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Losing Today, Winning Tomorrow? South Africa Set to Re-elect the Party of Mandela

PORT ELIZABETH, SOUTH AFRICA—What’s  the left to do? On May 8th, the world will awake to read that South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC), the party of Mandela, has won 3 out of 5 votes in the country’s elections; they will also read that just over 1 out of 5 votes went to the Democratic Alliance (DA) that draws much of its support from the white minority. The remaining 15 – 20% of votes will have been split between an interesting set of actors. Consistent with voting patterns since democratization in 1994, none of these outcomes will shock anyone.  This is not to say that there is no drama. Indeed, the ANC will likely lose many votes in some of the provinces, particularly in the country’s economic heartland, Gauteng. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that there is no surprise. After all, this is the first election after the ANC thoroughly discredited itself with the Marikana massacre in August 2012, and the prospects of a genuine nationwide workers’ party seem to re-emerge for the first time since the mid-1980s. But it was not to be… this time round.

The anticipated status quo outcome may seem incomprehensible to outsiders. Indeed, against the ANC’s 2014-election incantation that, “There is a good story to tell!” the Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU)’s General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi states,  “Please don't expect me to say the unemployment of 34.1% is a good story to tell, I will refuse… Don't tell me that there is a good story to tell when 50% of South African workers are earning below R3000 [~$300] a month ... That is not a good story to tell. It is a terrible story of inequalities.” Despite his observations, Vavi, trapped by politics, is still forced to campaign for the ruling party. And Vavi is not alone, the same type of polls predicting the ANC’s three-fifths vote share, tell us that only 1 in 3 voters believe that the country is moving in the right direction! Afflicted, then, with still growing unemployment, worsening inequality since the end of white-minority rule, and general dissatisfaction with the political system why would anyone return the incumbents after 20 years of uninterrupted governance?! [1]

Unfortunately, this survey of electoral options for the left offers of only the smallest of down payments toward an answer. However, more so than at anytime since the 1994 elections, there sense that change is on the agenda, that a reckoning is in the making. The status quo is bereft of legitimacy; scores of books and articles, long and short, offer answers to the question, “What went wrong?” In the 1980s, Gramsci was regularly drafted to describe the national paralysis, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Today however there is anything but a sense of paralysis. Now core constituencies of the ANC—youth, workers, the African middle class, the urban poor—now have parties actively vying for their votes. Even important, decidedly anti-political formations, like the shack-dwellers organization, Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), are making political endorsements.

Until this election, the defining dilemma for the left could be described as follows: although there’s a political vacuum to the left of the ruling party, the resources, including money, cadre and organization, lay to its right. Recent ferment within the labor movement and ANC dissidents offer hope that this mismatch may be corrected… just not in time for this election.

A sizable number of voters are likely to swell the DA’s ranks which—vacillations notwithstanding—offers essentially the same neo-liberal policy package that the ANC implements. Nonetheless, it promises less corruption and has recruited competent, media-worthy, African front people, particularly in parliament and in Gauteng. This marketing may help disgruntled middle-class voters overcome their hesitations about voting for the historically-white political party. In something of a surprise, AbM, which normally eschews voting, now calls on its supporters to vote strategically for the DA.[2]

Occupying almost the same political space is AGANG, the party of a former World Bank director, Mamphele Ramphela. Despite her 1970s Black Consciousness credentials, early support from Bishop Tutu, and her validation of some call for redistribution, she remains trapped within a neo-liberal framework. She offers a critique of the ANC’s corruption and alleged incompetence but refrains from presenting an alternative development model. Rumors of support from Bill Gates seem credible and consistent with her global outlook: the party’s founding statement condemned of imperialism in Africa; curiously it limited that critique to China despite the contemporaneous dramatic expansion of US and French military engagement with the continent. [3] Fortunately, her party seems to have imploded after several bizarre missteps.

If early New York Times’ concerns about “whether [Ramphela] can muster a mass following in a country where populist appeal has proved essential to political success,” seem to have been validated, the same cannot be said for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). With great élan and panache, the EFF has erupted onto the national scene advocating a largely progressive agenda consistent with many socialist proposals, including the nationalization of the mines. Its media-savvy “Commander-in-Chief” Julius Malema, however is tainted by charges of corruption and his extravagant tastes. This is ironic for someone claiming Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara as inspiration. The latter famously changed his country’s name to “The Land of Upright People” – not what comes to mind on review of Malema’s legal challenges.

However, more than any other force, EFF has brought the ideas of economic justice, revolution and redistribution back into the public domain. Their methods for doing so are instructive for the actual left: they have created a dramatic brand via a readily identifiable dress code; they have chosen bold actions to dramatize particular points (e.g. threatening to occupy the national broadcaster, enacting the destruction of toll booths, etc.); they are unapologetic about their program when challenged in the media. Above all else, they recognize that any media is better than no media.

EFF is predicted to achieve parliamentary representation on this, their first electoral outing. As an option for would-be left voters, EFF is a poor choice because they seem to displace the real left—by sucking all the oxygen out of the room. Moreover, they have offered to vote with the ANC to select a president if the latter did not receive a majority; their only price – that current ANC leader Zuma not stand for the presidency. [4] This suggests that personality, not principles, drives their critique of the ANC.

What then is the left voter to do? One alternative is led by an heroic former ANC underground leader and later Minister of Intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils, former deputy Minister of Defence, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, and by former Black Consciousness Movement leader, Barney Pityana as well as the Democratic Left Front and the Democracy-from-Below movement. It is the Sidikiwe! Vukani! “Vote No!” campaign. It takes advantage of South Africa’s proportional representation system by recognizing that “every vote for a party is also a vote against another party.” Advocates are calling on people to vote for the smaller parties and not for the ANC or DA.

One logical beneficiary of this vote should be the Workers and Socialists Party (WASP). Leading their ticket is Moses Mayekiso heroic figure of the 1980s worker struggles and civic movement leader. Unfortunately, WASP has not been able to establish a national presence nor has it been able to seize the initiative in the media. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that, while other parties are campaigning and focusing on the elections, WASP is supporting a powerful strike by platinum mine workers. This initiative which demands a $1,200 monthly wage for miners is a radical one against which the entire South African establishment from the ANC to the National Union of Mineworkers to the Congress of Traditional Leaders, to the repressive arms of the state, and to the largely pro-business media, have united. It is worth mentioning that WASP’s counterparts in the US are leading the $15/hour minimum wage campaign with great energy and some success.

WASP however presents a larger question than even the platinum strike. Why has the left and radical civil society—including AbM—not gathered with it to form an even larger and more national movement?

The answer, in large part, lies in the labor movement itself. The Godot of this election has been the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA). The country’s largest trade union and affiliate of the ANC-aligned Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU – the equivalent of the AFL-CIO), NUMSA has broken with the ANC and declared its intention to form a Workers’ Party.  Given its size and resource base, forces that may have gravitated toward WASP held off in anticipation of a NUMSA-led process… one that failed to materialize and one that should take the time it needs to build a fully democratic formation. In effect then, WASP was caught in an (unforeseable?) pincer movement between the media-fueled, populist EFF and the NUMSA deferral.

What then of the ANC itself, heir to a 102-year-old nationalist tradition and revolutionary partner of the South African Communist Party? What are the possibilities that it will reform itself? This should be looked at seriously, after all, barely 6 years ago, it removed its president in a fiercely contested internal battle. The current president seems to be practicing his own version of trasformismo – building a “big tent” coalition pulling in forces from the pro-market center right (including the notorious Trevor Manuel, one of the world’s longest serving finance ministers) to conservative traditional leaders, and from the social democratic left (including Blade Nzimande of the Communist Party). Former ANC stalwart Ronnie Kasrils and leader of the aforementioned Vote No! campaign has some hope for the ANC – if it receives a large enough shock and if it is forced to partner with forces to its left.

Important South African thinkers like Patrick Bond of the Center for Civil Society believe this hope to be misplaced. Concluding a sweeping survey of South African history, his co-author John Saul quotes the late Neville Alexander to the effect that nationalist rhetoric has lost its power, and we are “standing on the threshold of a politics that will be shaped by a heightened sense of class struggle.” [5] And yet, the EFF seems to have found a space that combines both national (indeed Pan African) and class demands. It is also the case, that the ANC is both a corrupt neo-liberal machinery and a symbolic space. The former is instrumental to a tiny fraction of the bourgeoisie and a useful tool of global capitalism but the latter is an emotional home and historical standard bearer for the majority of South Africans who built that party and vested it with their dreams. The left would do well to re-appropriate the latter so that it may displace the former.


[1] South Africa is now the most unequal society in the world – even after taking modest transfer payments to the poor into account. Although stock ownership on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange has improved somewhat in racial terms white South Africans (18% of the population) now have a 66% share, down from 76.5% (in 2000), this only indexes publicly-traded shares, substantial (white) private holdings are not part of this picture. Beyond the triplet of misery indices—poverty, unemployment and inequality—morbid symptoms of an underlying damaged national psyche regularly appear in the form of ghastly violent crimes that have little to do with instrumental acquisition of property. And this is to say nothing of the national scourges of HIV/AIDs and tuberculosis.

[2] Back in 2009 AbM summarized their position with the slogan, “No Land! No House! No Vote!” Facing severe police repression however, they seem to have chosen the lesser of two evils. This is an unfortunate choice, especially since the DA is unlikely to prevail. It also suggests the poverty of the anti-politics stance of this indigenous anarchism; this type of strategic voting does nothing to challenge prevailing free-market ideology and does little to educate the rest of the working class. It is also something of a surprise that it should not have endorsed the Workers and Socialist Party (one of the four parties it considered) given that the party represents workers facing intense repression from both capital and the state.

[3] Her party’s current foreign policy statement places it firmly in favor of deepening corporate globalization taking anti-free trade sentiments, the rise of BRICs, and the ideological shift away from the Washington Consensus as problems not opportunities for foreign policy. Although it rightly criticizes ANC actions, “to appease foreign powers such as China,” confining the critique to China seems strange. It goes on to challenge ANC’s relationship to its BRICs partners, “South Africa is losing out in Africa to the efficient diplomatic and commercial machinery of emerging powers such as China, India and Brazil.” Bill Gates might not be much of a coder but he certainly knows how to pick them!

[4] “Juju hedges his ANC bets” (Sunday Times, May 4, 2014, page 4).

[5] Bond, Patrick and John S. Saul (2014) South Africa – The Present as History. Johannesburg: Jacana p.270

Suren Moodliar is a coordinator of Mass. Global Action and Boston’s encuentro5. He plans to write a post-election prognosis and to address this topic at the upcoming Left Forum. He may be contacted via email to suren [ at ] fairjobs < dot > org. 

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