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South Africa

Working class politics or populism: the meaning of Zuma for the left in SA

Saturday 11 October 2008, by Devan PILLAY

The dramatic events of September 2008, which saw Thabo Mbeki and several key ministers resign, is seen by some on the left as a victory against neo-liberal economic orthodoxy. The election of former NUM general secretary and SACP member Kgalema Motlanthe strengthens the view that a space has been opened for a move away from the ‘Mbeki project’ towards a more redistributive socio-economic policy trajectory.

Motlanthe is an interim president to keep the seat warm for ANC president Jacob Zuma after the 2009 general elections – even whilst corruption charges remain hanging over his head. It seems that Motlanthe’s ascension was necessary to keep the ANC together and to avoid a breakaway party composed of key pro-Mbeki personalities. It also avoided alienating those in the Zuma coalition who are more interested in changing South Africa’s policy trajectory than protecting Zuma from further prosecution for corruption.

Indeed, according to a prominent Cosatu official, it is not a foregone conclusion that Zuma will become president after the 2009 election. This depends on whether Motlanthe succeeds in uniting the ANC and the Alliance, and shows a willingness to more seriously consider the policy positions of the left than Mbeki did.

Has the Alliance Left captured the ANC in pursuit of a more redistributive, participatory-democratic trajectory? Or has it badly miscalculated by throwing its weight behind a leader who has no interest in pursuing a left agenda – what some have termed a ‘hope and pray’ strategy, given the formidable bourgeois class forces within the Zuma coalition, who will not allow Motlanthe to usurp the throne that ‘rightfully’ belongs to uMsholozi?

The Zuma coalition

The Zuma coalition captured the ANC at the December 2007 Polokwane conference, where Zuma was elected with key former unionists and SACP members Gwede Mantashe and Kgalema Motlanthe.Mantashe retains his position as chairperson of the SACP. With SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande widely acknowledged as a key mover behind the scenes, it certainly looks like a triumph of the left.

The Zuma camp is an alliance of class forces who had a common antipathy towards the relatively aloof leadership style of Mbeki. Besides Cosatu and the SACP, it also includes the Young Communist League (YCL) and the ANC Youth League (ANCYL). All of these formations profess a commitment to redistributive social policies and state intervention in the economy. However, the ANCYL seems more committed to the advancement of an aspirant black bourgeoisie through Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) that includes a stake for ‘youth’ in ‘de-racialised’ private corporations.

A strong, interventionist ‘developmental state’, as proposed by the Alliance, might be more a battering ram for the creation of a predatory black bourgeoisie than an instrument for the advancement of a holistic development programme. The other components of the Zuma coalition include a range of established business high flyers such as Tokyo Sexwale and ANC Treasurer Mathews Phosa, aspirant bourgeois interests marginalised by the Mbeki project – what some have labelled the ‘lumpen bourgeoisie’. Many of these have been implicated in corruption charges of various kinds. They obviously hope for protection them from the NPA – a key target of the Zuma camp.

Indeed, according to Philip Dexter, the ousted SACP Treasurer who recently resigned from the party, the current ANC NEC has more business people in its ranks than the previous one, which was accused of being captive of the new black elite. Given this, and Zuma’s own lack of leftwing credentials, why have the two key organisations of the working class, the SACP and Cosatu, given support to the Zuma coalition?

Working class politics or politics of patronage?

For optimists on the left, SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande, with the support of Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and the ANC and SACP youth wings, has masterfully engineered a palace coup from behind the scenes. The view is that at last the rightwing ‘1996 class project’ has been de-railed, and after the 2009 elections the ANC-in-government will place the working class much more decisively at the top of its agenda.

.A pessimistic account would place patronage politics more at the centre of new developments. Critics argue that the SACP and Cosatu have a compromised leadership that has tied the working class into a symbiotic relationship with the ruling party. Both the membership of Cosatu and its leadership are insiders – i.e. beneficiaries of the post-apartheid order vis-à-vis the unemployed, informalised workers and the working poor majority who remain unorganised.

Cosatu has approximately 1.8 million members, and is by far the largest union federation in the country. But this still only comprises 14.2% of all employed workers, including the informal sector. Cosatu members are formal workers on secure contracts, although still ‘working poor’. Cosatu has failed to organise informal workers within the formal sector (except in retail), has no interest in the informal sector (street traders, home-based workers etc.) or the vast numbers of unemployed (almost 40% of the workforce in the country).

This, and the fact that Cosatu no longer engages in meaningful action in community struggles (for example around water privatiation), and keeps a safe distance from most new social movements, underlines the federation’s move away from the social movement unionism of the past.

Instead, the federation and most affiliates (apart from a few like SAMWU) is caught between business unionism and incorporated political unionism, where mass action is wheeled out every now and then to support the positions of an increasing oligarchic leadership. The mass democratic character of Cosatu has over the years been severely eroded.

The SACP on the other hand has between 15 000 and 30 000 members, and few critical thinkers. Recent membership increases have been in Kwazulu-Natal, the home base of Zuma and Nzimande. Members seem more content to follow the line of the dominant leadership with a strong tendency towards a hybrid neo-Stalinist populism.

The SACP and Cosatu leadership are colluding with marginalised black business interests who want to displace the Mbeki ‘looters’, and to demand their share now. At best this is a ‘hope and pray’ strategy, where the SACP and Cosatu hope to hegemonise a working class interest in the ANC and new government elected in 2009. At worst the Cosatu/SACP leadership are actively using the working class to promote the interests of a hitherto marginalised black business class.

In either case, the signs are that the ANC has re-installed Finance Minister Trevor Manual to continue with a macro-economic trajectory that is at odds with the talk of redistribution in the Alliance.

Neo-Stalinist populism?

A third explanation, no less pessimistic, accepts that the SACP, under the leadership of Blade Nzimande, has indeed masterfully succeeded in asserting its hegemony over the ANC and the Alliance, through the figure of Jacob Zuma. While aware of other class forces within the Zuma camp, the SACP and Cosatu, far from ‘hoping and praying’ that a Zuma leadership will deliver their agenda, have in fact ensured that the mass power they command through Cosatu will keep Zuma on track.

In fact Zuma, no leftist himself (although he was in the SACP until 1989), may be so indebted to Cosatu, the SACP, the YCL and the ANCYL (successfully infiltrated by the YCL) that he will have to follow their agenda once in power. But that agenda is not the participatory-democratic, socialist politics of the working class movement since the 1970s.

Instead, recent rhetoric and practice within these organisations suggest that a more reckless, intolerant, neo-Stalinist politics is emerging, under the guise of a democratic working-class politics. Independent, critical voices within the SACP and Cosatu have been silenced or purged, often quite ruthlessly, e.g. former Cosatu president Willie Madisha, who was ousted for not toeing the pro-Zuma line.

The reckless manner in which Cosatu and SACP leaders have attacked the judiciary, the NPA and the Scorpions when it suits them bodes ill for the future independence of constitutionally independent bodies, such as the public broadcaster. Nzimande is steeped in a vanguardist tradition of politics where ‘independence’ only has meaning if these bodies bow to the will of the party.

What is ‘left’?

The new situation allows for a re-alignment of forces, if not for the 2009 elections then the next one. The belief in a left path via the Alliance will remain intact for most organised workers, as long as they remain relative ‘insiders’. However, if the social crisis continues and the proportion of working poor increases amongst Cosatu members, they may no longer see their interests being served by an alliance with a bourgeois nationalist movement.

This scenario can only change if Motlanthe and others within the ANC and the new government radically alter the character of the ANC. This seems highly unlikely, given their inability to deal with the power of Big Capital (and indeed nascent capitalist interests within their own ranks).

A non-sectarian, participatory-democratic and eco-socialist left pole of attraction is needed to present an alternative to the working class, to which they will orient when the time is right. The political situation in South Africa has not been so pregnant with promise since the 1980s.


* Article published in “Amandla!”.

* Devan Pillay is a senior lecturer in Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand and is the co-editor of Labour and the Challenges of Globalisation.