The left after the ANC election victory
By Dale T. McKinley
JOHANNESBURG — The African National Congress (ANC) still commands overwhelming support amongst the South Africa's poor and working class, who are the vast majority of the population. This is due to the lack of any viable left alternative and a leadership that has shown itself adept at maintaining the loyalty of its base. However, the more interesting and crucial issue is whether the new ANC government can sustain this political loyalty.
This will depend on the degree to which the ANC is forced to alter substantively its neo-liberal macro-economic program by the very poor and working-class forces that have given it political power for another five years.
Immediately after it was announced that the ANC had won the elections, with 66.5% of the vote, President Thabo Mbeki told the nation, "The people have spoken". The new president thanked "the poorest of the poor" for showing that "they trust the ANC to help them out of their conditions of misery".
Less than three weeks later, at the opening of parliament, Mbeki pledged that the ANC government would do all in its power to construct a "caring" and "people-centred society" that "will be responsive to the needs of especially the poor".
Mbeki's post-victory message was consistent with the ANC's propaganda during the election campaign. The ANC's election manifesto made all the right promises to the workers and poor by confidently situating itself within the broad mandate of the progressive Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP) adopted prior to the 1994 elections.
Completely ignoring the deeply unpopular neo-liberal macro-economic framework adopted by the ANC government in 1996 — the Growth, Employment and Redistribution program — the manifesto promised strong state intervention to create jobs, increased social spending, public sector-driven delivery of basic services, a restructuring of state assets that avoids mass lay-offs and wholesale privatisation and a dynamic, participatory democracy to drive transformation.
The ANC succeeded in selling this progressive-sounding manifesto in a spirited electoral campaign in which Mbeki and other senior leaders traversed the country to address large numbers of urban workers and rural poor. The marketing of this agenda was ably assisted by the ANC's alliance partners — the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) — which argued that a vote for the ANC was a vote for further progressive transformation and worker-friendly policies.
In the absence of any mass-based left alternative, and helped by the reactionary campaigning of the right-wing opposition, a massive ANC victory was never in doubt. Indeed, all the ANC had to do was tailor its electoral message to the interests of its core constituency, all wrapped up in a plea to "let us finish what we have started".
Most socialists in South Africa and around the globe welcomed the landslide victory of the ANC, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm. There were only two real choices — support the ANC or engage in critical abstention.
What passed for the electoral "left" (the Azanian People's Organisation, the Socialist Party of Azania and the Workers' International Vanguard League) together garnered less than 1% of the national vote — a salutary lesson in the necessity of mass-based organisation and the pitfalls of intellectualised opposition.
Add to this the fact that the main organisations representing the aspirations of the working class and poor — COSATU and the SACP — fought the election in a political alliance with the ANC, and it is not difficult to understand why the masses viewed the ANC as the best electoral bet for radical change.
This has to measured against the reality that the political will of Mbeki's government does not lie with implementing the promises of the RDP and the election manifesto. Only days after telling the nation that the South African "labour market" was "too flexible", Mbeki announced the need for a review of progressive labour legislation to increase "the competitiveness of our economy" (translation: what is needed is massive job losses and casualisation through increased labour "flexibility").
Similarly, the promise of "transformational restructuring" of the public sector has been quickly turned into a major downsizing exercise, with the likelihood of more than 100,000 public sector jobs being lost and an inability to "deliver" basic services to the masses.
It has not taken long for Mbeki to send a clear message that he and his circle of political power-brokers and private sector "consultants" will make the important policy decisions. Instead of the promised participatory democratic process, the ANC's mass constituency is already experiencing the cold wind of unilateral decision-making — being told that their demands are "uninformed and irresponsible".
On the international front, the Mbeki government has made a speedy U-turn on its previous opposition to the Clinton administration's imperialist/neo-liberal African Growth and Opportunity Act, signalling the acceptance of its role in making South Africa and the continent safe for imperialist corporate capital.
As the old saying goes — "Don't cry over spilt milk". Indeed, it is of little use for the forces of the South African working class and poor to engage in an endless and fruitless exercise of analytical introspection or, even worse, to engender organisational paralysis and marginalisation through either ideological blood-letting or passive compromise.
Endless debates that posit the breaking of the alliance or the establishment of an independent "workers' party" as the benchmark for any movement forward will only further weaken the one weapon that these forces have at their command — class struggle.
South Africa's trade unions are beginning to mobilise for serious mass action against the neo-liberal agenda of both the government and the private sector. Other progressive forces, within the SACP and the broader left, are beginning to take on a wide range of issues that directly affect the everyday lives of the working class and poor. This will be an uneven, contradictory and frustrating struggle, and there will be the need to combine different forms of struggle as part of an overarching anti-capitalist thrust.
This "new" phase of the South African transition, combined with the "new" super-imperialism of the US and its Western allies, demands, more than ever, that the forces of the working class and poor openly propagate and explicitly organise for their class interests.
This will involve an understanding and acceptance that it is only through such class struggle that the building blocks of a vibrant, mass-based socialist alternative can be built. This might be unwelcome news for all those (in South Africa and across the globe) who have sought to advance an alternative by disaggregating class politics and organisation in the name of this or that "new" -ism. But it surely will be welcomed by all those who are daily being crushed by the class realities of capitalism.
[Dale T. McKinley is a leader of the Gauteng provincial SACP. He writes in his personal capacity.]