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Building a left alliance remains critical

Opinion
A radical alternative to neoliberalism and kleptocracy can only come from an alliance of a left party or parties, trade unions and community organisations, says Imraan Buccus.

Yet again we have had a tumultuous political week. May Day in 2017 turned out to be the most significant May Day in South African history since 1986. Firstly Numsa, and its new federation Saftu celebrated the day in Durban with a march from Curries Fountain, where Cosatu was launched in 1985. For the new federation to decide to show its strength in Durban, the heartland of Jacob Zuma’s remaining support, was a bold and important act.

At the same time Zuma and his leading allies were booed at Cosatu rallies around the country. We have reached a point at which it has become clear that the organised working class, in and out of the ANC alliance, is implacably hostile to Zuma.

Shortly before May Day, Abahlali baseMjondolo, the most significant vehicle for the organised poor, held an UnFreedomDay rally in Durban. Thousands attended the event at which Zuma was roundly condemned by speaker after speaker.

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We have reached a point at which it has become clear that the organised working class, in and out of the ANC alliance, is implacably hostile to Zuma, says the writer. Picture: Nokuthula Mbatha

Before this the EFF had thrown its weight behind the marches against Zuma, particularly in Pretoria. Now that it has become clear that the organisations of the poor and working class are showing serious hostility to Zuma, it will become very difficult for Zuma’s propagandists to successfully spin the narrative that opposition to the president is solely a white phenomenon.

The EFF, Saftu, Cosatu and Abahlali baseMjondolo are all opposed to Zuma and they all represent large constituencies of working class and poor black people.

Intriguingly reports from the recent talk by Malusi Gigababa’s new adviser, Chris Malikane hosted by the pro-Gupta organisation Black First Land First, suggest it was largely attended by the very rich. The faction of the super-rich that derive their wealth from tenders are in full support of the emerging kleptocracy.

This is not surprising. The poor, the working class and the middle class all stand to suffer a real decline in their quality of life and standard of living if the Zuma project continues to turn the state into a vehicle for plunder. But for people whose wealth comes from state tenders, Zuma’s “radical economic transformation” offers huge opportunities for accumulation.

There is an important sense in which the lines have now been clearly drawn. Zuma’s spin machine tells us that he represents the people, but in fact it is now clear that he represents the tenderpreneurs against the people. But what comes next for the EFF, Cosatu, Saftu and Abahlali baseMjondolo?

These are all mass organisations with real support. If they play their cards rights they could become a significant progressive force against both capital and the tenderpreneurs. But for this to happen new ideas, appropriate to the current conjuncture, need to be developed. Old dogmas will not help us through the minefield that we face.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, millions believed workers were going to run a new communist world. Crude readings of Marx led many to believe a glorious future based on the rule of the workers was inevitable. From time to time one still hears this kind of hubris from trade unionists and socialists in South Africa. For years we have been told that a “mass workers’ party” is the answer to the challenges that we face.

But the historical reality is that that confidence in the industrial working class as the class that would liberate all of humanity turned to ashes. The Soviet Union degenerated into a highly authoritarian form of state capitalism, ruled by brutal party apparatchiks and not workers. Many more workers crossed the Berlin Wall into the West than vice versa. Denial of these realities does not help us to grasp the nettle of the current conjuncture.

Moreover, the global domination of finance capital after the end of the Cold War meant China became the workshop of the world, as jobs were moved to where working conditions were most exploitative.

From America to South Africa there was massive de-industrialisation. We have bled huge numbers of jobs in recent years and as mines and factories close down, unemployment rockets, especially among the youth. These days a young person with a unionised factory job is in a relatively privileged position.

Around the world millions of young people confront a life of unemployment or underemployment. It is abandonment rather than exploitation that haunts them. To compound the crisis, machines are rapidly replacing many of the jobs, such as bank tellers, that still exist. The struggles of the future are more likely to cohere around a figure like Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who inspired the Arab Spring, than the industrial worker.

However trade unions are still important organisations and can still wield considerable power. But in the new world, in which unemployment is a structural reality, unions will have to learn to work with community organisations if they want to be effective political actors.

The first attempt by Numsa to do this, the United Front, was a dismal failure. It was an alliance between the union and various NGOs and academics, not a real connection to credible community organisations and struggles. For the new forces that learn from this fiasco and make real connections with community organisations and struggles, they could become a serious player in our political landscape.

But this will not be achieved by recycling the old dogmas that we often hear bandied about in trade unions. Nineteenth century ideas about the workers of the world uniting to usher in a glorious new socialist order have little purchase in a 21st century in which, outside of China and a few other Asian countries, de-industrialisation and mass unemployment is the future. It is a stark reality that mines are closing and factories are shutting down.

Today a radical alternative to neoliberalism and kleptocracy can only come from alliance of a left party or parties, trade unions and community struggles and organisations. Building that alliance is one of the most important tasks that face us today.

* Buccus is a senior research associate at the ASRI.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent

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