Workers and Socialist Party walks a political tightrope

2013-05-21 10:00

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The recent birth of the Workers and Socialist Party (Wasp) on Human Rights Day in Pretoria is undoubtedly significant for the trade union movement, the broader working class and civil society.

Unlike Agang, the liberal political platform formed by Mamphela Ramphele earlier this year, Wasp is explicitly socialist in its goals.

But while many will argue that we need such a party to address growing unemployment, poverty and inequalities, the bigger and more important question is whether it would pose a serious threat to the governing ANC and its allies, the SA Communist Party (SACP) and Cosatu.

Several attempts to form such a party have, in fact, been made over the past few decades – especially since the unbanning of the ANC and other organisations in 1990 – but all have failed.

This situation has given rise to a key political question today: Will any leftist attempt to compete against and supplant the ANC ever succeed?

This is not an easy question to answer because, though the ANC is undoubtedly in decline, its electoral clout is still formidable. It also has a very impressive historical pedigree and is, as a result, still deeply lodged in the popular consciousness and political culture of the majority.

Not even the unstoppable and often combustible black-township protests against often deplorable conditions since June 2004 will lead to the ANC losing the 2014 national elections.

But there can be as little doubt that the accumulation of protests and dissent alongside and especially as a result of the growing social crisis and contradictions engulfing the black working class – the historical support base of the ANC – will eventually give rise to a mass alternative.

Is Wasp such an alternative? It may be the ideological and programmatic alternative – like its vociferous support for vigorous nationalisation – but is it the political and organisational alternative?

Simply put, will it build the organisational strength required to seriously challenge ANC hegemony, which is an entirely different matter and, in the final analysis, the heart of assessing its prospects and future?

The very fact that, despite its many failures, the ANC has continued to win elections comfortably and convincingly shows us the enormous challenges Wasp will face to break its hegemony.

Thus far, the huge and palpable unhappiness at grass-roots level has not produced a mass-organisational alternative to the ANC.

Therefore, any attempt by Wasp to portray the ANC as the enemy will seriously obstruct its work among the poor black masses and, in fact, prove counterproductive, both in the economy and the townships.

Until and unless a serious mass alternative arises as a pole of attraction to these masses, they will continue to vote for and support the ANC, even if reluctantly. But if that is the case, how will Wasp – whose very existence is anchored upon severe criticism of the ANC and a struggle to provide an alternative to it – win over these supporters without also antagonising them, especially those who, despite the many disappointments, still regard the ANC as their home?

A ­strategy to deal with these complex contradictions will be hard to define.

What particularly will make it hard for Wasp to make significant inroads into the ANC’s historical support base is the alliance between the ruling party, and both Cosatu and the SACP, especially the former.

This is so, despite reports that the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union – the breakaway from the National Union of Mineworkers – was involved in and supportive of Wasp.

But to the extent that indeed this was the case, it might provide a base from which both union and wider working class support could be organised and mobilised by Wasp, especially in the midst of a growing social crisis, which has deepened poverty and unemployment.

While many may argue an alternative to the ANC is necessary if splitting tactics in relation to Cosatu affiliates is employed, it will be a most serious setback to the vitally important unity of the federation.

There was a report that the National Transport Movement – another breakaway from Cosatu’s SA Transport and Allied Union – had pledged its support for Wasp.

However we view the emergence of Wasp, the ANC is fully aware that gone are the days when it could take the black working class for granted.

This is good for both our constitutional democracy and, indeed, the real interests and needs of this class who built this country to be the powerhouse of production and wealth it is in southern Africa.

It is high time the ruling party prioritises its interests after being primarily brought to power by this class in the 1994 elections and returned by them to power in every election since – despite much unhappiness and disappointment.

»Harvey is the biographer of Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe

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