Sunday, 2 April 2017

Left-Wing Paralysis: Dispatches from the Echo-Chambers of the South African Left

“Revolutionaries do not make revolutions. The revolutionaries are those who know when power is lying in the street and when they can pick it up.”

Hannah Arendt, 1989 Thoughts on Politics and Revolution[1]

Faced with perhaps the greatest post-Apartheid crisis of leadership and governance that the democratic dispensation has endured, the South African left are largely unable to find a coherent voice, and are hence unable to mount any serious programme of action to remedy the situation.

The situation, however, is clear if one follows the money. The recent cabinet reshuffle is a thinly veiled attempt to follow through on a series of attempts to green-light the R1 Trillion nuclear deal. Indeed, no sooner than the new Minister of Finance had been appointed did he declare his support for the deal. The nuclear deal follows a long line of scandalous corruption expose’s, disastrous maladministration debacles and numerous attempts to take control of the various institutions that make up the state complex, by the current ANC government, led by President Jacob Zuma.

It is true that there are many dimensions to the crisis that South Africa finds itself in, in general. Economic growth is marginal, almost at a stall, unemployment and inequality are at unacceptable levels, the various institutions and organisations within the state that are tasked with delivery have hollowed out from within and regularly failed dismally to meet public demand, some parastatals (such as South African Airways) have required large bail-outs despite poor leadership and constant failure to meet their own targets, strikes and protests are regular features of the South African political landscape, and the political decision-making is so unpredictable that it regularly sends shockwaves through the economy. To add to this, the ruling party has all but fragmented and split from within, and the ANC is now in a pitched battle with itself while the nation looks on. It is the worst of times for South Africa since the heydays of Apartheid.

Yet it is undeniable that the pending nuclear deal, which the president needs to sign off on before the December 2017 ANC presidential election presents the most immediate threat to the medium and long term future of South Africa. To ignore this central reality is to ignore the fact that every other social agenda relies on the security of the public purse. Whether one talks of free or semi-free education, healthcare, public transport, social housing, and so forth, the reality is that a deal that is likely to induce crippling debt would thwart every other agenda that the left raises its voice in support of. So this is a time when anyone who is familiar with the political history of South Africa would legitimately expect that the left would be on the march. Yet it isn’t so. The question is why.

In order to understand the South African left you need to rewind back to the events of Polokwane in December 2007, where the left played a critical and key role in ousting then president Thabo Mbeki from the leadership seat of the ANC, and handing it over to Jacob Zuma. At the time, Jacob Zuma was already a divisive public figure. He had over 700 counts of corruption pending against him, most related to the ‘other’ deal that went awry in South Africa, the famous ‘arms deal’. He had also been previously forced to step down from the vice presidency after the 2005 Hilary Squires judgment, in which he was found to have had a “mutually beneficial” relationship with Schabir Shaik, who was found guilty of corruption and sentenced.  

At the time, the South African left rationalised the ANC’s internal coup at Polokwane by claiming that Jacob Zuma would restore the agenda of the left and revive the famous post-Apartheid Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), which had died under the neoliberal policies of Thabo Mbeki. Jacob Zuma, we were promised, would be our Hugo Chavez, our Evo Morales, he would put the left agenda into motion and rescue the poor from their margins and bring them into the centre. They would be priority number one, and Jacob Zuma – the ‘consensus builder’ – was the one to do it because he was not like the ‘arrogant’ Thabo Mbeki who they viewed as increasingly more autocratic in nature.

The South African Communist Party threw their weight behind Jacob Zuma. The Council of South African Trade Unions and the ANC Youth League also threw their weight behind him, with Julius Malema – the leader of the ANCYL – and Zwelinzima Vavi – the leader of COSATU – declaring that they were willing to “kill for Jacob Zuma”. Mathews Phosa and long list of ANC leaders that sit within the ANC National Executive Committee also loudly proclaimed their support for Jacob Zuma. Prominent activists such as Zackie Achmat also supported Jacob Zuma, declaring that he should be given a chance to govern and be judged on that.

There were very many leaders who convinced South Africans that they should judge Jacob Zuma on his performance. He drew the SACP closer to the centre of power than they had been under the latter years of the Mbeki government, as well as COSATU, and they became central to his leadership. For the left, they were given the pound seat under Zuma, and they readily took position. At the time there was little critical reflection, there was an eagerness to get on with it and rhetoric took precedence over analysis. There was scant hesitation on the part of the left and they proceeded to mount an impenetrable defence of the new President and his leadership, of which they were a part.

Fast-forward to 2017 and the ANC alliance with the SACP and COSATU lies in tatters. The vast majority of prominent leaders who stood by Jacob Zuma – even those who professed to be prepared to kill and die for him – are now his most vocal critics. Just yesterday the SACP called for his resignation, despite the fact that they were the biggest winners in last week’s cabinet reshuffle. They now profess deep outrage at President Zuma’s actions and insinuate that his decision-making has proceeded in a manner that goes against the ANC’s traditions of consultative governance, that he is in effect making his decisions without them, and by implication, with others that lie outside of the ANC fold.

Yet the intellectual and activist left have found themselves unable to mount any serious programme of action against President Jacob Zuma’s leadership. Their first explanation is that having made the mistake of throwing their support behind Zuma at the outset; that they need to be more reflective of their actions now. Their second explanation is that the Zuma leadership represents an ideological project, which necessitates accessing the national treasury so that they can have greater control over how funds are dispensed in service of the poor. On the face of it, these explanations seem to make sense. Yet there is far more to the left’s reluctance to take action against President Jacob Zuma.

It can be better understood by examining the consistent pattern of behaviour that has emerged over the years, as each and every scandal around the president and his leadership has hit the headlines. With each new scandal and failure, the initial response of the left is to profess outrage and unhappiness at the most recent turn of events. That is, their shock is vented and it is unmistakeable that they are unhappy with the situation.

Thereafter, however, when public calls to action are made, the left retreats into hyper-theoretical analysis and begin to demand that without a clear programme of action that addresses the underlying systemic problems (as they see it) in our government and economic system, they cannot throw their support behind any programme of protest action. They also raise doubts about who they may be asked to partner with – typically associating any centrist dissenters with the agendas of the private sector and big ‘monopoly capital’ – and flatly refuse to join hands with them. They refuse to compromise what can only be termed as their ‘ideological purity’, for the sake of convenience. “What will come next?” they shudder, and retreat into long-winded conspiracies and theoretical meanders, avoiding taking any action in the end.

In their view, and it is plain to see if one witnesses the interactions between prominent left intellectuals, academics and activists, that they desire a coherent programme of action before budging an inch off their seats. That they are not willing to join with a rag-tag mixed bunch of ordinary South Africans and different interest groups to see through an issue-based agenda. Without a clear ideological programme, they aren’t interested in wading into the space of action. Indeed, they are consistent in this position, as it is also the position they adopt towards the student activists who have been protesting for free and ‘decolonized’ higher education in South Africa. Ironically, many student activists who have themselves been abandoned by the left take up the same position towards any attempt at a broad public coalition to oust the Zuma leadership. It is indisputable, however, that all and sundry who occupy this position believe deeply in what they profess to.

Yet if one looks behind the ideological posturing, and the desire for a coherent political project as a pre-requisite for action, there is a stark reality that cannot be ignored. It can be understood by asking why the left were so quick to jump into bed with Jacob Zuma in the first place. Despite the mea culpa’s that abound in left discourse – that they were too quick to throw their support behind Zuma and are hence being more careful now – the reality is somewhat different. If one reads between the lines and looks past the pretence of ideological purity, this has everything to do with power.

Simply put, the left threw caution to the wind in their early support of Jacob Zuma because they saw him as their opportunity to gain power. Now, when faced with the abject failure of his presidency, they are unable to see a clear way to power by joining hands with the rest of society and committing to an issue-based programme of public action. Hence the reticence to proceed without a clear ideological framework, hence the suspicion of actors from other sectors in society who they fear may hijack the momentum and marginalise them. They are not refusing to take action due to a preference for ideological consistency; rather they refusing to act because they cannot see clearly how they gain significant political power through becoming part of a broader, issue-based movement for change.

Were the situation different – i.e. if the left were unified and strong, and could mobilise broad-based public support – they would no doubt be hurling themselves headlong into protest, convincing the rest of society (like they did before) to trust that they would work out their ideological programme when they were in the driving seat of power and could make things happen. The high levels of navel-gazing and introspection that the left are currently engaged in, ad nauseam, would be swiftly put aside and reconciled as critical to the pragmatics of power.

In respect of the claim that the Zuma presidency is guided by an ideological project, the reality is that this ideological project never materialised in any significant shape or form over two terms under Zuma. It is not a sincere ideological project; it is merely a smokescreen for accessing the treasury to guarantee the financial gain of Zuma’s large patronage network within and outside of government. The nuclear deal is central to this agenda, and that is why it alone presents South Africa with an immediate crisis of gargantuan proportions. It is effectively the ‘check-mate’ of the Zuma presidency, and even if he is removed as ANC president at the end of the year and recalled, once set in motion, a deal as large as this will prove very difficult to undo.

With the exception of very few on the left, such as the Alternative Information and Development Centre who put out a statement calling for the left to put their differences with the rest of society aside to stop Zuma’s leadership and the nuclear deal, the overwhelming response from left wing intellectuals and academics has been to refuse to be seen to be part of any public action that is led by those who have taken the first step. They are even unwilling to enter the space of action and collectively formulate a vision that they can be comfortable with; which in reality is how most sincere, practical political projects are formulated. They have adopted an attitude of distrust towards the groups who are taking action, instead of engaging them and working out their differences.

Although it is a great pity that the left cannot be seen to reduce itself to engagement with those of other persuasions, including ordinary South Africans who are largely unable to engage in deep left wing theoretical debates, it is the left that will suffer most as a result of their inaction. Throwing themselves into the space of action offers them a critical opportunity, that is; to reconstitute the heavily fragmented left into a cohesive public force for change. Nothing unifies as much as broad-based engagement does, it is a testing ground where issues and interests can be resolved in the space of action. The immediacy of action forces a pragmatism that many on the intellectual front of the left are so far away from that they have essentially made themselves irrelevant. This is true not just in South Africa, but in many other parts of the world right now, hence the ironic adoption of left-wing discourse by those within the alt-right.

Yet the leadership vacuum remains, and it will be captured by those who are willing to get on to the streets and engage with ordinary people, mobilise them, and give them a structured approach towards achieving the goals of their cause. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and this is especially the case when crisis has arrived on society’s doorstep. The space of action contains the fire that forges the new ‘steel’ of movement. Movements cannot be built in theory, from afar, they need to be built with real people – warts and all – and diverse sets of actors, in order to be effective enough to contest power.

In the end, the left’s worst nightmare – that of a country that continues to be driven by a liberal agenda – may become a reality precisely because they refuse to act. And it is predictable what they will do. They will snipe from the side-lines, pointing out all the theoretical reasons why whoever is ruling is moving things in the wrong direction and will ultimately fail to give South Africans the future they desire, but the reality is that they have abdicated their first responsibility. That is, the first responsibility of anybody who is engaged in the political domain is to society itself, and not to grand ideologies or theories, or to their need to retain the respect and admiration of their peers (which is to whom most internal debates on the left are directed). The first responsibility of political actors is to the people, and not just to power; it is indeed strange and surreal that the left itself needs to be reminded of that, but here we are.

[1] Full quote: “Revolutionaries do not make revolutions! The revolutionaries are those who know when power is lying in the street and when they can pick it up. Armed uprising by itself has never yet led to revolution.”

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