South Africa: Towards a genuine left alternative?

The Conference of the Democratic Left (CDL) is an initiative to bring together left organisations, social movements and activists to confront the disastrous social, economic and political crisis in South Africa.

In the making since late 2008, a national conference is to be held in the coming months. The Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM, CWI in South Africa) welcomes the CDL as an attempt to address the most critical challenge facing the working class in South Africa and internationally – the development of an independent working class political voice. We nevertheless have several comradely criticisms…

From Brazil to Britain, Iceland to India, the working class has begun to recognise the need to create its own authentic political voice. This is the political significance of the intensification of class struggles in recent years also in South Africa, in the workplace, educational institutions, and in black working class townships.

The militant mass “service delivery” protests throughout the country demanding electricity, sanitation, water, decent housing, an end to corruption, and a say in the running of their communities express this most sharply. In the workplaces, three times as many strike days were recorded in 2009 as in 2008. After sixteen years, poverty and mass unemployment are still rampant. South Africa is now the most unequal society on earth. This is the fundamental reason for the revolt of the masses.

Vacuum on the left

The political crisis is reflected in the open divisions in the ruling ANC, and its SACP and Cosatu allies on the one hand, and the opposition parties’ own internal tensions as well as the attempt to form a super-opposition on the other. Despite sitting on opposite sides of the parliamentary benches, on the fundamental question of economic policy, the ANC and the opposition parties share one thing in common – they are all pro-capitalist and therefore occupy the same side in the class divide in South Africa. The turmoil on the right of the political spectrum accentuates sharply the ideological and organisational vacuum on the left.

Fragmented struggles must unite

Both within and across the three main terrains of struggle – in education institutions (against financial and academic exclusions), townships (against poor service delivery and corruption) and the workplace, the battles are fought separately. What is clearly required is coordination of these struggles. This is why the DSM campaigns for a mass workers party.

The emergence of the CDL is ultimately a response to the working class’ search for its own voice. Provided it can develop clear positions on the critical ideological, programmatic and organisational tasks posed, we believe the CDL has the potential to develop into a working class independent, class-based, political force that can coordinate struggles and challenge capitalism on all fronts, including elections.

The CDL’s call to “Unite to make another South Africa and World Possible” commits it to “work towards developing a grassroots democratic eco-socialist, feminist, political programme”. The Call includes good points on the crisis of capitalism and emphasises the need for independent working class organisation. The CDL “aims to create a united front around a programme of action while preserving the autonomy of constituent organisations”. This open and democratic approach, together with its generally anti-capitalist position, is a good starting point and will be crucial to the CDL’s progress and vital in developing a programme of action that addresses the key challenges facing the working class.

However, while supporting and participating in the CDL, the DSM has several comradely criticisms which we put forward to contribute towards theoretical, ideological and organisational clarification.

Struggle oriented programme needed

The CDL initiators correctly recognise the need to be concrete. However, the DSM believes that the basic outline for a programme of action has already been developed in action by the working class itself – in the service delivery, education and workplace struggles. While it may be possible to graft some of CDL’s ideas onto existing struggles, we believe that this should be debated by the workers, students and youth leading these struggles themselves.

As a new formation, the CDL first has to earn the right to be taken as a serious force by workers in struggle. The CDL should therefore refrain from imposing an agenda of struggle from without where one already exists. The DSM believes the CDL should rather focus on working towards assisting unification of mass struggles.

We believe the CDL should propose a national service delivery conference to agree on how to coordinate these struggles in preparation for a national general strike for service delivery. Communities should be encouraged to appeal also to students and organised workers to elect delegates to such a conference and for rank-and-file union members to get their unions’ support.

The DSM believes the CDL should also raise for debate the political issues the existing struggles are already posing – that is, the political representation of the working class and the broader struggle against capitalism. The fact that service delivery protests are directed against council officials, councillors and mayors, shows that workers have already drawn political conclusions from their struggles.

Demands for the resignation of councils or mayors are not a rejection of representative democracy as such. Those who make such claims are jumping over the existing stage in the level of consciousness by exaggerating the level of political clarity. Such claims are ultra-left, confuse the first month of pregnancy with the ninth, and substitute nihilistic and anarchist prejudices for the actual consciousness of the working class. Workers are in fact struggling for a form of representation over which they have control – the first step in the recognition of the limitations of capitalist democracy and the need for workers democracy – the basis for a socialist society.

We therefore call on the CDL to campaign for communities to put up independent working class candidates to contest the 2011 local government elections. The DSM believes this would demonstrate in practice the necessity for independent working class representation.

Need for a bold socialist programme

Unfortunately, some of the CDL’s leading lights are reluctant to embrace socialism boldly. This reflects the lingering doubts over the credibility of socialism as a viable alternative that gripped the left following the collapse of the former Soviet Union. The official left especially was ideologically demoralised by the restoration of capitalism, the triumphalism of the capitalist class and the intensification of the neo-liberal offensive against the working class that followed worldwide. The process of capitalist restoration in China reinforced this.

Yet what collapsed was not socialism, but a bureaucratic perversion of it – Stalinism – the outcome of a political counter-revolution that entailed the smashing of workers democracy, while preserving state ownership of the economy. For this reason the DSM strongly rejects the CDL declaration’s description of Soviet, (Cuban or Chinese) society as “really existing socialism” as the SACP does. Both Stalinism and imperialism, despite their antagonism, had a vested interest in this misrepresentation, the former to justify the political counter-revolution in the name of Lenin and the leadership of the October Revolution; the latter to discredit socialism by pointing to the monstrous authoritarian dictatorship of Stalin. The importation of the SACP’s bankrupt ideas into the CDL will make it impossible to defend the genuine ideas of socialism particularly to those workers and youth who want answers to questions as to how a socialist society would work and degeneration avoided.

Because of the CDL initiators’ doubts about socialism, they entertain reformist ideas such as “parallel or alternative economies”. Any programme not based on the understanding that capitalism is incapable of developing society and must be abolished, fosters the illusion that socialism can be achieved by gradual in-roads into capitalism through cooperatives, township vegetable gardens and ultimately a “parallel mode of production”. If the CDL does not break with such ideas, it will end up as a mere “SACP Lite” – proposing to manage capitalism instead of arguing boldly for an end to the profit driven capitalist system and for a fundamental, socialist transformation of society.

New left formations like the Party for Socialism and Liberty (PSOL) in Brazil, SYRIZA in Greece, die Linke in Germany, Rifondazione Communista in Italy have arisen. However, the development of these formations shows the need for them to base themselves on the struggles of workers and youth and link them to a socialist programme to transform society. If they fall into the trap of taking part in pro-capitalist governments, like the RC in Italy, they will end in existential crisis or fall apart.

The mass of the working class has not yet drawn clear socialist conclusions. But the crisis has exposed the bankruptcy of capitalism, providing the best opportunity to make the case for socialism since the October Revolution. The DSM proposes a transitional approach, linking the everyday struggle for reforms to the overthrow of capitalism and the socialist reconstruction of society.

For a general strike for service delivery

The DSM tabled for debate a resolution at the 20 March Gauteng CDL consultative conference entitled “For a general strike for service delivery and a campaign for the formation of a new socialist mass party!” (see the DSM website We propose the CDL campaigns for a conference of all communities in struggle, appeals to rank-and-file unionists, for a national day of action – a service delivery general strike. We propose that the CDL campaigns for communities to contest the 2011 local government elections independently. We also call on the CDL to commit to the formation of a new mass workers’ party on a socialist programme. These proposals received support from many activists at the meeting.

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May 2010