Militant Tendency sends shivers through South Africa

The group expelled from the UK Labour Party by Neil Kinnock in 1983 has surprising echoes in a row erupting in South Africa's ANC.

In the wake of the Marikana massacre, in which 34 miners were mowed down by police, South African politics has been thrown into a maelstrom. The African National Congress and its allies in the governing tripartite alliance – the unions of Cosatu and the South African Communist Party – have realised that they are badly out of touch. Research by Cosatu found that 60 per cent of its members were not satisfied with how their unions ability to secure them better wages.

Miners in the platinum-rich Rustenberg area live in the most squalid of conditions. They are far removed from the leadership of the ANC, whose homes are to be found in Johannesburg’s most leafy suburbs.

Into the vacuum has stepped a new party, the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM). Rallying disaffected miners in the gold and platinum industries, they have been roundly criticised by the ANC and its allies. Some attacked the DSM as a “counter revolutionary movement.” They were described as “hooligans” and accused of encouraging miners to pelt union officials, including the Cosatu leader, Zwelinzima Vavi, with rocks.

“We …were told that before we arrived, this woman from the Socialist Democratic Movement had already addressed those workers, and said they must not listen to the general secretary of Cosatu," complained the National Union of Mineworkers regional coordinator Madoda Sambatha.

“This woman” is the DSM spokeswoman, Liv Shange. A Swede, who arrived in South Africa nine years ago, she is pictured addressing thousands of miners through a loudhailer, her blond hair shining in the sun.

“The allegations that we are encouraging anyone to violence is baseless,” she told New Statesman by phone. “On the contrary we argued against the use of force during the strikes, at a time when workers who were being accused of being scabs were being killed.”

Shange says the ANC and the unions have lost touch with ordinary workers.

“We argue for a new workers party to challenge the government, and we are getting massive support for this programme,” she claims.

Certainly the DSM has the ANC leadership worried, but what is this party? An indication of its politics comes from its website, under the title: “What we stand for”. Heading its list of objectives is the following:

- Build a mass workers party on a socialist programme

- Nationalise top-five JSE (Johannesburg Stock Exchange) companies, the Reserve Bank and commercial banks under democratic worker control and management. Compensation only on basis of proven need.

These words will have a familiar ring for anyone who followed the British left in the 1970s and 80s. Their echo of the Militant Tendency is no mistake. DSM is the South African wing of Militant’s latest incarnation, the Committee for a Workers’ International, based in Britain. Its general secretary is Peter Taaffe, purged from the Labour Party by Neil Kinnock in 1983. This Trotskyist movement now claims to have affiliates in 35 countries.

It is not the first time they have confronted the ANC. In the 1970s a group of South African students who had been working to rebuild the black trade unions, Paula Ensor, Dave Hemson, Martin Legassick and Rob Petersen came to Britain (pdf). Paula Ensor became secretary to John Gaetsewe, the general secretary of the ANC’s trade union wing, SACTU. Rob Petersen became editor of the SACTU newspaper.

Differences with the ANC leadership emerged over the tactics of the unions, and in 1979 they were expelled. Protesting that this was undemocratic, they founded a group called the “Marxist Workers Tendency of the ANC.”*

They returned to South Africa, but as is the way with Trotskyist movements, the group splintered in the 1990’s. Some, like Martin Legassick are today members of another group (Democratic Left Front). Liv Shange says the DSM has a working relationship with this movement, but that they have their differences.

As disillusionment with the ANC has set in, a range of left wing groupings have emerged. Some, like Abahlali baseMjondolo grew out of a grassroots movement in the squatter camps around Durban. Other grouping look more like bolt-holes.

One – "Forces for Change" - has apparently been initiated by expelled ANC Youth League leader, Julius Malema, and his supporters. They deny being behind the initiative, but it is widely believed that they are preparing a safe refuge in case President Jacob Zuma is re-elected ANC leader at the party’s December conference, and they remain excluded from the ANC for the foreseeable future.

While all this is taking place, the ANC’s own branches have been voting on whom to support at the Mangaung conference. The betting at present is that President Zuma will re-emerge at the head of his party, and may not even face a challenger.

The question is whether his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, thinks he has sufficient support to go for the top job. This has been frequently suggested, but as Zuma’s support grows this looks increasingly unlikely.

Rather, it may be that Motlanthe is outsted as ANC deputy president, and replaced with multi-millionaire and former miners leader, Cyril Ramaphosa. There is much to play for in the next few weeks.

* Hemson et al, ʻRevivalʼ, SADET, Road to Democracy, VOL 2, 298. Sithole interview with Petersen, 5/9/2003; South Africa: The Workersʼ Movement, SACTU and the ANC: A Struggle for Marxist Policies (London: Cambridgeheath Press, 1980).

Jacob Zuma is attempting to secure re-election as the leader of a disillusioned ANC. Photograph: Getty Images

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?

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Corbynism isn’t a social movement and Labour shouldn’t be one

The leader's supporters have confused party with movement and party with public. 

The second Labour leadership contest in 12 months is at its heart a clash of mandates. Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters justify his leadership with repeated reference to "grassroots democracy" and his backing among members, whether in votes, polls or turnout at meetings. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) majority justify their disengagement from the leadership by highlighting their relationship with the electorate: the programme they were elected on, Corbyn's record unpopularity and the extreme unlikelihood of winning a general election under his leadership.

However, the moral legitimacy and strategic orientation underpinning Corbynite claims derives in large part from the notion that they are a "social movement" that reaches beyond parliament. To an extent, this is mirrored by some in the PLP, who differentiate themselves by reference to exclusively or primarily being a parliamentary party.

The problem is that Corbynism is not a social movement and neither wing adequately understands the relationship between parties and movements. The coordinated action of "people all round the country" does not necessarily make something a movement. Existing explanations of social movements (ecological, labour, feminist, LGBT etc) tend to emphasise broad-based and diverse coalitions of activists focused largely on social transformation goals in civil society and only then directed towards state actors/actions. As Matt Bolton notes, "The relation between activist groups and the state is not mediated by any electoral mechanism". Most movements are long-term in character, though others may be more ephemeral such as Occupy.

In contrast, statements from the Corbyn leadership and from Momentum emphasise more limited party and state-directed goals. These primarily focus on building a mass party and holding parliamentary representatives to account. Labour now has a mass membership, but is no more a mass party than when there was a similar expanded membership in the early Blair years.

A mass party brings together members and activists with deep roots in communities and movements that enable it to understand social conditions and changes. That degree of embeddedness may allow the party to build electoral blocs that articulate and aggregate interests and identities in a governing project that can win and then exercise power. That is different from the dominant conceptions of both sides in the clash of mandates debate. Most of the PLP majority come from a tradition where the party is little more than an electoral machine, where members have occasional walk-on parts and where the public is seen mainly through the prism of focus groups and mass media. The result is a hollowed out and professionalised politics without a transformative agenda that reinforces the roader crisis of representation.

In contrast, Corbynism conflates and confuses the functions of party and movements. The former becomes the"‘voice" of the latter – a kind of social movement aggregator and/or megaphone for any group "in struggle". But this fails to understand the complex nature of building a popular coalition, where those interests and identities may diverge and even clash sharply. Furthermore, the vast majority of voters are not active in parties or social movements and their views will be unlikely to be heard on the picket line or party rally. Democratic (as distinct from vanguardist) parties have to engage in trade-offs, identification of priorities and tactical manoeuvers that are a sharp contrast to ‘"support anyone/all demands in struggle". Even genuine insurgent parties such as Podemos and Syriza, with roots in movements, inevitably struggle to manage these tensions when faced with the prospect or practice of governing.

The Corbynite confusion is not new. We saw it at the height of the Bennite wave in the 1980s and particularly in Ken Livingstone’s vision of Labour as a rainbow coalition. Here, a prospective electoral coalition was envisaged from combining the demands of various movements, filtered through their supposed organisational expression in black sections, women's sections and so on. In practice, activist voices tend to substitute for the actual experiences and concerns of the various groups. This kind of vanguardist politics takes a different form today, partly as result of changed social and political conditions, but also because of the changing means of communication and organising.

Rather than a social movement, Corbynism should be understood as a network, with a variety of horizontal and vertical characteristics. The former consists of a large and loose association of supporters who function largely as an army of clickivists who aggressively defend the goals of the project and the authenticity of the leader, while consigning those who dissent to some beyond the pale category (Blairite, Red Tory, traitor etc). Abuse is not an inherent feature of those attacks, but the ideological and personality-driven character of the project tends to encourage it. Indeed, the leader-focused nature of Corbynism "testifies precisely to the lack, the weakness, of the "social movement" of which he is the supposed avatar".

The speed and reach of such forms of networking are facilitated by the growth of social media. Such efforts have been conceptualised and popularised by Paul Mason, who has transferred his belief that the agency of social change in a "postcapitalist" world is the ‘educated networked individual’ to the distinctive nature of Corbyn party/movement hybrid. Something different is clearly happening with such networking, but as has been widely observed, the effectiveness of horizontal organising to effect lasting political change has been exaggerated and the tendency to act as self-referential cultural echo chambers vastly under-estimated.

As for the vertical, this is represented by the core team around the offices of Corbyn and John McDonnell and through the factional organisation of Momentum. Their focus is party building, albeit dressed up in the language of social movement. Circumstances have combined to offer the hard left a unique opportunity to capture a social democratic party machine. There is a genuine though mistaken belief that institutional capture will lead to a broader institutional transformation. This does not mean that Momentum should be characterised as a "mob" or a plaything of Trot entrists. Momentum brings together a large number of committed activists understandably fed up with the narrow and timid nature of Labour in particular and politics in general. Some of their party building can help revitalise Labour at local level, though at the moment there is little evidence of substantive participation in campaigns on the ground.

In a recent Guardian piece, Ellie Mae O’Hagan takes critics of Corbynism to task: "There are not enough delusional Leninists in Britain to make up the entirety of Corbyn’s support – these are only ordinary British voters who want radical solutions to a growing number of crises". The first observation is certainly true, but the second is deeply misguided, though all-too typical. As the MP Richard Burden aptly notes, "We stop thinking about how we connect with 'the people' and start to think of ourselves as 'the people'. And as we do that, we get into the politics of the echo chamber where the voices we hear are those we want to hear".

It is sometimes said that Corbyn and co are not interested in winning elections. I don’t think that is true. The problem is that their double confusion between party and movement and party and public means that they don’t know how to. Instead of winning over the electorate, they will carry on accumulating members, waiting for some illusory tipping point where mass party becomes mass appeal. In the wake of a decisive general election defeat – for that it is what is overwhelmingly likely to happen - they will have the party, but Labour as a national electoral alternative and agent of potential social transformation will be finished for the foreseeable future.  

This piece originally appeared in Renewal.

Paul Thompson is Professor of Employment Studies at the University of Stirling and was a founding editor of Renewal.