South Africa’s emerging new left: the birth of a new socialist party

The aim is to create a movement similar to the United Democratic Front that fought the apartheid government.

Cautiously, but with plenty of revolutionary rhetoric, a new socialist party is being born in South Africa.

The country’s largest trade union, Numsa, which represents some 320,000 metalworkers, is holding a week-long political school to consider what to do next.

Top of the agenda is how to implement decisions taken in December to form a United Front as an alternative to the union’s alliance with the ANC. Some 150 shop stewards will meet at a comfortable hotel adjacent to Johannesburg’s main airport. The conference theme is “Capitalism and its Gravediggers: Building a United Front to Resist Neoliberalism.”

Business travellers might gripe that the hotel’s rooms are a little tired, carpets look worn and the corridors are in need of attention, but these impediments are unlikely to distract the delegates. They will meet representatives of 147 social movements for what is being described as “a conversation” and a “political Expo”.  From these discussions a United Front is expected to be founded. This aims to bring together the union, civic organisations and small socialist parties.

The union aims to create a movement similar to the United Democratic Front that fought the apartheid government. This is what the general secretary of Numsa, Irving Jim, called for when he opened the political school on Sunday. “As Numsa, we must lead in the establishment of a new United Front that will coordinate struggles in the workplace and in communities, in a way similar to the UDF of the 1980s.”

Numsa had already decided to cut its aid to the ANC; a severe blow to the party in the run up to this year’s general election. It has already cost the party the R8m (£500,000) political levy it previously received from the union. Worse still, the union has decided not to campaign door-to-door for the ANC.

The reason for this falling-out is that the union feels it is taken for granted by the government, and has little influence over policy. “The working class is used by the ANC as voting fodder,” complained Irvin Jim. Calling for President Jacob Zuma to resign, he declared that: “The working class no longer sees the ANC as an ally.”

There is also the question of the treatment of leader of the Cosatu trade union movement, Zwelinzima Vavi, who is being purged from his post. Allegations of financial misconduct were made against him and Vavi had an affair with a junior member of staff, but few believe these were the real reasons for taking disciplinary measures against him. It was, rather, Vavi’s outspoken attacks on corruption in the ANC that have outraged the party hierarchy.

Vavi himself puts these developments in a political context, suggesting that the ANC has sold out to capitalist interest. “The real bases of the crises in Cosatu are its complex and contradictory class relationships which it finds itself having to deal with, on a daily basis, in the multiclass and unstructured ANC led Alliance, to which it belongs,” he says.

The party has hit back. ANC secretary general, Gwede Mantashe denounced Numsa as a “sponsored” agent of (unnamed) foreign countries, out to weaken the ANC. This kind of rhetoric has been used repeatedly in the past as a means of smearing anyone inside the ANC led alliance at odds with the leadership.

While these developments could have a major impact on future political developments, it is the existing parties that will determine the 2014 election. 

There is certainly increasing disillusionment with the ANC in general and President Zuma in particular. An opinion poll taken in November last year gave the party 53 per cent support; a fall of ten per cent since 2008. But the same poll made grim reading for the opposition as well. The official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, was up 5 per cent over the same period, but still registering just 18 per cent support. Around one in five South Africans say they will not vote, or refused to say how their vote will be cast.

The party that has been making most of the headlines in recent weeks has been the Economic Freedom Fighters. They are led by Julius Malema, the former leader of the ANC Youth League who was expelled from the party in April 2012 for challenging Jacob Zuma. Malema’s supporters have proved adept at mounting well-publicised events designed to embarrass the president.

In January Malema handed a house to a destitute woman, S'thandiwe Hlongwane, within sight of Zuma’s lavish country residence at Nkandla. The Nkandla villa has been refurbished at public expense. A swimming pool was described as a “fire pool” to an incredulous public. But Malema’s stunt may have blown up in his face, for it is now reported that the “destitute” Mrs Hlongwane is married to a rather well-heeled public servant, who already owned two properties.

Other political parties are struggling to make much headway. Agang, which was launched by the charismatic Mamphela Ramphele in February last year, now admits it is seriously short of money. It will have to reign in its campaigning, concentrating on areas in which it can make most impact.

While support for the ANC gradually ebbs away, it continues to hold two crucial cards.

The first is its control over government contracts, which have been milked by the party for funds. The most widely reported example is the 25 per cent stake the ANC effectively owns in Hitachi Power Africa, via its front company, Chancellor House.

The state-owned power generator, Eskom, awarded Hitachi a lucrative contract to make the boilers for two giant power stations. These contracts, and other business-generated funds, together with the money from parliament, provide the cash for elections.

The second card is the media. The state-controlled broadcaster, the SABC, is as much under the ruling party’s thumb as it was under the National Party during the apartheid era. The SABC’s radio stations are particularly important, since their broadcasts are almost the only way of reaching people in the remoter rural areas. 

In recent years the ANC’s influence over the media has tightened, with the emergence of the New Age media group controlled by the Gupta family – close friends of the president. Chinese investors have also teamed up with allies of the ANC to purchase Independent News and Media, which owns some of the most important daily newspapers in cities across the country. These include many of the most famous titles: the Star and Pretoria News in Gauteng; the Cape Times and Cape Argus in Cape Town and the Mercury, Post, and Independent on Saturday in Durban.

The deal was overseen by Iqbal Surve, a businessman with close ANC connections who says he wants the media to report more “positive aspects” of the country. The editor of the Cape Times, Alide Dasnois, has already lost her job for failing to heed the changing winds. Protests by outraged readers outside the Cape Times offices appear to have had only a limited impact.

Predictions about the outcome of the 2014 election are difficult, but the ANC is unlikely to win the 65.9 per cent share of the vote it gained in April 2009. If President Zuma fails to cross the 60 per cent threshold there will be deep frustration inside the party. Moves to oust him, just as he ousted Thabo Mbeki in 2008, would be sure to follow.



Striking petrol station attendants, many of whom are members of the Numsa union, protest in Johannesburg in September 2013. Photo: Getty

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.