesn’t mean that they don’t care about the issue at all. It just means that they don’t really prioritise it. Land reform is one of those issues.

Racism is another issue that tends to fall relatively far down this list. Again, it doesn’t mean that people in South Africa don’t care about racism, or don’t think it’s an issue. It just means if you’re going to pose an option to a person between a party that’s going to find a way of solving the unemployment crisis, and a party that’s going to focus all of its efforts on racism, people are going to make an obvious choice.

We have to be ruthless

So how can we navigate this? I’m going to focus on one issue in particular. And that’s the environmental issue. These surveys show that climate change and environmental issues regularly ranked at the absolute bottom. Less than 1% of respondents told the surveys that climate change is the issue for them. If we tried to run an electoral campaign on climate change, like the Climate Justice Charter Movement, it’s a completely losing strategy. People just don’t prioritise it in a way that they’re going to give their one vote to the party that makes that the issue.

That doesn’t mean that we should now say we can no longer be eco-socialists. The reason that we are eco-socialists, and the reason that we try to agitate and organise around climate issues, is that we know that this is an issue that is hugely important to the material life of the working class.

But it means if we are going to be effective in the service of creating a climate just world, we have to be clever about how we pursue that politics. We know that you can build climate change politics in communities that are deeply affected by this issue. And that means that you can build powerful movements that have mobilising capacity around climate change.

We have to get over the notion that has been unfortunately very common on the Left, the notion that if an organisation chooses not to prioritise a specific issue, they don’t care about it, or they don’t think that it’s important. That’s not at all the case. We might believe that climate change is the single most important issue in the country.

But if there’s no chance of building power around that issue, then logic and strategy demand we change tack; we find other issues around which we can build power, so that we can use that power to address everything that exists in our programme.

We have to take a leaf out of the book of the Right. They never won an election saying we’re going to cut taxes, we’re going to slash spending on health care, and we’re going to close your school down, because they know that’s not possible. So they win on a whole bunch of other powerful issues, and then, when they get into power, they just do what’s on their agenda.

We’re going to have to be a little bit ruthless, in the same way that right wing political parties are.

Niall Reddy is a researcher at the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies and a member of ZASO.

Zabalaza for Socialism — Building towards a movement for socialism

South Africa is in a deep crisis, where the real and persistent failures of capitalism threaten a descent into barbarism and the destruction of life. In the debris of anti-capitalist politics in South Africa, a new spark has been lit to unite the left and to contribute to the building of a mass movement for socialism. We have formed Zabalaza for Socialism to pioneer a new democratic, grassroots-oriented politics. It breaks with the authoritarian, top-down politics, which has characterised much of the post-Apartheid left. Zabalaza for Socialism (ZASO) wants to give meaning to the slogan under which it was born, Socialism means freedom.

Another world is possible – a joyful, creative, new world which emancipates us all from oppression and frees us all from exploitation, and where we live in harmony with nature and one another. This is socialism! This is worth fighting and sacrificing for.

This is what 120 delegates, coming from different parts of the country, resolved when they gave birth to ZASO - an eco-socialist, feminist and anti-racist organisation. The launch conference of ZASO took place in Johannesburg from 14 - 16 December 2023. The outstanding business of the Conference was completed over 15 - 17 March 2024.

30 years of democracy: Crisis not freedom

For three decades of neoliberal rule, the interests of the mass of oppressed and exploited people have been sacrificed in favour of capital and the market. That is the reason we see collapse almost everywhere. Mass unemployment, extreme poverty and inequality have enveloped our country in a cycle of violence, corruption and crime.

In this situation, racism, sexism and violence against women, xenophobia and homophobia are taking root in the consciousness of millions of South Africans, disorganising, dividing and creating despair. The project of uniting South Africa as a non-racial, non-sexist society is in ruins. The country must be rebuilt. An alternative to capitalism and the market is urgent. A broad movement for socialism, which unites urban and rural people, employed and unemployed, women and youth will be a vital step towards socialist renewal. We know a long road lies ahead and there are no short cuts. A movement for socialism has to be built on the foundation of reconstructed and renewed grassroots popular movements and worker-controlled trade unions.

Challenging neoliberalism

Mass unemployment is the greatest threat to social cohesion. Almost 50% of the work force is unemployed. It is not foreign nationals who take the jobs of South Africans; it is the owners of capital who horde their capital in idle bank accounts, or off-shore their loot in tax havens. There has been systematic capital flight over the last 30 years. That is what lies behind the process of deindustrialisation and the destruction of jobs in critical and strategic industries. The government’s neoliberal policy has choked and undermined state investment in the economy.

A new wave of retrenchments is taking place as the economy stagnates. Mining, manufacturing and even agricultural jobs are being bled. Public sector jobs are also being shed as the government implements very harsh budget cuts. South Africa’s creditors have demanded that the public sector wage bill be reduced. This is being achieved through the freezing of jobs in the public sector.

Austerity is leading to the collapse of service provision. Workers and the unemployed need to unite in resisting it. An anti-austerity movement must demand taxing the rich and ensuring the redistribution of wealth from the 10% of South Africans who own 90% of the country’s assets. The rich have turned to private health, education and security for their well-being; hence their hostility to paying more in taxes, and their relative immunity from the effects of the crumbling state. They use the corruption in the state sector to mobilise support for privatisation. And their narrative is winning. Even within the working classes, the idea of defending the public sector is drowned out by the corruption narrative. The ideal South African is no longer the citizen, but the consumer, and “the South African dream” is to opt out of state support in favour of private services.

And yet, corruption is an outcome of the failure to redistribute wealth. The new black capitalist class is desperate to grow and accumulate, but it is restricted by big capital and its monopoly hold over the commanding heights of the economy. As the representative of this class, the ruling African National Congress directs state policy and resources, especially state procurement and the tender system, towards supporting this section of the predatory elite. An orgy of corruption results, as the intense competition for tenders requires the buying of influence in the state. Fronting by so-called white capital is not an insignificant component of this systemic corruption enveloping the state.

ZASO opposes the tender system; it is this outsourcing of state functions that provides the myriad of opportunities for corruption. The state must in-source workers to undertake public work, especially the construction and maintenance of vital infrastructure for the improvement of the lives of the poor. Substantial public administration reform is also necessary to rebuild state capacity. Housing, schools, hospitals and clinics need to be built; water, electricity and sewage systems need urgent repair. Unemployed workers must be hired and trained to do this work. A mass housing programme, expansion of cheap, efficient, PUBLIC transport, land redistribution and support for small scale farmers, the roll out of cultural and sport programmes – these are the pillars of an economic renewal and mass employment programme.

This is not socialism, but these constitute some of the most important reforms for strengthening the position of workers in ways that advance the struggle for socialism.

ZASO and the 2004 elections

Unlike the plethora of recently formed political parties, ZASO’s primary focus is extra-parliamentary resistance to big business and the neoliberal state. This does not imply that we ignore parliament and the electoral process. This is a critical site of struggle. The left and popular movements need to rebuild democratic grassroots and workplace organisations to effectively participate in elections. We therefore resolved not to rush into a process which requires extensive preparation, organisation and resources. The left cannot afford another disaster where it fails to gain significant electoral support.

We recognise that the 2024 elections are an important turning point. Many polls predict that the ANC will not achieve a 50% majority, which would require a coalition government. There is a great danger that such a government will be more aggressively neoliberal, anti-working class and xenophobic. Even more dangerous is a coalition with populist parties who champion “radical economic transformation” but whose real agenda is to finance a predatory black elite. The era of coalitions will usher in greater instability and political crisis.

We are not in a position to call for a vote for any of the parties standing. Nor do we call for a boycott of the elections. We call on our members to support those parties who oppose dividing the working class (through sexism, racism and xenophobia) and who stand in defence of democracy.

For a new Pan-Africanism

Socialism is an international struggle based on the building of solidarity between the exploited and oppressed everywhere. In South Africa, a key starting point is building unity and friendship with our African brothers and sisters who have fled war, dictatorships and the unfolding climate emergency on our continent. Fighting xenophobia is a vital part of advancing working class unity.

The need for a new Pan-Africanism is urgent. For some time, we have been witnessing the new scramble for Africa, which is fuelling a wave of conflicts across the continent –in Sudan, in the DRC and in Mozambique, for example. While many of these conflicts are related to new oil and gas finds, an increasing focus is the race to control and extract rare earth minerals and other critical minerals (cobalt, copper, lithium, platinum) for low carbon technologies needed for the ‘green economy’ in the advanced economies.

Africa is once again a theatre of inter-imperialist rivalry, where the new Cold War plays out. Supporting our African brothers and sisters in these and other struggles is the start, but not the end, of our internationalism. A new Pan-Africanism must be built by supporting the grassroots efforts of ordinary people to achieve real political and economic self-determination. There will be no liberation “by proxy,” by siding with the growing power of one capitalist camp against the other, whether in the East or West —the working classes and the left have to wage a struggle against them all.

Free Palestine

Solidarity with Palestine is a life and death issue as the Israeli government is equipped and supported by its Western backers to inflict genocide on the people of Gaza. The Zionist state has illegally occupied Palestine since 1948. Palestinians have the right to resist the continuous theft of their land, violence and oppression. While the South African government should be commended for taking Israel to the International Court of Justice, it is not enough. South Africa needs to cut all ties with Israel. ZASO fully supports Palestinian solidarity initiatives, and the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions campaign.

Threat of imperialist rivalries

ZASO decries the growing trend of the left to sacrifice working class solidarity in favour of a ‘campist’ politics based on my enemy’s enemy is my friend. We share nothing in common with the reactionary and sub-imperialist power of Russia. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an extension of the regime’s domestic policies of dictatorial rule, where basic democratic rights are violated, and the rights of different nationalities are suppressed. The invasion of Ukraine is an imperialist adventure and cannot be justified by the threat of NATO expansion. ZASO believes we must stand with the people of Ukraine to resist the invasion of their country. This does not, however, imply support for the reactionary Zelensky regime.

Intense competition between different blocs of capital, especially between the United States of America and China, between Europe and Russia, between capital in the Global North and the Global South. is leading to devastating wars in many parts of the world. Capital accumulation in China, not people-to-people solidarity, lies behind China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a global infrastructure development strategy to invest in more than 150 countries. This, in turn, contributes to a new stage of inter-imperialist rivalry, as the West seeks to contain China’s growing power .


Humanity and all the species on our planet are faced with an existential crisis. The expansion of capitalism to every corner of the globe, and the commodification of almost everything, including large parts of nature, have created an ecological crisis which is suffocating life. The climate emergency is the most pressing of the many ecological disasters we face, not least bio-diversity, fertility of the soils, acidification of the sea and fresh water resources.

Our socialism is for the butterflies and the frogs and all life forms threatened by destructive and polluting capitalism. We know very well that poor people, at work and in the community, are the first victims of the famines, floods, droughts and cyclones of the climate and other ecological crises. Resisting privatisation and fighting for expansion of public goods are critical to halt climate change, both to have the capacity to protect the climate and to win workers to the cause.

A movement for socialism is desperately and urgently needed in the face of capitalism’s worldwide destruction of the foundations of life. But it is possible only if the practices, strategies and perspectives of socialism are renewed.

A long and bumpy road lies ahead to ensure a socialist future. This is why we have come together to launch Zabalaza for Socialism - so we can build it now. Build it in the movements we are active in; and also build it in our practice. Importantly, this means building it in our relations and solidarity with one another.