The ANC and the South African left

Submitted by Matthew on 11 January, 2017 - 12:59 Author: Luke Hardy

The African National Congress (ANC), the party that has been in power since 1994 when majority rule was established in South Africa, is coming apart at the seams. This is in a context of radical student struggles, protests against austerity, and a growing rank-and-file movement in the unions and the ANC itself.

The ANC was the main party of protest against apartheid, but when it came to power, and despite its official stance of being a socialist party, it quickly dashed the hopes of millions of black and other non-white workers that it would attack poverty and inequality as well as the institutions of apartheid. Instead a new black capitalist class grew up, nurtured by ANC patronage, and took its place alongside the existing white and Asian bourgeoisie. Meanwhile millions of mainly black workers and farmers languished in poverty and squalor.

Splits at the top the ANC were often more about patronage and power than the politics of post-apartheid South Africa. Such a faction fight propelled the current head of the ANC and president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, to power. Initially popular amongst the voting base of the ANC, Zuma has been implicated in a series of corruption scandals. After it was revealed the Treasury had spent the equivalent of £13.7 million on Zuma’s rural home, he was forced to pay some of it back. Most damaging has been Zuma’s close relationship with the billionaire Gupta brothers, who are said to have great influence over government policies and appointments.

Public dissatisfaction with the ANC is deeper then issues with Zuma. Anger is mainly directed against inequality, terrible housing, power cuts, unsafe and unreliable water and an unequal education system. Unemployment in South Africa stands at 25%. Economic growth is at a near standstill. The Treasury, led by finance minister Pravin Gordhan, has been pushing through an austerity programme, freezing public sector jobs, cutting spending, and threatening attacks on workers’ rights and the privatisation of public services.

Zuma tried to sack Gordhan and to curtail some of the austerity measures. But this move was probably more to do with Gordhan’s attempts to break up the Zuma’s patronage networks. When financial markets and big capital revolted against Gordhan’s sacking, Zuma retreated.

In the 2016 municipal elections the ANC got their lowest ever percentage vote — 54% — and were ousted from power in major municipalities like Pretoria, Johannesburg, and Nelson Mandela Bay (what was Port Elizabeth). Unfortunately these were political gains for the neo-liberal Democratic Alliance Party. The new DA mayor of Jo’burg, Herman Mashaba, is a millionaire who is against affirmative action and for a massive sell off of government owned assets.

The third party in South Africa is the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The EFF are a populist and at times seemingly left split from the ANC, founded and led by Julius Malema, a former leader of the ANC youth movement. He was expelled from the ANC for criticising the leadership. But is the EFF is a genuine party of the left with an opportunist leader, or merely a vehicle for a demagogue who opportunistically tacked left?

The EFF has built links with workers revolting against the increasingly corrupt and boss friendly trade union federation, COSATU. After the massacre of striking mineworkers at Marikana in 2014, the EFF accused the ANC leadership of murder. There have been further disaffiliations from COSATU and the EFF has built relations with these unions. However, the EFF also is propping up the neo-liberals of the DA in various municipal governments. Malema has been accused of having his own corrupt links to businesses seeking government tenders. He is a strong supporter of Robert Mugabe and has been accused of racism, homophobia and misogyny.

Even if you take Malema out of the equation the EFF’s version of leftism is strongly infused with black nationalism and Stalinism, taking inspiration from Thomas Sankara, a pan-African leftist military officer who was president of Burkino Faso in the 1980s. Despite some real attempts to improve the lives of the people, Sankara ended up brutally suppressing the workers’ movement and the independent left. The EFF is a dead end, but other opportunities have recently opened up for the left through a massive radical student movement.

First mobilised against tuition fees, the movement has taken on broader issues such as the pay of workers, the availability of accommodation, and the curriculum. Despite brutal police attacks students have shut universities and led strikes and occupations. Fees Must Fall was only the most internationally famous part of this mass revolt. The movement has won some concessions and will continue into 2017.

The “Occupy Luthuli House” campaign of mainly young ANC members has been inspired by the student movement. It marched on the ANC headquarters demanding Zuma and the entire ANC Executive resign. They accuse the ANC leadership of betraying the promise of “Economic Freedom” for the masses and branches of the ANC across South Africa have supported their call. A key area for the left will be to link up with the rank and file revolt in the unions. Some progress has been made with joint campaigns like the Outsourcing Must Fall campaign. Can this revolt in the ANC transform that party into any kind of workers’ party?

During 22 years of being the ruling party it has become deeply entwined with the machinery of capital and the state. Given the Stalinist roots of the ANC, the levers for democratic control by the members were weak to begin with and are much weaker now after years of patronage, nepotism and corruption. The most prominent Trotskyist group in South Africa, the Democratic Socialist Movement (the sister party of the Socialist Party of England and Wales), is calling for a new workers’ party independent of the ANC and EFF. However their initiative, the Workers’ and Socialist Party, failed utterly at the polls (it got 0.05% at the 2014 election). Others on the left orientate towards the EFF or the ANC.

Building solidarity with those in the ANC fighting for socialist policies and the overthrow of the entire current leadership seems crucial. Out of that fight, the basis for a militant party of workers, students and poor farmers could be built.