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The people's hope for a new democracy

Mosiuoa Lekota, President, Congress of the People, South Africa

It was founded less than a month ago, but the Congress of the People (COPE), South Africa's new opposition party, formed mostly by disillusioned members of the ruling African National Congress, has already changed the country's politics. If the spur for leaving the ANC was its national executive's vengeful forcing of Thabo Mbeki from office with only a few months of his term to go, it needed the bravery of Mosiuoa "Terror" Lekota, a former ANC chairman and minister, to use the turmoil to form a new political grouping. In doing so, he may have brought genuine multiparty democracy to South Africa for the first time.

Support for liberation movements in southern Africa takes on religious dimensions: members of such movements may have problems with the leadership or policies, but rarely do they leave. Often, opposition parties are irrelevant, centred around an individual, or they cater for minorities. This is exacerbated by the past: the struggle against apartheid was the defining moment in South Africa's history, as was the struggle against colonialism in neighbouring countries. For opposition leaders to be effective, they must come from the ranks of liberation movements, which combine centralised, enforced discipline with fanatical loyalty. So, for Lekota to break from the ANC was spectacularly courageous. Yet it was necessary: the ANC, he argues, has become so morally corrupt that it can no longer be renewed from within.

His challenge now is to create a grass-roots-based, social democratic movement on the centre left, appealing to a non-racial audience, to business, the middle class and the poor. So far, Lekota's group has been received with enthusiasm in the media, among the white and black middle classes and by the educated young. However, it is the mass of voters in South Africa's rural areas, shanty towns and townships that matters when it comes to votes; often in these areas there are no hi-tech media. COPE will have to take the fight to these parts of South Africa. Breakaways from the ANC have failed in the past when a single leader has left and been unable to pull others with him or her. But Lekota has taken a whole layer of supporters with him and is widely acknowledged to be among the most gifted political organisers of his generation.

In the 1980s, he was active in the United Democratic Front, the centre-left civic pressure group led by Reverend Allan Boesak, where he had to build broad-based alliances across race, class and political ideology to work against the apartheid government. He led the ANC initiative to woo white Afrikaners and attempts in 2002 to persuade the remnants of the National Party, the party of apartheid, to merge with the ANC. Such was his popularity that, in 1999, Mbeki was forced to appoint him to his cabinet as defence minister, with the hard task of integrating white and black forces that had fought against each other.

At the ANC's 2007 conference every person standing for election was forced to choose between Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. Lekota was one of the contenders to succeed Mbeki as party leader. If Mbeki had stepped aside earlier and allowed one of the younger generation to take over, it may not have been Zuma, Mbeki's exact contemporary, who won. But Mbeki did not, and the opportunity for renewal was spurned. (If anything, Zuma's election may represent the tribalisation of the ANC: it has been said that he is Zulufying the party after a period in which it was led by Xhosa elite such as Mbeki and Mandela. Lekota himself belongs to another group, the South Sotho.) This is a familiar trajectory for sub-Saharan African independence movements. Liberation leaders stay on for ever, or are replaced by contemporaries, and their parties ossify. Just by forming COPE, Lekota may have started the renewal of South African politics. If COPE fights even half effectively for the same centre-left ground as the ANC, forcing it to become more internally democratic and to improve its record in government, then, even if it does poorly in the national elections this year, it will have served a worthy purpose.

William Gumede is the author of "Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC", published by Zed Books (£16.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The destruction of Gaza

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times