There is major space for a new left coalition in South Africa, but Blade Nzimande has to go

By Imraan Buccus 

The possibility of left renewal and the development of a viable leftist party depends to an important degree on the prospects for renewal within the SACP. But for the SACP to leave the ANC, Blade Nzimande needs to be removed from his perch.

There is, as I’ve often argued, enormous political space on the left. Sometimes politics can remain in stasis for a generation. India under the Indian National Congress in the 1960s and ’70s is a good example of this. Sometimes change can be gradual but decisive. 

For instance, when Lula da Silva started the Workers’ Party – the PT – the first election was a disaster for him, but 20 years later he took the presidency and fundamentally changed Brazil. 

Things can also change very quickly. Consider, for example, how quickly people like Bernie Sanders in the USA and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, or parties like Syriza in Greece opened up new political possibilities. 

In South Africa it is possible that a new actor could emerge and suddenly open up the political landscape. It is also possible that the party started by Numsa could follow the trajectory of Lula’s party in Brazil and slowly build up support over a 20-year period. But it is also possible that the ANC, by making coalition deals, could hang on for longer than we think and keep us in a destructive stasis. 

Ideally there should be a rational realignment of our politics. Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA, the DA and the Ramaphosa faction of the ANC have important differences but are all broadly liberal on economic issues. The EFF and the RET faction of the ANC are more or less indistinguishable. 

If the politicians could shake off party loyalties and form new alliances based on their political views, that would lead us into an economically liberal cluster committed to a liberal form of electoral democracy and a kleptocratic populist cluster with strong anti-democratic tendencies.

But this would leave a gaping hole in the landscape of party politics. There would be no party of the left because there is no left party in Parliament. This is an indictment of the left, in a country with the world’s worst inequality and unemployment. But while in elite circles the left is usually understood as a few progressive academics and NGOs lacking any popular base, there are in fact mass-based left organisations in South Africa.

The South African Communist Party has more than 300,000 members. Numsa, the largest and most militant trade union in the country, had 360,000 members at its last audit but has been growing rapidly for a while so its numbers should be quite a bit higher than this. Abahlali baseMjondolo has more than 100,000 paid-up members. Put together, these three organisations of the left have a total membership that must exceed 800,000.

We know that membership in an organisation does not automatically translate into votes. But if these three organisations formed some sort of left alliance, worked together supporting each other’s programmes and struggles, and prioritised political education and developed a clear political identity for their alliance, they would certainly have the numbers to form the base for a viable left project.

Numsa and Abahlali baseMjondolo already work together, albeit sporadically, on areas of common interest. Abahlali baseMjondolo supports mass actions by Numsa and other trade union formations in Durban using its considerable organisational muscle to swell numbers on marches. Numsa, in turn, has supported Abahlali baseMjondolo when it faces repression.

Although all three organisations are explicitly socialist, a left alliance would face two serious challenges, one more serious than the other. The first is that although Numsa is in a way an offshoot of the SACP and shares a similar world view in some respects, they could not work together if the SACP didn’t cross the Rubicon and leave the ANC. 

The second challenge is that the politics of the SACP and Numsa is quite different to the radical humanism of Abahlali baseMjondolo and its bottom-up approach to decision-making. Getting these two forms of leftism to work together would not be easy.

However, in principle both challenges can be overcome, but for the SACP to leave the ANC would require Blade Nzimande to be removed from his perch. There is certainly widespread support for this among the younger members in the party but they would have to push hard to have Nzimande removed and the party renewed. In a sense, therefore, the possibility of left renewal and the development of a viable left party depends to an important degree on the prospects for renewal within the SACP.

Previous attempts to build left projects – such as, in recent years, the Congress for a Democratic Left, the Democratic Left Front and the United Front – have all failed because the organisations that have formed them have been a mixture of NGOs and tiny sectarian organisations, neither of which have or will ever have a popular base.

If the rumours that there is a new NGO-based project in Cape Town to start a new left party, this time with Zwelinzima Vavi as its public face, are true it will be a failure for the same reasons as the previous attempts failed. The South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) cannot act without the support of Numsa and if Vavi leaves Saftu to join this NGO-based project he will just be an individual, not the leader of an organised formation. 

A left project rooted in the three left organisations in the county with mass membership could potentially be a game changer. However, the ball is in the court of the younger SACP members who often express a desire for new leadership and an exit from the ANC. 

History will not absolve the party if it cannot shake off the dead hand of Nzimande’s leadership, leave the ANC, form an alliance with Numsa and Abahlali baseMjondolo and build a viable left party. DM

This article first appeared in the Daily Maverick.

Dr Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI and post-doctoral scholar in Gender Justice, Health and Human Development at Durban University of Technology

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