South African left hunkers down for election

May 5, 1999

By Patrick Bond

JOHANNESBURG — The lack of a serious left alternative to the centre-right African National Congress ruling party — whose macro-economic strategy (aside from new labour regulations) is more austere and business-friendly than those of its apartheid-era predecessors — has convinced some South African leftists to simply sit out this period. But most progressives are involved in the campaign, arguing that there are still opportunities to influence the ANC (or at least its rhetoric) leftwards, even in the thorny area of economic policy.

The ANC-Congress of SA Trade Unions (COSATU)-Communist Party (SACP) Alliance was in tatters last July, in the wake of three strongly worded attacks by South African President Nelson Mandela and ANC president Thabo Mbeki.

With continuing orthodoxy on the economic front, COSATU and SACP leaders had grown restless. Some were considered Mbeki loyalists, like COSATU leader Mbhazima [Sam] Shilowa (who has been named ANC premier-designate for the largest province, Gauteng), while others — especially SACP leaders Blade Nzimande and Jeremy Cronin — have been thorns in the ANC moderates' side.

The main SACP discussion document for the SACP's 10th Congress, held in July, complained, "Growth targets are not being met. The arbitrary budget deficit targets are wreaking havoc on all of the other good work we are doing in socio-economic transformation, and, above all, the small growth that has occurred has been accompanied by persistent structural unemployment. Indeed, there have been net job losses, with hundreds of thousands of workers losing their jobs in the last two years."

Mbeki spoke privately to COSATU in June and wondered aloud to the press whether the union movement should still be part of the Alliance. Then, as the rand came under a fierce speculative attack in early July (and as business commentators called for a stronger commitment to free-market policies to stabilise the currency), he and Mandela gave stern lectures to the SACP congress.

Mbeki's words were telling: "An insulting inference is made that, ... which our comrades in the ANC do not understand and resent most intensely, the ANC no longer represents the interests of the masses of the people. Thus it is suggested that the progressive traditions of our movement are represented by forces outside the ANC, that this proud leader of our liberation movement having transformed itself into a virtual enemy of the people, which can only be kept on course if its allies position themselves as a vocal left watchdog over the very organisation which is supposed to lead our Alliance."

Charged an angry Mbeki: "Simply put, the SACP makes bold to say that the ANC is responsible for all our economic woes ... So now is the ANC being accused of becoming a counter-revolutionary representative, domestically, of the capitalist ruling bloc, and therefore the most serious strategic threat to the democratic revolution."

Having driven to the edge of a cliff, in subsequent months the Alliance backed away from confrontation. The single major factor, insiders acknowledge, was the international financial crisis.

With Russia's default in August (and the subsequent collapse of a major New York hedge fund), Malaysia's successful imposition of exchange controls in September, and the failure of the IMF-World Bank annual meetings in early October to offer any relief, the terrain had changed considerably by the next summit meeting of the Alliance, on October 24.

An exceptionally radical discussion document emerged — "The Current Global Economic Crisis" — which appeared to represent a U-turn in the ANC leadership's prior commitment to economic orthodoxy. Borrowing from Marxist historian Robert Brenner's New Left Review (May-June 1998) analysis, that document stated:

"The present crisis is, in fact, a global capitalist crisis, rooted in a classical crisis of overaccumulation and declining profitability. Declining profitability has been a general feature of the most developed economies over the last 25 years. It is precisely declining profitability in the most advanced economies that has spurred the last quarter of a century of intensified globalisation. These trends have resulted in the greatly increased dominance (and exponential growth in the sheer quantity) of speculative finance capital, ranging uncontrolled over the globe in pursuit of higher returns."

The implications for South Africa's macro-economic strategy were obvious, according to the document: "As the depth and relative durability of the crisis have become apparent, the dominant economic paradigm (the neoliberal 'Washington Consensus') has fallen into increasing disrepute ... The dominant assumption in the 1990s has been that alignment with globalisation would guarantee economies more or less uninterrupted growth. The paradigm of an endlessly expanding global freeway, in which, to benefit, individual (and particularly developing) economies simply had to take the standard macro-economic on-ramp (liberalisation, privatisation, deregulation, flexibility and a 3% budget deficit) is now in crisis."

But which way forward? Here an obvious question was forthrightly posed: "Will the left end up managing the capitalist crisis?". The answer, reflected by South Africa's extraordinary political position in world affairs in 1998-99 — heading the Non-Aligned Movement, the UN Conference on Trade and Development, the Commonwealth, the Organisation of African Unity and the Southern African Development Community, as well as holding rotating director seats at the World Bank/IMF and the UN Security Council — was in the affirmative.

"We cannot decline this responsibility. But in taking it on, we do need to consistently pose the difficult question: How do we introduce transformative elements that seek to counter the systemic logic and momentum of a global capitalism? Can we introduce anti-bodies to resist and surpass a system that periodically results in the mass destruction of resources, that continuously reproduces huge inequalities between north and south (and within the north), that is increasingly volatile and unstable, and that has no clear strategies for sustainable development?"

The six months following this fascinating, little-reported intra-Alliance dialogue have been disappointing for anyone expecting change. At the IMF/Bank meetings in April, ANC finance minister Trevor Manuel lobbied hard to prevent the IMF from selling gold to fund Third World debt relief (albeit highly conditional and dubious in character), fearing more SA mine closures due to lower gold prices.

The possibility of other international alliances — the discussion document asked, "Can we forge a Brasilia-Pretoria-Delhi-Beijing Consensus in the absence of any Washington Consensus?" — has not materialised (but how could it, given vastly different ideologies and interests?).

Nor have matters improved domestically as South Africa slipped formally into recession in late 1998. Manuel was recently applauded for bringing the budget deficit below target, thereby refusing Keynesian demand stimulation.

Indeed, in his budget speech, Manuel surprised observers by cutting pensions in real terms, on the one hand, and on the other, lowering the corporate tax rate from 35% to 30% (it was 48% when the ANC took power in 1994).

In short, what remains up for debate is the question (which so irritated Mbeki last July) of whether, notwithstanding occasionally uplifting rhetoric, the ANC is indeed a vehicle for meeting the masses' aspirations, or whether leftists would be better deployed in mass organisations and, potentially, new political formations committed to the interests of the workers and peasant interests (as is emerging in Zimbabwe).

At the last meeting of the ANC National Executive Committee, Mbeki was reported to have asked his comrades a question that has been posed for the left for some time: "Has the balance of power changed so that we need no longer pay so much heed to international bankers and Afrikaner generals?".

Some ANC progressives believe it has and their role remains to talk up the opportunities, while others remain unconvinced the ANC will ever do more than — as the populist epithet has it — "talk left, act right".

[Patrick Bond is the author of two books on South Africa soon to be published: Elite Transition (Pluto) and Cities of Gold, Townships of Coal (Africa World Press).]

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