Opinionista Imraan Buccus 3 March 2020

South Africa needs its own Bernie Sanders to unite the left

Today, when the left is rebuilding itself in a spectacular and often thrilling fashion in the US, our left remains trapped in a quagmire.

The world stands at a crossroads, a crossroads in which the moral and political choices could not be plainer. We must either choose a politics of division, scapegoating and chauvinism – or a politics of solidarity. In recent days the choices confronting us have been illustrated with searing power in the global news.

After the meeting of Donald Trump and Narendra Modi in Delhi, fascist mobs took to the streets and attacked Muslims in scenes widely compared to the fascist violence that erupted in German cities in the 1930s. If this is a vision of the future, it is, like the xenophobic mobs that befoul South African cities periodically, a vision of hell.

But while fascism was strutting around the streets of Delhi, something very different happened in Nevada, US. Migrant workers overwhelmingly came out to support Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination for the US presidency. Sanders is running a campaign that aims to unite the working class against the billionaire class that has seized control of the US political system. All the experts said it could not be done. But Sanders, a lifelong left-wing activist, is winning. Migrants, blacks, Muslims and the white working-class are building a powerful coalition behind the idea of a USA premised on solidarity and inclusion.

This is the choice that faces us in 2020. Do we want to work based on solidarity, justice and democracy, or do we want a politics of authoritarianism and exclusion in which the rich get richer and the poor are bought off with hatred?

In the recent British election, Jeremy Corbyn’s vision of a decent society inspired millions, especially younger people, but the investment of older voters in Brexit had loaded the dice in support of Boris Johnson’s odious right-wing politics. The torch of progressive politics has now passed to Sanders in the US, and there is a genuine belief that there could be a breakthrough.

A Sanders victory would open up all kinds of possibilities for a more inclusive and just society in the US, and around the world, and his campaign for the presidency has become a defining political moment for a generation. With every passing day, new political possibilities are being opened.

In the 1970s and 1980s, progressives around the world looked to South Africa for political inspiration. We have some of the most vibrant social movements anywhere, some excellent intellectuals, and there was a sense that we were building democratic values from below in community and workplace struggles.

That progressive hope was all squandered on one giant mistake – the decision of the left in the ANC, including the trade unions and the Communist Party, to support Jacob Zuma. The costs of that mistake have been incalculable, and it could take a generation or more for the left to recover from this staggeringly bad error of political judgment.

Today, when the left is rebuilding itself in a spectacular and often thrilling fashion in the US, our left remains trapped in a quagmire. When Cosatu and the SACP did finally pull the plug on their support for Zuma they backed the neoliberal politics of Cyril Ramaphosa as an alternative to Zuma and his looters. This did enable us to finally get Zuma out of state power, which was an urgent necessity.

But it has left us with a left that is divided, and has no strategy to win state power on its terms. The left is now split between Cosatu, which remains in the ANC and mainly represents government workers; Saftu, which left the ANC in disgust at Zuma and now mainly represents industrial workers, and Abahlali baseMjondolo which now has more than 70,000 paid-up members in Durban, and is growing in some other provinces too.

Cosatu has done excellent work to warn against the dangers of austerity, but the neoliberal faction of the ANC has not heard its warnings. Tito Mboweni’s 2020 Budget is an all-out austerity Budget in the form of a direct attack on government workers. With neoliberal commentators baying for Ramaphosa to now follow Margaret Thatcher’s example and finally break the unions, it seems inevitable that the alliance between the left and the ANC is headed for collapse. No trade union can tell its members to accept attacks on their livelihood in silence.

This reality poses two immediate and serious problems. The first is, what happens to the project to oppose the looters in the ANC and the EFF when political support for Ramaphosa breaks down in Cosatu and the SACP? The second is, what happens to the left when it does not have state power, and its allies in the state do not support its goals?

Things are likely to get messy in the short term. Ramaphosa has chosen the market, liberal commentators and the rating agencies over the material needs of his support base. It is not impossible that as a direct result he could find his presidency seriously weakened, or that he could even lose state power altogether.

If this happens, the worst-case scenario is that the looters in the EFF and the ANC could find a way to win state power. They have no meaningful support in society for their kleptocratic politics, but they do have real support within the ANC.

This would be a disaster from which South Africa would not recover in any of our lifetimes. It would also be a disaster that democracy would not survive.

In this grave situation, it is vital that all the components of the left in our society, namely Cosatu and the SACP, Saftu and Abahlali baseMjondolo, come together and find a way to work together on two urgent projects. One of those projects must be to work together to ensure that the looters never return to state power. The other must be for a way for the left to access and hold state power on its own terms.

The alliance between the neoliberals and the left did get rid of Zuma, but it is a radically unstable alliance and one that may well not survive the coming crisis as public sector workers are made to pay the price for the years of looting.

What we need is our own Bernie Sanders. This doesn’t have to take the form of a charismatic individual. In fact, it’s always better to avoid building left-wing politics around personal charisma. But it does have to take the form of a grassroots, bottom-up campaign that can unite us in a vision of an inclusive, democratic and just society. Neither the looters nor the neoliberals can provide this kind of vision.

If we are not able to rebuild a viable left our future will look like Delhi, with mobs attacking the innocents in the streets. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can also look to Nevada and the Sanders campaign for a sense of what progressive alternatives can look like. DM

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