In the 1970s and 1980s, South Africa had two major forces on the left. One was the South African Communist Party (SACP), seen widely as a Stalinist organisation in exile. The other was the more democratic left associated with the trade unions and, later on, the community struggles organised together under the banner of the United Democratic Front.
When the ANC was unbanned, the democratic left which had been focused on struggles on the factory floor and the community largely gave up its independence to the returning ANC, with the SACP leading the left.
The SACP lost its credibility by throwing in its lot with Jacob Zuma. Its death knell was sounded with the Marikana massacre. It is just a minor faction in the ANC, one that no longer has a credible claim to being a party of the left.
The formation of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in 2013 came out of the radical nationalist wing of the ANC, in the tradition of people like Peter Mokaba. It did not come out of the left wing of the ANC. However, its hybridised form of politics mixed radical nationalism with recognisably left-wing ideas into a form of authoritarian populism.
From the outset many commentators, including many respected leftists, saw the EFF as more fascist than left. However, the party did win wide support when it began to oppose Zuma on a constitutionalist platform.
This led some commentators to conclude that the EFF was moving towards the liberal centre. However, as has been widely noted, following the removal of Zuma from office the EFF suddenly changed gear and began to support Zuma’s corrupt network.
One wag has asked if they should now be called the “Bleff”, in reference to Andile Mngxitama’s BLF, a tiny organisation that produces crude propaganda in support of Zuma.
This startling swing towards support for the pro-Zuma forces has been understood in two ways.
Some people think that the EFF is simply in the business of supporting any ANC faction that does not have power, with the aim of dividing the party. Others think that the EFF was hostile to Zuma as an individual, but pro-Zumaism in terms of using radical nationalist rhetoric as a cover for looting the state.
Whatever the correct explanation for the EFF’s politics, it is clear that no one in their right mind can call an openly pro-corruption party a left-wing party. The debate on the political character of the EFF is now over.
With both the SACP and the EFF no longer having any serious claim to be forces on the left, we must ask: Is politics in South Africa now just a competition between minority reactionaries in the DA, liberals in the DA and the ANC, and corruption and authoritarian nationalism in the ANC and the EFF?
If this is the case the logical way forward would be for both the DA and the ANC to split; with the DA forming one party to the right, and another in alliance with the liberals in the ANC. The corrupt nationalists in the ANC would then unite with the EFF. This arrangement would result in three clear camps.
But it would mean that, ultimately, South African politics would be a contest between liberals and corrupt nationalists.
Previous attempts at starting parties of the left have come to nothing. The Workers and Socialists Party (Wasp) was, like previous attempts to use small sectarian organisations to launch left-wing parties, a complete failure.
It has always been argued that a successful left-wing party would have to come out of the trade unions, with their organised mass base. Now that the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) has launched the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP), this hope appears to have been realised.
However, a number of hard questions need to be asked. For a start, it is well known that while Numsa funds and organises the new independent federation Saftu, Numsa General Secretary Irwin Jim and the Saftu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi do not get on. Jim is a Marxist-Leninist while Vavi is more aligned to the liberalism of civil society politics.
Furthermore, Vavi’s own reputation is now in tatters following a second gender-related scandal.
This means that while Numsa will support the new party, it is not clear that Saftu will do so. However Numsa is the largest trade union in the country and with more than 400,000 members it does, unlike Wasp, have a real mass base from which to start a party.
However, a mass base does not automatically translate into effective political strategy. We should not forget that the United Front, started by Numsa in late 2013 with the stated aim of uniting workplace and community struggles, was a complete failure.
It was subject to immediate NGO capture and garnered no popular support at all. In fact, even Numsa itself didn’t support its events, which never attracted more than a handful of people.
But if lessons have been learnt from this failure, Numsa is in a prime position to start a genuinely left-wing workers’ party. It has a mass membership, it is rooted in the industrial working class which means that it has access to union dues, and it has a very well organised Marxist-Leninist political education programme.
Unlike the EFF it enjoys good relations with left-wing parties, movements and organisations around the world.
If, this time around, the party initiated by Numsa can, unlike the failed United Front, build real alliances with community struggles and social movements we might found ourselves with a genuinely left-wing and genuinely mass-based political party.
By this time in 2019 we’ll know whether the new party is on the way to success. DM
Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad programme on political transformation. Buccus promotes #Reading Revolution via Books@Antique at Antique Café in Morningside.