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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Stop saying identity politics caused Trump

It's a wildly unsophisticated analysis that ignores the fact that all politics is inflected by identity.

Look, I don't mean to be funny, but is there something in the water supply? When Mark Lilla wrote his jeremiad against "identity liberalism" in the New York Times, it was comprehensively picked over and rebutted. But this zombie take has risen again. In the last 24 hours, all these tweets have drifted across my timeline:

And then this (now deleted, I think, probably because I was mean about it on Twitter).

And finally, for the hat-trick . . .

Isn't it beautiful to see a Blairite, a Liberal Leaver and a Corbynite come together like this? Maybe there is a future for cross-spectrum, consensual politics in this country.

These are all versions of a criticism which has swilled around since Bernie Sanders entered the US presidential race, and ran on a platform of economic populism. They have been turbocharged by Sanders' criticisms since the result, where he blamed Clinton's loss on her attempt to carve up the electorate into narrow groups. And they are now repeated ad nauseam by anyone wanting to sound profound: what if, like, Black Lives Matter are the real racists, yeah? Because they talk about race all the time.

This glib analysis has the logical endpoint that if only people didn't point out racism or sexism or homophobia, those things would be less of a problem. Talking about them is counterproductive, because it puts people's backs up (for a given definition of "people"). She who smelt it, dealt it.

Now, I have strong criticisms of what I would call Pure Identity Politics, unmoored from economics or structural concerns. I have trouble with the idea of Caitlyn Jenner as an "LGBT icon", given her longstanding opposition to gay marriage and her support for an administration whose vice-president appears to think you can electrocute the gay out of people. I celebrate female leaders even if I don't agree with their politics, because there shouldn't be an additional Goodness Test which women have to pass to be deemed worthy of the same opportunities as men. But I don't think feminism's job is done when there are simply a few more female CEOs or political leaders, particularly if (as is now the case) those women are more likely than their male peers to be childless. Role models only get you so far. Structures are important too.

I also think there are fair criticisms to be made of the Clinton campaign, which was brave - or foolish, depending on your taste - to associate her so explicitly with progressive causes. Stephen Bush and I have talked on the podcast about how hard Barack Obama worked to reassure White America that he wasn't threatening, earning himself the ire of the likes of Cornel West. Hillary Clinton was less mindful of the feelings of both White America and Male America, running an advert explicitly addressed to African-Americans, and using (as James Morris pointed out to me on Twitter) the slogan "I'm With Her". 

Watching back old Barack Obama clips (look, everyone needs a hobby), it's notable how many times he stressed the "united" in "united states of America". It felt as though he was trying to usher in a post-racial age by the sheer force of his rhetoric. 

As Obama told Ta-Nehisi Coates during his last days in office, he thought deeply about how to appeal to all races: 

"How do I pull all these different strains together: Kenya and Hawaii and Kansas, and white and black and Asian—how does that fit? And through action, through work, I suddenly see myself as part of the bigger process for, yes, delivering justice for the [African American community] and specifically the South Side community, the low-income people—justice on behalf of the African American community. But also thereby promoting my ideas of justice and equality and empathy that my mother taught me were universal. So I’m in a position to understand those essential parts of me not as separate and apart from any particular community but connected to every community."

Clinton's mistake was perhaps that she thought this caution was no longer needed.

So there are criticisms of "identity politics" that I accept, even as I wearily feel that - like "neoliberalism" - it has become a bogeyman, a dumpster for anything that people don't like but don't care to articulate more fully.

But there are caveats, and very good reasons why anyone pretending to a sophisticated analysis of politics shouldn't say that "identity politics caused Trump".

The first is that if you have an identity that any way marks you out from the norm, you can't change that. Hillary Clinton couldn't not be the first woman candidate from a major party running for the US presidency. She either had to embrace it, or downplay it. Donald Trump faced no such decision. 

The second is that, actually, Clinton didn't run an explicitly identity-focused campaign on the ground, at least not in terms of her being a woman. Through the prism of the press, and because of the rubbernecker's dream that is misogyny on social media, her gender inevitably loomed large. But as Rebecca Solnit wrote in the LRB:

"The Vox journalist David Roberts did a word-frequency analysis on Clinton’s campaign speeches and concluded that she mostly talked about workers, jobs, education and the economy, exactly the things she was berated for neglecting. She mentioned jobs almost 600 times, racism, women’s rights and abortion a few dozen times each. But she was assumed to be talking about her gender all the time, though it was everyone else who couldn’t shut up about it."

My final problem with the "identity politics caused Trump" argument is that it assumes that explicit appeals to whiteness and masculinity are not identity politics. That calling Mexicans "rapists" and promising to build a wall to keep them out is not identity politics. That promising to "make America great again" at the expense of the Chinese or other trading partners is not identity politics. That selling a candidate as an unreconstructed alpha male is not identity politics. When you put it that way, I do accept that identity politics caused Trump. But I'm guessing that's not what people mean when they criticise identity politics. 

Let's be clear: America is a country built on identity politics. The "all men" who were created equal notably excluded a huge number of Americans. Jim Crow laws were nothing if not identity politics. The electoral college was instituted to benefit southern slave-owners. This year's voting restrictions disproportionately affected populations which lean Democrat. There is no way to fight this without prompting a backlash: that's what happens when you demand that the privileged give up some of their perks. 

I don't know what the "identity politics caused Trump" guys want gay rights campaigners, anti-racism activists or feminists to do. Those on the left, like Richard Burgon, seem to want a "no war but the class war" approach, which would be all very well if race and gender didn't intersect with economics (the majority of unpaid care falls squarely on women; in the US, black households have far fewer assets than white ones.)

Those on the right, like Daniel Hannan, seem to just want people banging on about racism and homophobia to shut up because he, personally, finds it boring. Perhaps they don't know any old English poetry with which to delight their followers instead. (Actually, I think Hannan might have hit on an important psychological factor in some of these critiques: when conversations centre on anti-racism, feminism and other identity movements, white men don't benefit from their usual unearned assumption of expertise in the subject at hand. No wonder they find discussion of them boring.)

Both of these criticisms end up in the same place. Pipe down, ladies. By complaining, you're only making it worse. Hush now, Black Lives Matter: white people find your message alienating. We'll sort out police racism... well, eventually. Probably. Just hold tight and see how it goes. Look, gay people, could you be a trifle... less gay? It's distracting.

I'm here all day for a discussion about the best tactics for progressive campaigners to use. I'm sympathetic to the argument that furious tweets, and even marches, have limited effect compared with other types of resistance.

But I can't stand by while a candidate wins on an identity-based platform, in a political system shaped by identity, and it's apparently the fault of the other side for talking too much about identity.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.