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Political Crisis and the Role of the Left in South Africa

Today the South African Congress held a no-confidence vote to decide whether President Jacob Zuma should step down or not. The result of the vote was: 177 YES, 198 NO, 9 abstentions. This means that President Jacob Zuma stays in office. The following interview with Julian Sauls, member of APDUSA, was conducted a few weeks ago.

Left Voice

August 8, 2017
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Image from Anarkismo

Left Voice: What does the current government and presidential crisis say about the status of the African National Congress and its relationship to the social block it represents? Many people say, “Zuma must fall”. Can that really happen and what if it does?

The support for the ANC (African National Congress) is steadily declining. The decline and splintering of COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) is happening at the same time. Jacob Zuma is using and abusing his presidential position to ensure that he stays out of jail. He’s surrounded and supported by ANC and government leaders who are embedded in this patronage network. The parliamentary ANC group is still supportive of him. Given these factors and his wide presidential powers, it is unlikely that he’ll be removed as ANC and state president before his term expire. In the tri-partite alliance (or what is left of this bureaucratic political monstrosity) there are voices of opposition and criticism of Zuma’s conduct. This however is unlikely to translate into a decisive push to oust him. Those who attempt to do this might find themselves exposed and isolated and kicked out of influential positions.

Given the clumsiness, corrupt and class arrogance of ANC governance, I don’t think that the leaders really know how to extricate themselves from this situation. All the talk of renewing and rebuilding the organization – an organization which is a historical anachronism – is a ton of hot air. Their political rule created members who believed that ANC rule is immutable. Today the ANC is revealed to the laboring classes in South Africa as an organization of the minority petty bourgeoisie, for the rich and wealthy. The saga about the Gupta family links with Zuma and many other ANC linked individuals and organisations, has created opposition voices from a wide social spectrum. The entire ANC is tarnished by this scandal. All attempts at what the ANC leaders they refer to as “self-correction” only results in more infighting, disunity and an inevitable slide to political extinction.

How would you characterize the mass protests against Zuma that are taking place in these days in SA? What about the role of the SACP and the trade unions (COSATU and NUMSA especially) in the current protests against Zuma?

The mass protests are led by parliamentary parties (like the Democratic Alliance, United Democratic Movement and the Economic Freedom Fighters) and elements in the ANC as well as NGOs and academics who are not calling for systemic change , but merely the removal of the head of state. These protests are part and parcel of an offensive by the main representative of the bourgeoisie in SA, The Democratic Alliance, to gradually erode the electoral support base of the ANC. They are currently busy with a campaign entitled #Change19, which will attempt to draw smaller opposition parties closer to the DA (and eventually swallow them) and reduce the ANC electoral support to below 50% in the 2019 national elections.

Lately we’ve seen the formation of “The Freedom Movement”, which is a loose alliance of the above groupings. The SACP (South African Communist Party) and COSATU, since they do not want to be seen to be making common cause with the ANC’s parliamentary opposition, stay clear of supporting these protests. Their opposition to Zuma is confined to statements at political meetings and in the media where they merely hint at the wrongness of the ways of Mr Zuma. It must be remembered that there are SACP members in the Zuma cabinet who hold senior positions in government e.g. trade and industry, higher education etc. So then, we find ourselves with a situation where these SACP leaders will speak with forked tongues: on the one hand criticizing the ANC and its leaders but on the other hand being instrumental in implementing the neo-liberal NDP policies. It does appear that some organizational tensions have been developing between ANC and SACP members at local level.

How would you connect (if you find there is a connection) the current protests and the significant social movements and struggles that exploded in the recent years (first Marikana and what followed, then the fees must fall movement)?

Your question, I think speaks to the continuity between the mine-workers rebellion in 2012, the current “fees must fall” struggles (which started in late 2015) and the current protests against Zuma referred to above. The Marikana massacre saw the popularity of the Association of Mining and Construction Union (AMCU), to which most mineworkers in Marikana belong, grow at the expense of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which is a COSATU affiliate. The Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) /WASP (the Workers’ and Socialist Party), which is a Trotskyist formation, stood in the 2014 national elections but fared poorly. The anticipation was that the support they gave to miners in their battle against the mine bosses would translate into electoral gains. A campaign in solidarity with the families of the murdered miners and the union was also initiated. The findings of the judicial inquiry into the massacre delivered a report which many correctly predicted was merely going to be a whitewash of the perpetrators’ actions: the police, the mine bosses and the government officials amongst others. By the time the “fees must fall” phenomenon hit the headlines, Marikana had slipped off the radar screen.

It has become common currency for struggles in South Africa (if they are not infused and lead by forward thinking and revolutionary political leadership) to emerge, rise, reach a crescendo and then die down. Learning lessons and using the momentum of these struggles as bases to take further struggles forward unfortunately still lack. Social movements or trade unions are incapable of providing this leadership. Hence we find a repetition of this ad hoc-ism in the “fees must fall” struggles. Strictly speaking the “fees must fall” has degenerated into on-campus fights between elements in the ANC; as well as student formations (from the Pan Africanist Congress [PAC] and the EFF [Economic Freedom Fighters]) fighting for political turf on campuses, against ANC aligned student bodies. Ridiculous actions like attacking workers on campus and showing an inability to persuade students (in whose name these leadership elements are protesting), to join the struggles have become common.

There have obviously been many other struggles on the community level as well as on the trade union front that have been taking place in isolation. The wage victory of the farmworkers in 2016, lead by CSAAWU is one such example.

How would you characterise more generally the social tensions that the country is facing almost 30 years after the end of the apartheid?

Here we are talking of almost 30 years of the ruling party and its backers, amongst other oppressive actions, trying to erase memory. The document on our website “the struggle for democracy continues” explains what the ending of formal apartheid meant for South Africa. All the political nonsense, the political hollowness about a ‘new South Africa’ and ‘transformation of society’ is today being revealed for what it really is.

So, when we refer to ‘social tensions’ then we’re talking class conflict and related social issues that flow from them. It needs to be said from the outset that the ‘elite transition’ as one political left commentator called the 1992 political compromise, needs to be revisited as well as the entire 100 plus years that precede it. The notion (which is very prominent in political discourse) that the ANC “has gone bad after 1994” needs to be interrogated.

It is indeed sad to engage with and hear ANC leaders and members showing a singular lack of appreciation of historical facts. Their leadership have no qualms to distort the history of the liberation struggle. The reality is that ANC members are not taught the real history of the liberation struggle in South Africa.

One recent indicator of the social tensions we are talking about is the recent, narrowly averted disaster of social welfare payments. It is this kind of government arrogance that steadily erodes confidence in government and the ANC. The depth of the social crisis for millions is really of little concern for ANC leaders. The ANC and government will obviously justify their actions on the basis of policy statements and macro-economic models that have been shown to have been failures. They still persist with their Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) and National Development Plan (NDP) policies. They will fly the banner of the parliamentary majority they enjoy. All things considered, this majority is meaningless if it does not translate into the working class and landless peasantry benefitting from the policies of government. We are not mentioning statistics, but the depth of suffering and poverty is quite stark.
The big question is what the alternatives are. Clearly, the parties that propagate similar policies as the ANC will end up in the same situation as the ANC. We are therefore left with a situation where the right wing Democratic Alliance (DA) and its hangers-on are presented with political/electoral opportunities beyond the gains it made in the local government elections in 2016.The electoral prospects of the EFF are tied to behind-the-scenes horse trading that has been ongoing since the 2016 local government elections. In the build-up to the 2019 national parliamentary elections, we can expect all manner of alliances and coalitions being formed. The current protest actions are dress rehearsals towards this end.

In this atmosphere of political retreats and anticipated political advances all manner of political and social debris is being tossed around. Racialism is rearing its ugly head even higher; the ruling party factions are threatening acts of violence against one another; political assassinations are the order of the day in the province of Kwa-Zulu Natal and to a lesser extent in the province of Northern Cape Province. This has the potential to escalate.

On the labour front strikes for the last year have been industry based; mostly confined to wages. The involvement of the left in these strikes has been to ventilate the economistic and political issues involved. Political sectarianism is an issue to address on a continuous basis. The organizational decline of COSATU and the emergence of new unions raises interesting political questions. One such question is to what extent the political essence of the trade union leadership will simply be transplanted from COSATU to the new federations/inions. Another question is whether the Trotskyist left – as well as other left persuasions – will be afforded organisational and political space to present their political positions. This creates an environment of ongoing political contestation.

SAFTU (South African Federation of Trade Unions) was officially launched on 21-23 April 2017, with an estimated membership of 700 thousand. How it is going to differentiate itself from COSATU remains to be seen. Zwelinzima Vavi (the former secretary-general of COSATU) is one of the leaders; his political opportunism must not be lost sight of.

On a general level, the social tensions are expressed in the following
xenophobia: this is attributed (by the powers that be) to reasons other than the lack of progressive political leadership. Given the ANC political history, its relations with African countries and its current political programme, one should not be surprised that these explosive social issues are arising consistently. It is not entirely a question of people contesting for business spaces and being commercially successful or surviving economically.
Rural resistance: the case of the Xolobeni community in the Eastern Cape has made headlines worldwide. Therefore the issue of ongoing land struggles and the mobilisations around these are ongoing matters. The case of the community of Vuwani in the Northern Province of SA raises the issue of continuing tribal authorities’ powers vis a vis those of elected councils. Again, the lack of progressive political leadership will inevitably lead the struggle in Vuwani into a dead-end street. At an appearance level these violent, forceful but misguided acts of resistance tend to make the headlines.

Would you illustrate the position of APDUSA at this conjuncture?

Intervention is at multiple levels.

Firstly direct engagements with organisations involved in fronts and coalitions. Former members of the APDUSA are members of NUMSA/COSATU and this link is used to pursue avenues to bring our political messages directly across to NUMSA/COSATU members. In the recent past we have been engaged in the NUMSA initiated United Front where attempts were made to put across a divergent political perspective, especially around the question of political programmes – past and present. This UF initiative fared dismally in the 2016 local government election. It is still in existence but is very closely controlled by the NUMSA leadership.

The adherence to the Freedom Charter , or as it is put “a radical interpretation of the Freedom Charter” is steadfastly being clung to by this NUMSA leadership. It remains to be seen whether the establishment of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) will in time lead to a shift in political positions of this leadership. The same applies to the planned formation of a new workers’ party.

Also, engagement in the Democratic Left Front (DLF) has been ongoing since 2012 till fairly recently. The conventional agenda in DLF proceedings would normally consist of report backs on ongoing social and economistic struggles, and how the DLF could intervene in workers’/community struggles. APDUSA members would then avail themselves to actively participate in these efforts.

On occasion, participation in the farmworkers’ struggles was a major activity in the DLF. The trade union CSAAWU’s officials, who have a good working relationship with APDUSA is the key organization involved in these struggles. This is an ongoing collaboration. In another instance the organization (APDUSA) engages with PAC (Pan Africanist Congress) structures with the idea of working towards broader organizational collaboration. These type of linkages and organizational engagements obviously vary from region to region where the organization is active.

Then there is our involvement with an independent trade union in Gauteng province, named GIWUSA (The General Industries Workers’ Union of South Africa). This union is attempting to broaden its national presence. APDUSA members in Gauteng have been / are closely involved in the operations of this union. In 2012 a major national strike in the petroleum industry saw important cooperation between this independent union and COSATU affiliates.

In the on-going university student struggles, engagements of APDUSANS in these struggles revealed to us that: ANC elements (specifically PYM) captured the movement at the end of 2015; the leadership of this movement is politically naïve and rudderless; the real concerns of the financially challenged students have been and are being lost in the supplanting of original, genuine demands with demands that cannot possibly take the struggle forward.

As an example, students would pay lip service to taking up the struggles of university campus workers; then you find very little, if anything being done to promote this collaboration. Instead, the court cases of arrested students (for public violence) hit the headlines and we have the usual ‘sound bite’ struggles taking off anew. Currently the focus has shifted to particular on-campus issues students have o face e.g. accommodation issues etc.

On one university campus a member of APDUSA was, on the strength of his political arguments, invited to join one of the more publicly known student organisations. For APDUSA, political education of the youth is therefore a critical task at hand.

Open political discussion as well as public meetings are used as standard propaganda, organizational tools. These are used to counter the political poison being dished out to workers and the youth by the ruling party, NGOs and all forces (e.g. the liberal media) whose reason for existence is the retention of the status quo. These meetings attempt to link current affairs with the valuable lessons of the international working class. In this regard our bi-annual political school serves as a very valuable organizational tool. The ideas we endeavour to focus on when having open political discussions, revolve around developing an understanding of the importance of programmatic struggle and the application of transitional political demands in unfolding struggles; on why working class independent struggle is important for the emancipation of the working class and its allies ; on the critical importance of forging unity in struggle ; and related questions such as fighting sectarianism.

Secondly, literature distribution is used to influence the political thinking of rank and file members of trade unions, political organizations like the ANC, PAC and EFF; as well as left groupings, youth formations etc. There appears to be a very low level of visible propaganda by left organisations in SA. It appears as if the social media/electronic option is regarded as adequate and acceptable. This can’t possibly be acceptable; it should at least be considered as one element of a broader organizational propaganda thrust. The APDUSAN – our newsletter – attempts to speak to the issues of the day. It attempts to raise pertinent political, economic and social questions. Articles are written by our members. We continuously strive to highlight struggles of workers and peasants whenever and wherever possible. We invite workers who are not members, to contribute articles that highlight their struggles. The distribution network involves both hard and electronic copy distribution. Using responses to the website as a basic measure, we conclude that the ideas being disseminated are finding fertile ground.

Julian Sauls is a member of APDUSA.

APDUSA is a working-class, socialist organization in South Africa founded in 1961.

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Left Voice

Militant journalism, revolutionary politics.

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