SOUTH AFRICA: 'New UDF' sparks left debate

Issue 

Dale T. McKinley, Johannesburg

A great deal of excitement has been generated, among South Africa's general population and also in left-wing political and activist ranks, by the launch of what has been labelled by the mainstream media the "new United Democratic Front".

The original UDF was launched in August 1983, in Cape Town, to mobilise against the apartheid regime. It demanded the release of jailed African National Congress (ANC) leaders and other liberation movement fighters, the unbanning of the liberation movements and other people's organisations, and the establishment of a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic society. Throughout the 1980s, until the liberation movements were unbanned in 1990, community and trade union struggles in the townships and workplaces intensified, with the aim of making South Africa "ungovernable". This upsurge in mass struggle forced the apartheid regime to the negotiating table.

There are widely varying interpretations over exactly what and who — politically and organisationally — this "new UDF" represents, the character of its politics and potential, and whether or not it is a harbinger for a much-talked about split within the Tripartite Alliance — which consists of the ruling ANC and its "liberation movement" partners, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) — leading to the formation of an independent, left political party to challenge the capitalist ANC.

Officially launched at a mass meeting in Cape Town on August 22 by the Western Cape provincial structure of COSATU and attended by a number of non-government organisations, church groups and community organisations, the stated aim of the initiative (which has still not been formally named) is to bring together a wide range of "progressive civil society" forces to campaign for jobs and against poverty. In the lead-up to the launch, COSATU's central executive committee had publicly claimed that the intention was to have similar launches in each of South Africa's nine provinces, over the next few months. In an official internal COSATU memo reference was made to a "UDF-type initiative".

Friction with COSATU

However, just days before the launch, there were clear signs of serious friction within COSATU and the alliance around the campaign. This was triggered by the use of the historically important and hugely symbolic UDF name — harking back to a period of militant, mass-based struggles against the apartheid-capitalist state — as well as public statements pointing to working-class and general community dissatisfaction with the neoliberal policies of the national ANC government, attributed to COSATU's Western Cape leader and the main organiser of the launch, Tony Ehrenreich.

Such was the friction, that the national leadership of COSATU felt the need to issue a public statement, which clearly contradicted the intent of previous statements, declaring unequivocally that, "COSATU is not creating an organisation called the United Democratic Front and it is not challenging the ANC".

The COSATU leadership went on to state that, "the decision to form this new grouping is totally compatible with our continued involvement in the alliance ... we shall aim to work closely together with the ANC to solve the crisis of joblessness and poverty, about which they share the concerns of all the other civil society groups who will be involved".

At the launch itself, the divisions within COSATU and the alliance over the purpose and character of the campaign were mirrored in the proceedings. On the one hand, suggestions from the floor that COSATU break away from the ANC and form an independent workers' party received some of the loudest applause.

On the other, the regional COSATU leadership and representatives of some NGOs attempted to downplay any serious talk of such a breakaway and instead argued for a more co-ordinated and widespread lobbying effort in support of COSATU's ongoing struggle against job losses and poverty.

Significantly, COSATU president Willie Madisha, who was scheduled to speak at the launch, failed to attend and there was no sight of any senior member of the ANC or SACP leadership.

However, Madisha made himself available to speak to the national media on the day of the launch. He reiterated the earlier statement of the COSATU leadership, claiming that "the new campaign is not political, nor is it aimed at challenging anyone". Madisha dismissed reports describing the campaign as the "new UDF" and said that "the campaign will, at the moment, remain focused in [the province of] Western Cape".

The "line" from on top had its intended effect. Within days, Ehrenreich had publicly distanced the campaign from suggestions that it might challenge the ANC and rubbished the calls, made from the floor at the launch, that COSATU should break from the ANC.

Questions for the left

All of this has made for some sensational media headlines and has, without doubt, exposed further the internal factional power plays within the leadership of the alliance. However, the more serious questions raised for left forces outside the alliance (mainly grouped in South Africa's anti-neoliberal social movements) are how to respond, both politically and organisationally, to this initiative and the degree to which it represents a meaningful opportunity/space to advance grassroots struggle against the ANC government's neoliberal policies and strengthen the anti-capitalist forces. On this, there is no unanimity. Indeed, a fierce debate has broken out.

Some left activists and intellectuals working with the social movements, clearly with the pre-1990 period of mass-based and militant community and workers' struggles in mind, have interpreted the launch (and the campaign claims surrounding it) as "a tremendous opportunity".

According to Ashwin Desai, who is active with community struggles in and around Durban, in light of the recent country-wide protests in poor communities over basic service delivery, "everyone's looking to COSATU and the SACP to harness this momentum of mass mobilisation in communities".

Other political groupings allied to the social movements have, in a related vein, argued that the social movements must immediately join the initiative and use the "space" to "win over" rank-and-file union members so as to split COSATU from the alliance and thus lay the basis for the formation of an independent, "mass workers' party".

Social movement militants in the Western Cape, where the initiative for now appears to be mainly located, have responded in a different manner. They see COSATU's half-hearted attempts over the last several years to resist the attacks by the state on working people and its complete lack of support for, and involvement in, the struggles waged by community-based social movements to oppose the ANC's neoliberal "free market" policies, as clear evidence that the initiative is not serious.

"For this campaign to be meaningful, COSATU needs to break from the Tripartite Alliance", declared an August 20 statement prepared for the "new UDF" launch. It was signed by more than 20 community struggle organisations.

Closely allied to, but extending beyond this perspective, are those in the social movements who see the "so-called new UDF" as a conscious attempt "to contain and dilute any real critique or possible subversion of the program of the ANC government", as Prishani Naidoo argued in an August 25 article that is circulating among South African activists.

Naidoo believes the true motive for the initiative is to "provide the spaces within the alliance ... to capture [and] control" the radical content and character of new grassroots struggles and protests.

In a detailed critique of the character of the "new UDF" and the political context in which it has been conceived, Oupa Lehulere, from the respected Khanya College, a militant educational organisation for grassroots community and working-class activists, argues that COSATU and its politics, in its present form and character, cannot provide any meaningful "lead" to a dynamic and democratic struggle against capitalist neoliberalism waged by the oppressed mass of workers and poor.

While tactical "fronts and alliances" with COSATU (and/or its affiliate unions) are possible and maybe necessary at times, these must be approached from a position of ideological, strategic and organisational independence.

Despite such differing responses and interpretations from within the social movements, there is no doubt that COSATU's initiative — while noting its extremely contradictory and hotly contested nature both inside COSATU and its alliance partners — has sparked an important and necessary strategic and tactical debate among and within left forces in South Africa.

While social movements have contributed greatly to the growth and renewal of grassroots struggles and a spirit of popular resistance against the ravages of capitalist neoliberalism, there has been a distinct lack of strategic clarity and purpose. It also further signals, the intensifying, if highly uneven, erosion of the ANC's ideological, political and organisational hegemony in South Africa, something that has opened up new opportunities and spaces for taking forward revolutionary politics and struggle.

[Dale McKinley is a political activist and writer who works closely with South Africa's social movements.]

From Green Left Weekly, September 7, 2005.

Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.