Maverick Citizen


Democratic eco-socialism: South Africa needs a new left to rise from the mess made by capitalism

Democratic eco-socialism: South Africa needs a new left to rise from the mess made by capitalism

The left’s way forward out of the current political crisis is to work with the popular classes to build strong movements to fight for immediate social demands. While the struggles should be about immediate needs, they must express a yearning for a better society that is not capitalist.

South Africa is in the throes of its worst political and social crisis since 1994. It is a political crisis marked by poor governance, corruption and lack of a development strategy. It is an economic crisis of stagnation, mass unemployment and widespread poverty. A crisis of development, manifesting in worsening township and rural underdevelopment. It is an ecological crisis in which natural resources are depleted and nature is destroyed in a manner that threatens the survival of human life on Earth. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has accentuated the crisis in public health, in social protection and the economy. Covid-19 is not an accident of nature – it is a manifestation of a crisis in the biosphere caused by capitalist agriculture. 

Two outcomes seem possible from this deepening crisis: a resulting tragic impasse, or a responsive radical social transformation. The outcomes reflect very different forces. 

The first likely entails a deepening crisis of poor governance, poor public services, corruption, growing unemployment, massive poverty and inequality. The second entails halting the crisis and posing a social transformation that advances the social demands of the majority. 

South Africa’s political and social crisis is driven by two main factors: lack of meaningful social transformation following the 1994 democratic breakthrough, and worsening corruption within the state, led by the African National Congress (ANC). 

This corruption should be understood as an accumulation system of the ruling elites in terms of social class relations that formed after 1994, with the new black bourgeoisie playing a subordinate role to the established white bourgeoisie. Having been locked out of mainstream industries that are dominated by generalised monopolies, the black bourgeoisie resorts to looting state budgets and assets. 

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that there are no alternatives to the ANC on the left. This discussion on the left renewal therefore happens against the background of deepening social crises, and of necessity it must address it.  

Popular movements towards socialism 

I use the concept of “the left” to refer to political forces that adopt an anti-capitalist dimension in their pursuit of social transformation to address the “plight of the popular classes” who make up the majority. These popular classes are largely black, reflecting the racist past of our country, the history of colonisation and apartheid, and how it adds to the post-94 social crisis of governance and social transformation failures. 

The anti-capitalist dimensions of the South African left fall into two broad categories. First, there are those from the various communist and socialist traditions who frame their visions and strategies around resolving the basic contradiction of capitalism between labour and capital and going beyond capitalism towards socialism. 

Second, there are those who fight for the immediate social demands of popular classes without going too far into the future. While their social transformation measures do not seek to replace capitalism outright, as in the case of communists, they still challenge the foundations of South Africa’s capitalism, which has shaped the economy and social relations since the mining industrial revolution of the late 19th century. 

Activists and organisations that are part of this second category include liberation movements, feminists, environmentalists and those struggling for radical reforms in community development in urban townships and rural areas, and for public and basic services such as housing, electricity, transport, youth development, healthcare and education. 

There is a need to rethink the vision and strategy of the left for anticapitalist struggles and for building socialism. 

The starting point is to give up the old position of communist parties of conquering state power first, and then building socialism. Instead, social and political conditions that allow for an advance toward socialism should be fostered. 

Hence, as in Latin America, we need to build “movements toward socialism”. This entails abandoning an approach to building socialism derived from the Soviet experience, which focused on nationalisation and state planning. In contrast, a “movement toward socialism” leaves open the question of methods to be used in socialising the modern economy as well as the ongoing democratisation of society.

Changes in contemporary capitalism require an updating of definitions and analysis of social classes, class struggles, political parties, social movements and the mode of the ideological forms in which they express their modes of action in the transformation of society. The left will succeed if it meets that challenge and invents new forms of organising and effective struggles that lead to victories of popular classes. 

We need to encourage diverse lines of descent in the formation and advancement of socialist thought and action, unity and diversity of the left forces. 

Framing a left critique of the ANC crisis

The worsening rot and the implosion of the ANC loom large in this political and social crisis, given the party’s dominance since 1994. A left critique of the ANC crisis is therefore essential in the development of a left renewal strategy. The basic premise is that the ANC crisis is mainly driven by two factors: lack of meaningful transformation since 1994, and corruption.

Even with Cyril Ramaphosa at the helm, the ANC is clearly incapable of meaningful renewal or of carrying out any effective social transformation project. The rot runs very deep. Ramaphosa should be applauded for allowing the State Capture Commission and other similar investigations on corruption and malfeasance. 

However, he will not achieve much without decisive political measures, such as removing all those implicated in the rot from his Cabinet, and leading a drive to kick Jacob Zuma out of the ANC because he has become a dangerous criminal counterrevolutionary. The July unrest was a Zuma explosion expressing the confluence of the ANC implosion and the deepening social crisis. 

The ANC has become a real danger to democracy, national stability and security, and also poses a real threat of giving rise to the dangerous right moving into the centre stage of politics.     

Ramaphosa’s close links to big business (he is himself a billionaire businessman) does not help the efforts of the ANC to make a genuinely radical turn. Ramaphosa does not have a radical perspective on economic and social transformation. Rather, he is hell-bent on pursuing failed neoliberal economic policies, even during the period of a pandemic that requires state interventionist policies. 

The choice for the left is therefore to transcend the ANC or to be trapped in the impasse of the worsening crisis. 

Mass movements and mass struggles 

The left’s way forward out of the current political crisis is not to form a worker’s party or a vanguard party that will contest elections with a socialist manifesto in the hope of winning parliamentary seats. Any preoccupation with a centralised party of the left will be a serious distraction. Instead, the left should work with the popular classes to build strong grassroots and sector movements to fight for the immediate social demands of these classes on health, education, housing, food, women, youth, decent jobs, sports, arts, culture and so on. 

While the struggles should be about immediate social demands, they must have a clear anti-capitalist outlook and seek to go beyond the limits of the current capitalist society. They must express a yearning for a better society that is not capitalist. The struggles and mass movements must be connected through a coherent vision and political efforts to build an anti-capitalist and anti-neoliberal historic bloc in South Africa, and also connect with other struggles of popular classes in Africa and the wider world. 

This is not to lose sight of political power, but rather to build popular power on the ground, on whose base genuine left political alternatives should be advanced. Rebuilding a new left alternative political pole should be based on mass struggles and the vision of democratic eco-socialism. 

The mass political party or parties that come out of such efforts should be non-vanguardist, open-ended and long-term, and linked to mass movements without controlling them. A left electoral victory based authentically on a radical programme is only possible after the victory of popular struggles, not before. 

Struggles for reforms in the here and now in order to ameliorate people’s conditions are going to be essential in building the long-term momentum for a genuine left renewal. These struggles should be based on the Constitution and other democratic rights and demands, including regulation of the private sector.


Struggles for alternatives and transformation will be essential in grounding the left and mass movements in an anti-capitalist and anti-neoliberal outlook. The struggles should address matters concerning development in townships and rural areas, including issues such as seed banks, a solidarity economy and public goods and services such as education, health, transport, housing, a social wage and renewables. Workers’ struggles in new inventive ways are also included. 

Popular struggles to characterise the left renewal must be made up of both protest and developmental work. 

Community development activities could cover art, culture, media (including magazines), poetry, cultural movements, people’s heritage from below and knowledge production from below (including research, studies and publications of all types). 

These efforts should seek to build a popular movement for meaningful social transformation based on a coherent anti-capitalist, anti-neoliberal vision. However, none of this is possible without sustained activist development and political education in order to build a critical mass of conscious, confident, capable and effective activists who can carry out the tasks at hand. 

The forms of activity and organisation proposed here, predicated on popular struggles and popular inventiveness, cannot be decreed in advance through a sanctified doctrine. 

Revolutionary advances are possible, on the basis of developing a real and new people’s power to drive away the power of political elites and monopoly capital, which are responsible for protecting and reproducing the social inequality of post-1994 South Africa. 

Karl Marx did not expound any theory of “the great day of revolution and definitive solutions”; on the contrary, he insisted on an open-minded approach, believing that a revolution is a long transition marked by a conflict between social powers – the former powers in decline and the new ones on the rise. 

Let the power and organisation of the popular classes rise for a meaningful left renewal in South Africa. DM/MC

Gunnett Kaaf is a Marxist activist and writer based in Bloemfontein. He is a long-standing political activist of 30 years. Previously an activist of the ANC and SACP, he is now active in community organisations in the Free State, as he simultaneously explores new left politics and alternatives.  He works as fiscal policy research manager in the Free State Provincial Treasury.

This is the eighth 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. 

Part 1: 

Part 2:

Part Three:

Part 4:

Part 5:

Part 6:

Part 7:

Part 8: 

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

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