South Africa: The 'Zumafication' of left politics in the Alliance

August 17, 2007

The June 27-30 African National Congress (ANC) Policy Conference and the South African Communist Party's 12th Congress, held in July, confirmed what many political observers in South Africa have known for a long time: that the politics and practical work of the SACP and Congress of South African Trade Unions have become umbilically tied to the intensifying personal and positional power struggles inside the ANC-led Tripartite Alliance. The result is the paralysis of the SACP and COSATU's ability to organise and mobilise on a genuinely practical, working class/poor-centred basis.

At the ANC Policy Conference, proceedings were dominated by the long-running personal/political battle between the "camps" of South African and ANC president Thabo Mbeki and ex-SA deputy president (but still ANC deputy president) Jacob Zuma. The SACP and COSATU leaders publicly stated that the outcomes of the ANC Policy Conference represent a victory for "left forces" — despite the fact that none of the outcomes of the ANC Policy Conference indicate any kind of radical shift.

Similarly, the SACP congress was mostly dominated by who would or would not be elected to leadership positions based on what "camp" they belong to, and the debate over electoral positioning depending on what happens at the ANC congress in December (read: wait and see if Zuma wins the leadership contest and then this will determine the strategy and tactics of the SACP).

It is a sad state of affairs — the largest and most long-standing "left" party in South Africa is held hostage to the outcomes of personal and patronage battles within another party, with the SACP's own program and politics being moulded by these battles.

What makes things even worse is the fact that the person on whose shoulders so much of the fortunes, political energies and organisational decisions of the SACP are now being placed — Zuma — is not even an active member of the SACP and has shown, time and again, that his own political inclinations are defined by what will take his own position and power forward. This is also consistent with what came before the "Zumafication" of SACP/COSATU politics — the "Mbekification" of the same.

Prior to the dominance of the raging Zuma-Mbeki battle, the SACP's (and to a lesser extent COSATU's) politics and organisational direction was largely defined by what Mbeki was doing in government. This meant the SACP fighting (or at least spoiling to fight) the pro-capitalist policies of his government and his political control of the ANC by positioning itself as a counter-Mbeki force within the Alliance and as the real inheritor and prosecutor of the ANC's national democratic revolution (NDR) legacy.

The alternative — acting as an independent left force with a political program to overcome capitalism, as an active mass force of the poor against the policies and politics of the ANC under Mbeki's leadership, and as a party offering the poor/working class an organisational home and a political identity defined by what it is and not simply what it is against — has never really seen the light of day.

All of this begs the question: Where is the concrete evidence to confirm that the ANC has "shifted to the left", as SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande claimed at the party's congress? There was no practical "left" way forward provided at either the ANC Policy Conference or the SACP Congress on water cut-offs, pre-paid water meters and the provision of adequate water for the poor, the housing crisis and evictions, the decrepit state of the public health-care system, the crisis of public education, the complete lack of any meaningful urban and rural public transport system, and the systemic nature of the unemployment crisis.

All the ANC and its government have done is more fully recognise that the reality of increasing socioeconomic inequality and political (read: electoral) dissatisfaction among the poor represents a real threat to both their longer-term hold on political power as well as to the organisational continuance of the Alliance (which the ANC still finds extremely useful as a foil against the possibility of an independent working-class force emerging outside of the Alliance).

This has led to genuflections in the direction of greater infrastructure spending, slight increases in social grants, relatively small increases in public sector salaries and much more rhetoric about the need to discipline the "free market" and listen more attentively to the voices of the poor.

This surely does not constitute a meaningful "shift to the left" but rather astute politics by the ANC — both in relation to the ANC's own chosen ideological path (i.e., deracialised capitalism dressed up in the language of the NDR) and in relation to the ongoing personal and patronage conflicts within the organisation itself. The upshot of this is that the very constituency that the SACP and COSATU claim to represent — the poor and working class — does not have the option of directly holding the SACP and COSATU to account. It only has the choice of doing so through the proxy of the ANC.

Any slight change in ANC/government policy that provides some additional succour to the poor is interpreted as a "victory" by the Alliance left, because to interpret otherwise would be to undermine the claim that it is imperative to remain in alliance with the ANC. Thus the SACP resolved at its congress that the state should lead macro-economic growth instead of the market without any meaningful discussion of what this concretely means in relation to the ANC's commitment to a capitalist economy.

Another salient issue to arise from these gatherings is the degree to which the SACP and COSATU have made much of their opposition to the "path of accumulation" currently ensconced in South Africa's political economy. Any serious communist would have to identify this "path" as one that is intrinsic to capitalist relations of production (with the attendant exploitation and the institutionalised marginalisation of those peripheral to the capitalist market — the unemployed, destitute, etc.). However, what the SACP and COSATU leaders are really referring to is the particular character of this overall accumulation path — "black economic empowerment" (BEE) enrichment for the few, consolidation of the post-1996 "class project" in the ANC, abandonment of promised redistribution of land and the provision of basic services for all, etc. in the context of post-Apartheid South Africa — not the path itself.

Thus they propagate the idea that the sidelining of the individuals and class forces within the Alliance that are pursuing this "path" will result in the possibility of pursing a different "path". This would mean nothing less than a complete political and ideological revolution within the ANC. But such revolutionary transformation of the ANC is impossible as long as the SACP and COSATU tie their own programmatic, and thus political, "path" to that of the ANC Alliance.

They have already admitted many times that the ANC is not a socialist organisation. Yet their entire strategic thrust is to try to "transform" the ANC from within, so as to then embark on a different accumulation path, using the same organisation whose raison d'etre is to deracialise the accumulation path, not fundamentally overthrow it.

Importantly for the whole South African left, the ongoing community struggles around basic service delivery were raised at the SACP Congress, alongside its intention to mobilise and lead these struggles. However, the several hundred community protests (with accompanying state repression of activists) have been met with deafening silence from the SACP (and COSATU) leadership and structures on the ground.

Even during the June public-sector strike there was little effort at linking workers' struggles for better wages and working conditions and those of poor communities around basic services and freedom of expression as a means of creating a united working-class front against the capitalist-friendly policies and the political arrogance of the ANC and its government.

The radical rhetoric around social movement struggles coming out of the congress is nothing more than hot air given the perpetuation of the hostage politics of the Alliance left. It is such a politics that will ensure that this does not happen precisely because the orientation of the SACP and COSATU demands that they control the social movements to ensure struggles are not "anti-ANC" and so that they do not pose any future threat to the "left" dominance of the SACP/COSATU and the self-anointed "left" forces in the ANC/the state.

Ultimately, the issue that has come out of both the ANC Policy Conference and the SACP Congress for the left revolves around the SACP (and to a lesser extent COSATU — it being a trade union) defining what it is on its own terms and not those determined by the character and content of constructed conflicts between individual leaders and "camps" of the ANC (and, by extension, the Alliance).

For now, the Alliance left has allowed a "Zumafication" of its politics to take hold. Rather than a "victory for the left", the ANC Policy Conference and the SACP Congress represent a crisis of the "left's" confidence in its ability to forge a political and organisational opposition; a crisis of confidence in the ability of its constituency (i.e., the poor and working class) to embrace an alternative to the ANC's deracialised capitalism and to identify with the class line that now divides South African society so clearly.

[Dale T. McKinley is an independent writer/researcher, lecturer and activist in the Anti-Privatisation Forum/Social Movement Indaba. During the mid-late 1990s he was a full-time SACP cadre and elected leader at district/provincial level before being expelled by the Central Committee in 2000.]

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