Which way forward for South African left?

Issue 

MARINA CARMAN was in South Africa in December to attend the national conference of the African National Congress. While there, she obtained this interview with three prominent left activists: JEREMY CRONIN, a member of the Political Bureau of the South African Communist Party; DALE MCKINLEY, manager of Phambili Books and education officer for the Johannesburg Central Branch of the SACP; and SALIM VALLY, of the Workers' Organisation for Socialist Action (WOSA).

What would you describe as the major gains of the election process? What are the major challenges that remain?

JC: The actual physical elections were an achievement. Attempts to undermine and sabotage the elections were defeated through mass actions. The people turned up in droves and waited in queues. They slept overnight at polling booths to ensure that they voted. There is still remaining an elation amongst ordinary people that they made something happen.

The marginalisation of the most extreme anti-democratic forces is an achievement not to be underrated. They still exist in pockets of the security forces, intelligence strata or in the bureaucracy, but they haven't been able to mount a serious challenge in the post-election situation.

On the side of our opponents, however, there is a sense of relief growing into smugness that the change wasn't "as bad as they thought it was going to be".

SV: Changes have occurred. But for the majority of people, the change is very superficial. It has benefited the black middle class, but for the majority of black people, there is little fundamental change.

People still believe that they should give the present government a chance. But more people are opening their eyes to the possibility that this government is not a workers' government. It is expressed in the strike actions, the land occupations carried out by homeless people since the elections.

DM: The elections ushered in a new political era. Doing away with at least the institutionalised apartheid laws has created space for left activity. It is an important start in terms of struggle and delivering on small but significant democratic advances, such as freedom of association and political involvement.

At the base level, the fact of the matter is that nothing has changed for most people.

JC: There is undoubtedly a sense of relief at having made it without any major bloodshed. But there is also an impatience for the change in which the people participated to begin.

What possibilities exist to propel this change forward?

JC: One of the positive things just before the elections was the fact that we had the Reconstruction and Development Program. That was very much a left victory from within the ANC. Most often national liberation movements go into first elections with a very vague program. Politicians and political parties like to have very thin mandates so that they are not held to account. I think the fact that there is a pretty elaborated RDP is very important.

Prior to elections there was quite a fierce offensive against it, saying it was unworkable. But there is hardly a voice in South Africa at the moment which does not at least pay lip service to the RDP. The challenge is now to implement it.

It is not a perfect program. It's not a socialist program. But it does say that the new government is going to measure its success not in terms of inflation rates, or export competitiveness or proportion of government spending to GDP. All of those are subsumed by the RDP to meeting social needs: jobs, housing, education. At least on paper.

The RDP is essentially about redistribution. Last year we spent more on education than the entire GDP of Tanzania, but the literacy rate in Tanzania is better than in South Africa. So there are resources, but they have been concentrated in the privileged sector.

This redistribution doesn't happen spontaneously. It needs to be driven. And that means two things: using effectively our new-found positions in government and simultaneously to rely on our traditional strength, which is a broad ANC-led social mobilisation.

DM: As socialists, I think we need to look towards a parallel struggle, which will begin to pose itself, against the very basis for accumulation, against the market itself, all the structures that will limit the possibilities for change. It isn't just a case of saying that capitalism creates the wealth and all we have to do is distribute the product. This might provide some short-term relief, but only for a minority of the working class and unemployed people.

Inherent in this is also the danger of changing what we mean by struggling for socialism into something which doesn't really challenge the system we are fighting against.

SV: WOSA has been campaigning against the payment of the apartheid debt. Repayment of interest alone amounts to around one quarter of the budget at present, more than the entire RDP budget. The debt was built up through the apartheid government borrowing from local and foreign banks to pursue apartheid policies. Now the oppressed people of this country are being asked to pay for their oppression twice over.

There is very little that the GNU [Government of National Unity] can do while they are constrained by the legacy which they refuse to break with.

South Africa is still a capitalist state. The economy is still ruled by a handful of conglomerates. The state machinery, the police, the army, the judiciary, still work for the interests of these few. They will be used against people who challenge this system, which leads to contradictions for the so-called leaders of the liberation movement in parliament.

JC: I don't think the GNU is the core problem. People tend to focus on that. In the cabinet, for instance, the ANC is overwhelmingly dominant. The opposition is strategically confused. De Klerk's profile has virtually disappeared, and his ability to steer or block policy is limited. The ANC has the capacity to carry things through.

We were voted into office in April, and we have gained some power, although more limited in terms of the social and economic. But much power is also retained in the incumbent bureaucracy. We have to battle to steer the bureaucracy in the direction of our policy programs.

If we roared ahead with a broader socialist transformation program, I think we would actually be defeated — not only in terms of global forces, or internal forces, but forces within the ANC itself. The danger of not pushing decisively though is that you end up managing a capitalist crisis.

DM: There are two distinct views on this question. One, which I think has taken quite a hold, says that the only feasible struggle for socialists in South Africa now is one of structural reform. This is to happen through a whole range of tripartite agreements between labour, the state and capital. This presupposes that you build upon that continuously until you get to a point where the "hegemony" of the working class becomes so strong, for example in the way in which capital is distributed, that that can then lead to a transition to socialism.

I would argue that is utopian. These arguments are nothing new. They are just being pushed onto the South African context.

There is a contending perspective, which says: we need to take an approach of working within the mass organisations, but work towards not purely enveloping capital accumulation and so on, but fundamentally undermining them. Failing to do this is just maintaining power in the hands of those who already have it.

What approach should socialists take to the ANC in the current situation?

JC: Given the positive achievements of the ANC election process, there is now a tendency to want to perpetuate the honeymoon. I don't think anyone on the left should be anxious to undermine the honeymoon, but you can't just tiptoe around the awkward issues.

The ANC leadership has been a little bit nervous about unleashing the next stages of struggle. But we need to develop the political will to push ahead now. Problems are also arising because the ANC is now career opportunity. In some senses this cannot be helped and there is no point in taking a narrow, moralistic view of it. It is part of the conquest, but it does lead to a careerist orientation.

There are debates within the party about where the ANC is heading, but also within the ANC. For example, in ANC regional conferences the provincial premier is also being confirmed as the chairperson of the ANC.

But in the Eastern Cape, they took a resolution that no-one in government was going to be allowed to stand for regional executive structures. This is a bit mechanical, but it reflects the constituency feeling that they have been forgotten by government and that there has been too much conciliation. In the Orange Free State, the chair was outed and a new chair elected who was not a governmental official. In the PWV region, the same thing comes through.

DM: My opinion is that there is a direct need for the left and working-class forces to become much more independent of the ANC and particularly the ANC in government. Not necessarily the ANC grassroots, because people who may be members of the ANC are those carrying out the majority of campaigns.

The real challenge is to find ways not to undermine the gains that have been made, but to push them forward with an independent working-class perspective. We shouldn't say that the ANC government is going to deliver and that people just have to sit back and wait. Saying that the only way that you can struggle is to pressure and lobby the government is falling for the classic lie of the Western democracies.

What change means now is still mass struggles, not being afraid to have open criticism of leadership. Some of the leadership of the ANC are utilising the liberation terminology and rhetoric to cover up what is beginning to look like a fairly major sell-out on working-class issues.

SV: WOSA was formed in 1991; we come out of an informal network of socialist forces, who are not part of the Congress tradition. We have been critical of the SACP's perspective of struggle within the ANC.

Many of the struggles we now see vindicate the position we took not to vote for the ANC, but to support independent left candidates around the Workers' List Party and use that to raise issues. We believe that we can't do it from within the GNU, and we think that the ANC has crossed the line. It is no more revolutionary and has become a part of the capitalist system.

The Alliance with the ANC is no longer useful; the SACP will discredit itself if it doesn't take a more independent position. The SACP is completely submerged in the ANC. We are saying that there should be a movement towards a mass workers' party.

We are appealing to people not just at the level of theory, but also on the level of joint activity. So whenever there are particular struggles on the ground, we try to encourage people in the SACP to join with us. We appeal to rank and file members through activity to try to convince them of the need for independent political action, that they cannot rely on parliamentary structures.

DM: I don't agree with an abstentionist position on the ANC, sitting back and saying that all of the things that have happened are so bad and you can't have anything to do with them. That marginalises you completely.

You might have a very good critique, but unless you are actively involved in trying to formulate solutions and working with people where they are at — and the majority are still involved and very loyal to the ANC — then you won't get very far. It is important to work within the ANC and to strengthen its working-class base, while at the same time not pinning everything on it.

We need to stick to making the basic demands, seeing the parliamentary representation we have won as secondary and continuing to build the sorts of organisation necessary to force our demands. Whether this organisation remains the ANC or the new face of the ANC or a workers' party or the CP becomes independent of the ANC or whatever, the most important thing is that when that other opportunity comes, we need to be there, to have worked with people consistently.

What role do you see for the South African Communist Party in the current situation?

JC: Much of the party's activity has been taken up in defending the right of workers to strike and supporting the recent working-class struggles, against Mandela in some cases, who criticised them. We recognise the need to push ahead with change as a party, though not necessarily to undermine the nation-building and reconciliation that has been achieved.

We have stressed the "people-driven" part of the RDP. We need to reconsolidate the social movements and to shift gears a little, because now it is a transformational and not just a resistance struggle. The party has thrown a lot of energy into that — characteristically, not to run its own campaigns, but to be at the centre of broad alliances.

DM: Some would argue that the best way to increase the benefits of the transformation, deepening the democracy already achieved, is to work closely with the structures in government and not be openly critical. Working within the Alliance is not a bad thing, but it can become so if it is allowed to become overarching and prevents any independent activity of the Communist Party. There are many within the Communist Party and at the grassroots who are beginning to feel a real need to begin this sort of activity.

One fundamental problem is that party representatives are elected members of parliament on an ANC ticket. So they are responsible to the ANC caucus in parliament; that creates problems for putting forward a Communist perspective. It goes back a long way, in terms of SACP strategy, of being part of the Alliance, part of a broad national liberation movement and putting most of their best cadres into that work.

JC: There are different views within the party and there will be continued debate. It would have been good to re-emerge as we did in 1990 with some very clear-cut views as to what socialism was and how to go forward. But there wasn't.

The challenge is the ideological battle that we are fighting within the ANC. The ANC is a broad-based national liberation movement. There is a lot of confusion, not least in the 1990s where alternative models seem to have failed — Eastern Europe, Soviet Union — but also the national liberation project in Africa, the demoralisation from the experiences of Mozambique, Zimbabwe etc during the '80s. It is a big task of socialists to challenge ideas such as neo-liberal restructuring and present other alternatives.

Our opponents are not passive. Having failed to defeat the ANC, they are now working to undermine and corrupt it.

What future do you see for socialist ideas in South Africa?

JC: We are trying to keep the socialist flag flying. We have some advantages. There is a socialist resonance here which comes from the historical role of the party and other socialist forces.

Big business has tried to convince people that it was a crisis of apartheid and not a crisis of capitalism which demanded the change. It is quite easy to persuade people to the contrary. There is a profound anti-capitalist sentiment around. We also have a population which is very politically experienced, with a strong history of mobilisation.

The struggle in the future will be complex and of long duration. We are only just beginning to be able to steer the process. It is going to take a lot of time.

DM: There is a lot of debate going on. There is a lot of confusion as to where to peg one's ideological credentials. Unfortunately, this has taken the form in some cases of an ideological retreat.

The nub of the question is that the degree to which you can deliver such things as housing and land depends to a great degree on who owns. My question is: "How can you control what you don't own?"

Many within the CP are talking about a "people-driven" RDP. For me this means beginning at the basics, which are that people have to have control over the mechanisms for development, national industry, the gold industry, how the wealth of the country is created. The process needs to include demands and campaigns around forwarding this people's control. These need to begin now.

Reality is a question of struggle. Our challenge is to change reality. We need to engage with it on a whole range of levels. There isn't a master plan or a blueprint for that, but the fundamental point is that we have to remain principled in our perspectives. Once we lose those principles or try to find ways around them, we'll have lost our compass, and it will be that much easier for us to be coopted and pushed into things by an enemy who knows exactly what it is doing.

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