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Sorry, comrades, the South African electorate doesn’t particularly like communists

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Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Populist rhetoric by revolutionary Marxist-Leninists can get you bums on seats in a stadium, but not very many on the seats of Parliament, as the electorate has shown.

South Africans do not want a communist government. This is clear from even a most cursory look at the election data of the past three decades. Pretty much the same can be said about right-wing political parties that have popped up in the cracks of an otherwise stable road.

Mainly libertarians and anarcho-capitalists, those on the right often cloak themselves in coats of classical liberalism, and some of them slipped into a range of parties, from the identitarians, to the ethno-nationalists and the liberals. The communists, barely socialist or social democrats, have been beaten, resoundingly, over seven democratic elections since 1994.

The standout communist parties, those that are expressly Marxist-Leninist over most of the past three decades, have been Azapo, the PAC, the SACP, the insignificant solar flares of the Black First Land First movement/party/thing, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) (neither has quite been the solar superstorm that Andile Mngxitama or Irwin Jim imagined), and the latest, most aggressive of the communists, the EFF.

Whatever one may think of the ideological principles, beliefs and values, or of the programmes of action they inspire, the electorate have repeatedly rejected them. We have to assume, in the least, that all political parties are formed with the intention to improve the lives of people, ostensibly through the state as a coercive apparatus.

If anything brings together Adolf Hitler (the anti-communist) and Pol Pot (the anti-capitalist) it is that they set out to “improve” things, and failed to say, at the outset, that their ideals and objectives would lead to millions of deaths. We will get back to Pol Pot, below. In the meantime, the evidence is clear; South Africans have rejected the Marxist-Leninists.

Democracy did not quite work out for the communists

In 1994, Azapo failed to record a single vote for representation in the national legislature. The PAC received 243,478 (five seats). The full list of that democratic first election results is available here. In last month’s election, Azapo (still) failed to register enough votes for a single seat, and the PAC has, well, a single seat. See here.

In 1994, the SACP began what has turned out be a saprophytic relationship with the (now) verging-on-dead ANC. The SACP will probably continue to riff off the ANC without any improvisation. If results of the past three decades are anything to go by, it’s hard to see the SACP gaining more than 10% of the national vote in a democratic election.

In 2019, the SRWP made like Chris Rock in his Bring the Pain stand-up show of 1996: “They can’t keep a disco open for more than three weeks; grand opening, grand closing.” The SRWP had both “grand opening” and “grand closing” signs printed at the same time; just in case. As my colleague Stephen Grootes noted after the 2019 election:

“The scale of the humiliation the SRWP suffered at the hands of the voters cannot be overstated. The union behind it, metalworkers union Numsa, has a total membership of over 339,000 people. That is the figure stated on its website. To get to that number, you have to go through the landing page of the site, which proudly features the SRWP’s banner. How did the 339,000 members translate into 24,439 voters, a loss of 93%?”

In 2014, the EFF landed in the pool with a splash. They gained 6.35% of the national vote. The ripples of their splash reached the edge of the pool in 2019, when they received 10.8% of the vote. By the time last month’s election was held, the ripples had faded, and the EFF’s impact was reset, as it were, to 9.52%. The splash of 2014 was not a clean dive (never a rip entry), and may turn out to have been a belly flop. Time and the next election will see.

The EFF held the promise of a genuine break with the worst outcomes and states of affairs of South African capitalism, replacing it with a Marxist-Leninist communism. That’s all good and well if you assume that the blend of social justice, equality, full employment, shared prosperity, even distribution, state-led public works programmes (to combat unemployment) and land distribution are desirable and within reach – without causing injustice or harm.

The electorate spoke, seven times, and demonstrated that South Africans were just not that into communism, nor the Marxist-Leninist programmes of action promised by Azapo, the PAC, the SACP (although they kept their cards close to the ANC’s chest), Black First Land First and the SRWP. The communist future, to the extent that it is, rests on the EFF.

Between actual evidence and rhetoric

The EFF is the standard-bearer of Marxist-Leninism in South Africa. Everything that its leaders say affirms their loyalty to Marxist-Leninism. Nothing that they actually do, nor the policies they represent – other than retribution, revenge and the seduction of new forms of accumulation – seems to have resonated with the electorate.

The EFF leaders are excellent speakers, marvellous at rhetoric and quite clever at manipulating the emotions of the poor, the unemployed and those people who feel aggrieved by the lack of opportunities and material gains.

The main problem is the glaring chasm between their rhetoric and the evidence of personal exploitation, gain and association (of EFF leaders) with things unsavoury; from the treatment of women, contributions to governance failures, scandals, violence, to the politics of revenge and their ethno-nationalism.

This ethno-nationalism is wider than a specific ethnic group, as traditionally conceived, and is a catch-all for indigenous Africans to the exclusion of “non-Africans”.

Perhaps there is value and life in the idea of non-racialism, and as stated in the preamble of the Constitution, the importance of healing “the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights” while remaining committed and steadfast to sub-section three of the Bill of Rights, which does not sit comfortably with a strict communist capture of the state as a coercive apparatus:

“The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.”

With a combination of revenge, biblical punishment (the 21st-century descendants of all “non-Africans” who came to southern Africa over 350 years have to be punished for the sins of their fathers), violence sanctioned by “revolution” and glaring omissions of policy specificities (for instance, they have yet to explain whether high/low inflation is better than high/low unemployment, and why), the EFF rests an enormous amount of spittle on the day of the revolution.

This is remarkably similar to Pol Pot’s dream that the day of the revolution would mark the end of all things bad – there was, actually, specific reference to the “end of Cambodian history”, or something like that – and building a future more glorious than 13th-century Angkor Wat and its imperial expanse

What followed the ascent of the Khmer Rouge after they met in May 1975 was a horrendous period of murder, mayhem, the abolition of money, law, media, the postal system, private property and, backed by a legion of intellectuals, Pol Pot’s people condemned individual originality and creativity – and the idea of cities.

It would appear, then, that populist rhetoric can, at least in democratic South Africa, get you bums on seats in a stadium, but not very many in the seats of Parliament.

There is a lot wrong with liberal capitalism, “the American model”, as there is with the system of global governance, the architecture of global finance and with the international “rules-based” system. The world has lurched from crisis to crisis since 1971, and after the 2008 crisis the world has become more unequal and more unstable.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Elections dashboard

There will be people who would insist that there is nothing wrong. The response from the rest of us should be carefully crafted, based on evidence and insights. Because you have the latest cell phone, or you have a new car, because you have a steady job and regular income cannot be the basis for ignoring what is wrong with the system of historical capitalism.

As it goes, repeating the slogans of revolutions past, from the French Revolution to the colour revolutions of the early 21st century, is nice; the vacuous encomia may make you believe in your own mischief. South Africans seem to have seen through the rhetoric and cant, and have repeatedly over the past three decades voted against the Marxist-Leninists. That is just a fact.

Facts are, however, meaningless if you do not understand their significance.

Perhaps our communists and Marxist-Leninists need to think long and hard. Above all, perhaps, they need to convince us that their desire for power is not an end in itself, but a means to an end, and that that end is, indeed, a better life for all, as stated in the Constitution. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Mike SA says:

    There is no better example for non libertarians of the wastefulness of big government such as we have seen in South Africa over many decades particularly since 1994.
    I have been a libertarian since the early 1970’s and recommend people read the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith first written in 1763

    • Denise Smit says:

      What is a non libertarian

    • D'Esprit Dan says:

      State-owned companies don’t always fail, as is evident in many EU countries. On the other hand, rail and water privatisation in the UK has been an absolute disaster. It all depends on what you want – decent, efficient services, or outlandish profit. The UK falls into the 2nd category.

      • Mike SA says:

        The IMF granted the Britain the biggest loan in history to save Britain from bankruptcy when Thatcher was elected.
        Have you used public transport in Europe lately ?
        You must surely be including British Leyland as an example of state run excellence in the design and production of motor cars !!!

    • Paul Van Uytrecht says:

      You seem to imply that there is a logical link between libertarianism and ethical conduct – clearly that isn’t so. In my view libertarianism is every bit as dangerous as communism, perhaps even more so as in neo-liberal economic views, we deal with nothing less than propaganda designed to further the interests of the rich and powerful (and of those aspiring to become one of that group). An unfair society not only cannot thrive, but carries with it the seeds of its own destruction. Adam Smith by the way also wrote a book called “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” – WoN should be understood in the context of ToMS.

  • Mike SA says:

    Your closing paragraph Ismail is on point regarding the motive for the SACP and that is power.

  • Denise Smit says:

    Why did Chirwa not get 4 months paid maternity leave, but instead was demoted by Malema for needing to care for her two month old sick baby. This should have been a labour court issue. MP ‘s are government employees with 4 months paid maternity leave. The vile treatment of woman by Malema

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    In my opinion the EFF get nowhere because South Africans don’t like violence and the underlying threats of violence that is its hallmark.
    This excluded Zulus, where aggression is in their DNA and means Big Man, which is why Zuma has a following.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    If nothing else is clear, it is the clear will of the people that EFF, MK, PA and their friends will not gain traction. How many elections must you lose before you realise you disenfranchise your electorate by your obdurate opposition?

  • Ian McGill says:

    One cannot expect a party who has swallowed Lenin’s tortuous writings to understand modern capitalism. I don’t know if a modern, technically educated person is a “revolutionary”, but the ANC seems to think so. Books to read, I vote for Niall Ferguson’s “Civilisation” the west and the rest.

  • EJ JOUBERT says:

    The world’s crises started only in 1971? Nothing before that was ever a crisis?

  • Alan Watkins says:

    “… SACP began what has turned out be a saprophytic relationship with the (now) verging-on-dead ANC.”
    Saprophytic?
    Okay, turn to Google ….
    obtaining nourishment osmotically from the products of organic breakdown and decay. So…. a parasitic organism(EFF) on a dead decaying body(ANC)?
    Love it.

  • William Stucke says:

    > There is a lot wrong with liberal capitalism, “the American model”

    The Americans – or more correctly, the USians, as citizens of any of the 32 members of the Organisation of American States (OAS) are entitled to call themselves “americans” – have given the entire concept of capitalism a bad name

  • Reginald Rumney says:

    I have added “saprophytic” and “encomia” to my vocab. Thanks!

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    The bums on stadia seats is mainly driven by the ‘entertainment value’ (not insight or education) it offers. Adequately reflected in the ‘quality’ of much of the ‘debate’ in parliament. We are faced with a generation of entertainment addicted people. Sad & intrinsic aspect of contemporary culture .

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