Local Elections Message – Need For a Mass Working Class Party

by Weizmann Hamilton

3 August 2016, will go down at an electoral level, as a turning point in the ANC’s post apartheid history – a point at which the arrow of its political fortunes is now firmly pointing south. As events since the elections have demonstrated, the aura of the ANC as the all-conquering party of liberation destined to rule in Zuma’s infamous words “until Jesus comes” has been shattered. Deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa’s statement when speaking out for the first time over the threatened arrest of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan by the Zuma faction-controlled Hawks, that the ANC is at war with itself, is if anything, an understatement.

That Zuma can even contemplate Gordhan’s arrest, deploying the Crimes Against the State (CATS) unit, whose mandate is to defend the country against sedition, treason and coups, is a measure of the extent of his intoxication with the powers he has usurped Bonapartist-style within the ANC and his total incomprehension of the destructive consequence of his actions on it.  The use of key state institutions now led by his cronies, including the apartheid-era police-trained Hawks head, Berning Ntlemeza, using methods of intimidation and harassment that are an almost exact replica of those of the apartheid regime, shows how much the Zuma faction has parted company with political reality. There is now open speculation of a split within the ANC as a hitherto timid opposition begins to find its voice.

Izwi La Basebenzi pointed out during the factional war in the run-up to the 2007 ANC conference in Polokwane, and after, that however much the conflict centred on the personalities of Mbeki and Zuma, in reality the ANC’s internal conflict was an indirect expression of the polarisation between the classes that resulted from the ANC’s neo-liberal capitalist economic policies. We warned then that this process would continue under Zuma — who had made it abundantly clear that there would be no change in economic policy under his administration — and that this would sow the seeds for even sharper factional conflict in the future.

Whilst the definitive majority with which the Zuma faction emerged out of Polokwane was consolidated at Mangaung, where he was re-elected with an increased majority, the subterranean processes that were bringing the class forces into even sharper collision continued to play themselves out in significantly more unfavourable economic conditions.

The scale of the Zuma faction’s victory and the ideological tone of the pre-Polokwane propaganda machine gave rise to the illusion of an ANC that would return to its roots as a party with a “working class bias” that would, in the second decade of liberation, shift its focus from the rich to the poor. Illusory as it was, it enabled the ANC to retain a semblance of ideological consensus, historical purpose and organisational cohesion both inside the party and to the working class electorate.

Nearly a decade later, our perspectives have been borne out. The Polokwane illusions have now evaporated. What marks out the factional war this time however – Zuma’s incoherent “9/12” babble when he announced the sacking of former Finance Minister Nene aside — is the complete abandonment of any ideological pretences. The naked struggle for power is unashamedly over control of state resources for self-enrichment. As the unprecedented levels of corruption now impact on the real economy, it has come to occupy political centre stage in the ANC’s relationship with the electorate. The overpowering stench of moral decay engulfing the ANC leaves the masses turning away from it in disgust.

Despite the overwhelming dominance of the corruption question, the ANC factions are not ideologically at odds with each other. The corruption furore may have pitted Zuma against Gordhan over control of the Treasury, but both are equally committed to the same neo-liberal economic policies. Both the pseudo-populists and the constitutional democrats have been united in their determination to tighten the grip of neo-liberalism around the throats of the working class. Gordhan may even enjoy some public sympathy over his stance on corruption. But as a staunch defender of the government’s anti-working class neo-liberal capitalist policies, he stands guard over Treasury not just against the Zuma faction’s recklessness and corruption, but in defence of the constitutionally entrenched economic dictatorship of the “markets” and against the democratic claims of the masses over the financial resources Treasury controls for jobs, decent housing, free education and health, the eradication of poverty, inequality and mass unemployment.

From the standpoint of the working class, the Gordhan portrayed by the liberal press and the chattering classes as a heroic champion of fiscal responsibility trying to prevent Zuma from turning the country into a into a kleptocracy, is as politically responsible as Zuma for the unmitigated disaster that the ANC government’s economic policies have been for the working class. These policies have ensured that the draining away of electoral support, under way for more than a decade, has now reached a level that poses the question of the ANC’s possible defeat in the 2019 general election.

No Winners

“The masses have spoken” all political parties are saying. But what did they say? The consensus amongst analysts is limited to a recognition of the undeniable reality that these elections represent a resounding rejection of the ANC. Beyond this, opinion on the performance of both the DA and the EFF differ widely and sometimes wildly.

It ranges from the ludicrous suggestion, even from sections of the Left, that the masses have turned to the right and embraced the DA which was now poised to return SA to apartheid, to the idea that the way is now cleared for a president Maimane to accede to power in 2019. On the other hand, the EFF is believed to have performed respectably given its limited financial resources even if its more extravagant ambitions of trebling its votes and taking control of a number of municipalities have not been realised.

But these analyses are rather generous to both the DA and the EFF. In the DA’s case this generosity derives from the belief that the DA, under its first black leader, Maimane, is on track towards shedding its historical heritage as a party of white privilege and undergoing a successful transformation into a party of the rainbow at the end of which lies the pot of gold of electoral victory. But as we have pointed out in a previous statement this claim is not supported by the facts. The DA has not been able to break through the electoral ceiling it reached in 2014.

The sympathetic treatment of the EFF’s results is the fruit of its consistent ideological shift to the right. What bourgeois commentators refer to as its greater “maturity” is an accolade it has earned because, interspersed in with its radical rhetoric, is a language that is much more social democratic than socialist. Dali Mpofu, EFF national chairperson, for example, has spoken admiringly of Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn and the US’s Bernie Sanders as a vision for SA to follow. Serious socialists of course supported Bernie Sanders (until his betrayal in supporting war monger and arch neo-liberal Hilary Clinton) against the imperialist US establishment as well as Corbyn against the equally war-mongering neo-liberal Blairite right-wing in the Labour Party. But serious socialists also had to be clear that the programme of both Sanders and Corbyn, despite proclaiming themselves as socialists, do not go beyond a radical reform of capitalism, whilst failing to recognise that implementing their programmes would bring them into open collision with the capitalist establishment and pose the question of the overthrow of capitalism.

The logic of the EFF’s position, the notion that a better capitalism is possible, is what has earned the EFF its new respectability, reflected in the media in the estimation of the serious strategists of capitalism. The EFF increasingly appears to have been engaged in a mere flirtation with socialism.

The ANC’s deepest crisis since 2007 presented both parties with unprecedented opportunities which they failed to exploit. Neither party was able to attract to its banner a sizeable section of the 3.3m votes the ANC lost. The verdict delivered by these elections is that neither the DA on the right nor the EFF on the left had succeeded in convincing the masses that they were a serious alternative. This is a far greater indictment of the EFF than it is for the DA. The latter, a party whose historical component parts all have their origins in white minority rule, has always been an unapologetic party of neo-liberal capitalism.

The DA can crow until the cows come home over the fact that they now run four of the country’s metros. But with the exception of Cape Town where, for historical reasons, the peculiar demographics of the province conspired with the ANC’s grotesque incompetence and corruption to enable it to return to office with an increased majority, it failed to secure an outright majority in any other metro. What the electorate has taken away from the ANC they have not given to the DA.

Mistaken EFF Tactics

The conditions for the birth of the EFF, in contrast, were prepared by the decisive changes in working class consciousness wrought in the furnace of Marikana and expressed in the burning desire for a mass working class alternative with a programme pointing the way out of the exploitation and oppression of capitalism.

The main message of these elections is that the masses’ yearning for a mass working class alternative with a programme that breaks unambiguously with the policies of the ANC, has yet to be fulfilled. The EFF’s 1 million + votes in 2014 was one expression of that desire and provided it with the platform to build such an alternative.

Do the EFF’s post election tactics assist the working class in this direction?

The installation of DA administrations in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay has attracted admiring commentary from analysts and commentators in the bourgeois press over Julius Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters “political maturity” in voting for DA mayors. Malema has justified the decision on the grounds that the EFF’s main strategic objective had been to break the ANC’s grip on power. The EFF Commander-in Chief declared the DA was not a corrupt party, a lesser evil – a “better devil”. The EFF’s tactics would entail not accepting any positions in council and dealing with matters on an issue by issue basis, voting with or against the DA on the merits of their policies, programmes and budgets.

According to national chairperson Dali Mpofu, the EFF central command spent sleepless nights pondering over the question of tactics given an electoral landscape in which the EFF’s main strategic objective had been achieved as the ANC suffered a humiliating defeat, but in which they had not won sufficient support to take control of councils on their own. To have entered into a coalition with either the ANC or the DA would have triggered a revolt in its ranks. They therefore decided to vote for DA mayors without entering into a formal coalition with a party that it maintains is a racist defender of white privilege and white monopoly capital.  The EFF argues that with the election results having produced hung councils, it did not want to take responsibility for “collapsing service delivery” by standing in the way of the formation of a working council.

For a party that has made the battle against white privilege and the domination of the commanding heights of the economy by white monopoly capital a central plank of its political message, this decision has caused shock within the ranks of the EFF. Such was the level of dissent that the EFF central command feared that its newly elected councillors would defy the leadership and vote with the ANC. National chairperson Dali Mpofu was despatched to Nelson Mandela Bay to monitor EFF councillors on mayoral voting day after reports that EFF councillors, who found the idea of voting for Trollip as mayor so repugnant that they were tempted by ANC political appeals, backed up with significant offers of financial rewards, not to vote for the “party of the colonisers”.

The level of the leadership’s distrust of their own councillors and fears of their susceptibility to bribes obliged Malema at the EFF’s Alexandra press conference to launch a public attack on EFF members who saw in their councillor positions an opportunity for self-enrichment. In a desperate attempt to prevent simmering dissent from boiling over into open rebellion, in both Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni the EFF held up proceedings at council sittings, demanding the suspension of the rule that voting for the mayor and speaker be conducted by secret ballot to ensure that the party line would not be betrayed out of sight of scrutiny by the Central Command.

The EFF would be relieved that the line of the party Central Command has held for now. Many in the party, and voters in general, would be willing to give the leadership the benefit of the doubt. They will find the argument that the EFF found itself between a rock and a hard place persuasive. Even the humility of Malema’s acknowledgment that the voters had not given the EFF a mandate to govern would have impressed many as a show of leadership – a willingness to face the reality that the EFF vote meant that, despite the scale of the ANC’s defeat, the EFF had not succeeded in convincing voters that it was the alternative.

The Workers and Socialist Party believes the decision to vote for DA mayors was a very serious mistake. As the EFF itself acknowledges, the DA is ideologically indistinguishable from the ANC. The only difference between these two neo-liberal capitalist parties is that the DA’s commitment to neo-liberal capitalism is unconstrained by the ANC’s need to retain the support of Cosatu. Recognising, despite its extravagant electoral ambitions, that it is a party with little prospect of gaining a majority in national elections, the DA’s role has been to exert pressure on the ANC to ensure that it implements its anti-working class neo-liberal policies to the full whilst hypocritically posturing as the champions of the poor and the unemployed. This is the reason that we witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of the DA organising a march on Cosatu House denouncing its opposition to the ANC’s own policy, the Youth Wage subsidy, a policy calculated to promote slave wages and to undermine the limited worker gains of the post–apartheid era.

The EFF voted for a mayor, Herman Mashaba, whose election campaign promise included the full privatisation and unbundling of the waste management entity, Pikitup, into seven different entities, to be handed to small business and run for private profit. This is nothing less than a different variety of the exact same approach as the ANC – using service delivery to open opportunities for capitalists to enrich themselves on the back of low wages and the provision of services only to those who can afford to pay for them.

Ideologically, Mashaba is the personification of the DA’s anti-working class character. He is a former chairperson of the Free Market Foundation – an organisation currently taking legal action at the Constitutional Court to destroy centralised bargaining and cripple the power of trade unions in the name of “freedom”—that is the right for bosses to pay workers slaves wages. The EFF will argue that it did not matter who the DA mayoral candidate was and accordingly did not make Mashaba’s nomination a deal breaker. But the EFF could have used the fact that the DA’s choice of Mashaba to expose what it really stands for – the rolling back of the gains of workers to the apartheid era.

The EFF defends its decision to vote for the DA mayoral candidate as an example of dealing with matters on an issue-by-issue basis – the question of the mayor being but the first on the shopping list of issues the EFF will decide how to vote on, on its merits. In WASP’s pre-election statement, we pointed out that as a serious revolutionary socialist party WASP would have taken the approach of deciding how we voted on an issue-by-issue basis. However, such a tactic is justifiable only in circumstances where WASP would have had no power to determine which party should form the administration. We would certainly not have included the question of the mayoralty as such an issue.

The question of the mayoralty may be the first on the list of matters that will be decided issue by issue; but it is not the first amongst equals.  The decision to vote for the DA mayoral candidate is a qualitatively different one from the issues that the EFF will confront from now onwards. The vote for the DA mayoral candidate has had the effect of enabling the DA to form an administration in three of the country’s most important cities. Without the EFF’s support it would not have been possible for the DA to gain power.

The EFF is correct to recognise that it did not obtain a mandate to govern. But this applies as much to the DA regardless of the disparity in the size of their respective votes. The DA came close but the reality is that it failed to win an outright majority in any of the key metros. A miss is as good as a mile. It is one thing to be compelled to consider how to vote on an issue by issue basis in a council run by an ideologically hostile political party. It is quite another to assist such a party to come to power.

The EFF has further justified its support for the DA on the grounds that it is not corrupt and that the failure to allow an administration to be formed would have resulted in a collapse of service delivery. Based on the Auditor General’s report on local government performance, it cannot be disputed that DA councils are the best run in the country administratively. However it is completely wrong to claim that the DA is corruption-free. The current dispute over the contracts of senior officials in the City of Cape Town disproves this claim. Corruption is not some wart on the face of capitalism that can be surgically removed with the scalpel of moral rectitude. Corruption is the grease that makes the wheels of capitalism turn. The very notion that service delivery is possible only if they are put out to tender for private profit, if not corrupt itself, creates the conditions for it.

More importantly it is a fundamental mistake to argue that service delivery failures are the result simply of corruption, abhorrent as it is. Even without corruption no local government administration is capable of providing quality services to all on the basis of a diseased capitalist system. The root of the problem is not to be found in the moral virtues of local government elected councillors and officials. It lies in the incapacity of capitalism to meet even the most basic needs of the people.

The EFF has now placed itself in a position where it has to keep the DA in power irrespective of any differences it may have over any of the issues that may arise. The argument that it was necessary to enable the DA to form an administration on the mayoral issue, will apply every time the EFF has to vote on any DA proposal. The argument that the alternative to voting the DA into power was the possible collapse of service delivery – apart from being false – will apply to any policy the DA puts forward that is in conflict with EFF policy. The logic of the position the EFF adopted on the mayoralty means that if the DA administration is paralysed by its inability to secure a majority for any of its policies, resolutions or programmes, the EFF would have to come to its rescue … to avoid a collapse of service delivery.

The EFF in other words, has followed a tactic that effectively turns it into a prop of the DA. It may not have signed a formal coalition agreement but it has signed up for a political relationship that can justifiably be described as a coalition of a special type.

The EFF has placed itself in a position where any benefits – such as limited service delivery improvements through the freeing up of more funding that the curbing of corruption could lead to – will accrue more to the DA than to itself. On the other hand the EFF will have to take responsibility for the inevitable failure to raise the quality of service to all regardless of race or class.

WASP does not accept the argument that the EFF had no choice. In terms of the electoral law, an administration has to be formed within 90 days of the declaration of local government election results, failing which fresh elections must be held.

It is not enough for the EFF to acknowledge that it did not get a mandate from the voters. The question is “why?”. There can only be one conclusion: that the EFF’s programme did not convince the electorate that it had a solution to the problems of poor services, access to decent housing and sanitation, inequality, poverty and mass unemployment. The EFF’s radical rhetoric was clearly not persuasive. The EFF’s local government election manifesto did not mention the word socialism once.

The EFF could have gone back to the voters with a programme that for example committed it to the cancellation of all rent, rate and electricity arrears for the working class and the poor, for the introduction of tariffs based on a sliding scale, inverting the pyramid so that the rich should subsidise the poor; to end all outsourcing and to return privatised services to local government; to convert “employment opportunities” provided through EPWP, home based care, Jozi@Work, into permanent jobs with decent benefits. Such a programme would have had to be campaigned for not just through press conferences and election manifesto rallies, but through mass mobilisation including strike action.

This would have required recognising that the problems of local government cannot be separated from the problems facing the economy nationally. The EFF could have pointed to the colossal squandering of resources through unspent billions in the accounts of financial institutions lying idle for lack of profitable investment opportunities, the looting of the country through illicit capital flows etc. That the EFF did not have the courage to return to the voters suggests a lack of confidence in its own programme.

Instead the EFF voted for a mayor in Johannesburg whose programme in relation to eg Pikitup is not only a worse version of the ANC’s approach that sees in service delivery an opportunity to enrich businessmen and women. The unbundling of Pikitup will also require an all-out assault on workers’ rights and the collective bargaining system, in line with the rightwing neo-liberal views of the Freedom Foundation he once chaired. As the DA’s anti-working class programme takes off, the EFF’s tactics will be subjected to the harsh scrutiny of the class struggle. Mashaba’s Pikitup plans will be the first of these: the EFF will have to choose between keeping the DA in power or joining the workers in opposition to the very council they have enabled to take power. There are many others to follow, not the least of which is the DA’s immediate retreat from active opposition to e-tolls post-election.

WASP is committed to ensuring that the vacuum on the left is filled with a party that would provide a platform for the unification of all service delivery struggles across the county, of students involved in struggles for free education and a new trade union federation based on struggle solidarity and socialism. A defeat for an imploding ANC in the 2019 elections is now entirely within the realm of possibility. History beckons the working class to commence the building a mass workers party on a socialist programme, not just to out the ANC, but to commence the struggle for the socialist transformation of society.