By William Gumede*
In politics, like in life generally, a window of opportunity suddenly opens up, to rapidly close thereafter. Unless, one grabs it, the moment and the opportunity pass with astonishing speed.
Such a window of opportunity has opened up for Zwelinzima Vavi, the expelled Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) general secretary, and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) and the eight other former Cosatu affiliates who have decided to set up an alternative political lobby group, the United Front (UF).
The group has now resolved to go ahead with their as yet undefined, unclear and unspecified political formation, following the rejection of their bids at the Cosatu special conference last month to reinstate NUMSA as a member, and to bring back Vavi as general secretary, of the trade union federation.
If the group does form a proper political party, it will mark one of the most dramatic political developments in South Africa’s governing African National Congress since it came to power in 1994, and may radically shake-up South Africa’s politics. The arrival of a new trade union movement-based party has the potential to breathe new energy into SA’s lethargic party political system.
Such an arrangement will bring more competition into South Africa’s politics, shake-up the ANC’s complacency, and could bring in the real possibility of coalitions at both the national and the local level in the country’s politics.
South Africa’s democratic system could best served by a genuinely democratic, mainstream trade union-based party, à la Brazil’s Socialist Party (PT), which would be to the left of the ANC, with the ANC remaining at the left-of-centre, the Democratic Alliance on the centre-right, and the Left populist Economic Freedom Fighters and the far-left socialist parties on the flanks.
Globally, there has been since the 2007-2009 global and Eurozone financial crisis a rise in the number of Left-wing new political parties in industrial countries also. Syriza, the acronym for ‘Coalition of the Radical Left’, now in power in Greece, was set up in July 2013. The German Die Linke (Left Party) was established in 2007, and got elected to head the state of Thuringia in 2014. These parties are all trying to stay relevant to our times, by trying to steer a path between the old-style communist parties and the traditional centrist left-parties.
But Brazil’s Socialist Party (PT), although from a different era, is still one of the most successful trade union-based political parties in the developing world, and should be the example to the Vavi group. The PT’s success has been based on pragmatism: a trade union-based political party, in alliance with sections of the middle class as well progressive business. They focused on fostering an economy based on social justice, making the democracy better, and striving for racial inclusivity.
It appears the United Front (UF) is divided between some who want to form a political party immediately and others who want the UF to remain a civil society lobby group or a social movement first, and then over time form a party. However, the real opportunity is for the UF to immediately turn into a political party and contest the 2016 local government elections.
The UF’s success as a political party will depend on timing. The perfect timing is now. The ANC is reeling under disillusionment over government failures, the personal and public leadership failures of President Jacob Zuma and the rising economic difficulties for ordinary supporters of the party, in contrast with the increasing and ostentatiously displayed wealth of ANC leaders.
Contesting next year’s local government elections will also give the UF the opportunity to present itself as a grown-up alternative to the Economic Freedom Fighters of Julius Malema. If the UF does not form a political party ahead of the 2016 local government elections it risks becoming eclipsed by the EFF.
At the moment there is a space on the left of South Africa’s politics, where many ANC supporters are looking for a home. The EFF is positioning itself to secure such voters. Although the EFF will have really big support among the black youth, black adults are unlikely to genuinely support them, except for tactically, to oppose the ANC.
If the EFF, however, over time managed to position themselves as a more mature party on the Left, it is will capture that space on the Left of the ANC, and it would be very difficult for the UF, when it forms a political party to challenge them for that space.
The South African Communist Party (SACP) is under pressure from its youth wing and many branches to stand in elections as an independent party, because they are increasingly aware that the EFF may step into that space, and thereafter may not be easy dislodged. If the SACP enters into the electoral arena as an independent party, it will further close off the space for the UF.
The relative success of the EFF is because it has essentially taken over all the branches, organisers and resources of the ANC Youth League, which gave it an almost immediate machine, compared to smaller parties which had to start from scratch building up branches, getting members.
A party formed by the UF would even be more well-equipped, given the massive resources of trade unions – the money, buildings and organisers, which would be a ready political machine.
Since 1994, all the serious political realignments happened to the right of the ANC, and involved the mostly white opposition parties. A number of new black political parties have formed, whether as splinters from existing black opposition parties such as the Inkatha Freedom Party, or the breakaway from the ANC, the Congress of the People (COPE) – all of these formed from the right of the ANC.
The parties which did form on the Left of the ANC were variously from the Black Consciousness (BC) and Pan Africanist of Azania (PAC) wings, and they were so small, perceived to have such impractical policies and so old-style, they were never going to get mass support. New leftwing parties outside the ANC, were also rigid in their policies, removed from the day-to-day problems of ordinary black South Africans, they were also never going to be successful.
Learning from the failures of other Left-wing new political parties since 1994 will be for the UF not to be too ideological, like the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP) or populist – like the EFF – but must focus on bread-and-butter problems of people. Ordinary black voters are worried about lack of jobs, poor transport, education and crime in their neighbourhoods.
To harp on instigating a Marxist-Leninist ‘revolution’ or to ensure the victory of the ‘proletariat’ is not very grown-up, realistic or practical. Moreover, such a message is unlikely to appeal to ordinary black people struggling to eke out a living when jobs are scarce and insecure, public services ineffective, many democratic, traditional and religions institutions self-serving and corrupt. And children have to be raised in the midst of broken families, individuals and communities.
* William Gumede is chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation. He is the author of the bestselling Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg). A version of this article originally appeared in The Witness newspaper, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.