Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Break?: South African Politics and the Potential Earthquake

I have said it for years. The dominance of the African National Congress will not wane as the result of a challenge from the right. The days of the National Party and its inconsequential successors is past. There is room and a need for true conservatism (which I will then heartily oppose) in South Africa, but it cannot rise from the ashes of the Afrikaner Broederbond, the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) or the Nats, new, old, gereformeerde or otherwise. The challenge, then will come from the left. More accurately it will come as the result of a break in the tripartite alliance that makes up the ANC -- the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). I am certainly not an original thinker on this point, but these are observations I have been making since 1997 so I feel some sense that my construction of the discussion, at least, is my own.

The reason one can envision such a break is because recently both COSATU and the SACP have been making noise indicating that they could, possibly, at some point, consider breaking fron the alliance and going forward on their own in the political waters. That it has taken this long, and that it might never come to pass, is testament to the hold that power has on any constituency that has it. Being in the ANC fold is a virtual guarantee of access, status, and viability -- of, in essence, the concrete benefits of being in the catbird seat. COSATU and the SACP have always been second among equals, however, and this has long chafed the leadership of these organizations that, rightly, remind us of their vital role in the long liberation struggle.

This last point cannot be overstated. I know that many of my readers place themselves in the ardent anti-Communist camp, a standing that generally is the right one. For reasons too obvious to explore here, when Americans think of Communists we think of the Soviets, or possible China. Those, especially the Soviets, posed a real and serious threat and embodied the ultimate evil. In that context, I too am an anti-Communist. But the South African example is a significant exception, because almost universally the Communists in South Africa subsumed the idea of class revolution to the necessary fight against racial dominance. In so doing, they contributed greatly to providing both an intellectual framework and a multi-racial dynamic that proved vital to the ANC. It is worth noting that the SACP was virtually the only organization to which white South Africans could belong and contribute to the long fight against apartheid. On top of all of this, the explanatory apparatus of socialism really did resonate in South Africa, and for good reason: The apartheid system was many things, most of them bad. One of the most significant of its grotesqueries was that its very existence was based on the existence and ruthless exploitation of masses of black labor. Capitalism, free markets -- these quintessential components of liberalism were a farce for black South Africans. There was nothing free about South Africa's markets, a point that a succession of American presidential administrations never understood, which is remarkably obtuse. Furthermore, white South African anti-Communism was ardent -- in significant ways, far more so than in the US. This too made the National Party's rule seem appealing to the United States. The problem was that it was an anti-Communism borne of the most vicious racism, yet another point that myopic American governments failed to grasp in their simplistic use of Africa as a Cold War battlefield. In sum, then, as long as they subsumed Communist ideology to the anti-Apartheid fight, and they did for the duration, the SACP were the good guys in the decades after 1948.

It is in recognition of this that the ANC has bent over backward to accomodate, or at least pay lip service to the SACP and to the socialist-sympathetic unions of COSATU. Plus the ANC has always known that keeping these groups in the fold maximized their own power. But times are changing. This relationship that for so long has been fruitful is wearing out its usefulness. It may finally be time for a change.

The SACP is antsy to push a socialist agenda. It is an agenda that, while it has some fruitful points, would, if implemented in toto, be an utter disaster in the one country that Africans across the continent simply cannot afford to go awry. COSATU rightly emphasizes the rights of workers, but like all unions is largely unconcerned with masses who live on the agricultural fringes and with those not within its ranks, which is to say, a majority of South Africans, apoint that COSATU elides because to do otherwise would raise some uncomfortable questions.

South Africa has a parliamentary legislature that the ANC has dominated since 1994. I surmise that even after a break of the alliance the ANC will continue to do so. But its support levels will surely drop to or below where they were after the 1994 elections when the Nats and Inkatha Freedom Party, the one defunct the other irrelevant, drew support. This is to my mind a good thing. The ANC with too much support, which translates to too much power, frightens me. I'd like to think that South Africa is different from other African states, its leaders more sage, its democracy more stable, its juduciary and military more independent. But power is power, and when too much of it is consolodated for too long, such power becomes dangerous. Such a break would be especially good if it could be amicable -- if COSATU and SACP can maintain an alliance on a large number of issues while pursuing their own course where there is divergence.

This is all by way of description -- what I see happening -- rather than prediction, though I have long held that in the long run the alliance would be untenable if the partners ultimately chose to care about more than simply maintaining their grip on the levers of control. It is a dynamic well worth watching in the weeks, months and years to come.

On matters seemingly more prosaic, but almost assuredly of more immediate interest to a huge number of South Africans, the Springboks face off against the French in a rugby test match at 2:00. Just enough time for me to head back, drop some things off, and hit a (hopefully warm) pub for the clash.


The Saint said...

Interesting point of view on direction of South African politics. Something to throw into that mix is the issue of the economic direction of the ANC itself in the future, and how it will be impacted by whom turns out as the victor in the succession battle.

If Zuma's camp (and I am not certain such a camp actually exists) were to win the succession battle, especially having enjoyed a lot of support from the SACP, then that could change or delay the natural evolution you foresee in the tripartite relationship you foresee. If the Mbeki camp wins then it may see this as the endorsement it needs to move further away from socialist policies, although I believe the overwhelming unemployment rate will act as a natural boundary to just how openly capitalist South Africa can ever be.

dcat said...

Njixta --
I agree -- internal ANC politics could be a huge determinant factor. In fact within the party itself these are precisely the sorts of debates that will decide the future of the party and its relationship with its constituent groups.
I think there is a Zuma wing, and it only grew more emboldened when the rape charges met with acquittal. If he escapes the fraud charges there will be a segment of the ANC that will rally behind him. South Africans are not immune to populist appeals, that's for certain.
I hope there is a way that the Mbeki camp can win without giving him the folish notion that he really does warrant a third term. I do not think Mbeki has been great, but I think his critics are irrational out of all sense of proportion of the realities on the ground in South Africa.

Thanks for reading and participating.