With the deep crisis of the ANC and the prospect of it failing to win a majority in the 2024 elections, significant sections of the SACP and Cosatu are belatedly realising the time to abandon a sinking ship might be now. Still, it’s not clear that this will actually materialise. Although a majority of delegates resolved to support the SACP in the 2024 elections, the Cosatu leadership is not united around this issue. President Zingiswa Losi, for example, used her address to Congress to proselytise in favour of the ANC. She is not alone. Sadtu, the second biggest affiliate of Cosatu, did its best to subvert the resolution. And every effort will no doubt be made at the upcoming Cosatu Central Executive Committee to “moderate” the resolution, passed by a majority of delegates.
And it is not the first time Cosatu has taken a resolution of this nature. In 2018 it took a similar resolution, making further support for the ANC contingent on the reconfiguration of the Alliance. As we well know, no reconfiguration took place and yet Cosatu decided to campaign for the ANC in the 2019 elections. And with the ANC elective conference coming up shortly, one can expect much horse trading to get key Cosatu leaders to fall back into line.
Of course, for those in support of the resolution, and for a new alliance to emerge in the form of a left-popular front, there is the small issue of the SACP itself deciding to break with the ANC. At its July Congress, although the idea was mooted, it resolved that its Central Committee: must conclude a review of progress and assess its experience on the reconfiguration of the Alliance, the renewal and unity process, and …finalise the roadmap and modalities to contest elections more effectively with or without a reconfigured Alliance.
In other words, it continues to prevaricate and postpone taking any categorical decision. Nevertheless, there is impetus, both in Cosatu and the SACP, for a break with the ANC. And the idea of bringing together other trade union formations, social movements and components of the Left into a left popular front has a powerful resonance.
From the Cosatu congress, it is clear that the anger of public sector workers with government’s programme of wage cuts is galvanising support for a break with the ANC. And in reality, a united front approach to fighting capital and the state is increasingly becoming a reality in the trade union movement. A joint programme of action to resist the 3 percent wage offer has been developed by all the major federations, building on joint stay-away actions of Cosatu and Saftu. The recent way Amcu and Num conducted their strike at Sibanye Stillwater was exemplary and offers a vivid example of what unity in action can achieve (see Amandla! 82).
Should the public sector unions decide to go on strike for an above-inflation wage increase, which now seems inevitable, the left popular front could come into existence, if not in name then indeed. This will be no ordinary strike; it is not just a struggle against an employer. This will be a strike against the core of government’s macro-economic policy – the drive to run budgetary surpluses. Lined up against public sector workers will be not just the government but capital, the commercial media, the political establishment, the government’s growing number of creditors, the credit rating agencies, etc. To win, public sector workers will have to reach out to allies in the workers and popular movement and in broader society – to the millions of workers and poor who are denied decent public services. They will need to broaden their demands to go beyond wages.
So Cosatu and the SACP would do well to convene the left popular front, not in the first instance for the purposes of building an electoral bloc, but to campaign against the conditions of the workers and the poor. An anti-austerity campaign, along with the wage demand of 10%, a demand to fill the frozen posts in the public sector and for a universal basic income grant of at least R1500, as demanded by the Assembly of the Unemployed, can draw together broader social forces.
The political challenge of the climate crisis
Any campaign against austerity would have to oppose the privatisation of the crisis-ridden electricity and transport sectors. And that would require the left popular front to spell out an alternative vision for these sectors. And here is the challenge. Could the potential components of a left-popular front agree on such a vision? For example, in relation to Eskom, there are deep divisions between progressive forces on addressing the so-called energy transition and climate crisis. For many in the labour movement, there are serious misgivings about government’s plans for transitioning from coal, not least the unbundling and privatisation of Eskom. On the other hand, left environmentalists believe the labour movement is refusing to acknowledge the terrible environmental impact of the fossil fuel industry and the need to decarbonise the economy.
And these are not just tactical or strategic differences. These are fundamental. Can socialists living in the depth of the climate crisis retain a productivist vision of socialism with little or no concern for ecology? John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clarke, in Expropriation of Nature, alert us to Marx’s ecology and understanding of how capital expropriates nature and leads to environmental disaster based on the dispossession/alienation of workers from the land: By the time he wrote Capital, Marx was not only acutely aware of the seriousness of the metabolic rift between humanity and nature that emerged with capitalist expropriation of the earth but argued that this was related to the expropriation of human beings themselves.
To be relevant, a left-popular front will have to recognise that in this period of neoliberal capitalism, struggles outside the workplace, in the realm of social reproduction, are as significant as those related to the exploitation of labour within production. This means not just the ecological question, but importantly the struggles of women doing mostly unpaid care work, of rural communities against dispossession by TNCs, especially around extraction of raw materials, and anti-racist struggles against super-exploitation. These must be understood in terms of their anti-capitalist dynamic.
There are different ways of understanding the nature and dynamic of these struggles. Those coming from an SACP tradition will see them as what defines the struggle as national democratic – the incomplete aspects of the anti-colonial struggle. Others will see them as the intersectional issues of a multi-faceted struggle against capitalism. And some will see them through the prism of combined and uneven development.
Democracy in a front
So a front broad enough to gather the strength necessary to challenge the system will require a tolerance of different views and analyses within an anti-neoliberal and anti-capitalist framework. Authoritarianism and the remnants of Stalinist practices, so prevalent in the labour movement, pose a great threat to the formation of such a front.
Consider the Numsa general secretary’s report to its forthcoming Central Committee: At what point … do we begin to grapple with how we organise the working-class axis of the revolution in the country with a possible minimum program to be pursued? Cosatu, SACP, Numsa, SRWP and ABM all need to form part of this discussion. This includes engaging Saftu affiliates that agree with the Numsa moment and Numsa crystalised formations.
By implication all those progressive forces Irvin Jim is at war with for not endorsing his dysfunctional SRWP would be excluded. This would include the Saftu leadership, the popular organisations of the Working Class Summit and other Left formations driven out of the United Front. Joe Slovo, in his seminal pamphlet on the collapse of the Soviet Union, Has Socialism Failed? denounced this politics: The term ‘Stalinism’ is used to denote the bureaucratic-authoritarian style of leadership (of parties both in and out of power) which denuded the party and the practice of socialism of most of its democratic content and concentrated power in the hands of a tiny, self-perpetuating elite…The essential content of Stalinism — socialism without democracy — was retained even after Stalin.
In order to have a hope of being an adequate response to the multiple crises gripping South Africa, a left popular front would have to decisively break with authoritarian practices. Only an open, democratic, tolerant broad front can draw together the social forces that are needed.