Social movements and trade unions are the future of the South African Left
September 09, 2009 Edition 1
Imraan Buccus – The Mercury
Philani Mgwaba (in the Sunday Tribune) is quite right to compare the South African Communist Party (SACP) to George Orwell’s brilliant anti-Soviet satire Animal Farm. When a communist leader “needs” a R1.1 million BMW in a context where impoverished children die of diarrhoea, it is quite clear that “all people are equal (but some are more equal than others)”.
The fiasco was surprising as this particular leader has been consistent in his championing the agenda of the working class. In this context Cosatu’s call for leaders to display modesty in their car choices should also be welcomed.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall there was a period of introspection, beginning with Joe Slovo’s famous paper “Has socialism failed us?” Many hoped for a democratisation of the Left within the tripartite alliance, but in the end we got just plain old neo-liberal economics. The SACP became a form of top-down social control and, by 2000, people were being purged from the SACP for championing communism.
Some people in South Africa like to say that our Communist Party is a Cold War anachronism. This is a silly and Eurocentric perspective.
After all, China is ruled by a communist party, as are large swathes of India. The issue is not whether or not we should have a communist party but, rather, what the political character of a modern communist party should be.
The fact is that, across the world, modern communist parties support capitalism and repress ordinary people.
The Chinese Communist Party controls dissent with ruthless authoritarianism while enabling the most rampant capitalism in the world.
There is a very similar situation in Bengal where the communist party represses popular dissent against its cor- porate partners with shocking brutality.
There were many who thought that the strengthening of the SACP in the alliance subsequent to the rise of Jacob Zuma would mean a dramatic shift to the Left, but this has not been entirely so. It’s now becoming clear that Zuma’s government has engaged in its own glasnost – allowing debate, being more responsive to the people and thawing things out after Thabo Mbeki’s great chill.
A genuine Left must, by definition, uphold the interests of the poor. But we all need to understand that overcoming poverty is in all of our interests. There can be no viable future with the current levels of inequality afflicting our country. Crime will not disappear and social cohesion will not be built until everyone has a stake in this society. If the rich see their future in this country, they need a strong Left as much as the poor.
We all have a stake in building a just society.
We should also be looking elsewhere to build up the Left in South Africa. Under Mbeki, with all his paranoia about a “third force” and the ultra left, this was difficult.
But with Zuma’s glasnost we are freer than we have been in a long time to explore alternative politics.
We have to start from the enormous popular anger against local councillors and the fact that this is a clear demand for democratisation.
This fact means that people will not accept a new version of authoritarianism couched in the language of the Left – be it from political “groupuscles” riding high on their own delusions of grandeur, wannabe big men looking to rally “troops” to their cause or NGOs looking to buy “supporters” to gain influence.
It is a plain fact that a new Left will have to be democratic and that it will, to use a famous American phrase, “be for the people and by the people”.
There are two spaces where this is possible – trade unions and social movements. We have a well-organised and large trade union movement in our country and while it has been too close to the ANC and SACP, it remains membership-based and willing to be critical where necessary. If the trade union movement can take more direction from below and less from above, it could become part of a renewal of a democratic Left in our country.
We also have some very innovative poor people’s movements that have proved their staying power and ethical integrity over the years.
The problem with these movements is that they usually operate with very, very little in the way of resources. Most of these movements tend to reject donor and NGO funding on the grounds that it will compromise their autonomy.
But this means that while these movements can be incredibly effective at the local level, they really struggle to operate at a national level.
In order to overcome this barrier, sustained access to resources is required.
The obvious solution is a possible social movement and trade union alliance. But there is an equally obvious barrier to such an alliance, which is that Cosatu is with the ANC while the other social movements are independent of party politics.
If the movements and the unions can find a way to each give a little, there could be a way forward to a genuine Left and a more humane and viable society.
But if this problem can’t be resolved, we’ll be left with the poor in their shacks and the communists in their BMWs.