Maverick Citizen


The dialectic of democracy: Neoliberal capitalism and its populist backlash

The dialectic of democracy: Neoliberal capitalism and its populist backlash

South Africa’s liberal-democratic constitutional order, exposed to the winds of an economic order that has failed to address racialised inequality, poverty and unemployment, has ushered in a counter-movement that can threaten its very foundation.

The South African socioeconomic, environmental and political crisis is part of a global crisis of neoliberal carbon capitalism, where increasing inequality and poverty have delegitimised democratic institutions, and seen the rise of right-wing populism.  

The entrenched power of monopoly capitalism in South Africa, only fractionally deracialised but substantially globalised, still bears the hallmarks of apartheid capitalism. However, instead of facing a left-wing counter-movement, it has been met with a counterforce of klepto-capitalism and racial populism. While clearly a right-wing response, it opportunistically uses some of the language of the left (such as Radical Economic Transformation) to win support among those who have been denied the fruits of the post-apartheid order.  

This essay discusses threats to South Africa’s constitutional order by interrogating two competing narratives, namely that of liberalism, and the nationalist-populist counter-movement. It then considers two competing working-class responses that attempt to rise above these dominant narratives — Marxist-Leninism and the popular-democratic (democratic eco-socialist) alternative. Through this discussion, the role of the trade union movement in the struggle for democracy emerges as a key factor. 

Cosatu’s crippling blow 

Indeed, it is the leading component of the democratic trade union movement, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) — which was central to the demise of apartheid and the promotion of a participatory-democratic socialist politics — that delivered crippling blows to that very politics. Along with the South African Communist Party (SACP), it deliberately created the “tsunami” that from 2007 to 2009 brought into power a nascent kleptocratic bourgeoisie, led by Jacob Zuma. This was couched as an attempt to dislodge the “1996 class project”, which some refer to as “White Monopoly Capitalism” (WMC).  

One of its key allies at the time was the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) and its charismatic leader Julius Malema, who later split off to form the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Zuma’s administration became enmeshed with the parasitic business interests of the Gupta family from India, and together they are popularly referred to as the Zupta faction of the ruling ANC. While the EFF mobilised against Zupta corruption, its own leaders have been implicated in corruption scandals. 

Although post-apartheid corruption is not confined to the Zuptas or the EFF, today the two most destabilising fractions of the nascent kleptocratic bourgeoisie are to be found inside the ANC (the Zuptas), and outside (the EFF), with the latter taking on a more strident form of racial populism.  

As some have argued, corruption forms part of an informal political-economic system that began with ANC rule, and became a mechanism of class formation for black people who were excluded from networks of established (white) capital that monopolised key sectors of the economy. 

Indeed, the established private sector is also not immune to corruption, as the recent Steinhoff case vividly illustrates. These points are stressed by those who reduce the Zupta nexus to mere “lizards” next to the “crocodiles” of “White Monopoly Capital”. 

Productive private capital is critical 

Even if this counter-charge is conceded, defenders of the constitutional order support the view that productive private capital remains a critical component of any developmental path that seeks to reduce inequality and eliminate poverty. These sentiments are embedded within the logic of the National Development Plan (NDP), which emerged through a process chaired by former finance minister Trevor Manuel and Cyril Ramaphosa during 2010-2011.  

The labour movement does not necessarily question the existence of private capital (at least in the short to medium term). However, it has argued for more meaningful measures to curb its profit-maximisation tendency and redirect the social surplus towards developmental outcomes, through a capable democratic developmental state. This is consistent with the perspectives of Keynesian Left critics (and Marxists who see the logic of reforms within an overall transformational trajectory).  

The labour movement, however, remains fragmented and relatively impotent. 

After the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) was kicked out of Cosatu in 2014 for resolving to stop supporting the ANC, followed by the ousting of Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, Numsa and Vavi went on to form the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) in 2017. 

Today, the once strident voice of Cosatu against the klepto-capitalist class fraction is diminished — but so is Vavi’s voice struggling to assert itself within Saftu, as its largest affiliate, Numsa, seems caught up within the knots of its own “WMC” discourse. 

Numsa rhetoric 

The labour movement retains a strand of “revolutionary” rhetoric that tends to see no positive role for private capital, and seeks its immediate overthrow (at least in the abstract). In such a logic, all capital is “corrupt”, because capitalism as a system is “corrupt”, so there is no need to specify and target one form of corruption over the other. This seems to be the logic behind, for example, the “Marxist-Leninist” rhetoric of Numsa and its Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) — and coincides in material ways with the nationalist-populist argument, by minimising the importance of Zupta corruption in favour of an exclusive focus on WMC. 

Clearly, to paraphrase the political thinker Antonio Gramsci, the morbid symptoms of an old order are refusing to die, while the new struggles to be born. The wealth and splendour of the entrenched and new elites have fuelled a racialised backlash that draws its breath from the deep sense of relative and absolute deprivation experienced by the excluded majority. 

In other words, the liberal-democratic constitutional order, exposed to the winds of an economic order that has failed to address racialised inequality, poverty and unemployment, has ushered in a counter-movement that can threaten its very foundation.  

The tragedy is that the organised left, in particular the trade union movement, today stands as transfixed as a deer caught in the headlights, while right-wing nationalist-populists steal aspects of their discourse to ride the wave of discontent (not unlike what is happening elsewhere in the world). Although there is now a concerted attempt by liberal democrats within the ANC to reassert control over the state (without upsetting the economic order), the left critique of racial capitalism, and the statist solutions some have proposed, are being used by populists to try to reopen access to state coffers.  

A low-grade democracy 

In a low-grade democracy such as South Africa, where progress towards a capable developmental state has been severely compromised, statist solutions can lead to a collapsed economy. In this the liberal critique cannot be easily dismissed, even if it is constrained by the narrow class interests of its key proponents (such as the Democratic Alliance and the Institute of Race Relations). Caught between a compromised and inefficient state and a profit-maximising, monopolised private sector, the democratic left (offering substantive democratic, non-statist and ecologically informed alternatives) struggles to make its voice heard.  

The SACP and Cosatu have given their full support to the ANC led by President Cyril Ramaphosa, whose mission is to re-establish “normal” capitalism on a sound democratic basis, with rebuilt institutions able to serve a hopefully job-creating capitalist economy, and more equitable and effective redistribution of the social surplus. This is in keeping with the “first stage” of the “national democratic revolution” long promoted by the SACP (notwithstanding rhetorical flushes around a “second phase” within the first stage). This implicitly means that it is the best that can be hoped for in the short to medium term. 

For others on the left, in social movements and NGOs (and, perhaps, some unions), reining in the fossil fuel economy dominated by what some term “carbon capital”, within a highly constrained “carbon democracy”, is critical. This includes protecting rural communities under siege from mining, as well as moving workers out of dirty jobs into a new era of green jobs with a strong socially owned (ie, non-state and non-market) component.  

A deeper transformative project 

This forms part of a longer-term vision of building an alternative working-class politics that draws on the popular-democratic promises of the 1980s, and combines it with a renewed emphasis on democratic eco-socialism (which made a brief appearance in Numsa from 2011 to 2014, before being sidelined by the “Marxist-Leninist” orthodoxy).  

While no left project can easily dismiss the need to stabilise the economy and society after the ravages of the Zupta period, a deeper transformative project is the only real safeguard against the threats of both “neoliberal” capitalism, and its parasitic, narrow nationalist and racial-populist responses. DM/MC

Devan Pillay is an associate professor and former head of the Department of Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand.  He has published on a wide range of topics such as the politics of labour, the democratic transition, the media, ecological Marxism, globalisation and holistic development, drawing on his experience in the independent media, the trade union movement, government and as an activist.

This is the fifth in a series of ten essays by authors of chapters in Destroying Democracy, neoliberal capitalism and the rise of authoritarian politics, Volume 6 in the Democratic Marxism series recently published by Wits University Press and edited by Michelle Williams and Vishwas Satgar. The sixth volume centres on how the global democratic project is being eroded by decades of neoliberal capitalism and how authoritarian politics are gaining ground. The essays focus on four country cases — India, Brazil, South Africa and the US — in which the Covid-19 pandemic has fuelled the pre-existing crisis. They interrogate issues of politics, ecology, state security, media, access to information and political parties, and affirm the need to reclaim and rebuild an expansive and inclusive democracy.

Destroying Democracy is an invaluable resource for the general public, activists, scholars and students who are interested in understanding the threats to democracy and the rising tide of authoritarianism in the global south and global north. It is freely available as open access at 


Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Become a Maverick Insider

This could have been a paywall

On another site this would have been a paywall. Maverick Insider keeps our content free for all.

Become an Insider