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?

The Alternative
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"I won't do this forever": meet Alternative leader, Uffe Elbæk – Denmark's Jeremy Corbyn

The Alternative party leader speaks frankly about his party's journey from being seen as a comedy sideshow to taking nine seats in the Danish elections.

In Britain, popular anti-politics sentiment has engulfed the Labour party, through Jeremy Corbyn. In Denmark's splintered, assorted political landscape, it has created a party called the Alternative. The barely two-year-old party was depicted as a comedic sideshow before June's elections. But with nine of 179 seats, they embarrassed all electoral predictions, including their own. Their rise owes to a growing European gripe with politics as usual, as well as to growing chasms within Danish politics.

"I don't want to do this forever. I want to be a pensioner, lay on a beach somewhere, write books and make money from speeches." Embracing his maverick figure, the 61-year-old witty, self-deprecating leader, Uffe Elbæk, has become one of the most resonant voices in Danish politics. As an ex-culture minister he was tarred by conflict of interest accusations leading to him to voluntarily step down as minister in 2012. He was later cleared of wrongdoing but the ridicule in the media stuck. His re-emergence in Danish politics is no longer trivial. His party has struck a match on a sentiment he claims is not European but international.

"What we see across Europe is a growing divide between politicians and their electorate. We are trying to bridge that divide and move from a representative democracy to a far more involving democracy. You see the same in the Scottish Referendum, in Syriza, in Podemos, in a way in Bernie Sanders and, of course, in Jeremy Corbyn".

In tandem with the rise of populist parties in Europe, they've capitalised on a discontent with mainstream politics, perceived spin and sound bite. In the last elections, the Alternative refused to directly persuade the electorate to vote for them, instead encouraging them to vote on their convictions.

“We are critical of the neoliberal doctrine from Thatcher and Reagan and growing inequality," explains Elbæk. "But I believe deeply in human potential and creating a more entrepreneurial, creative society based on progressive values".

The party decides its policies in what they call "political laboratories" where members and non-members are invited to share, hone, and develop policy ideas. The party is in many respects what it says on the tin. Despite flinching away from left and right political categories, they are staunchly pro-environment and pro-immigration.

"A lot of progressives do a lot of good things in the grassroots, but the reality is that few want to go into the big party machines." The Alternative has been a huge grassroots built campaign, attracting exactly those types of voters. It has gained over 6,000 members in its first two years, a remarkable feat as membership across Danish political parties steadily declines.

The party appeals to a desire, more prominent on the left of the Danish electorate, for a straight-talking, green party not overtly party political but reminiscent of conventionally Scandinavian values of tolerance and consensus. It is hawkish about whether socialist-inspired thinking is condusive to modern challenges, but similarly it believes in harnessing public support directly. They are a growing albeit slightly hippy and unconventional vehicle for political expression.

The migrant crisis has exposed chasms in Danish politics. Controversial proposals to advertise anti-refugee adverts, by integration minister Inger Støjberg, have sparked widespread concern. From across politics and from business, there has been a steady reel of expressed concern that Denmark risks creating a perception of intolerance to foreigners.

A private Danish group called People Reaching Out, published adverts in the same four Lebanese newspapers that ran the anti-refugee ads. Crowdfunding over £16,000, they replicated the original ads writing, "sorry for the hostility towards refugees expressed here. From people's to people's we wish to express our compassion and sympathy to anyone fleeing war and despair".

Michala Bendixen, who heads the campaign group, Refugee's Welcome, wrote an op-ed in The Daily Star, one of the Lebanese papers which carried the ad. She stated that, "the adverts give a completely distorted picture of the situation", clarifying that the Danish asylum process was amongst the fastest in Europe.

Støjberg's reforms to immigration and almost 50 per cent cuts to refugee benefits have made her a controversial figure but despite much criticism, topped a recent poll of ministers in the current government that voters felt were doing well. Largely on the back of a hardline position on immigration, the Danish People's Party won 21 per cent of the popular vote in this year's elections. Similarly to many countries across Europe, the migrant crisis has been emotive and polarising. On that divide, the Alternative has been categorical.

"In Denmark there is one thing happening in politics and another in the streets," says Elbæk. "There is a disgraceful lack of empathy from politicians but the reaction from the Danish people has been really touching. Suddenly we were seeing hundreds of refugees on our motorways, and it came as a reality shock to the Danish people. But they responded to it by offering shelter, food, water, and blankets."

Denmark's new government is hardening its position on immigrants and refugees. The split reaction reflects a more polarised terrain. There is a debate about what Denmark's values really are, and whether the migrant crisis betrays or protects them. Within it, the Alternative, partly motley, but with a non-trivial and rising electoral appeal, are an increasingly influential voice.