Defend Truth


South Africans must unite to build civil society and a credible electoral option


Dr Imraan Buccus is a senior research associate at the Auwal Socio-economic Research Institute and a postdoctoral fellow at Durban University of Technology.

We need a new version of the UDF, a national alliance of popular democratic organisations. Because, for as long as electoral politics is dominated by a rogues’ gallery of opportunists and populists, along with a set of utter mediocrities, it cannot provide us with a way out of our increasingly frightening crisis.  

In political terms, the long weekend running from Freedom Day to Workers’ Day was both uplifting and depressing in Durban.

As our economic crisis worsens, the state continues to weaken and the failure of Cyril Ramaphosa’s Presidency leaves us in political limbo as people are becoming ever more desperate for some sort of indication of a way to restore hope.

We can all see that electoral politics does not offer that at the moment, and that the most likely outcome of the ANC’s collapsing support will be more unstable coalitions, including at the level of national government.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Coalition Country

In many countries around the world, periods of economic and political crisis have resulted in forms of popular mobilisation that have challenged calcified and rotten elites and renewed democratic ideals. One thinks of the Arab Spring as well as mobilisations in countries across Latin America over the past 20 years or so.

Here in South Africa, the United Democratic Front (UDF) and trade union Cosatu built popular democracy from below during the state of emergency in the 1980s and they both played a leading role in bringing down apartheid.

Workers’ Day in Durban showed just how profound the decline of the unions’ power has been. Neither Cosatu, which still exists as a political force of some sort, nor its rival Saftu, which is now a more or less failed project, was able to take to the streets.  

The debate about the unions in our media has been poisoned by the incredibly toxic sectarian politics that has come to characterise large parts of the left in the past two decades. This is highly unfortunate and has made it difficult for the actual state of the unions to be properly understood and debated.

But there are some clear and germane facts. One is that, for as long as Cosatu remains tethered to a declining ANC, it will be too compromised to be able to give any sort of leadership to wider society. The other is that the industrial unions outside of the ANC have been severely weakened. The failure of Saftu has worsened the situation, as has the fact that all the major established unions seem locked in the past and unable to organise casual, precarious and informal workers, let alone the vast masses of the unemployed.

Unions remain important, of course, and they do protect the wages of the formally employed. But they are no longer the powerful social and political force that they once were. Unless new forms of unionisation emerge that can organise outside of the old and declining forms of work, the heyday of the union movement will be firmly behind us.

But, although Workers’ Day was a depressing reminder of the weaknesses of the union movement, Freedom Day was another matter altogether. The shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo organised a huge march in central Durban, mobilising thousands of people under the banner of “UnFreedom Day”. Abahlali has mourned this day since 2006, declaring that the poor are not yet free and cannot celebrate Freedom Day.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Shack dwellers proclaim ‘Freedom Day is for rich people’ as hundreds march in Durban

It is simply remarkable that, in an environment of general political decay, the movement continues to grow — and that it continues to grow despite extreme repression: four of its leaders were killed last year.

The power that a democratic movement was able to show on the streets of Durban is encouraging. That it has become a pole of attraction for so many smaller organisations and groups of people who are not shack dwellers is equally encouraging.

Migrant groups, subsistence fisherfolk, street traders, communities living with dangerous pollution, taxi drivers, domestic workers, residents of inner-city flats as well as organisations from as far away as Cape Town, such as the Housing Assembly, all joined the march. This kind of broad unity reminded me of the old days of the UDF.

We need a new version of the UDF, a national alliance of popular democratic organisations. Because, for as long as electoral politics is dominated by a rogues’ gallery of opportunists and populists, along with a set of utter mediocrities, it cannot provide us with a way out of our increasingly frightening crisis.  

This leaves us with only one force — civil society. Civil society has been a critically important role player in post-apartheid South Africa. It cannot resolve all our problems, but it can win important victories, and building it into a fighting force for democracy and justice is vital.

We cannot forget the urgency to build a credible set of electoral options. But, at the same time, it is equally urgent that civil society works to build democratic forms of popular organisation across SA. Both tasks are of the utmost urgency. What was achieved in Durban shows us what is possible. DM168


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  • jcdville stormers says:

    Bottom line,Cyrillic,Gwede,Gordan, etc. are destroying the country, ANC leadership doesn’t give 2 shits about us,we gotta get them out and save us

  • André Pelser says:

    Agreed! Interesting that a shack dwellers organisation could attract so much support. Durban is a prime example of maladministration and corruption. The UDF necklaced “collaborators” and caused extensive damage to property in their “rolling mass action”, similar to last year’s KZN looting and plundering – this should not be emulated. What has been the effect of this demonstration? Any change in Durban local government’s actions?
    Walesa’s Solidarity movement toppled a government, the Velvet revolution in the Czech Republic led to the resignation of the Communist government in 1989 (shortly before the fall of the Berlin wall).
    ANC ubuntu extends no further than cadres, family and friends.
    What about a South Africa First movement?

  • Caroline de Braganza says:

    RISE Mzansi under the leadership of Songezo Zibi, is the new movement I have been looking for.

  • Jacques Wessels says:

    Agreed civil society on local level is only solution, rates payer associations, neighbourhood watches etc. Take accountability for your town & street and keep the politicians & officials aware their feeding spree is known and is coming to an end

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