With elections over it is appropriate to reflect on recent political developments. One of these is growing alienation from the electoral process manifested in large numbers of eligible voters failing to register or where registered, not voting. Another is the expression of the need for additional platforms for political participation, apart from periodic voting.
Amongst the symptoms of these sentiments is the development of more than one unity initiative: the most organisationally powerful one introduced by NUMSA. When announcing that it would not support ANC in the 2014 elections NUMSA indicated it would take steps to initiate a united front. The front would prepare for possibly launching a workers’ party. The NUMSA decision may well have affected the ANC’s electoral performance in Eastern Cape metros, though it may also be that despite this decision most members still continued to vote ANC. What we do know, is that the relationship between the ANC and its support base is complex: much like partners in an abusive relationship, who do not necessarily part company despite abuse.
In two decades of democracy the character of the ANC-led alliance has been reconfigured. This is partly because the ANC became leader of government and also because it has embraced sectors or classes with which it had not previously been close.
Becoming government has meant that the ANC relates differently to its alliance partners. It has had to act on behalf of all the people of South Africa and, as with all modern governments, make decisions that cannot be referred back to its organisational constituency on a regular basis.
In retrospect there was something inevitable in the ANC, once becoming government, having to deviate from revolutionary scripts where the organisation and its allies would drive government processes. This is not to suggest that greater popular involvement was impossible, but it clearly was not entertained and government could act more speedily and some would say efficiently if left ‘unhindered’.
The apparently curtailed influence aroused considerable dissatisfaction. This was exacerbated by failure to recognise, on the side of allies, that inter-organisational equality, if it still existed in the tripartite alliance did not translate into ‘co-government’. Where ‘allies’ raised issues they often felt they were treated as petitioners rather than as equals. This realisation was exacerbated by the ANC- led government adopting market friendly policies, notably GEAR.
How government acts may now be more influenced by informal access than through alliance consultations. In that respect, the emerging black bourgeoisie and sections of established big ‘white’ capital, some of whom have established close ties with individuals in government, is significant.
In addition, a marked feature of the Zuma administration is the weight carried by those providing private assistance, like the Guptas, enjoying favour that may sometimes mean greater influence than that of political allies. Likewise, traditional leaders do not appeal primarily to democratic values and fora, relying as they have done on common understandings with the ANC leadership, notably the president. This is part of a range of reconfigurations, including the displacement of progressive churches by charismatic ones.
However, the elections demonstrate that the ANC cannot afford complacency. It cannot treat the split and potential implosion of COSATU lightly. COSATU members have been important organisational factors in ANC branches, importing the discipline and organisational skills of the shop floor.
The NUMSA united front initiative is pitched in more than one way, sometimes foregrounding formation of a workers’ party, replacing the SACP. Sometimes this includes emphasising electoral implications, with the workers’ party contesting future elections, to ‘take state power’ in the interests of the working class.
That reading would see the initial formation of a united front as instrumentalist, paving the way for a ‘revolutionary socialist’ or Marxist-Leninist party. But there are also signs, that the united front is seen as important in its own right, bringing together an array of people who strive to defend, or recover, democracy and end the violence, corruption and lawlessness of the Zuma period. NUMSA’s Irvin Jim in the Mail and Guardian (16-23 May), speaking of potential leadership of the front, remarks: ‘we have an abundance of conscientious people. Some of them are not socialists but are committed to rooting out corruption.’
If advanced as a means for restoring democracy, constitutionalism and clean government such a front could unite a range of classes and sectors. While a workers’ party would primarily, or exclusively, represent workers, a united front is strengthened by a much wider appeal to shared objectives. At the same time, insofar as the front may comprise organisations with differing objectives, all would be free to advance these and try to make their specific orientations, whether towards socialism or other perspectives that of the front as a whole.
It is important that NUMSA’s call for President Jacob Zuma’s resignation be recognised as falling short of removing conditions that make pillage of the state possible. Ending robbery, lawlessness, violence and re-bantustanisation is in the interest of a wide range of people. It is up to NUMSA to exhibit leadership that can draw on this strength in building a broad unity that demonstrates united power of citizenry.
Professor Raymond Suttner, attached to Rhodes University and UNISA, is an analyst and professional public speaker on current political questions and leadership issues. He writes a regular column and is interviewed weekly on Creamer Media’s Polity.org.za. Suttner is a former political prisoner and was in the leadership of the ANC-led alliance in the 1990s. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.