WHEN WE THINK OF NORTH stars, we think of a destination we feel we are striving for. The South African Left lacks a north star today. The truth of contemporary South African politics is that the anti-apartheid struggle was the great unifier of progressive forces. It oriented most political activity towards a clear goal of social re-ordering (i.e., towards a non-racial society). In the firmly post-apartheid period we now find ourselves in, what comes next has been less apparent. Looking at the character and appearance of our popular movements today, the weight of dead generations presses heavily on our shoulders.
Trapped by national liberation…
To put the point more plainly: the Left in South Africa can be characterised by a formal distinction. On the one hand the “independent Left”; on the other the Tripartite Alliance of the ANC, SACP and Cosatu. But the ideological frameworks and organisational strategies which form the broad Left’s general worldview have not changed. They remain steadfastly within the confines of the national liberation ideology.
The difference is in how the political task is conceived. The ANC is committed to the delusion that it is still the custodian of the mass democratic movement, inaugurated during the anti-apartheid struggle. The independent Left, rightly, understands that this path has been betrayed. The “Numsa moment” was a watershed. But only because it seemed that at last the efforts to reconstitute the South African Left would at last have the institutional backing thought necessary to galvanise the South African working class. A political formation weighty with the clout and legitimacy of fighting during the apartheid era. The unspoken rule of South African mobilisation is that the bridge to renewal can only be built with the foundations of what came before.
. …and by vanguardism
The consequences are evident now in the crisis afflicting Numsa. In South Africa, vanguardism is associated with the Stalinist tendencies of the Alliance Left and its bureaucratic-authoritarian styles of governance. A narrow understanding of vanguardism is that it rests on the belief that political organising requires an advanced set of stewards. But this has been the default mode of organising for all stripes of the South African Left. The psychic over-investment in the Numsa moment bears this out clearly.
In effect, Numsa was appointed as the vanguard of Left renewal in South Africa. It was the key actor that would steer the rejuvenation of popular forces. And then, when it abandoned the United Front, the front collapsed. Why did this have to be the case? This isn’t to deny the important role that Numsa had to play (especially it’s huge supply of resources) – but why was this elevated to an essential role?
We live now in the dark shadow cast by the failure of those processes. But even now, efforts to reconstitute Left forces constantly emphasise the need to ensure that the right alignment of representatives from social movements, labour, and sympathetic intelligentsia are brought in before any organising happens. This is functionally what the front model – a “movement of movements” – is. And then, we assume that simply by asserting that we are different to the toxic traditions of the ANC traditions – that we are democratic, participatory, and non-sectarian –these values will follow in practice. But it’s the other way around – the practice must come first.
The myth of the radical masses
Ultimately, this quiet vanguardism originates in how, for the most part, we take for granted the level of readiness of popular forces. It is always assumed that the masses are at the ready. Firstly, because things are so dire, it seems obvious what people want – jobs, housing, etc. And secondly, because we presuppose that the anti-apartheid struggle over-politicised South Africans. It implanted in them a radical predisposition which is now lying dormant, waiting to be harnessed again. But this comes from exaggerating how much of a genuinely-mass period the anti-apartheid period was, especially at the peak of the United Democratic Front (which is the main inspiration behind the “front-model”). It is always assumed, in the imagination of today, that people were faithfully attending meetings, reliably showing up for marches, and enthusiastically partaking in debates.
As Steven Friedman once admitted about “struggle” politics before 1994: Democratic politics was difficult: despite romantic myths about mass politics under apartheid, the links between activists and the people were often weak. When an activist said they had consulted “the people”, they meant the layer of activists below them.
And this is basically how things have continued until today – the assumption that there are some multitudes somewhere, waiting only to be mobilised.
The effect of the myth today
As a result, we avoid any serious questions on how we organise and on what programme, when we think about strategy. This does not happen consciously. It happens because we have inherited a political culture which generally has failed in the task of seriously trying to win people over. They are already assumed to be on our side, and in need only of a nudge.
Even when we contemplate the daunting question of how to unseat the ANC from its command at the polls, we buy into the over-simplified story told about who continues to support it. In this story, the ANC is the party of liberation and weaponises that legacy to sustain loyalty. Thus, we conclude, it is the ANC’s national liberation hegemony which makes it resilient. Therefore it is this ideology that we must tap into (I have been guilty of making something of this argument as well, elsewhere).
And again, this falls into the vanguardist trap (in the very broad way I am conceiving of it). It assumes that the masses lie in wait. All we need is just the right campaign, or the right formation at the helm, or the right charismatic leader at the forefront, or the right general strike called at the right time, or the right time to raise a flag, etc etc.
And again, this is a mode that emerges from a context where it wasn’t as necessary for political forces to organise. Ending apartheid was no easy victory, but apartheid was easy to oppose. In other words, its moral and political reprehensibility was not a difficult case to make for the majority. What was required was the work of mobilisation, coordinating protest and resistance, to destabilise the system.
Our situation is different. Apartheid made inequality so apparently unjust by explicitly racialising it. That inequality now appears naturalised under an economic system which supposedly gives everybody equal opportunity. And it reproduces itself through the “dull compulsion of economic relations” – the imperative to work and survive. Most are resigned to their position in the class structure because they see no other option.
The work of organising is to persuade that there are other options. To do this, we must fully shed the baggage of the anti-apartheid template. We need a new emancipatory horizon. Yet this is something we cannot conjure in the abstract. It requires making the right start, and earnestly going to the people.
Will Shoki is the deputy editor of Africa Is A Country and a member of the Amandla! editorial collective.