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South Africa: What is left?

By Sello Mabotja in Johannesburg and Sue Cullinan
Posted on Monday, 21 September 2009 13:10

?President Jacob Zuma brings radicals into his big tent

The Left should be cracking open bottles of the people’s vodka in South Africa. In April, Jacob Zuma clinched the election on a wave of populist sentiment coupled with a leftist approach to economic redistribution.

Several communists won parliamentary seats while some were appointed to top ministries, and trade unions are now more strident than at any time since the end of apartheid. This has coincided with a global recession caused by the foibles of capitalism and a badly-regulated financial system.

Within weeks, Zuma’s credentials were tested by bruising encounters with dissatisfied township residents and striking municipal workers. People throughout the country are now asking just how left-wing is Zuma’s collective.

South Africa’s labour federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), is unquestionably the country’s most influential left-leaning formation. Not only does its influence remain unshaken within organised labour but, outside its ranks, it carries popular support for its perceived pro-poor agenda and, most importantly, it is well represented both in the hierarchy of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and in government.

A lesser contender in this category is the South African Communist Party (SACP), the ruling party’s oldest ally. Punching above its relative weight, the party has long been accused of exercising a disproportionate influence in its almost lifelong alliance with the ANC.

Critics of Zuma’s ascent to power search eagerly for signs of a ‘coup within a coup’ that would show his administration veering sharply toward the left in every political appointment and in its response to every challenge since his election in April. Zuma clinched the ANC presidency at the party’s 2008 Polokwane conference, largely thanks to the mobilising ability of trade unionists. Observers are watching for signs of payback or a Stalinist drift in government.

“Cosatu and the SACP are enjoying more access to the corridors of power now than in the past era of the Thabo Mbeki presidency,” says political scientist, Professor Adam Habib of the University of Johannesburg.

Coleen Garrow, an economist at Brait Merchant Bank, concurs. “Cosatu and SACP are increasingly being involved in policy issues and their voices have become even more important in economic policy issues,” she says. “This can be attributed to the developments at the international level. Globally, there is a shift to the left in terms of government involvement in the economy.”?

Talking left, walking right?

Analyst Steven Friedman says the dominant language is left-leaning, but the reality is a different situation altogether. Instead, he says: “We are witnessing the emergence of social conservatism. There is no turn whatsoever to the left. There is a perception that there are many freedoms in South Africa. That is why there is a call for the police to use deadly force. Concerns have also been raised about issues such as pornography.” The alliance is talking left but acting right. Zuma appointed moderates, says Friedman, to strategic ministries such as finance and the National Planning Commission (NPC). Not all would agree: former SA Revenue Services commissioner Pravin Gordhan was a long-time SACP member, and economic planning head Ebrahim Patel, along with advisors in the department such as Neil Coleman, come directly from Cosatu. Duma Qubule, chief executive of Kio Advisory Services, argues that ANC’s policy disputes are far from resolved: “We are going to witness serious contestations when it comes to the formulation and implementation of economic policy within government.”

Qubule says the ministries of trade and economic development favour radical, pro-poor economic prescriptions while the NPC and the finance ministries will back conservative and free-market policies. According to Qubule, the NPC should work itself out of a job. “It is not a super-ministry. It sets goals and objectives of the economic policy. After that, the economic development ministry will be responsible for spelling out the methods of implementation, while finance will be responsible for funding.”?

Under the NPC, some 20 experts are to be recruited from research institutions: some are proposing the involvement of high-profile figures such as Bobby Godsell, a former Anglo-American executive, and Mamphele Ramphele, former vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town.

Turning the economy around is the key challenge for Zuma’s rainbow coalition. The Mbeki government relied heavily on inflation-targeting, where the Reserve Bank used interest rates to control inflation and protect the local currency – to the fury of leftists and the trade unions.

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Under finance minister Trevor Manuel and Reserve Bank governor Tito Mboweni, the ANC government squeezed inflation out of the system. Qubule explains: “We used interest rates as the first, only and last resort when fighting inflation. This has proved imprudent.” He argued that instruments such as setting credit quotas in each sector, variable reserve requirements for banks and exchange rate-targeting would also curb inflation.

However, Professor Habib does not expect such arguments to lead to a breakaway of left-leaning ANC members or even the formation of a workers’ party. “Had Polokwane not happened there could have been a possibility of some disgruntled radical elements going on their own. Now the left has a significant voice and will rather stay and fight from within. It was a good move.”?

For many, the ANC’s 2008 conference was where the war was won. With the ousting of Mbeki, Zuma’s allies moved swiftly to clear him of corruption charges never tested in court, dissolving the investigative unit called the Scorpions (perceived as having pursued a vendetta against Zuma) and replacing both the police chief and chief justice in quick succession.

Challenges to the status quo now come largely from the political right – the opposition Democratic Alliance and the ANC-breakaway Congress of the People (COPE), formed in protest against Mbeki’s dismissal, but now floundering in leadership squabbles and ideological drift. Even left-leaning organisations such as the Landless People’s Movement, the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO), the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), the South African Anti-Privatisation Forum and the New Unity Movement appear to have accepted their role at the fringe. August protests against lack of service delivery and wildcat strikes during annual wage negotiations appear to have unsettled Zuma’s government only briefly, but there may be more trouble waiting in the wings.

“The PAC and AZAPO are supposed to be the biggest beneficiaries of the ANC’s inability to keep its electoral promises,” says Friedman. “They are also an intellectual force. But these parties are in disarray and their showing at the polls proves this. The people who are protesting about service delivery have opted to stay inside the ANC and fight from within rather than join any of the two radical leftist organisations.”

One person who can be relied upon not to pull their punches is controversial ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema. While the ANC prides itself on a tradition of non-racialism, Malema recently launched an attack on the composition of key departments in Zuma’s government. His gripe is a perceived preponderance of minority groups, or ‘non-Africans’ within the government’s key economic cluster, where ministers include Trevor Manuel (NPC in the Presidency), Pravin Gordhan (finance), Ebrahim Patel (economic development) and Rob Davies (trade and industry).

Malema has also jibed at the authenticity of the SACP and Young Communist League leaders, saying: “A small group of elites in the alliance present themselves as working class leaders while there is very little they do. They spend most of their time drinking red wine.” His remarks have led to a catfight of sorts in the tripartite alliance, with education minister Blade Nzimande deriding “opportunistic attempts” to play the ethnic card. Buti Manamela, secretary of the Young Communist League, warned of the “twin threats of narrow African chauvinism and white racism”.

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“It would be suicidal to deny the continued presence of racism in our society, but even more dangerous for the attainment of national unity and nation-formation is the denial of narrow African chauvinism. Our role as youth formations is to lead all young people, irrespective of their culture, without patronising them, into constituting quotas or seeking to attain parity. It is the challenge also for us to win over, and not to hate, young white South Africans in our universities, to appreciate our objectives of a national democratic society as a way of liberating them from white supremacist ideology,” said Manamela.

Despite such criticisms, Julius Malema defended Nzimande after the latter splurged an estimated R1.1m on a 7-series BMW (citing security factors as justification). “No one seems to take him seriously,” says Friedman. “But there is a tradition of senior politicians who do not have the courage of their convictions using ANCYL leaders to articulate their positions.”?

Malema has also called for debate on the nationalisation of mines and other key industries. The ANC appears not to have seized the gauntlet, although suggestions that mining giant Anglo American should have appointed a South African chairman may hint at interventions to come. Another development threatening the peace within Zuma’s ideological rainbow is the simmering issue of succession.

Speculation is rife that deputy minister of police Fikile Mbalula will challenge the incumbent ANC secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, for the position at the ANC’s 2012 conference which will also mark the party’s centenary. Deputy ANC president Kgalema Motlanthe may also face competition from either Mathews Phosa, current ANC treasurer, or from Tokyo Sexwale, minister of human settlements and billionaire businessman.

Throwing weight around?

The labour movement has thrown its weight behind the incumbent leadership and plans to endorse the re-election of the top six office bearers: ANC president Zuma, national chairperson Baleka Mbete, secretary-general Mantashe, treasurer Mathew Phosa, deputy-president Kgalema Motlanthe and deputy secretary-general Thandi Modise.

Retaining the current leadership would have an impact on the future of former caretaker president, Motlanthe. If Zuma served a second term as president until 2019, Motlanthe would be aged 70 and too old to be a contender.

Meanwhile, Zuma has collected around him an astute group of economic analysts charged with redistributing the economic pie. Finance minister Gordhan added significantly to the fiscus in his previous position as Revenue Services commissioner. With the country’s shrinking economic activity, an increase in corporate tax may be on the horizon. If Zuma’s rainbow coalition was primarily united around the ousting of former President Mbeki, more ideological divisions are likely.

This raises the spectre that since the split in the ANC’s broad church, with the formation of the breakaway COPE last year, there may be others. Most analysts think further splits are not likely. However, the run-up to the ANC’s 2012 conference could see fierce battles between contenders, but driven more by personality than ideology. For now at least, the uneasy coalition of political ideas at the highest levels of the ANC seems set to survive without the development of major schisms at the top.

South Africa: What is left?

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