Unless it leans leftwards, the centre won't hold

Mongameli Bobani. Picture: Archive
Mongameli Bobani. Picture: Archive

Whatever our genuine left, right and centre debates might be, it's imperative that we unite, across party political affiliation, to isolate this public resource-thieving, rule of law-undermining threat we face, writes Jeremy Cronin.

Are we likely to see a major shake-up in party political alignments in the medium term in South Africa? I don't know. What's clear, however, is that there's a deepening disjuncture between the pressing strategic challenges facing our country and the current configuration and in-built momentum of much electoral party politics.

Electoral politics tends to put party first. "Close ranks" is the call while exaggerating difference with your main opposition in the election market place. The over-riding public interest can get lost in the process.

Take the ANC. There is, I believe, a general if sometimes grudging recognition that the best hope for pulling South Africa away from the brink of social and economic melt-down lies, partly, with the stabilisation of a Ramaphosa-headed administration. But for that to happen the ANC had to close ranks (or pretend to close ranks) to win elections. At the same time, as even Ramaphosa surely knows, the gravest threat to our democracy and economic sustainability comes not from some white right-wing extremists, but from inside the ANC machinery itself.

In a more minor key, an interesting inner-DA tension is playing out in the Eastern Cape. DA provincial leader, Nqaba Bhanga, is pursuing dialogue with the ANC to unseat the Nelson Mandela Bay mayor, the UDM's Mongameli Bobani. Bhanga has indicated that should the DA fail to secure the support of minority parties for the return of Anton Trollip as mayor, he would be willing to "put DA votes on the table" in favour of an ANC mayor.

Bhanga has every reason to seek the ouster of Bobani. According to Crispian Olver's insider account, How to steal a city, Bobani has long been at the very heart of malfeasance in the city. Bobani ousted Trollip through an unholy alliance of the EFF and the ANC's Andile Lungisa. Lungisa is an avid Zuma supporter and an outspoken opponent of the ANC's Eastern Cape, pro-Ramaphosa provincial leadership. The same Lungisa has just lost his appeal against a two-year sentence for a brutal water-jug assault on a fellow councillor.

Bhanga has said that he is motivated to find a coming together of moderates to put an end to the pillaging and murder in the city. That sounds reasonable. But to add a further complication to this tangled story, the DA national chairperson, Trollip, disagrees with his provincial leader, Bhanga, insisting on no deals with the ANC. (It will be interesting to see how the DA, with its federalist ideology and its centralising inclinations plays this one out.)

There are, I believe, two strategic imperatives we are facing as a country. The first is to ensure our precious constitutional democracy is not eroded into failed-state lawlessness. And the second is to address the structural features of our political economy that are reproducing crisis levels of unemployment, in particular. The two are interlinked. Lawlessness will frustrate sustainable socio-economic transformation. Failure to deal with crisis levels of unemployment will continue to erode popular support for our constitutional democracy, providing oxygen for pseudo-radicalism. 

Which comes back to the question of political alignments.   

Addressing his federal council earlier in June, DA leader Mmusi Maimane told members: "We must occupy the centre. We cannot pursue the left or the right." The May elections, he said, had "confirmed more than ever that the centre is where we need to be."

But where is the centre?

Maimane (he is not alone) appears uncertain. "It is in every way the right time to take a big step back," he said in the same speech, "and have a fundamental rethink about who we are… We just need to be clearer about who we are, and what we are about."

Maimane's pursuit of a vague centrist identity is premised on a common reading of the May elections results. Compared to the 2014 elections, the ANC percentage loss (4,64%) was almost equal to the EFF's gain (4,44%), while the DA's decline (1,47%) was virtually the same as the FF+'s increase (1,48%). And so the common conclusion is that the ANC lost to the "left" and the DA lost to the "right". Despite this fraying, "the centre held", writes academic and political analyst Jonny Steinberg, with the great majority of voters (over 78%) voting for either the ANC or DA.

But is the EFF left-wing? Many (myself included) have characterised some of the features of the EFF as "proto-fascist", noting its anti-white, anti-Indian racism, its general hooliganism, its cult of personality (Malema as "son of the soil"), its indulgence in pseudo-militarism, including self-appointed ranks ("commander-in-chief") and fascination with uniforms (admittedly, red overalls not black shirts). Yes, there is also the flirtation with left slogans, but remember Mussolini emerged out of the Italian socialist movement, and Nazi is derived from the acronym for national socialist.  

It is probably more accurate to say the EFF is a hybrid, a common feature of demagogic populism.

Of more importance to this discussion is not whether the EFF is left or right but that its leadership, along with their friends in the ANC's state capture faction, constitute, at the political level at least, the most clear and present danger to our constitutional democracy. Whatever our genuine left, right and centre debates might be, it's imperative that we unite, across party political affiliation, to isolate this public resource-thieving, rule of law-undermining threat. In the process, hopefully, many of the more idealistic youth who have been attracted by demagogic populism can be won back from tailing behind the Eskom and VBS looting axis.

However, none of that will be possible if pursuit of the centre means little more than the rule of law and business as usual. Unless it leans leftwards, the centre will not hold.

- Cronin is a member of the SACP's central committee, and a former member of the ANC's national executive committee. He was a deputy minister between 2012 and 2019. His first collection of poems, Inside, was released to much acclaim after his release from prison in 1984.

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