South Africa's left
jenyan1 at SPAMuic.edu
Fri Dec 15 12:27:13 MST 2000
South Africa's left discusses way
Green Left Weekly's
travelled to South
Africa in October and
talked with a number of
left activists about their
views on the way
forward for the left.
former chairperson of
Central branch of the
(SACP), was expelled
from the party after he wrote articles critical of the
ANC government's policies and the role of SACP
cabinet ministers in implementing them. GEORGE
DOR, from Johannesburg, is a key activist with the
Alternative Information and Development Centre
which campaigns against capitalist globalisation
and for the cancellation of South Africa's debts
that were accumulated by the apartheid regime.
SALIM VALLY, from Johannesburg, is a leader of
the Workers Organisation for Socialist Action
(WOSA). ANNA WEEKES, from Cape Town, is
media spokesperson for the South African
Municipal Workers Union (her comments here
represent her personal views, not those of
SAMWU). MAZIBUKO K. JARA, from
Johannesburg, is the SACP's media and
publications officer. HEINRICH BOHMKE, from
Durban, is a prominent human rights lawyer.
What is your opinion of the direction of the
African National Congress (ANC) since it came to
power in 1994?
McKinley: The trajectory of the ANC government has
been clear and fairly consistent since 1994. One has
to look at this in the historical context of the ANC's
petty bourgeois leadership. Prior to 1994, the ANC
was already charting a strategic path to a
de-racialised capitalist South Africa. Most of us
thought that the ANC would combine this with various
social democratic measures aimed at ameliorating
inequality. The ANC promised to implement this
combination with the RDP [Reconstruction and
But once it was comfortably in government, the ANC
shifted quickly to an overt pro-capitalist
macro-economic policy with the Growth Employment
and Redistribution [GEAR] program. The ANC came
out of the class closet. Over the last four years, the
ANC has implemented a policy which is based on
fostering a new black middle and capitalist class,
giving sops to the working class and the poor, but
following the general framework of neo-liberalism.
Dor: Since the election of the
ANC-led government there
are more social and democratic
rights, but alongside this has
been a shift towards
neo-liberal economic policies.
The old white bureaucrats and
new black bureaucrats, in
collaboration with the World
Bank, have been quite
influential. Six months after the 1994 election, we had
a World Bank-drafted water provision policy based
on full cost recovery from each poor community.
Right from the start, the ANC went against the people
and against its mandate. GEAR is a home-grown
structural adjustment program. It relies on private
sector growth, a concentration on boosting exports
and foreign direct investment, and cutting social
spending by government. More than 500,000 jobs
have been lost since 1996. In many cases people are
worse off than ever.
Vally: After 1994, it could have gone another way but
the left wasn't strong enough. There has always been
the possibility of a coming together of the interests of
the African nationalists and the Afrikaner nationalists.
GEAR is not simply an economic program but a
political one. Those who benefit are the white
capitalist class, a black middle class, the nascent black
capitalist class and international capital.
Weekes: The main problem for the trade union
movement has been GEAR. Major privatisations will go
ahead after the local government elections on
December 5. There is a culture of the unions not
criticising the government. Meanwhile, the
ANC-controlled Johannesburg council has just
pushed through the worst privatisation program and
union-bashing campaign that we have ever seen.
Jara: The ANC
government is the first
South Africa has ever
had. It represents
experience of the
apartheid. But the
government also exists
in a globalising
which creates pressures
on those with the
objective of radical
The ANC is a multi-class force, and its politics are
contested. Some of its policy positions reflect this,
such as GEAR. Generally, the thinking in the SACP is
that this is not inevitable.
Bohmke: Things for ordinary people are worse
economically than they were in 1988. There are
greater political rights, for sure, but you can't enjoy
those while you don't have water, electricity or have
The ANC is now even beginning to abandon its radical
rhetoric. It is also polishing its role as a sub-regional
power within the grand capitalist order. There are
sprawling townships which are as bad as ever, and
Race is used as a cover behind which the black elite
can rally and integrate the black poor, while the ANC
implements policies which disproportionately affect
black people. As people are becoming more restive
and critical, the government is resorting again to
repression - police firing on crowds and evictions of
those who cannot afford to pay rents. Until recently it
has almost been sacrilegious to question the ANC.
What is the people's opinion of the ANC
Dor: Public opinion has continued to be shaped by
the ANC's historic role in ending apartheid, but people
are becoming much less enthusiastic about voting for
the ANC. In the December 5 municipal elections, many
independent candidates in the townships are running
on an anti-privatisation platform, or in defiance of the
autocratic ANC approach to selecting councillors.
One high profile example is Trevor Ngwame, an ANC
councillor who was expelled over his opposition to
the Johannesburg council's privatisation plans. His
constituency in Soweto appealed to him to stand as
an independent. He has produced an
anti-privatisation platform to try to draw together
other left independents around the country. In the
Eastern Cape SANCO [South African National Civics
Organisation] is running separately from the ANC.
Bohmke: I'm predicting less than a 50% turn out in
the municipal election. ANC branches are depleted.
There is rising disaffection. Polls are showing little
more than 50% support for the ANC in many regions.
But there isn't another organisation that can capture
the desires of people for more fundamental change
Weekes: In the unions, people are still quite loyal to
the ANC, but workers are seeing the contradictions
more and more. In some areas, the ANC may still be
the progressive choice. But whether it is the ANC or
the Democratic Alliance [the alliance of New National
Party and Democratic Party], there is not much
difference in terms of policy.
Vally: As people's dissatisfaction rises, there is also
the danger that demagogues and petty bourgeois
politicians who base their support on supposed ethnic
or religious differences could gain ground in the
absence of a left alternative.
sections of the white
community are moving
towards the ANC
because they realise
that it is the best way to
interests now. As far as
the majority is
concerned, support is
As long as the SACP
and COSATU [the
Congress of South
African Trade Unions]
remain within the Tripartite Alliance, which is led by
the ANC, people tend to still look towards the ANC.
Smaller left parties pose no real competition yet. They
aren't yet gathering the increasing dissatisfaction
which is surfacing in community struggles. The task
for the left is to harness that.
What is your opinion of role of SACP and
COSATU. Are they presenting an alternative?
McKinley: Because of their historical links with the
ANC, and expectations that things would move in a
positive direction after 1994, COSATU and the SACP
spent the first two years arguing that the RDP and
other promises had to be implemented. When that
didn't happen, they criticised the ANC. But it has
always been reactive and never been linked to
struggles on the ground to reverse the ANC
government's rightward direction.
In both organisations, there has been a domination of
leadership, a growing gap between rank-and-file and
leadership, and a policy of pleading with the ANC.
The base structures have been demobilised and
disempowered. The SACP is shrinking.
In COSATU, you've had some strikes and stay-aways
but they haven't been sustained and followed
through. What has developed is rhetorical criticism
and practical acquiescence. This isn't to say that the
entire memberships of the SACP and COSATU have
become useless. But they have become politically
The leaderships have cracked down on criticism and
blocked calls for mobilisation rather than trying to
lead. The ANC has successfully managed its
relationship with the SACP and COSATU to give the
government left cover for its right-wing turns. This
has prevented it from having to confront serious
Dor: Once you are bracketed in the Alliance, you're in
a difficult position. It is argued that if you are in there
then you can influence the ANC. In truth, it is the ANC
which starts to influence you.
The ANC utilises the Alliance when it needs it, like
during elections. COSATU and the SACP drop
everything to campaign, but the ANC will not
reciprocate by even discussing alternatives to GEAR.
COSATU and the SACP have retreated to discussing
parts of GEAR rather than challenging the whole
policy. At the most recent COSATU conference, there
was a lot of criticism of GEAR from delegates. But the
leadership has been sucked into the ANC framework
and simply discusses the issues at the edges.
COSATU and SACP have become a stepping stone
to positions in government for leaders of those
Vally: The COSATU bureaucracy is a stumbling
block. They try their best to kill independent
initiatives. If the COSATU leadership goes too far to
the right then they lose support. It's a hard balancing
act for them. They turn the tap on and off in terms of
mass action - always keeping it tightly controlled as a
one-day strike or one-off action. Cooption is a
strong force due to high unemployment and
But working people want struggles to be led. In
SAMWU and NUMSA [National Union of Metalworkers
of South Africa], more radical leaderships prepared to
run campaigns have won elections recently.
Jara: The Alliance remains relevant. COSATU is an
important social force. The role of the party is to
contribute to the consolidation of working-class
power through mass mobilisation. We are at our
strongest and most popular. It's within this context
that we launched our independent campaign against
the banks and mobilised 40,000 people on October 1.
We have hundreds of local government councillors, a
hundred national MPs and Communists deployed in
various sections of government. Not many CPs
around the world have that sort of influence.
GEAR is not a question of the ANC selling out. It is
more a question of the fact that the forces in the
Alliance are not the way that they should be in terms
of working-class power. This contributes to the
difficulty that comrades Jeff Radebe [minister of
public enterprises] and Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi
[minister of public service and administration] face as
party members implementing ANC policy. Our
constitution says that if members are deployed in
mass organisations, they must accept the mandate
and democracy of those organisations. However,
there is some debate about where their first loyalty
Bohmke: The SACP is top-heavy with little
grass-roots support. They are like a chimney. People
sense a sell-out from the ANC. The house is
beginning to fill up with smoke and people are
choking. Then the CP comes in and talks left, makes
veiled criticisms of the ANC, and funnels off the
smoke. Then they'll propose an action, letting people
vent their frustrations and then nothing comes of it.
It will come in and hit imperialism, the World Bank, the
banks - to deflect criticism from the ANC. The SACP
talks left and acts right, and gives the ANC permission
to act right. In defence of the sacred Alliance they will
often say that criticism of the ANC contributes to the
threat the white right-wing poses to the government.
In reality, the white right-wing is totally isolated.
There are a few unreconstructed rednecks, but most
others have been accommodated or are in jail.
To talk about COSATU as a monolithic entity is
wrong. It is made up of affiliates, each with a
leadership which makes itself a thorn in the side of the
government and then gets bought off. Some even do
it to the extent that it helps them to get a better
position. Sam Shilowa [former general-secretary of
COSATU and SACP central committee member] railed
against GEAR. Now, he's ANC premier of Gauteng
province and supports it. The shift of leadership into
business or government is happening all the time.
What is the state of the rest of the left?
McKinley: Because of the historical domination of
Alliance politics, it is almost as if the rest of the left
have celebrated their marginalisation. In the last year,
this has begun to change. The objective situation has
provided more space for people on the left to expand
their influence, hook up with local struggles and begin
to work together. People struggling against evictions,
water and electricity provision in urban and rural areas
are beginning to identify neo-liberal policies as being
The challenge for the left is to try to coordinate these
struggles and from them develop an understanding of
the need for some sort of national political alternative.
What you have now is a better grounded left who
have mostly not come out of the various small
organisations, but have been working in unions or
communities or on an intellectual front. There is not so
much division in this left. It revolves more around
practical struggles. I see a potentially bright future for
a political alternative. It is going to take a long time to
develop but it is beginning.
The student movement is in crisis. The main student
body SASCO [South African Student Congress] has
been aligned to the ANC. This has undermined its
ability to be a radical voice. The ANC Youth League
has been a sycophantic ANC support group. This is
just changing now. University privatisation and
increased student fees are leading to struggles which
have the potential to spark the movement. The
SASCO branch at Wits University has just begun to
debate the need for an explicitly socialist student
movement, which has never existed here. So there is
struggle and discussion.
Dor: The Anti-Privatisation Forum in Johannesburg is
an exciting development. It brings together struggles
against the Johannesburg council's iGoli 2002 project
of privatisation, the struggle against restructuring at
Wits University, community struggles for the provision
of water, housing and electricity. A similar thing is
starting in Cape Town.
In the Northern Province, the Movement for Delivery
has begun to organise. We are also starting to
organise as part of the global movement against
neo-liberalism - on September 26 there were actions
here in solidarity with the Prague protests against the
World Bank and IMF.
Debt is a big issue here. Why should we pay the
apartheid debt? It's another way of getting into the
debate about GEAR and alternatives.
Vally: More people are beginning to understand the
need for a new left, based on grass-roots work rather
than a few people with a newspaper proclaiming
themselves the vanguard. There are a whole range of
Not only do we have a massive AIDS problem, but
now there is an outbreak of cholera which makes a
mockery of the ANC's water policy. The Treatment
Action Campaign is campaigning against the
government's policy of restricting AZT provision.
Meanwhile, armaments costs have risen now to
around 40 billion Rand and may go up to 60 billion.
Jara: The SACP is the strongest left force in terms of
size, organisation, history and influence. In addition to
us, there are many socialists in the Alliance.
Post-1990, we can no longer tolerate sectarianism.
We need broad action, and not necessarily just by
those who define themselves as socialists.
Our solutions are the mobilisation of domestic capital
resources to push forward transformation: utilising
public resources (the government budget and
state-run corporations), build and consolidate what
we call "social capital" (cooperatives, union investment
funds) and disciplining and directing financial capital.
The focus should not be on foreign direct investment
but domestic resources. We need mass mobilisation
to effect this transformation.
Bohmke: The left mobilise around demands for
concrete action, rather than start with the demand to
break the Alliance. Mobilising around real struggles
creates tension in the Alliance.
The ANC's support for neo-liberalism means not just
not implementing its promises but attacking existing
rights. The role of the left is to provide linkages
between the spontaneous struggles which are
occurring everywhere. You don't have the easy
binaries of the old apartheid system but people are
living in terrible conditions and they have to fight.
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