Seriously? What’s serious? What’s politically serious?
Politically serious means that you are out to take power in the country. Therefore, your actions are directed towards building a mass-based political organisation capable of either winning elections or violently overthrowing the structures of the state and replacing its governance with yourself. Nothing else, nothing less, is at all serious. Other things are simply blowing smoke around the prison-house of political impotence.
But politically serious also means that you are out to improve conditions in the country. Obviously it is possible to “take power” by simply aligning yourself with the existing power elite and promising — overtly or covertly — to do whatever it takes to help them. However, this is not about improving conditions in the country, it is about improving conditions for a minority in the country — and a fairly tiny minority, at that. (Most of the middle class in South Africa are not currently benefiting from current right-wing policies, even though most of them believe that the real problem is that these policies are not being sufficiently stringently applied.) Furthermore, taking power only on condition that you exercise it in some cabal’s interest, outside your own control, is not taking power at all.
An organisation attempting to be politically serious, but starting from scratch, needs some ideological and structural foundations. It has to be socialist, or at least it must address the economic problems which socialism attempts to address (there are elements of liberalism which could do this, although they are almost extinct). It has to be democratic, including internal democracy (this doesn’t completely preclude some kind of democratic centralism, but ultimately the emphasis has to be on the democratic rather than the centralism — which is almost never the case in leftist organisations). Being democratic doesn’t mean abrogating the right to pursue a revolution, but it certainly means that no seizure of power could be pursued without pursuing the rights of the people (rather than the rights of the organisation’s leaders to seize themselves agreeable houses and splendid uniforms).
So, an organisation trying to gain large-scale support would identify itself with the working class, but in a way that does not condescend to them, and would therefore try very hard to get working class people on board as much as possible, particularly in positions of leadership. Obviously it would also need to have middle-class support, but its policy core would be, as far as possible one more in harmony with the needs of the workers than with the wants of the middle class.
One big problem, though, is that neither the workers nor the middle class necessarily know what policies are good for them. This is not because workers or middle class people are stupid. It is, however, because there has been a long-standing campaign all over the world to ridicule and demonise many of the policies which are good, and invent all manner of excuses for not implementing such policies. Meanwhile, other policies which are bad for almost everybody are promoted with immense enthusiasm and have largely driven more usable policies out of the debating framework. Hence, a party seeking working-class support and attempting to improve conditions in the country would have to start with a substantial discussion on what would have to be done. It would not simply be a question of declaring some answers and then waiting for the workers to roll up and endorse them.
But it’s absolutely necessary for such an organisation to put forward a set of plans and proposals for the working class and the more open-minded of the middle class to debate. Some of these might even be deliberately controversial, like Malema’s calls for nationalisation, with the objective of attracting the hostile attention of the middle class and thus getting them to provide free publicity for the proposals. Then, of course, it would be advisable to put forward the facts which informed the proposals, and the alternatives to the proposals, and try to get a discussion going. This, in the broadest of terms, was how politics progressed in South Africa in the 1980s, and for a brief period this made the black working class and the black, coloured and indian middle classes the most politically astute, well-informed and intellectually open people in the country.
There would have to be a vehicle for this debate. This is a problem, for a newspaper or a series of pamphlets or a magazine would cost a lot of money, and a website would be inadequately accessible — though perhaps it could be the base for the information which people might be able to download to their phones. Despite the supposed ready access which people have to the Net, most working-class people probably have very limited access and would prefer to have something to read from which to discuss material. It might be costly, but it would have to be done or otherwise such a movement would have to depend on the sympathetic ignorance of the populace, which is not to be counted on.
Of course, the focus of the debate would be how to reduce inequality, increase employment and eradicate poverty. The problem with these talking points is that they have been deliberately stripped of their meaning by the neoliberal South African ruling class over the past few years. People who use such language are naturally viewed as corrupt figures out to fool people. It would be necessary to put a lot of effort into reclaiming the concepts for South Africans.
Let’s suppose, however, that the organisation is launched with a burst of propaganda around some kind of redistributive project. Let us assume that the organisation is able to make itself heard and that the propaganda succeeds — that the organisation’s opponents launch condemnations of it via the media and via their own propaganda agencies and thus do the work which the organisation might not have been able to do by itself. Assuming that the leadership of the organisation have done their work well, and assuming that the Tripartite Alliance live down to the standards they have set for themselves in recent years, the organisation will win the debate. But what more can be done than that? The ANC Youth League won the debate within the Alliance, but that availed them nothing when they were crushed by the SACP’s raw political power conjoined with the cowardice and sloth of COSATU and the ANC’s pseudo-left wing.
So although propaganda is important it is only a small part of the battle. It is not good enough to get the public believing that you are right, because unless you can show the public that you can actually do them some good, they will not protect you against your myriad enemies. This is a problem, because most left-wingers focus almost exclusively on what they deem to be the big picture — the way the nation is run, fantasising about revolutionary transformation of the country along the lines of a Stalinist Five-Year Plan. This means a lot to left-wingers who have read a few books (the fewer the better) but does nothing about putting bread on the public table, and therefore is meaningless to anyone except those left-wingers. Calling for revolutionary change is pointless if you cannot bring about the revolution.
So a left-wing party would have to start small. It would have to focus on transformation, not at the national, but at the municipal and provincial levels. The party should identify a province where there is considerable dissatisfaction with the current administration, and where that administration is also weaker than in other provinces. This should not be hard to do; dissatisfaction is quite rife in virtually all provinces. However, the provincial governments of Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State, while unpopular, are also extremely tyrannical and corrupt; it is quite possible that attempts to set up any serious challenge to the administration would be met with violence and even murder. In contrast, in the Western Cape the divide between the ANC and the DA would make it difficult for a third party to get much traction, simply because people who are seriously hostile to the way the place is run tend to vote for the ANC and would view a third party as a distraction.
The Northern Cape is the poorest province and the one with the lowest population density. Here, an enormous amount of effort would be needed to reach the scattered voters; a rich party like the DA could do this, but not a newly-formed group of penurious leftists.
That leaves the North-West, Eastern Cape, Limpopo and Gauteng. In all these provinces the ANC is weak and divided (perhaps less so in Gauteng than elsewhere). So it would be in these provinces, in one or all of them, that a left-wing party would have to make a start. (It would probably be best to focus energy on one province and only develop small nuclei or cells in the others.)
What would need to be developed would be a series of plans by which the people of the province, and of the various municipalities making up the province, could be drawn into participating in their own social and economic development with the assistance of the provincial and municipal officials and funds. The goal, obviously, would be to create jobs and wealth, by means of simple projects which could be pursued without substantial investment or infrastructure — agriculture, rain harvesting, housing, service provision and manufacturing — all on a small scale and labour-intensive, of course. Meanwhile, the organisation would have to become completely familiar with the activities of the municipalities and of the province — and therefore make it clear to everybody that it was serious about helping to solve the problems and that it had a better plan to fulfil the functions of government than was being applied by those in charge. Everybody is understandably suspicious of those trying to do the work currently, so it would take a lot of work to persuade the public that the left-wing party really wanted to do this — but once people were provided with a serious alternative to the current incompetent and corrupt municipal and provincial leadership, they would probably jump at it.
The ANC, one might think, could elude this problem by simply following the same policies. But in fact it could not. The object of provincial and municipal government is not to run the province or municipality effectively. Instead, the object of such government is to use its authority to channel public wealth into private pockets, through inefficient tenders to inefficient private service providers, and then government serves as a shield protecting the corrupt and inept private practitioners from punishment. All South African political leaders are so devoted to this process — because they are so committed to the money paid to them by the private companies who profit from governmental inefficiency — that they could not possibly do it any other way. Therefore, a left-wing party would have a clear run in any province and any municipality towards running an efficient and relatively inexpensive government; all that is needed is to abandon neoliberalism while preserving efficiency.
So it’s possible; it just requires, however, that government pursue the ideal of public development rather than private enrichment.