South Africa: Will the ANC lose power at the May 29 elections?

May 24, 2024
Students protesting and Mazibuko Jara inset
Students protesting in Cape Town on May 10 for better education. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks/GroundUp (CC BY-ND 4.0 DEED). Inset: Mazibuko Jara

With South Africa's May 29 general elections approaching, Green Left’s Federico Fuentes spoke to South African socialist Mazibuko Jara about the African National Congress’s (ANC) prospects of holding onto power after 30 years in office and how the radical left is likely to fare.

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Many are talking about these elections as the most significant since the fall of Apartheid 30 years ago. What is at stake?

The significance lies in that the ANC may get less than 50% of the vote. If it does, it will be due to their failure to address the grievances of the popular masses through economic redistribution.

For the white liberal parties — and increasingly for Black and white conservative forces — this provides them with an opportunity to gain power. These forces have already inflicted defeats on the ANC in the 2016 and 2021 municipal elections, which saw the ANC lose power in every major metropolitan centre.

This advance by the liberal-conservative opposition and weakening of the ANC represents a significant step backwards for black working-class interests, as an opposition victory would represent a deepening of the neoliberal trajectory the country has been on since 1994.

The policies, platforms and rhetoric of the opposition are geared towards speeding up the country’s neoliberal trajectory. In contrast, the ANC’s neoliberalism is a form of social liberalism that is somewhat more attuned to popular interest because of its working-class base.

How are South Africa’s capitalists responding to the ANC possibly losing power?

From the mid-to-late ’80s, South Africa’s capitalists were willing to forgo Apartheid and seek a more legitimate political manager to run the political system. The ANC became that manager.

Through the political compromise of the 1994 deal that ended Apartheid, the ANC acquiesced to managing society on the basis of restoring capitalist profitability, which was constrained by apartheid.

Today, South Africa’s capitalists are ready to consider another political manager. This is in large part because the ANC has proven to be quite corrupt, which has generated negative impacts for capitalists.

For example, the publicly-owned electricity company Eskom has been unable to provide stable electricity for the past 15 years. South Africa’s capitalists always relied on three things: cheap minerals, cheap energy and cheap labour.

The capitalists are ready to see another political player coming into power because they know any new political manager will not challenge existing economic policy. But they also know the ANC will still loom large in politics, as polls suggest it will get about 45% of the vote.

That means, most likely, a coalition government at the national level and also in some provinces.

Capitalists have therefore financed the political campaigns of the opposition and the ANC.

But it is worth noting that while the 1994 deal restored profitability, popular demands continued to challenge that consensus in various ways. Unfortunately, this discontent has not consolidated itself into any significant alternative left political force.

We did see two left forces emerge from the “Marikana moment” just over ten years ago: the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP). Could you explain what the Marikana moment was and what these forces represent?

The Marikana moment refers to the period from late July 2012 to the end of February 2013, which saw two significant strikes.

The first involved workers in the platinum belt, largely in Marikana in the North West province. At its height, about 100,000 mine workers were on strike — in defiance of the union bureaucracy — from mid-August to early-September.

Their strike demanded a living wage of 12,500 rand a month, about US$1000 at the time.

Concerned by developments, [current president Cyril] Ramaphosa, who had financial interests in the mines, called the police minister demanding he put an end to the strike. A day later, 34 mine workers were shot dead by security forces.

The Marikana strike was very significant. It struck at the heart of South African capitalism: the minerals-energy complex. Seeing the democratic state kill 34 workers was an educational and shocking moment for many people.

The Marikana strike then triggered farm workers — who had never gone on strike — to initiate a strike wave from mid-November 2012 to the end of February 2013. Invoking the spirit of Marikana, they too demanded a living wage and won a statutory minimum wage.

An explosion of social protests in working-class communities also occurred, similarly evoking the spirit of Marikana.

As this was happening, developments were occurring in the ANC with the expulsion of Julius Malema, then president of the ANC Youth League, which increasingly adopted radical demands including economic freedom and the nationalisation of mines.

Following his expulsion, Malema sought to connect with striking workers and claimed workers had called on him to form a new political party. This led to the formation of the EFF, with Malema explaining workers wanted economic freedom from the shackles of exploitation.

Despite this, the EFF has not connected with popular movements or trade unions. Instead, it behaves like any typical political party, with narrow political interests driving its political action.

The EFF has built a mass base and an impressive electoral machine by attracting angry working class youth. But this base is very uneven and the electoral machine is completely controlled from above.

The other thing that is crucial to mention is their implication in corruption and alliances with capitalists.

In terms of corruption, there was a mutual bank built by one of the Apartheid homeland governments, VBS. Both ANC politcians and the EFF were involved in taking money from VBS for the benefit of EFF and ANC politicians.

When confronted about this, the EFF leadership closed down debate and expelled the radicals who questioned what had occurred.

The EFF also has an alliance with the tobacco industry. Similarly, the EFF promotes coal, which many say is due to coal interests financing the EFF.

All these features suggest the EFF is not a viable left-wing political party.

What about the SRWP?

Another important outcome of the Marikana moment had to do with the trade union movement.

The strike shook COSATU (the Congress of South African Trade Unions), because one of its largest affiliates, the Union of Mineworkers, had been left discredited. The farm workers strike also exposed that COSATU had failed to organise these workers.

This led radical elements within COSATU, in particular NUMSA (National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa), to challenge COSATU’s alliances with the ANC, which had been responsible for killing workers.

That ultimately led to NUMSA holding a Special Congress in 2013, which voted for the union to — among other things — explore the possibility of building what it referred to as a “movement for socialism” that could become a mass-based left-wing working class party down the line.

The issue was — to use a religious metaphor — that NUMSA’s break from the ANC-South African Communist Party (SACP)-COSATU alliance was a denomination break, not a spiritual one.

Many NUMSA leaders came from the SACP and continued to hold quite Stalinist politics. They remained closed to the idea of plurality or new ways of doing politics.

This was confirmed when NUMSA leaders pushed through with forming the SRWP before engaging other forces or even having a real debate within NUMSA.

The SRWP contested the 2019 national elections. Despite NUMSA having more than 300,000 members, SRWP candidates only obtained 24,000 votes. That speaks to just how much the idea was imposed without debate and worker mobilisation inside NUMSA.

The SRWP is not contesting the elections and there is no information anywhere about any upcoming SRWP activities.

What then are the prospects for the radical left?

The past 10 years has been a moment of utter and complete defeat for the left. Overcoming this will take serious reflection and self-critique. It will require us to be able to learn anew and develop new ways to rebuild the left. This will take time — there is no shortcut solution.

Ultimately, the outcome of the 1994 political compromise set the left back in a big way. A major factor was the role played by the SACP, which outflanked all other left forces in terms of winning over radicalised workers, but with its program tied to the ANC.

No left group was capable of exposing the SACP’s limits nor capitalising on what happened to the SACP over its support for [former corrupt ANC president Jacob] Zuma.

The EFF and NUMSA did, but they failed in terms of building a mass party of left renewal because of their obvious shortcomings.

What we are left with are different groupings of left comrades with long histories of involvement in the struggle, sprinkled together with a younger layer of comrades who have emerged in the past 15 years, as well as myriad single-issue movements with significant constituencies and characterised by unevenness when it comes to challenging neoliberalism and capitalism. The question is: What can we concretely do, picking up from where we are at?

A key moment will be the 2026 local government elections. Many movements are currently debating what to do at those elections. The left could connect with those debates and enrich and learn from them, if it does so without seeking to control those movements.

[A much longer version of this interview can be read at]

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