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16 December 2002

The rise of Mblaireki

Mandela's successor is under fire from his allies, particularly in the unions. He calls them ultra-l

By Bryan Rostron

In a move that will sound eerily familiar to old Labour folk in Britain, the South African president, Thabo Mbeki, and his ANC government have lurched decisively to the right and are directing an assault against their own left wing, particularly the unions. The government is currently directing far more bitter venom at its alliance partners than at the official, conservative opposition. This similarity with Westminster politics is recognised by critics within Mbeki’s own party, who have coined the nickname “Mblaireki”.

In the run-up to the start of the ANC’s 51st national conference, on 16 December, the rhetoric became scalding. Mbeki himself lashed out at “ultra-left” forces, which he accused of telling lies to undermine his government. Some government functionaries began to refer menacingly to “counter-revolutionaries”.

Amid talk of “a war for the soul of the party”, there is renewed speculation that the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) may finally break away from the governing alliance to form their own workers’ party.

The reality behind this clash is that the fragmented left in South Africa, after nearly a decade of not wanting to criticise its own iconic liberation movement, is finding a voice again. The ANC was badly rattled in August, at the start of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, when a rally addressed by Mbeki attracted only 5,000 people, while a simultaneous march organised by a loose alliance of left-wing groups protesting against government policy attracted more than 20,000.

Since then, the government attack on the “ultra-left” has grown. But when Mbeki and his ministers poured vitriol on a general strike against privatisation not long ago, the union congress president, Willie Madisha, responded: “You can call us ultra-left or ultra-right. The fact remains that we are ultra-hungry.”

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Addressing strikers marching on parliament, Madisha laid out the basic complaint: “More than 57 per cent of people in South Africa are poor and more than 41.9 per cent of them are unemployed. You cannot deny them access to basic services by privatising. What kind of people want to privatise, when thousands of our people are hungry?”

Such criticism obviously hits home. Mbeki accuses party critics of “transposing the agenda of the Democratic Alliance [the official, mostly white opposition party] on to the ANC”. Yet in the economic sphere, both parties embrace the free market. Mbeki, like Blair, has stolen his parliamentary foe’s fiscal clothes.

The result is that in South Africa, the real opposition, and the real danger to Mbeki, is to be found within the ANC’s own governing alliance – from the communists and the unions. And in response to this threat, the president and his spokesmen have come perilously close to embracing a Thatcherite “enemy within” campaign. Echoes of Blairism again?

On his release from prison in 1990, Nelson Mandela shrewdly identified the problem: he observed that the ANC had never been a political party, and that it was united only by anti-racism.

The colossal and all-embracing figure of Mandela was able to bestride these growing ideological fault lines during his term as president. But his successor, the notoriously thin-skinned Mbeki, seems to take party criticism of his pro-privatisation policies personally. He has now chosen to ratchet up the war of words, and has unleashed his party hacks in a fury of quasi- Stalinist denunciation.

The most prominent victim so far is Jeremy Cronin, deputy general secretary of the SACP and a senior member of the ANC’s national executive council, who has impeccable credentials. He gave an interview last January to an Irish academic, not for publication, but when this was posted on her website in July, the full fury of the party machine was unleashed upon him. Particularly galling were Cronin’s comments about the loss of contact with the party’s grass roots. Some, he said, refer to this as the “Zanufication” of the ANC. He claimed that he and Blade Nzimande, the communists’ general secretary, had been “marginalised, shouted down, subjected to heavy presidential attacks”, and that the left had been “bullied”. Cronin also condemned what he saw as the Stalinist tendencies gaining ground within the ANC.

As if to prove his point, the ANC hit back below the belt, with its official spokesman calling Cronin “unfaithful and spreading lies”, “a frustrated individual” whose comments played into the hands of “counter-revolutionary forces”. The communists robustly defended Cronin, but the pressure was so intense that he soon caved in and cravenly apologised.

The basic gripe of the left is the abandonment, under Nelson Mandela, of a redistribution and development policy in favour of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) programme: in other words, an economic strategy of growth through redistribution is discarded in favour of a “trickle down” approach of redistribution through growth.

This fundamental distinction, as with new Labour, is at the heart of the struggle within the ANC today – with the ironic difference that in South Africa, it is often the cabinet’s communist bigwigs who are at the forefront of promoting neoliberal economics.

Some of this conflict can be put down to jockeying before the party conference. Mbeki has made the first strike. With dissatisfaction with the government brewing in the Eastern Cape – a chaotically run province that is also the historical heartland of the ANC – party headquarters sent in a task force last month, allegedly to sort out a botched local election and deal with rampant corruption. Two communist-aligned provincial ministers were promptly sacked. They had not been linked to any corruption allegations and it is widely accepted that they were purged. Absolute personal loyalty, rather than performance or honesty, is now the key to preferment under Mbeki.

Looking towards the 2004 elections, Mbeki has so far seen off all potential challengers to a second term. In a crude but effective ploy, the late security minister Steve Tshwete announced that the three chief rivals to Mbeki – Cyril Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sexwale and Matthews Phosa – were being investigated for plotting against the president. It was a baseless smear, but it forced all three to deny they had any wish to challenge Mbeki. As “Mblaireki” extends his control over the party, however, the crusade against his left wing intensifies, pushing some closer to the prospect of a clean break.

A recently published government policy document, while both confused and absurdly paranoid, dramatically reveals how the ANC currently seems unable to reach out to its own mass constituency: the poor and marginalised. The document identifies several groups that now campaign for the homeless, the landless and those who have been cut off from water and electricity by privatisation, bizarrely lumping them together with “the political representatives of colonialism, white minority rule and white capital”. This “unholy alliance”, it claims, is hell-bent on overthrowing the government.

Such double-think offers an insight into how out of touch, only eight years after South Africa’s first democratic elections, some policy-makers in the ANC have become. The rant concludes: “The anti-neoliberals have arrived at the position in terms of which they must wage a counter-revolutionary struggle against the ANC and our democratic government.”

So will the government’s opposition among the unions and the communist party swallow the insults and toe the line – or will they break away to form a left-wing workers’ party? This would be healthy for the fledgling democracy, but the reality is that, for those now under attack within the ANC governing alliance, long schooled in loyalty and discipline, liberation-era ties will probably prevail, certainly in the short term, and they will attempt to remain within the ANC and fight their corner.

The more realistic question is: does Mbeki want them to remain? Significantly, Mbeki himself strongly condemned the use of smear words against comrades – and specifically the term “ultra-left” – at a unions meeting in 1989 (two years before he left the SACP). But recently, when he excoriated the “ultra-left”, claiming it made cause with the right to undermine the ANC from within, Mbeki also made a pointed remark about party membership: “I am convinced we must pay particular attention to the principle: better fewer, but better.”

The major challenge to the ANC, however, lies from the generation of unemployed young blacks now in their twenties and thirties who were schooled, under apartheid, in protest and revolt.

“Those energies are still present,” observed Jeremy Cronin in his now notorious interview. “They’ve been dispersed. They’re confused. Often they get suppressed by the very forces they aligned themselves with originally, the broad ANC . . . but they bubble through.”

The messenger may have been temporarily silenced. But his message is clear for those not too paranoid to hear: “There are levels of disorganisation, demobilisation, disappointment, demoralisation. I personally don’t think it’s all played out.”

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