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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.

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

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.