About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Unity of the Left by Langa Zita (NUMSA Information Officer)

The COSATU Special Congress in September resolved, amongst other things, that COSATU should convene with the SACP a Conference for the Unity of the Left next year. This extremely significant resolution occurred against the background of a major debate involving, amongst other things, the question of a Working Class party as proposed by the NUMSA conference (see AC 2nd Quarter 1993).

The SACP has also made an active contribution to the debate on building the Left in our country. In the SACP's strategy conference paper on the party's "Role in the Transition to Democracy and Socialism" (see AC 1st and 2nd Quarters 1993) the following points are argued:

. the party has no exclusive copyright on socialism;

. the process of contributing to the struggle towards socialism is heterogeneous;

. socialism is not the end product of the national democratisation process, but rather an integral part of consolidating the democratic revolution.

All of these interventions are part ofwhat Work in Progress editor, Chris Vick, has described as a "general revolution of ideas". And this ferment of ideas is, in its turn, part of a general concern about the fate of the working class in the unfolding scenario in South Africa. Many raise the question: will the working class be sold out? What is the link between a negotiated transition and the struggle for socialism? The historical situation gives rise to many frustrations. There is the seemingly unending cycle of violence. There are negotiations that increasingly leave the masses behind. And there is a movement whose practice appears, increasingly, to emphasise a break rather than a continuity with its militant mass-driven traditions.

What follows is ah attempt to take the debate on Left Unity forward by:

. examining the concept of the Left in general, and its applicability in South Africa;

. interrogating the case for Left unity, and, in particular, the strategic objective of such unity; and, lastly,

. looking at the possible forms that such unity can take. In the process I shall identify a two-pronged approach to the question.

The concept of the Left

There is a long Marxist tradition that locates the Left/Socialist project within the revolutionary democratic traditions of the French Revolution. In line with this, essential to the Left concept in the late 20th century is the promotion of various forms of liberty, both collective and individual; the promotion of various forms of democratisation; and the promotion of various forms of solidarity in opposition to oppressive elites, including the owners of capital. However, it is not only the ideals of the French revolution that should inform the Left project today. This project needs to locate itself in opposition to the common crime, not only of the French but of Europe as a whole. This is the crime that started with the enslavement of the African people, their colonisation and neocolonisation, and their present subjection to the IMF, to toxic waste and the globalisation of capital. Also central to today's concept of the Left would be the common crime that we, as men, commit against the majority of our planet - women (gender oppression). Central, also, is the harm that men and women do to the environment. A meaningful Left project in the late 20th century must locate itself within all of these concerns.

In broad terms, the Left can be defined as all those who struggle for a better world without oppression and economic exploitation. The Left project links struggles against various forms of human oppression and environmental abuse with the class basis of society, and with the understanding that working class liberation is the fundamental cornerstone for the solution of other forms of oppression.

The Left debate in South Africa and the ANC

As already noted, the present Left debate in South Africa is deeply influenced by the emerging process of political democratisation. The centrality of the ANC within this democratisation process means that much of the debate is focused on the ANC itself.

The unfolding process carries with it new factors that have the capacity to change the character of the ANC both positively and negatively. Among these are:

. the governmental role which the ANC will soon assume. This is a major victory, but it can set in motion negative tendencies towards bureaucratisation and remoteness from mass struggles;

. a wide range of new forces (like, for instance, white Randburg town councillors) now joining the ANC;

. the need for the ANC to play a nation-building function, to talk on behalf of society as a whole;

. the constraints of a neoliberal world order.

It is essential for the Left, not to wish away these new constraints and challenges, but to engage with them in a manner that reinforces the transformative aims of the movement. How do we pursue the objective of effective and transparent governance, whilst maintaining and consolidating a mass base? How do we project a national consensus that is reconcilable with the short and long-term interests of the major social forces that the movement represents? Essentially, therefore, the question is how to keep the movement true to itself within a context that constantly encourages a negation of its essence. The battle is for the soul of the ANC.

But it is also more than this. It is, simultaneously, an attempt to advance the political economy of the working class in the present conditions of our country, to make that working class political economy at first a key factor, and ultimately the basis of the reconstructed South Africa. This means the elaboration of a socialist project not only or mainly outside of, but essentially inside of the ANC-led movement.

The international context

The discussion on the Unity of Left in South Africa is also occurring, of course, in an international context. The collapse of actually existing socialism, the actually existing impotence of post-colonial Africa, the actual setbacks of social democracy - all call for a rethink. This is particularly the case as we are, in one way or another, connected to these developments.

But internationally the past decades have also seen the re-emergence of popular movements, new social movements pregnant with possibilities. With the possible exception of ourselves, in most countries these social movements have been at odds with the Leninist tradition, as well with nationalist politics, both at a theoretical and practical level.

The Left in South Africa

Unity is the coming together of differing elements in a combined, yet dialectical process. It is a living process, whose synthesis is not the liquidation of differences, but the emergence of the new from the old, whilst embodying the best of the old. So what do we inherit from the past?

The African, racial, black dimension of the South African question, has meant that the Left in South Africa is deeply influenced by the various forms of progressive race consciousness that have emerged in the struggle to negate racial oppression. In different ways at different times, talking to the broad experience of racial oppression, we have seen in our history nationalism in its conservative but also various progressive modes, including the non-racial Congress tradition, Pan Africanism and Black Consciousness.

Yet, if these were the "major" forms of expression of the "special colonial" question, as early as the latter part of the 19th century, these currents coexisted with others addressing the fundamental question of our epoch capitalist oppression and exploitation. The emergence of the CPSA and the various Trotskyite movements, such as the Unity Movement and today's WOSA and ISSA and others, represent the twin daughters of 1917, andtogether reflect the oldest expressions of the universalist socialist traditions in our country.

Any attempt at Left Unity has to begin with what exists as the Left in our country. Behind the diversity, it seems to me that there is a principal issue that divides the Left in our country. Behind the debates on Trotsky and Lenin, Gramsci and Mao, non-racism and pan-Africanism, is the question of how different left formations and traditions define themselves in regard to the ANC.

There are those Left forces that originate from, or are aligned with congress traditions, and there are those that are outside. The congress movement Left is further divided between those organisations which are formally allied with the ANC (in particular, the SACP and COSATU), and those, mostly from the mass democratic movement, which have a less formal relationship.

The Left within the Congress Movement

The ANC-SACP alliance of more than 70 years has developed as the dominant factor in the socialist/nationalist current. This congress tradition has developed in competition with its Trotskyite and Pan Africanist sisters. Our history is testimony to the elusiveness of a united struggle of these traditions.

There have also been strains with the new social movements that emerged in the years of illegality and exile for the ANC and SACP. The Black Consciousness movement and the independent union and civic movement were sometimes perceived as a threat by the older movements, frustrated by their enforced remoteness in jail or exile. Mistakes were made from all sides, both tactical and strategic.

However, in time there was a process of constructive engagement and mutual enrichment, particularly between the new unionism and the old Left. COSATU's birth in 1985 formalised this engagement. The unbanning of the ANC and the SACP, and the crystallisation of the present tripartite alliance represents a consolidation of this trend.

But the contradictions are far from over. We in the South African Left have not looked each other in the eye. This remains a major challenge.

The critical role of COSATU

Presently COSATU is the largest and most organised force supporting socialism in our country. COSATU has emerged as a central force in shaping the character of the new society. The federation has a significant research capacity which gives it the ability to confront the neoliberal agenda of the ruling bloc with concrete alternative programmes. With a wide diversity of socialist traditions within it, with its power and sophistication, and with its strategic location in the tripartite alliance, COSATU is well positioned, not just to propagate a working class political economy, but actually to see it implemented.

The centrality of the SACP

The SACP has a long-standing commitment to forging unity of working class organisations, and as such it has every interest in fostering unity of the Left. As the oldest and most organised Left force, with a relatively coherent cadreship spread through almost all the formations of the democratic movement, the party is well poised to jointly play a leading role in the elaboration of the socialist vision.

The SACP should see itself as the conscience of this process, looking at the weaknesses, high-lighting contradictions, creating the capacity for the self-activity of the working class, while not substituting itself for that class.

In playing this role, the SACP has to come to terms with the present situation in which the process of transition heralds not the seizure of power in the revolutionary sense, but the beginning of a war of position which will involve the continuous corroding of the ruling class over a long period. The activities of the working class in this process cannot be concentrated exclusively in one organisation. The working class will need to be active in multiple locations - at work, at school, in church, in the state, in the institutions of culture... everywhere. For the challenges that lie ahead, the party needs to produce cadres, who will be both effective and critical.

We need rounded cadres who are capable of intervening in the debates around industrial restructuring, or macro-economics without losing their grounding in the concrete struggles of the people. The idea of a Chris Hani Cadre school for the broad democratic, labour and socialist movement is particularly suggestive in this regard.

Both COSATU and the SACP should see it as their responsibility to ensure that the unity of the Left is realised with a clear purpose and direction.

The Left in the Mass Democratic Movement

Apart from the COSATU unions, the most important mass democratic formation is the civic movement. The civic movement has its roots in the communities and tends, therefore, to be looser in character, emphasising the constituency rather than a specific political identity. The old and new Left have co-existed in the civic movement from its origins.

The late development of a national character (in SANCO) and the evolution of the civic movement within the plural if broadly ANC-aligned contours of the UDF, has meant that tendencies of all sorts could coexist in the civic movement.

There are, however, now critical questions around the civic movement's future, its role and problems of resources, the various forms of engagement with development initiatives and with banks. The problems of housing, education, unemployment, lack of infrastructural development and the land question, confronting civic members daily, make them of necessity an ally of the Left project.

Youth and student formations

The youth sector has, in the recent past, played a cutting edge role in our revolution. The sector, at present, has unfortunately lost its feet in the transition process. But the youth remain critical for the Left movement. Moves towards a unity of the Left could help this sector find its feet once more, imbuing the youth with progressive values, and enabling them to channel their energies in a progressive direction.

Progressive religious and other formations

There are also the progressive religious formations which have opted for the poor. How does this sector of our movement engage in the transformative project? The same can be said about individuals and institutions who want to input into the renewal of the Left project, but who/which have hitherto been hindered in various ways. The feminist and sexual consciousness movements as well as the environmental causes also often suffer from isolation. All of these formations have a natural affinity with the Left, and they should be encouraged to find a place and make a contribution to the unity of the Left project.

Unity of the Left within the Congress Movement

The unity of the Left, first of all, within the congress tradition, would have as its prime objective the consolidation of strong organisations for reconstruction and for the many struggles that lie ahead. Secondly, such unity should facilitate a creative relationship between state organs and civil society, empowering, in the process, mass input into the democratic state. It should ensure a broad ideological and strategic unity on the character and direction of the present transition struggles. This would be realised both through the creation of appropriate institutions and through a programme of struggle at national, regional and local levels (thus bringing back some of our UDF traditions).

The Left outside of the Congress Movement

AZAPO and the PAC, in different ways, remain with their isolated versions of transition. As long as they remain stuck in these orientations they will, unfortunately, have a limited contribution to make to the development of a coherent Left approach to the present situation. Nonetheless, I believe that Black Consciousness and Pan Africanism have something to contribute to the process of Left unity insofar as they are able to locate their ideas within the concrete concerns of the working class and rural poor.

WOSA, in my judgement, appears more willing to contribute to the transition process. Various interventions in their journals and publications appear, if with varying emphases, to be offering views that show a willingness to input constructively into the present process. We need to engage with WOSA in discussion, avoiding the temptation to over-emphasise the past.

Since the collapse in eastern Europe there has, incidentally, been a growing international dialogue among socialists of all persuasions, giving rise to interesting new forums such as the Sao Paulo Forum, bringing together Left formations in South and Central America and the Caribbean. Locally, there has been the r e c e n t COSATU/CGIL/CUT seminar, bringing together the largest labour federations in South Africa, Italy and Brazil - each with their own rich Left traditions.

Should there be a programme or a platform?

This brief political landscape has, in the first place, been an attempt to look at what we have in its beauty and ugliness, and consider what needs to be done. We need, above all, to build an effective Left alternative in this unipolar world in which we are living.

Of course, the character of the unity of the Left cannot be conceived beforehand. Thus the project itself must be approached with guarded optimism. The central objective should be to contest the character of the new society through contesting the character of the ANC from within the congress movement, and also by broadening the Left consensus outside of the congress movement.

In the first instance, a programme of the Left forces within the ANC tradition must be developed. Such a programme should emphasise concrete perspectives on what an alternative means for all aspects of the South African reality.

Secondly, we should pursue a Left consensus beyond the Congress movement- a process that can be realised through a platform. A platform is more loose and flexible than a manifesto or programme. It outlines frameworks but does not have the exactness of policy.

Whilst one cannot foresee the mood and the tone of the first broad Left meeting in our country (and thus I may be wrong in arguing against a programme), I think that a platform would be preferable if we are to begin to overcome the mistrust and animosity of the past.

The process of unifying the Left is the most important medium term challenge of the democratic movement. It is at a delicate stage presently and needs patience and nurturing.

The critical question remains: Are the various tendencies within the South African Left, both within and outside the congress movement, mature enough to embrace each other and walk the uneasy walk to genuine freedom? I think that we are.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to theThis resource is hosted by the site.