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Home > English > Website archives > Globalization, resistance, immigration > The Left under the Post Apartheid Regime


The Left under the Post Apartheid Regime

Tuesday 30 October 2007, by SATGAR Vishwas

This reflection on the Left project and post-national liberation politics is an expression of dilemmas about post-apartheid South Africa; it is about imminent possibilities, alternative paths not taken and journeys of renewal that have been stymied over the past ten years of freedom and democracy. Moreover, this essay is an attempt to look at the future of the Left project from both inside and outside the ANC-led Alliance. In many ways the South African Revolution, like all previous revolutions of the 20th century, concentrated within it multiple utopias. The Freedom Charter embodied a vision of post-apartheid capitalism of either a Social Democratic or neo-mercantilist nature (nationalist and strong state interventionist), as well as a vision of Sovietised socialism. There was nothing original about all these alternative futures for South Africa. In many ways these Left alternatives were about copying and importing models.


In the 1990s, all three alternatives were overtaken by history. The Stalinised Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. Over the past two and a half decades, Third World statism, in its post-colonial form, and social democracy were hegemonised by the global restructuring of capital and by the neo-liberal ideological offensive of transnational capital. Hence, today in South Africa those who evoke the rhetoric of these alternatives are working with ghosts from the past: Trojan horses that have either ended in authoritarianism or ‘pacified’ neo-liberal democracies. Although neo-liberal capitalism has blatantly failed over the past few decades, it is not given that the pendulum will swing back to the ‘old Left project’; history is not so predictable or simple and, even if it was, the dogmatic certainties of the old do not provide a future for the Left project.

An example will illustrate the point. Joe Slovo inaugurated a process of Marxist renewal within the SACP with his theoretical intervention: Has socialism failed? This process of renewal came from above, came rather late (after the collapse of Stalinised Soviet Socialism) and was a mere echo of various Left critiques of Stalinised socialism articulated during the 20th century. However, Slovo’s authorisation of renewal inaugurated a response to the crisis of ‘praxis’ and informed attempts by the SACP to theoretically, programmatically and practically remake itself; in a word, ‘de-Stalinise’. The renewal of ‘praxis’ was uneven and ultimately failed. While the potentiality existed for orthodox and common-sense categories and practices of the National Democratic Revolution and the Stalinised Marxist–Leninist framework to be challenged, this has not been done. The notion that the ANC is a ‘liberation movement’ rather than a ‘political party’ has been dogmatically defended, for example. Moreover, over the past ten years the SACP’s renewal efforts did not succeed in constructing an internal political life consistent with its vision of a post-Stalinist socialism. Instead its internal life has been contradictory to its external projection. What has emerged in the mainstream is a resurgence of orthodoxy, bureaucratic centralism, populism and old-style vanguardism. Some cynically suggest that Gwala has triumphed over Slovo, and that Stalinised socialism has triumphed over renewal. This does not mean that theoretical and practical orthodoxies of the Trotskyite Left, outside the ANC-led Alliance, have been successfully revisited.


In this context, declarations from above that we are a ‘disciplined force of the Left’ are insufficient to retrieve and renew a Left Project in South Africa. The logic of renewing Marxism in the SACP could have taken the Left Project in South Africa beyond national liberation politics and could have recast the theoretical, programmatic and practical compass of the Left project around a ‘new socialism’, relevant to the times. The failure of the SACP to remake itself into a new Left force was not inevitable, as some on the Left would suggest, but it does compel the Marxist and non-Marxist Left in South Africa to grapple with the future of the Left Project. Moreover, the broad Left in South Africa has to recognise that a re-Stalinised socialism in the SACP shares in common with nationalist statism and ‘social democracy’ an elitist ideological and political conception: social transformation must happen from above. The all-knowing Central Committee, state bureaucracy or the parliament will transform South Africa. They all share the assumption that the people must be liberated from the outside, the line must come to the masses, and the people must be brought into history rather than make their own history. Such an approach to historical transformation and the Left project is dangerous for South Africa’s democracy and, under current global and national conditions, prone to failure.

In addition, the broad Left in South Africa cannot immunise itself, in a sectarian way, from global transformations on the Left. Interestingly, the short-lived renewal project in the SACP has been an animating theme at the centre of the rise of a new Global Left. This new Global Left is preoccupied with inventing an alternative ‘praxis’ to transform global capitalism. In terms of its origins this Global Left did not just emerge in 2001, in Porto Alegre, when the World Social Forum was launched. In fact, this Global Left represents a fourth historical wave of Left politics, distinct from the First, Second, and Third Internationals, and has been in the making over two centuries. In its historical and social totality it is a Left shaped and formed by the humanism in Marx and the many non-scientific utopian socialisms marginalised by the First International; it is grounded in a historical critique of Stalinised socialism and attempts to draw lessons from its failures. It is conscious of the technocratic statism and neo-liberalisation of social democracy and post-colonial projects, in tune with various currents of anarchist socialism, radical feminism and eco-socialisms, and at the forefront of challenging the structural power of transnational capital and its attempts at forming a neo-liberal world order. It is truly a celebration of dissidence and a challenge to the arrogant certainties of the old Left projects.

This re-imagining of a ‘self aware’ Left challenges us in South Africa to think deeply about the imperative of a self-emancipating historical subject and how we engage in historical transformation. It points to and resonates with the salvaging of an episodic, marginalised, fourth utopia in the Freedom Charter: ‘peoples power’. It is only with the genuine re-finding of this premise, beyond militant and populist rhetoric about a ‘peoples’ contract’ and a ‘people driven RDP’, that the Left Project in South Africa can remake itself for the 21st century.


If grounded in historical experience of revolutionary struggles, then the starting points for renewing the Left Project in South Africa are two important conceptions in Marxism:
(1) in changing historical circumstances we are also changing ourselves, and
(2) the self-emancipating historical subject is at the centre of historical transformation or revolution.

Such an approach to the Left Project in South Africa and globally breaks with a static politics and is essentially about permanent renewal. It is about a self-aware praxis, grounded in a radical understanding of power relations. This conception of power relations is more expansive and goes beyond the old state centric understanding of power. This means the new Left has to live the change it wants, in the present, through its day-to-day politics, and not wait for the heroic capture of state power; we have to build while we dream. Another defining aspect of the new Left relates to its consistent efforts to create the conditions, spaces and momentum for the self-emancipating protagonist – the people/the citizenry – to extend its power over the economy, the state and the community. It is about fighting and departing from the logic of capital accumulation, as we assert the logic of human need and the requirements of nature.

However, for such a politics of permanent renewal and critical self-understanding to take root, the Left in South Africa has to remake its politics in fundamental and profound ways. In this regard, some of the following dimensions of left-wing politics in post-apartheid South Africa have to be revisited:

(1) The formation of a new Left historical bloc for ‘generative’ politics: during and post the struggles against apartheid the Left has defined it’s politics exclusively in relation to the ANC. This geometry of Left politics was about rivalling, capturing and now opposing the ANC. If the Left is to foster a politics of renewal, which by definition is a post-national liberation politics, then it has to stop defining itself in relation to the ANC. This means a new historical bloc of Left forces has to be constituted that has a non-antagonistic relationship to the ANC. In addition, and more importantly, a crucial shift in Left politics has to be emphasised which foregrounds a ‘generative’ politics. Such a politics requires that the new Left works consciously with the people to concretely build their capacities for self-emancipation. This would certainly entail embracing some of the progressive reform initiated by the ANC, like on cooperatives, ward committees, peoples’ housing and so on, but it would also mean giving content to these from below and even going beyond. In addition, it would widen the agenda of ‘generative’ politics to include building alternative media from below, like local community radio stations, or using DVDs/CDs, websites and blogs to empower with information, draw on organic knowledge and invent new ‘pedagogies of the oppressed’. In short, a new Left historical bloc that advances, embraces and coexists with various emancipatory projects – some old, some new – while testing the limits of our democracy and widening its horizons, has to be invented.

(2) Multiple oppressions under capitalism: a Left engaged in a project of permanent renewal, while drawing on historical materialist analysis to explain the oppression of capitalism, has to go beyond merely a class-based understanding of this oppression. In the era of national liberation, reductionist and economistic class understandings shaped our politics. Today, class-based concerns and interests are still important in relation to primitive accumulation, exploitation and the crisis of reproduction. However, and at the same time, we have to recognise that there are multiple oppressions within the social relations that make up capitalism. These oppressions are a mainspring for struggles: around the environment, against racial, religious and gender-based discrimination, regarding violence perpetrated against women and children, cultural alienation, ‘new imperialism’, and so on. In fighting these multiple oppressions, different social forces will come to the fore and at times have to lead society. A new Left has to embrace and work with these social forces to challenge and transform capitalism.

(3) Rethinking political organisation: in the ‘vanguardist’ or mass party of the social democratic type there was a blatant failure to build an internal political culture that brought the alternative to life in these institutions. Activists were blindly loyal, devoted in many cases to charismatic individuals, and even willing to sacrifice themselves as martyrs in the cause. Internal politics was not humanised but instrumentalised. This model of political organisation did not grow conscious cadres but rather produced ‘functionaries’ according to many in the new Global Left. In addition, such organisations were easily bureaucratised and captured by factions. A new type of political organisation that speaks to the challenges of a politics of permanent renewal has to be developed by the Left. Political organisation has to be thought of in minimalist terms. This means that the centre of political life has to be the people/citizens and not the ;Party’. In this regard, if in South Africa a new Left political organisation is forced to emerge, then it has to embrace and co-exist with various emancipatory projects, and this ironically has to be something like the United Democratic Front – our ‘movement of movements’. In such a political organisation mass membership is not the priority; central to its functioning is the link with the people and coordination of struggles against the multiple oppressions of capitalism. The affiliates (women’s groups, community organisations, activist forums, social movements, NGOs in the not-for-profit sector, youth organisations, development projects, trade unions, cooperatives and so on) of such a formation should embody the struggles for emancipation from capitalism, while working with a common vision and a collectively defined programmatic orientation. Such a network form of political organisation is in practice a collective intellectual and it would seem the most effective model of a ‘party-movement’ in motion, from below.

(4) Global solidarity: this is an obvious challenge for Left renewal in South Africa. Our failure to bring the global into the local is a glaring silence. Hence, we have not learnt lessons from the failures of the post-colonial Left in Africa and have not really tried to understand the new Global Left. Ironically, today in the era of globalising capitalism, ‘peoples power’ more than ever before has to be globalised. In this regard the renewal of the South African Left has to rise to the challenge of re-invigorating anti-apartheid global solidarity into post-apartheid solidarity for the transformation of South Africa, Africa and the Global South.


This brief reflection is not intended to solve all the problems and challenges facing the anti-capitalist and pro-socialist Left in South Africa. However, it has tried to foreground some of the main challenges facing the renewal of Left politics in South Africa. Although neo-liberalism is in crisis, only concerted political initiative and struggle from the Left can seriously turn the historical tide. However, in the South African context, with the failure of the SACP to renew Marxism and a post-Stalinist socialism, the broad Left has a collective responsibility to grapple with this challenge. If we do not find a new Left compass, then we should all accept responsibility for where a post-apartheid South Africa will end up. At the same time, we should also accept that the challenges for rebuilding and renewing the Left Project in South Africa can only be done in a new frame of politics, that is, a post-national liberation politics. This means defining an agenda for ‘generative politics’ that is broad enough to incorporate progressive aspects of the ANC-led national liberation project, but more importantly advances a set of hegemonising initiatives that democratically wins over society to a Left praxis – theoretical understanding, programme and practice.

More importantly, the Left in South Africa needs to claim its space in the post-apartheid context to ensure our aspirations and hopes for change are not narrowed to the point where we remain jaded, and even worse, experience a complete loss of confidence in the alternatives we believe in. The time has come for the Left in South Africa, with its rich history of struggle, to take seriously a new Left politics that is about a self-aware political practice, ensuring the people are genuinely at the centre of social transformation, and ultimately about permanent renewal. All the proposals and ideas shared here about this process of renewal are not fully elaborated, but are meant to provoke and invite a constructive debate – they are not dogmatic conclusions.

* From Amandla!, Pilot Issue # 2: October 2007.

* Vishwas Satgar has been a political activist for almost 24 years. Since the unbanning of the SACP 17 years ago, he has been consistently active as a formal member. He is the Executive Director of the Cooperative and Policy Centre (COPAC) and a member of the editorial advisory board of Amandla!