The last few years have seen intense navel-gazing by South African progressives, but with little or no concrete results or solutions. Looking at the challenges faced by the left in South Africa, we need to appreciate global dynamics as well as developments within our own political economy.
By Dr Yacoob Abba Omar
“How did we get here?” was the plaintive wail of progressives in South Africa until the ANC’s December 2018 elective conference.
The last few years have seen intense navel-gazing by South African progressives, but with little or no concrete results or solutions. Looking at the challenges faced by the left in South Africa, we need to appreciate global dynamics as well as developments within our own political economy. I come back to the question of who is the left further down in this article.
It is difficult to underestimate the impact of the financial crisis of 2008, and to comprehend the ongoing devastation of lives resulting from job losses, evictions, reduction in real wages, and substantial cuts in medical, educational, and social benefits. South Africa did not experience the global recession as harshly, but its economy was impacted by the slowdown in global demand and the resultant slowdown in economic growth. Since 2008/9 the global economy has grown in spurts and starts, creating the climate for the emergence of a variety of new social, political and economic forces.
Brazil recently saw the rise to power of a right-wing, homophobic misogynist in Jair Bolsonaro. He committed Brazil to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council and Paris agreement on climate change as well as to move its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem.
Mentioning Bolsonaro’s commitment to ‘Brazil First’ may not be such a subtle hint of who his hero is. Surrounded by the military business elite (his running mate is an army General), Bolsonaro declared in his victory speech: “We cannot continue to flirt with socialism, with communism and with populism and with the extreme left.” Bolsonaro’s victory has been attributed to widespread unhappiness with what is seen as a corrupt political culture, with the Worker’s Party of Lula and Dilma Rouseff being punished at the hustings for its various shortcomings. Bolsonaro joins the ranks of a growing list of strongmen who came to power over the past decade under similar circumstances.
Can this happen in South Africa – where a right-wing, populist party is voted into power?
The victories of less ideologically clear leaders such as Emanuel Macron in France has similarly been a matter of concern for the left. Macron is seen as Europe’s bulwark against the rising tide of right-wing nationalism throughout the continent. However, by focussing on climate change or saving the European project, he distanced himself from the range of forces who form the ‘yellow jerseys’, leading one of them to comment: “Our elites are talking about the end of the world when we are talking about the end of the month.”
Before members of the left start committing ideological suicide, perhaps they should take succour from the performance put up by Bernie Sanders in the last US presidential elections. Or even the turn to the left amongst the various Democratic Party, especially female, presidential hopefuls. Or the improved showing of the UK’s Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership (notwithstanding the recent wobbles during the Brexit debates).
Or even better – the electoral victory of AMLO. ‘AMLO who?’ you may well ask.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO, as he is popularly known, won 53% of the vote in Mexico’s recent presidential elections. He assumed office almost at the same time as Bolsonaro, yet his remarkable achievement has gone almost unnoticed.
The Movement for National Regeneration, the party he founded in the lead-up to the 2018 elections, won a majority of seats in both houses of the national legislature. It took five of the nine governorships where elections were held. He is no admirer of Trump – which may be a good way to start describing his ideological leanings. His victory was helped by the obsequiousness of Peña Nieto, his predecessor who hailed from one of the two establishment parties. Nieto shot to fame for his powerless fumbling in the face of the Trump tsunami as well his kowtowing to the political corruption of the Mexican elite.
López Obrador said he will take half the salary of his predecessor, and that no public official will be able to earn more than the president during his six-year term. “What we want is for the budget to reach everybody,” he said after his election. He promised to reduce or remove perks for high-level government officials, such as the employment of chauffeurs and bodyguards. He vowed to turn the official presidential residence into a cultural centre and to ensure that ex-presidents will no longer receive pensions.
Jon Lee Anderson writing for the New Yorker made this observation: “Those who have compared his populism to Trump’s are fundamentally mistaken. López Obrador’s populism is built not on a hatred of ‘the other,’ or on a need to prevail at the expense of others, but rather on an intuitive faith that Mexicans can overcome their current reality with a redeployment of their most outstanding national traits – hard work, resourcefulness, pride, modesty, and bravery.”[i]
Perhaps one of the most instructive examples for SA to look at is the experience of India. Since 1947, the Indian National Congress (INC) played a hegemonic role in India, exemplifying secularism and providing leadership to the newly independent countries and generally the Third World.
However, by 1991, the narrow nationalistic and right-wing leaning BJP became the main opposition with 120 seats. The 1999 elections saw it take advantage of the INC’s corrupt practises and, by mobilising the Hindu vote, it earned 182 seats with its National Democratic Alliance overall gaining 296 seats.
Due to the fallout from the 2002 Gujrat massacre and its own corruption scandals, in 2004 the BJP ended up with only 138 seats. Congress’s 2009 election victory was largely due to its closer alliance with the left and progressive manifesto. However, the 2014 elections shook up the Indian establishment with the BJP under Narendra Modi’s leadership winning 31% of the popular votes, earning it 52% of the national parliamentary seats. Radhika Desai, of the University of Manitoba, argued at the time that the BJP will now be able to follow Hindutva’s core agenda[ii].
Pradeep Chibber and Rahul Verma (2014) authors of “Ideology and Identity: The Changing Party Systems of India” argued that this was made possible by what a few decades before was unimaginable: the BJP managing to “draw into its coalition those who would like the state to minimise its role in the economy by both reducing subsidies and business regulations…Compared to previous elections, recent data indicate that a sizeable chunk of voters have emerged as rightward leaning on economic issues.”[iii]
What can progressive South Africans learn from these global experiences?
Firstly, we need to be clear on who the left is? With the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) splintering to the left and one of its former largest union, Numsa, trying to establish a socialist “-United Front”, there are serious tectonic movements on the left of South African politics. With the 30 unions that make up the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) and the creation of the Workers’ and Socialist Party (WASP), we have seen new dynamism entering left politics.
In the midst of this has been the increasingly strident rhetoric of the Economic Freedom Front (EFF), which WASP has described as “a left-populist party”. According to WASP, young people in particular join the EFF searching for a “vehicle to fundamentally change society; hoping they have found the shortest route to realising the hopes betrayed by the ANC. But such change requires nothing less than a socialist revolution. What many EFF supporters are really looking for – a strong socialist party to lead this task – they will not find in the EFF, despite the red costumes.”
Apart from these formations, there exist a range of academic circles and discussion groups, often consisting of people disappointed by the SACP’s compromises or whose party membership was terminated or allowed to lapse. In other words, while the SACP may be the fulcrum around which much of left intellectual debate and activism revolves, we need to be mindful that when we speak of the left, we are talking of an array of forces which could even include elements within the churches with a progressive agenda. 
One of the key lessons we can learn from other countries is that while populism comes in various colours, the real danger to our democracy is authoritarianism based on populism.
Erica Frantz, in her book on authoritarianism, points out that of the 75% of the regimes which became authoritarian between 2000 and 2010, most took the form of a personal leader who exploited populist rhetoric[iv].
Jillian Schwedler and Kevan Harris, reflecting on regimes and activisms in the Middle East, referred to these as “hyper-masculinist and patriarchal rulers”. Examples include many that those on the left would not like to see on this list: Russia under Mr Putin, Venezuela under Hugo Chávez, and Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan[v].
Frantz points out that a large part of these regimes saw democracy being eaten out from within, as the larvae of some wasps eat out host spiders. Amongst the features which authoritarian regimes display, include a narrow inner circle of trusted people; the installation of incompetent loyalists in positions of power; promotion of members of the family; and the creation of new security services loyal to the leader.
Samir Amin, the late Egyptian Marxist, was not mincing words when he wrote: “Without being ‘democrats’, some leaders, charismatic or not, of national/populist regimes have been progressive ‘big reformers.’ But others have scarcely been anything but incoherent leaders (Gaddafi) or ordinary ‘unenlightened’ despots (quite uncharismatic, to boot) like Ben Ali, Mubarak, and many others. For that matter, those dictators initiated no national/populist experiments. All they did was to organize the pillage of their countries by mafias personally associated with them.”[vi]
The political rhetoric used by these populists will sound familiar to us: claims that they alone can solve the country’s problems; that the traditional elite (as in white monopoly capitalists) are the enemy; and that experts, such as the fine minds of dedicated public servants in National Treasury, and the media, cannot be trusted.
A second lesson – an even tougher one – to be learnt is to be able to imagine a future where completely inconceivable political formations can come to power, as has been the case of India.
The Indlulamithi 2030 South Africa scenarios did just that. In its Gwara Gwara scenario, it describes the situation in the aftermath of the 2024 elections: “After months of variations of the new rallying cry, ‘let someone else have a try’, the ANC is forced to concede power to a fractious post-2024 alliance of opposition parties in the lowest voter turn-out election in South Africa’s democratic history”.
In this context, “The state relies more and more on the ‘Public Order’ units of the South African Police. The SANDF struggles to remain neutral, but there is not much resistance to this closing of democratic spaces as many citizens are willing to accept reduced freedoms in exchange for protection from an increasingly dangerous world”. Enter the strongman?
Fortunately, frightening as this scenario may be, it ends on an uplifting note largely due to the citizens’ commitment to democracy. In 2029, “South Africa, to the surprise of many, elects its first woman president and the first president from the generation born after 1990. Her declaration that “old men created this mess, let the women and the young clean it up” resonates with constituencies across South Africa, including many men. Interestingly, this rosy end to an otherwise unsettling scenario makes it clear that the 2029 President does not necessarily come from the ANC!
So, what is the left to do given that the situation in South Africa is so fragile economically, politically and socially?
A starting point is overcoming what Samir Amin calls the “democratic farce” with “democratization involving all aspects of social life including, of course, economic management” which “can only be an unending and unbounded process, the result of popular struggles and popular inventiveness.” Hailing from the other end of the political spectrum, former Indian Central Banker, Raghuram G. Rajan, has argued that instead of allowing right-wing or left-wing populism to flourish, a better populism is one that puts more trust in local communities, which may well have a greater chance of success[vii].
Interestingly, the iSibhujwa scenario of Indlulamithi had the working title “Clash of Populisms”. While it emphasised the ever-widening enclave of the privileged, such as unionised workers, public servants and professionals enjoying private security, transport, education and healthcare, the scenario acknowledged the populism of those working from the grassroots up. Such is the dedication of those servicing the enclaves of the poor at local level that their schools and clinics show better results in terms of education and healthcare.
So in looking forward, while ensuring power at the local level is exercised democratically, corruption-free and in the interests of the poorest of our communities, we need to ensure that the struggle at the apex – that around the Constitution – is waged just as relentlessly.
What strategies should the Left adopt?
Indian intellectual historian K N Panikkar (2015) talks of “the near hegemonic role the left intelligentsia exercised in society during the early decades of independent India… The major concern during these years was the manner in which democracy, socialism and secularism could be institutionalised”. He expresses his disquiet at the current state of affairs: “The left has a historic role in preventing the further progress of the right-wing forces. But it has not shown any sense of urgency to address this question by ‘mobilising’ its natural constituency of the poor and the marginalised and extending its hegemony to other sections of society’[viii].
A decade ago academic Daryl Glaser raised the prospect of a left agenda emerging in South Africa when he suggested that social differentiation within ethnic groups “raises at least the theoretical possibility of a future working class-based politics either of a socialist or populist kind, able to challenge the predominance of nationalist and ethnic politics”[ix]. Patrick Bond has argued that “it has been a mistake to invest too much in romantic Constitutional fantasies of socio-economic rights. … because of the danger of taming (deradicalising) social activists”[x]. He argued for connecting the dots between prolific protesters from communities, social movements and labour claiming the lessons confirming the strength of well-connected (not ‘popcorn’) grassroots protests have been lost.
On the other hand, one of the left discussion forums looking at how South Africa could get out of its moral, political and economic crisis, recorded in 2017 that “the values of the Constitution describe a society that is fundamentally egalitarian and in which human dignity is more than simply a formal equity before the law, but a society that aspires to provide the material and social basis for all members of our society to live in true dignity”. This forum proposed that defending the Constitution should be at the core of the SACP’s programme of action at its 14th Congress.
We have often argued that the left is its own worst enemy, because of the dogmatic manner in which debates are conducted such as who is a true Marxist or progressive. Embracing diversity of thought is going to be critical going forward. There has been a tendency amongst the so-called mainstream in the left to pour scorn over poststructuralist, postcolonial, critical race, feminist and queer critiques of our society. Yet, worldwide, feminists and eco-socialists are at the forefront of clarifying and challenging the most critical crises confronting our society and humanity.
It is this principle of embracing diversity which should guide progressives within the ANC and SACP to adopt a strategy in what could be best described as three concentric circles of engagement.
Firstly, engage with all other worker organisations and formations of the left to create a broad progressive platform committed to defending democracy and the Constitution in South Africa. The current trade unions represent a much smaller number of the formally employed; and Cosatu has become enfeebled for a variety of reasons.
Not only is SAFTU or AMCU stealing a march on Cosatu, but organisations such as Solidarity are forging ahead. This should signal to the SACP and ANC the need to widen its alliance on the left.
The second track of engagement must be with the voiceless, especially SA’s vast army of unemployed, particularly the youth. Such engagement must bring to the fore the inchoate needs of these critical parts of our society so that we can build a level of social cohesion that can be the platform for prosperity of our country.
For the left to earn the mantle of leadership of society – and not just proclaim it – it could play a meaningful role in working towards a social compact with all elements of society. To raise core constituencies of the left from the misery of their daily grind of poverty, hunger, unemployment, crime and gender-based violence requires for various strata of society to be mobilized around a common programme. This would represent the third and widest of concentric circles.
Modest as they may be, these steps are required even if they are anathema to mainstream thinking in the left. We require what Roberto Unger, who served in Lula’s and Rouseff’s cabinet, called escaping the dictatorship of no alternatives – be this in the economic and social spheres, or even political and ideological levels[xi].
Dr Y Abba Omar, part of the Indlulamithu 2030 SA Scenarios project http://sascenarios2030.co.za/ , writes in his personal capacity.
 The differences between ‘left’ and ‘progressive’ I leave for another article.
[i] Jon Lee Anderson https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/06/25/a-new-revolution-in-mexico
[ii] Radhika Desai 2014. ‘A Latter-day Fascism?’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 49, Issue No. 35, 30 Aug, 2014 pp 48- 59
[iii] Pradeep Chibber and Rahul Verma, 2014. Ideology and Identity: The Changing Party Systems of India. New York: Oxford University Press
[iv] Erica Frantz 2018. Authoritarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press.
[vi] Samir Amin. 2011. ‘The Democratic Fraud and the Universalist Alternative’, Marxist Review. Volume 63, Issue 05 (October) ›
[vii] Raghuram Rajan. 2019. https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/populist-economic-policies-better-at-local-level-by-raghuram-rajan-2019-02
[viii] KN Pannikkar. 2015. ‘Imperatives of a Left Public Sphere’, Economic and Political Weekly. October 31, 2015 vol l no 44.
[ix] Darryl Glaser. 2001. Politics and Society in South Africa. London: Sage
[x] Patrick Bond. 2014. ‘Constitutionalism as a Barrier to the Resolution of Widespread Community Rebellions in South Africa’, Politikon, 41:3, 461-482
[xi] Roberto Unger. 2006. What Should the Left Propose? London: Verso.