It would be magnificent if some sort of grassroots, effectual alternative to the current pitiful crop of political organisations were to evolve in South Africa. It would be magnificent, but it is not very likely. For that to happen, the organisers would have to develop some kind of political independence from the circumstances in which they find themselves, and that is hardly going to happen all by itself.
Instead, what we are getting is the United Front, as organised (supposedly) by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa. The United Front, supposedly, is a nationwide organisation, which will be established through People’s Assemblies. This all sounds alarmingly like Occupy Wall Street, although unlike OWS it appears to lack coherence as well as constituency.
The invited representatives to the latest People’s Assembly mostly come from organisations of slightly dubious merit, like Abahlali baseMjondolo, or from political parties which are profoundly questionable, like the United Democratic Movement, or from Trotskyite organisations which are manifestly coat-tail clingers. There are unspecified “faith-based” organisations and “civil society” organisations (and what is their agenda in joining the United Front?) .There are also figures like Moeletsi Mbeki, who bring a big bottle of staunch conservatism, white supremacism and neo-colonialism to the party. These are not figures who inspire confidence that the United Front will be something spectacularly impressive.
What, exactly, does the United Front stand for? It is against neoliberalism and it is against the ANC, but what does it wish to accomplish? Although NUMSA remains committed to the Freedom Charter, the United Front cannot easily accept the document because the Front largely consists of anti-Charterists. It could develop its own set of principles, but that would take a long time and would probably lack substance because at the moment the United Front consists of an extremely wide range of potential supporters, none of whom are obliged to come into the Front and who can thus veto almost any policy which they do not admire.
So this is a political organisation run part-time by a trade union which has not decided what it wants to do with this political organisation, an organisation which has little grassroots support but nevertheless receives much support from elite elements of the conservative or neoliberal chattering class. The organisation has few clear goals apart from hostility to the ANC, and its membership is divided on ideological and class bases. Its leadership lacks legitimacy and also lacks visibility. This all looks depressingly like a repeat of Agang, supposedly on the left rather than the right, but possibly covertly endorsed or even supported by the same people — that is, an elite plutocracy which is out to pretend that South Africans have some kind of electoral choices while running everything behind the scenes.
Even more recently, in about 2006 or so, Zackie Achmat, no doubt acting under orders from Martin Legassick as usual, declared that he was relaunching the United Democratic Front. As he had no idea what the UDF had been, or how to do such things, this “relaunch” was a total failure. So, more recently, have been the various Trotskyite “unity” organisations “set up” in various centres, which invariably fail to attract anyone except other Trotskyites and waterheads. So it was obvious from the beginning that the Trotskyite political advisers which NUMSA was employing were not going to offer much in the way of organisational ability.
Since the above was written, the launch of the United Front has been delayed yet again, while the trade unions which supported NUMSA over the Zwelenzima Vavi debacle and NUMSA’s subsequent expulsion from COSATU have made it clear that they have grave doubts about the United Front — or don’t support it at all. These two points are not good signs, despite all the efforts by the ruling-class media to talk them up.
The United Front now has a sort of steering committee, although since there is no organisation it is far from clear what the responsibilities and duties of this committee are. Preposterously, Zackie Achmat has been appointed to this committee, suggesting that celebrity (somewhat stale now, however) among the white chattering classes is more important than organisational ability or political consistency. (Achmat is consistent in doing whatever Legassick tells him to do, but this doesn’t amount to much.) Mazibuko Jara, an ex-SACP person active in Cape Town Trotskyite circles (specialising in high-flown meaningless rhetoric) is also there, further showing how the UF is eagerly embracing failure.
But there are people with administrative and real political experience on board as well. Ronnie Kasrils, Thabo Mbeki’s right-hand spook, is there. So is Wayile, the former mayor of Port Elizabeth (apart from the fact that he also has a reputation for being an Mbeki-ite, his main claim to fame is his NUMSA leadership in the province). It’s hard to see how Trotskyites, who hated Mbeki with a passion and collaborated with big business and foreign governments to bring him down, are going to work hand in hand with people who served Mbeki with distinction; the best guess is that Kasrils and Wayile, who have no organisation backing them (unlike Achmat and Jara who have the full force of Western Cape Trotskyism behind them, numbering literally dozens of supporters) are there as fronts and teasers.
Why is the only union in COSATU which had a remotely socialistic agenda, and with any sign of the courage to stand up to the ANC, falling on its face with such a sickening thud? Was this inevitable, or was it a product of failed ideologies, or is it a product of a covert reluctance to challenge the established order? And, of course, what can the rest of us do about it?
This has happened before. Neville Alexander set up the National Forum in the early 1980s with the goal of challenging apartheid by uniting all the Trotskyites and Africanists and anyone else who wasn’t a Charterist under one banner. This made the NF a gathering of bourgeois faux-radicals united only in their hostility to the ANC, and whose anti-apartheid credentials were as feeble as their relations with the working class that they claimed to speak on behalf of. The fact that the organisation was dominated by egomaniacs, of whom Alexander was not the least, didn’t help much. When the revolutionary conditions of early 1984 arose, the NF was left behind in a cloud of dust, feebly squeaking to anyone who would listen that it was not yet time for strenuous action, comrades.
The failure of the kind of politics that NUMSA now stands for, and to some extent stood for back then, was not so disastrous in the early 1980s. In those days there was a clear enemy, and therefore it was comparatively easy to organise resistance. Conditions were favourable; it wasn’t necessary to engage in much political education (although there was a lot more of it then than there is now). When fools set up pirifully unsuitable organisations, there was intelligent and resolute people ready to set up effective organisations to get actual work done. This isn’t really the case now (for all that the EFF have turned out to be, as expected, a great deal better organised, procedurally and popularly, than CoPe were, and may have more staying power depending on what happens at the 2016 elections). The EFF may turn into something effective, but they are nothing like what the ANC and UDF possessed, or even what AZAPO possessed before they pissed it away in the mid-80s.
So, as a result, when disorganised and ineffectual bodies are set up, there is no clear alternative to them. People have to like them or lump them. Because they are so dysfunctional and objectively timid, however, it is more likely that the public will ignore them, perhaps sitting on the sidelines and watching, or perhaps shrugging their shoulders and turning away, rather than doing anything to support them or make them more effectual.
It doesn’t help that the public is barraged night and day with political garbage and consumerist balderdash which dovetails with it. While the most recent Mail and Guardian deals with “the left” (smearing the EFF, uncritically boosting the UF while denouncing Marxism as old-fashioned) the previous one dealt with “narcissism” — which basically in their terms meant becoming obsessed with personal appearance, instant gratification, trivia and electronic communications. It is impossible to be a leftist if one is concerned only with such things, because there is simply more to humanity than such matters. What the consumerist system demands is that individuals turn away from society and from human engagement; the spectacle of young “lovers” sitting across restaurant tables under the silvery moon, gazing smokily into their smartphones while they frantically text people elsewhere who don’t care about them, is both universal and pitiful.
As a result, the general culture, controlled by the plutocracy, naturally serves the interests of the plutocracy and discourages leftist organisation except on the terms of the plutocracy, which is largely anthropological — “isn’t this primitive leftist culture entertaining?” — or opportunistic — “beware, support us uncritically or the evil leftist over there in the corner will nationalise your smartphone!”. The left, thus, is both feeble and co-opted. This needs to be challenged, and it certainly won’t be challenged by noisily repudiating leftist traditions in exchange for occasional headlines, in the manner of most of the leading lights of the UF. In that sense the EFF started out well; the question is whether they will be able to overcome the plutocracy’s recent enthusiasm for supporting the EFF so long as they restrain themselves to activities which serve the plutocracy’s propaganda interests, such as Nkandla and the more trivial aspects of the Marikana massacre.