Pointer to disillusionment
ANC support continues to drop, writes Peter Manson, but the main beneficiary is the black nationalist EFF
While no doubt president Cyril Ramaphosa will be delighted that the African National Congress comfortably retained its parliamentary majority in the May 8 general election, the overriding message remains the same: there is ever-increasing disillusionment in the ANC on the part of South Africa’s black majority.
Some 18 months ago, with Jacob Zuma still at the helm, there seemed to be a real possibility that ANC support would dip below the 50% mark, since a large section of its membership - not least one of the ANC’s key components, the South African Communist Party - wanted him out because of his blatant and ongoing corruption. But the ANC received 57.5% of the vote on May 8 under Ramaphosa, giving it 230 seats in the 400-seat parliament under the completely proportional electoral system. It also retained eight of the nine provinces in the simultaneous provincial elections - the exception being the Western Cape, where the majority ‘coloured’ and white population have together consistently elected the opposition Democratic Alliance since the end of apartheid in 1994.
As for the national elections, however, the DA also lost ground - its support fell from 22.2% in 2014 to 20.8% this time round, resulting in a loss of five seats and taking it down to 84. The big winners were the left-populist Economic Freedom Fighters, whose votes almost doubled. They were up from 6.4% to 10.8%, giving them 19 extra seats (up to 44) - the same number that the ANC lost.
And that is no coincidence, of course. It is the EFF, with their red berets and radical calls for the seizure of land - combined with a black nationalism that sometimes spills over into anti-white racism - that have benefited from the mounting disillusionment. This has also been reflected not only in the continuing fall in ANC votes (last week was the first time its support fell below 60% in a general election), but in a large increase in the number of spoilt ballot papers - more than a quarter of a million of them, which would have been enough votes to elect five MPs! - not to mention a big dip in the turnout. This time around it fell to 66%, compared to 73.5% in 2014.
And that is not all. The number of registered voters also fell - there were just 26.8 million of them out of a population of 56.7 million. Leaving aside those aged under 18 and foreign residents, it is estimated that almost 10 million eligible voters did not register. Of course, things are rather different in South Africa than in, say, the UK, simply because over 12 million people live in ‘informal settlements’ - ie, shacks. They do not receive an invitation to register through the post - many shacks have no officially recognised address - and so it is up to the occupants to go and register themselves. Fewer and fewer now consider it worth the bother.
Who can blame them? What improvements in living conditions have they seen under the ANC? It is true that some shacks now have access to running water and even electricity, but South Africa is now officially the most unequal country in the world and the ANC has done nothing to tackle mass poverty. In fact unemployment has increased and now stands at 27%.
However, while the ANC has lost black votes to the EFF, ironically sections of the white-dominated bourgeoisie have - however reluctantly - started to come over to it. Ramaphosa is now seen as the best hope for capital - not just in terms of ending state corruption, but in stimulating the economy and increasing profits.
Whereas previously the ANC was regarded as highly problematic because of its alliance with the Communist Party and Congress of South African Trade Unions, today both the SACP and Cosatu no longer enjoy the influence they once did. Cosatu is numerically much weaker than it was a decade ago, thanks to the expulsion of its largest component, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), and the subsequent departure of other unions. As for the SACP, yes, it still boasts government ministers, but this is of very little concern today. For example, Rob Davies has been minister for trade and industry since 2009 and is certainly regarded by capital as a safe pair of hands. And, ironically, under Ramaphosa the SACP’s influence within the ANC seems to have diminished, even though the party backed him against Zuma.
This found reflection before the election in several prominent figures announcing that they regarded support for Ramaphosa as the best route right now. For example, Peter Bruce, the editor-at-large of the Tiso Blackstar media group, wrote an article two months ago headed: “If not Cyril Ramaphosa, then who?”,1 while Colin Coleman, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs in sub-Saharan Africa, declared last month in The Economist that Ramaphosa was “the last hope for democracy”.2 The magazine’s own leader was headlined: “Good man, bad party”, followed by: “To stop the rot in South Africa, back Cyril Ramaphosa”.3
As for the Democratic Alliance, any hope that capital may have had that it could eventually pose a serious challenge to the ANC has now all but evaporated. True, it now has a black leader, but its origins were in the liberal, whites-only Progressive Party under apartheid, and it was always improbable that such an organisation could win over the mass of blacks. But now the DA has been hit by its own corruption scandals and suffered a damaging split, while at the same time the EFF - a definite ‘no no’ for the bourgeoisie - has been picking up support. For many, then, the task now is to transform the ANC into a permanent, reliable, pro-capitalist force.
But it goes without saying that the SACP does not see things in quite that way. Despite the hard reality and bitter experience of the last 25 years, the party still insists that the ANC is heading the “national democratic revolution” (NDR), which, in case you were wondering, is apparently “the most direct route to socialism in South Africa”.
Before Ramaphosa’s election as ANC leader last year, the SACP had taken the decision to go for a “reconfigured alliance” by standing general election candidates under its own name - rather than under the ANC umbrella, as it always has up to now. But the dismissal of Zuma changed all that. As the leadership put it in its post-election statement, “The ANC-led government, however, began turning the corner against governance decay in 2018 under the leadership of comrade Cyril Ramaphosa as the president of the ANC and the republic.”4
The SACP is not in the slightest concerned by Ramaphosa’s actual politics, it seems. True, he started out as a trade union officer and was a leading figure in the ANC under Nelson Mandela, but his contacts in the post-apartheid establishment facilitated his transformation into a major capitalist and one of South Africa’s richest men. He is, of course, notorious for the role he played in encouraging “concomitant action” by the police against striking miners in 2012, with the result that the very next day 34 of them were shot dead. But he did apologise, of course, so that’s all right then.
And now, ever optimistic, the SACP states of the election result:
This is a mandate to move the national democratic revolution, our national transformation programme, on to a second, more radical phase. The immediate strategic task of this phase of our revolution is to complete our liberation and achieve social emancipation. This requires radical structural transformation to build a people’s economy, create decent work and systematically eradicate economic inequalities, unemployment, poverty and social insecurity.
It omits to say that the above tasks were supposed to have been accomplished in the first, non-“radical” phase!
In view of the SACP’s outright treachery in continuing to support the ANC, as it moved ever rightward and adopted a fully fledged neoliberal programme, it is hardly surprising that its insistence on the centrality of the ANC alliance and the forward march of the NDR began to erode its dominance within the unions. Following Marikana, it was Numsa, with its 340,000 members, that was the first to declare a breach, when its conference in 2013 agreed to break with both the ANC and SACP - for which it was expelled from Cosatu the following year.
From the beginning the Numsa leadership announced its intention to establish an alternative party - one that would uphold working class independence on what it considered to be a principled Marxist basis - in reality one that trod in the ‘official communist’ footsteps learnt by Numsa leaders, such as general secretary Irvin Jim, in their long years in the SACP.
But for years nothing happened - until just over a month ago in April 2019, when at last the launch congress of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party was held. Jim and his comrades had been involved in a bitter dispute with former Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi over the nature of any new party, with Vavi insisting that a much ‘broader’ working class formation was required than what Jim had in mind.
But this dispute appears to have had the effect of firming up Jim’s ideas a little and the congress came out with a number of principled ideas - not least the centrality of class struggle in the fight for socialism and the refusal to see elections as an end in themselves. According to Shaheen Khan of the newly formed SRWP national working committee, rather than pursuing votes, the party must focus on “using every opportunity to raise the consciousness of the working class on the nature of the capitalist system and our need to organise independently outside of parliament and against it”. The SRWP’s aim is “merely to secure a presence in parliament, from which we can raise the working class voice and expose the capitalist nature of parliament itself”.5
While the provisional leadership had previously registered the new party’s name with the electoral commission, it had done next to nothing in terms of organisation. There is still no SRWP website, for instance, although the party does have a Facebook page.6 From this it appears that there is a branch in Cape Town. But elsewhere? There were many complaints that the full election manifesto was inaccessible, although eventually it was made available online by a non-party source.7
The problem is that, for all its revolutionary rhetoric, the SRWP in reality resulted from a trade union split and could hardly be expected to lead a dynamic party campaign. And so it turned out to be prior to the general election - there seems to have been very little by way of campaigning of any sort.
Nevertheless, I was not alone in assuming that the SRWP would emerge from that election with two or three MPs. After all, to gain a seat a party needs to pick up just a quarter of one percent (0.25%) of the national ballot - which this time round translated into around 44,000 votes. Yet the membership of Numsa - where Jim and co had been attempting to build support for the new party - was well over 300,000. And in addition a couple of single-issue campaigns had come out in support of the SRWP. For his part, Jim had stated that the aim was to gain more votes than the EFF.
So to say that the actual result was a disappointment is an understatement: the SRWP polled just 24,439 votes - a mere 0.14%. In response to this, Ronnie Kasrils, the former SACP and ANC minister, who had been plugging the need for a new party (although in practice he sided with Vavi on the form that party should take), stated:
Unless it acts seriously and honestly to admit its shortcomings and outlines a different strategic approach, with sustained practical work on the ground, rather than revolutionary phrase-mongering - a sure sign of self-delusion - this disastrous result will give rise to immense disillusionment.8
But the last thing the SRWP leadership is willing to do is “admit its shortcomings”, it seems. The May 11 post-election statement from newly elected SRWP general secretary Oupa Ralake began with the usual criticisms of the SACP and Cosatu:
The South African Communist Party … and the Congress of South African Trade Unions … in these elections openly supported and campaigned for the ANC and its billionaire leader, Mr Ramaphosa. Such historic betrayals of the working class by their own organisations work decisively against raising socialist consciousness among the working class.
Quite right. But what about the SRWP result? Ralake began by recapping the party’s objective in contesting:
We did not fool ourselves that we would win overwhelmingly, nor was that our objective in these elections. We hoped to secure both provincial and national seats, so that we could use these platforms to advance our struggles for socialism.
However, he continued, “we find that it is impossible for us to scientifically accept the accuracy of the results of these elections”:
In the light of the evidence available and our own knowledge of our weaknesses and strengths as the SRWP, we reject, quite contemptuously, the figures of the votes ascribed to us. While we had no doubts that our performance in these elections was not going to win us large votes, the figures ascribed to our votes are a joke and impossible to explain scientifically, other than that the system clearly dealt with us.
He went on:
We are not surprised that the ANC and the four or so main capitalist parties are carelessly overlooking the overwhelming evidence of extreme fraud and faults in the electoral machinery and processes. They, after all, have secured their positions as the mouthpieces of South African capitalism and imperialism - they got the results they wanted.
So what form did this “extreme fraud” take? Ralake claimed that several instances of people voting “multiple times” had been recorded and he listed numerous bureaucratic failings, such as voting stations opening late or closing early, or running out of ballot papers.
This is so pathetic, it is difficult to know where to start. How could people voting “multiple times” for, let us say, the ANC reduce the votes cast for the SRWP? And why would the DA and EFF consider this to be “the results they wanted” if it produced more ANC MPs? And why would it be only the SRWP that was adversely affected by the various “faults in the electoral machinery and processes”?
In truth, the deliberate falsification of the results of one party would have had to involve hundreds of people across the country and it is ludicrous to pretend that such blatant electoral fraud would not have been immediately exposed by, for example, some of those counting the votes.
In my opinion, this statement is an even bigger blow to the SRWP’s prospects than the actual results. Of course, no-one has taken the fraud allegations seriously and they were hardly covered in the mainstream press. But the point is that they have reduced to nothing the party’s credibility.
As Kasrils said, it is essential for any party to “admit its shortcomings” and “honestly” attempt to explain what went wrong. The idea that the SRWP, despite its utter disorganisation, was regarded as a serious threat that had to be “dealt with” by “the system” is so absurd that no-one at all will believe it. In reality several commentators had welcomed its participation in the elections - it would give voters a wider choice and help legitimise the ‘democratic process’.
And it had hardly been greeted by thousands wanting to sign up to it - or acclaimed by what exists of the South African left. For many, all this talk about socialism and revolution was “a major distraction” - as John Appolis claimed on the Elitsha website. For him, “the SRWP is premature, as it is not born of workers’ struggle and lacks a clear programme of action”. He wrote:
This abstract and almost religious phraseology on the need for the workers’ party is symptomatic of a formulaic approach to the question of the party. Because Lenin once said that in order to overthrow capitalism and usher in socialism the working class needs a revolutionary vanguard party, the task is to build such a party regardless of time and context.9
Rather, according to Appolis, we need to prioritise “the building and strengthening of existing defensive organisations of the working class”. After all,
the working class and its new movements have not won recognition among lower sections of the middle class, rural poor and other township dwellers as representatives of an alternative pole of power. Questions of alternative power arise in pre-revolutionary and revolutionary periods. Presently, we are far from both.
This is, of course, typical of the line taken by people across the world who once regarded themselves as “revolutionary”, but have now in effect given it all up as a bad job.
The establishment of a “revolutionary vanguard party” in every country is in reality a pressing need. Not, of course, because the working class is now ready to push for its own “alternative power” here and now. In fact, one of the many tasks of such a party would be “the building and strengthening of existing defensive organisations of the working class” - in the trade unions, for instance.
But even more important is the need to establish and encourage working class consciousness in the genuine sense. Only working class power can permanently liberate the masses from the economic oppression that is more pronounced in South Africa than almost anywhere else, which is why we need to stress constantly this necessity and the vehicle by which such liberation can be achieved.
So where does all this leave the fight for such a party in that country? In my view, we should not give up on the SRWP as a site for struggle just yet - assuming it does not die a death in the very short term. But that also applies to the SACP, which over recent years has seen a sharp increase in membership, coinciding with its stringent criticism of features of the Zuma government.
One of the weaknesses of Irvin Jim et al is that they did not fight first and foremost within the SACP for genuine Marxism and working class independence. If that had happened then we might have seen real lessons learnt, cadres steeled, arguments thrashed out, programmes and strategies developed and maybe, if necessary, a worthwhile split. Not a split between trade union officials, but a split between right and left.
Rand Daily Mail March 18.↩
SACP post-election statement, May 12.↩