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?

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.