Forging a way ahead à la Tony Blair’s New Labour path for the UK is not the solution, writes Jeremy Cronin.
In April 1995, around the date of our first post-apartheid anniversary, Thabo Mbeki, then deputy president of both the country and the ANC, gave The Star an exclusive interview. I suspect most South Africans have long since forgotten what was, in fact, an intriguing exchange.
In the course of the interview, Mbeki was asked how long he thought the ANC, SACP and Cosatu alliance would endure.
Mbeki didn’t respond directly. Instead he went off on an interesting, if unmandated, tangent. He said the ANC itself was a broad church composed of liberals, nationalists and social democrats previously drawn together in a common struggle against apartheid.
As South Africa’s democracy “normalised” (I think that’s the word he used), the ANC itself would break up into its respective components. Pressed on a time frame for such a break-up, Mbeki suggested five years or so.
Mbeki’s 1995 interview came to mind when reading last Sunday’s piece by Mcebisi Ndletyana (“ANC stagnant in changing times”).
Ndletyana argues the 2014 election outcome should not be a cause for ANC complacency. He points to flashing electoral warning lights in three major metros (Nelson Mandela, Tshwane and Joburg). I agree, completely. But what’s to be done?
Ndletyana doesn’t offer much directly, beyond a platitudinous appeal for “leaders to lead!”
But lead whom, and to where?
On what programmatic and organisational basis?
On these matters Ndletyana is silent, or rather indirect. His entry point (in fact some two-thirds of his intervention) consists of admiring references to Tony Blair’s autobiography, A Journey. This is what brought Mbeki’s 1995 interview to mind.
It’s no secret Mbeki admired Blair’s “modernisation” of Britain’s Labour Party, and that he sought to emulate Blair’s “third way” politics.
It was a politics best described as neoliberalism lite. Ndletyana summarises well the context in which Blair single-mindedly, from the early 1980s, sought to convert Labour into New Labour, a more centrist party, to win back middle-ground voters.
Labour had last won office in 1974. The Blair initiative loosened the party’s ties to the trade unions, ravaged by years of Thatcherism, while seeking to connect with the middle strata and please the financiers in London.
The emphasis shifted from social solidarity to top-down technocratic delivery to citizens-turned-consumers.
Two-thirds through his article, Ndletyana finally arrives in South Africa: “The ANC of 2014 is no different to the 1980s Labour Party.” Really? The Labour Party had lost four successive general elections.
The ANC has just won its fifth election with an overwhelming, if marginally reduced, majority.
The ANC’s challenges stem not from the prolonged loss of office but from the very opposite – from incumbency.
As South Africans we’ve now completed two decades of constitutional democracy. It’s something to celebrate.
But the social terrain on which we’ve been endeavouring to consolidate this democratic achievement has not been, let’s say, Sweden 1960 or the UK of the 80s. With persisting crisis levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality, getting on to an ANC election list is often the one chance of escaping a lifetime of grinding township poverty.
Giddy individual lifestyle change is possible. Conversely, a loss by your faction can suddenly plunge you back into poverty. It’s a high-stakes game which quickly contaminates democratic politics.
What’s to be done? The long-term solution is to radically address our social crises. Curbing the perks of political office and, above all, being very tough on corruption are also essential. But there are related organisational issues.
The ANC still seeks to be – correctly, in my view – a movement, rather than a narrow electoral, parliamentary party. In this respect the ANC is, at least by aspiration, organisationally different from Blair’s New Labour or Zille’s DA.
The ANC has a mass membership. It seeks to lead a wider alliance. Luthuli House, rather than a parliamentary caucus or cabinet, is seen as the strategic policy centre.
This movement character links to the Freedom Charter clause on “The People Shall Govern”.
That clause envisages a South Africa in which all have the right to vote, but (often forgotten) it also calls for “democratic organs of self-government”.
The 1955 Charter understood democracy to be more than parliamentary democracy. Although today the ANC has a movement form, does the active reality live up to this self-characterisation?
Who remembers when last the ANC led a national campaign that wasn’t an election campaign?
Popular mobilisation (apart from elections) has come to be seen as inherently oppositional to the incumbent administration, not as absolutely essential to reinforce government’s popular mandate in the face of powerful interests opposed to transformation.
In the 50s the ANC built itself into a campaigning mass movement on the basis of local organisation. Branch leadership was drawn from organic community leaders – the local reverend, the football coach or someone like Dora Tamana, organising creches and co-ops.
In today’s villages and townships, community activists still exist.
Most, I suspect, are ANC supporters. But many are alienated from active branch participation, displaced by the politics of politicians – the competitive world of slates, lists and tenders.
The ANC’s decision to delineate branches according to ward demarcations has compounded the problem. In rural areas, wards typically span several villages.
The ANC branch no longer connects with the sense of community. In large urban townships, potential membership of a ward-based branch can run to thousands.
Branch meetings are either mass rallies in which rank-and-file become voting fodder, or (more typically) there’s factional gate-keeping on access to membership.
Perhaps branch demarcation could be scaled down to the voting district level?
Without organisational change, worthy “Know Your Neighbourhood” campaigns will continue to be largely electoral in intention – which households will vote for us? – and not about identifying households in distress, for instance, needing assistance.
Yes, as Ndletyana implies, the ANC must adapt to changing social realities, including the important emergence of new middle strata. But these are not, in their majority, white suburban nuclear families.
They’re more typically a Third World middle strata – highly indebted, supporting extended families, precariously floating above the sea of mass poverty. We must organise and mobilise these strata – not so much as individual entrepreneurs, but as collective protagonists, many with professional skills, in solidarity with the great majority of waged and unwaged poor. Their own futures depend upon it.