By Imraan Buccus
Democracy came late to South Africa. India received its independence in 1947, Ghana in 1957 and Kenya in 1963. All of these countries have gone through the thrill of freedom and then the deep disappointment of betrayal by national elites.
With the exception of Palestine freedom came later to South Africa than any of the other colonised countries. We should have learnt the lessons of the postcolonial work but we didn’t and we’ve made many of the same mistakes that were made elsewhere long ago.
One of the problems faced by many postcolonial societies is that during the struggle for national liberation a wide variety of ideologically very different forces end up in the same organisation. This makes sense during an anti-colonial struggle when unity is imperative. But after independence concentration of a wide range of different ideologies in a former national liberation movement distorts democratic engagement.
South Africa is no exception to this. The ANC includes free market liberal, social democrats, communists and nationalists of various kinds, including a tendency towards corrupt and authoritarian nationalism.
While unity against apartheid was a logical position we are not stuck with a very illogical alignment of political forces. A logical organisation of our politics would place the corrupt nationalists in the ANC and the EFF in one camp, the social democrats in the ANC in another camp, the pro-free market liberals in the ANC and the DA in a third camp and the radical left in a forth camp.
But with the SACP in the ANC alliance the left has been co-opted to the point of being irrelevant. With the liberal space left to the DA liberalism is viewed as suspect by many South Africans. With corrupt nationalism politically organised in both the ANC and the EFF it’s difficult for the democrats in the ANC to develop an effective opposition to the dangerous authoritarianism of the EFF.
The launch of a new workers’ party by Numsa last week is an important step towards the normalisation of our politics. It means, for the first time, that there will be a clear and independent left force in our politics.
It’s not yet clear how much support the new party will win in the coming election. Launching a party a few weeks before an election is certainly a risky strategy. But the new party comes out of the largest trade union in the country, and therefore has easy access to a mass base, and the monthly union dues paid by its members.
We can’t be certain how much of that base will become voters for the new party but it seems likely that the party will win votes to get at least some seats in parliament.
Even a few seats in parliament, can, if well used, make a significant shift in the national debate. This will mean that, for the first time in the democratic, era there is a genuine and independent left voice in parliament. On its own this is not enough to fix our politics. For that to happen the ANC will need to find a way to purge itself of the corrupt nationalists within the organisation.
But having an independent and genuinely left voice in our politics will mean that the issues affecting the working-class majority will finally get a real hearing in our politics. If the new party can build a real alliance with the unemployed, and precariously employed workers, to augment its existing base in the industrial working class it could become a powerful voice for social justice.
The emergence of the new party is an existential threat to the SACP, which has been reduced to supporting Ramaphosa, a pro-free market liberal, because the alternative, in the form of Ace Magashule and the corrupt nationalists, is too ghastly to contemplate. The rational response from the SACP will be to exit the alliance and join the new party. This seems highly unlikely though, given that its general secretary has returned to cabinet under Ramaphosa.
It may well turn out that the formation of a left party from within the trade union movement will be the final nail in the coffin of the SACP.
It will also be interesting to see how the new party confronts the EFF. As early as 2013 Numsa took a clear stand against Malema citing corruption, authoritarianism and a lack of a commitment to worker control and socialism. The ANC still has much of the vote of the rural poor. But the new workers party and the EFF will be in direct competition for the vote of the urban poor.
The new workers’ party has leaders of all races, and impressive international alliances. It is very different to the narrow chauvinism of the EFF and its commitment to a form of socialism organised worker control also very different to the EFF’s focus on black ownership of the economy, a commitment that would almost inevitably, much like Robert Mugabe’s land reform progamme, collapse into elite capture.
All of this will mean that the EFF will now, and for the first time, come under sustained pressure from the left to account for the political content of its programme.
Critics have argued that the new party is too dogmatically Marxist and that it isn’t dealing adequately with new challenges, like climate change.
This may be so but it does come out of the organised working class, have deep roots in class struggle and while it may not have quick answers to all the problems that we face it will certainly go along way towards normalising our politics. The formation of the party is an important step forward for our democracy.
Buccus is Al Qalam editor, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad program on political transformation.