Supporters of the ANC cheer as election results are announced, in Johannesburg. Picture: Mike Hutchings

Will a serious left challenge now come from outside the ANC-alliance? It’s possible, but only if we are clumsy or arrogant, says Jeremy Cronin.

Johannesburg - What are we to make of post-apartheid South Africa’s 20th anniversary elections? There are many detailed points of interest – the rise or fall of political formations; indicators of class, geographical and generational voting trends.

Party strategists will be picking over these for months to come. Stepping back a little, there are, however, several big picture issues that deserve thoughtful consideration.

I’m not sure if as South Africans we sufficiently appreciate our collective achievement in nurturing a relatively vibrant democracy over two complicated national and global decades. On Wednesday, about 18 million South Africans cast their ballots, a 73 percent voter turnout. That’s slightly down on the 2009 percentage, but still an impressive turnout by international standards. It’s something to celebrate.

Twenty years ago, our democratic breakthrough was heralded in Western capitals as part of the cutting edge of a supposed “third wave” of global liberal democratisation. At the same time, the collapse of the former Soviet bloc was meant to usher in constitutional democracies in eastern Europe and central Asia.

But lately, liberal democracy has been going through a difficult time. A recent cover story in The Economist conceded that “even in established democracies, flaws in the system have become worryingly visible and disillusion with politics is rife”.

The democratic promise of the Arab Spring has turned to ashes. Ukraine exposes the frailties of IMF-led east European democratisation. In the EU, technocrats and private bankers trump popular sovereignty.

The 1999 decision to introduce the euro wasn’t democratic. Only Denmark and Sweden held referendums, both voting no. In the US, democracy has become synonymous with gridlock and the suborning of the popular will by an oligarchy. Cynicism about multiparty electoral systems is widespread. In the UK only 1 percent of the population are now members of political parties. Why?

A growing body of scholarly work suggests the heyday of Western liberal democracies, the two-and-half decades after 1945, was the exception rather than the rule. With economic stagnation and social inequality deepening in developed capitalist societies, politics finds itself entrapped within a relatively vapid alternation between almost indistinguishable centre-left and centre-right parties.

As German economist Wolfgang Streeck puts it, at play is a systemic contradiction between two conflicting principles of resource allocation – one operating according to “merit” by the “free play of market forces”, the other based on social need “as certified by the collective choices of democratic politics… Under democratic capitalism, governments are theoretically required to honour both principles simultaneously, although substantively the two almost never align.”

This underpins the vacuous churn in many liberal democracies. Governments failing to honour democratic claims for redistribution are punished electorally. Those failing to obey the market’s “iron laws” are punished by disinvestment with the same electoral result.

Political tinkering within this sterile damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t predicament leads to popular disillusion with formal politics, or even dangerous demagogic, neo-fascist, ethnically chauvinist politics on the rise in much of Europe. What is required is a democratic politics of structural transformation, which, in turn, requires a sustained democratic majority across several electoral cycles.

That’s something that in the liberal playbook wasn’t meant to happen in post-1994 South Africa. We’re still being lectured from these quarters. Our democracy, we are told, will not have “matured” until there is a fundamental re-alignment of electoral politics, until the ANC’s grip on power has been loosened, until there’s electoral uncertainty.

Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, in his book The Quest for Democracy – South Africa in Transition in 1992, warned: “One of the most daunting challenges facing (a future government) is to protect the new political space created by negotiations from being used to contest the historical imbalances that precipitated negotiation in the first place.” What is the point of having a “democracy” if you can’t use it to address historical imbalances? This was not a momentary lapse. In a lecture in the same year to the SA Institute of International Affairs, Slabbert told his audience we should not “burden democracy” with “popular aspirations”.

“Liberating” democracy from the “burden” of “popular aspirations” by fragmenting a democratic majority remains the obsession of most of the political commentariat. It informs the hypocritical praise of any sign of dissent or breakaway from within the ANC-led alliance or broader movement. There are seasonal heroes whose “brave independence of mind” is extolled – UDM, then Cope, then Agang, now Malema or the Numsa leadership group.

Will a serious left challenge now come from outside the ANC-alliance? It’s possible, but only if we in the ANC alliance are clumsy or arrogant. We need to distinguish the proto-fascist demagogy of Malema from the hybrid neo-Stalinist business unionism of Irvin Jim, from the ethnically-tinged vigilantism of the Amcu leadership, from the preachy capitalist philanthropy of Jay Naidoo and Mamphela Ramphele. Above all, we need to distinguish leaders from followers; to engage with, listen to and learn from the millions of alienated and marginalised, the actual or potential recruits to lost and confused causes.

What prospects for a grand, centrist coalition anchored around the DA, whose vote has climbed significantly over successive national elections. Yet almost all of this growth has been based on cannibalising other opposition parties, by appealing to sectors of society to see themselves as threatened “minorities”. In this election most commentators failed to notice the DA’s electoral support has actually flattened compared to the 2011 local government polls. In 2011 the DA obtained 24 percent of the PR vote, and 21.9 percent of the combined PR, district council and ward vote. The DA’s anti-worker, deeply negative campaign was rejected by an overwhelming majority and contributed to consolidating the ANC vote.

But it would be a grave error on the part of those of us in the ANC alliance to emerge complacently and triumphalist from these elections. To sustain over two decades a 60 percent-plus majority in an open, multiparty democracy is a key achievement. The 2009-14 ANC-led administration had to navigate a once-in-70-years global economic crisis. But there are warning signs – a low turn-out in Limpopo, major cities becoming more marginal.

Moreover, while the sustained democratic majorities achieved by the ANC are a necessary condition for structural transformation, they don’t automatically translate into actual transformation. It’s here we need to be particularly self-critical.

The ANC’s Mangaung national conference correctly called for a radical, second phase of the transition to drive social and economic transformation. But shouldn’t that second phase have been on the agenda following the 1994 democratic breakthrough? Time has been lost. A monopoly capital sector that was off-balance in 1994 has regained composure and arrogance. It has used financial liberalisation to disinvest up to 25 percent of GDP. The 1996 Gear neoliberal reforms were accompanied by growth for some years, but entrenched systemic features that still reproduce rampant unemployment, poverty and inequality.

Key elements of this second phase are under way – the massive state-led social and economic infrastructure programme; the industrial policy action plans directed at job creation through re-industrialisation, state procurement and the beneficiation of mineral resources; the transformation of problematic urban and rural geography and professionalisation of the civil service outlined in the National Development Plan, and more. Learning global lessons, we need to roll back the heartless market power of the oligarchy if we are to defend popular sovereignty. We need to deal decisively with corruption.

None of this will be consolidated if we imagine periodic elections are the end of democracy. A different relationship between government and communities, the state and social movements, must be re-established. The marginalised and alienated, some of whom voted EFF, need to become not just angry protesters but constructive producers of change. Initiatives like the Community and Expanded Works programmes have a key role. The often narrow politics of politicians needs to be democratised and enriched by popular activism.

In coming out in their millions on Wednesday, South Africans were signalling they don’t want to be the passive recipients of top-down delivery. They want to be active protagonists in a collective struggle to transform their lives and our country – and not just once every five years.

* Jeremy Cronin is the deputy general secretary of the SACP.

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

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