The ANC must get its Message Right by Moving Further Left

If the ANC does not reject neo-liberal economics and embrace a radical economic shift, it runs the risk of opening the door for ultra-left wing and ultra-right-wing parties to emerge and contest its political base, writes ZAHIR AMIEN

In a few weeks’ time, ANC branches will begin the nomination process for its national leaders who will be elected at its 54th National Conference in December 2017. This conference is a watershed one as it is supposed to usher in a new leadership era that will lead the party, and if it wins the next national elections in 2019, the government as well.

Although there are at least six names that are being touted for President, this year’s contest it seems is no different to its previous conferences of 2007 and 2012. Once again, the ANC seems to be broadly split into two dominant slates which if history is to repeat itself will result in most caucuses, lobby groups and presidential candidates eventually coalescing around two slates, the Nkosana Dlamini Zuma (NDZ 17) slate and the Cyril Ramaphosa slate also known as CR17- Siyavuma.

It is however interesting that the campaigns of the two leading slates are not just focused on differing personalities but they have on the face of it differing ideological and economic policy approaches. This is an important factor for branches to consider as these differences could determine whether the ANC will be able to hold onto power and grow its support over the next decade or lose its historical support.

On the one hand, the NDZ campaign seems to be pushing a very strong leftist economic policy trajectory, (at least on a rhetorical level). Under the banner of radical economic transformation (RET), it seems to be calling for a radical departure from the historical and current neoliberal centralist economics that the ANC has been practising since 1994.

The CR17 slate, on the other hand, argues that the broad policy thrust of the ANC’s centralist economics should remain. However, they do argue that it should be amended to deal with current policy and institutional weaknesses to address the challenges of jobless growth, poverty, inequality and unemployment etc. Linked to this argument, its message is furthermore focused on good governance, rooting out corruption, addressing state capture and building a more capable state. They argue that if these policies are implemented effectively and efficiently the country will develop and we will begin to experience inclusive growth and increased jobs rather than the extractive and jobless growth over the past decade.

This message is important and may in all likelihood calm the markets and appease capital.  It will also appease the black chattering class which still is a sizable support base for the ANC.  However, given the current international political trends, it is debatable whether this message and policy trajectory will be sufficient for the ANC to retain its historical working class and poor constituency and the youth in the medium to long-term.

Over the past five years, there seems to be a growing international pattern emerging of the working class and poor masses in both developed and developing countries revolting against centralist neoliberal economics.  Instead, in the absence of credible alternative left-wing political parties, we have witnessed the rise of either right-wing neo-fascist nationalist parties and/or ultra-left parties and populist demagogue leaders on both sides of the extremes. In the United States (US) the centralist neo-liberal economic narrative was rejected by most working class and poor communities across both the Democratic and Republican parties in 2016. This is why Donald Trump was able to defy all odds and won the Republican primaries.  Thereafter he went on to win the Presidential Elections through a racist and xenophobic national socialist political campaign.

Equally, this explains why an “old school” socialist such as Bernie Sanders almost won the Democratic Party primaries in the USA, the bastion of free market capitalism.  A few years ago, the meteoric rise of the likes of a Bernie Sanders would have been unheard of in the US. Some analysts argue that had Sanders won the Democratic primaries, the US Presidential election outcome may have been different.

Similarly, in Britain, two key events also indicate a shift away from neoliberal economics amongst both the Tory Party and the (New) Labour Party poor and working class supporters. Firstly, there was the outcome of the racist and national chauvinist BREXIT vote in 2016. As a response to this, the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, another unapologetic “old school” socialist as the leader of the Labour Party. His return from the periphery of Labour rising to become its leader would also have been unheard of a mere decade ago.

Similar trends have also over the past five years occurred in the rest of the developed and developing world as well. This includes India, Brazil, Spain and Greece to mention but a few.  The pattern that is emerging indicates a systematic revolt against the neoliberal ideology of the historic left and liberal parties that have dominated our global politics over the past two decades such as the Democrats in the US, New  Labour in Britain, Congress in India and the Workers Party in Brazil, amongst others.

Instead, we have seen the rise of far leftist leaders and parties such as Podemos in Spain, SYRIZA in Greece and Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP party in Delhi India.  Equally, we are seeing the rise of right-wing nationalist individuals emerging in the traditionally dominant parties such as Trump in the Republican Party in the US and Modi and the BJP party in India etc. Whilst there are some developed countries such as Germany & France where the Neo-liberal ideology still remains the dominant narrative, it is only a matter of time before the rejectionist trend will dominate there as well. It only remains because of the dominance and strength of the individual leaders and cult of personality of the likes of Angela Merkel together with the strength of their economies.

Given these emerging international shifts to the far left and right, it begs the question whether South Africa and the ANC, in particular, is not immune to these changes given our own economic challenges. The ANC needs to urgently ask itself if it can retain and grow its historical working class and poor support if it does not reject the neoliberal economic narrative and move its economic policies further to the left. Most of the working class, poor and unemployed today were born and/or grew up in a post-apartheid South Africa. They, unlike the previous generation of ANC supporters, do not have historical loyalties to the ANC and lack the patience of waiting for the so-called benefits of trickle-down economics.

Like their international counterparts, they have grown up and borne the brunt of a system that has resulted in jobless growth, greater poverty, inequality and unemployment.  It is therefore only a matter of time before the majority of them also rise up and reject neo-liberal economic policies outright.  If the ANC does not urgently embrace a radical economic shift to the left it will strengthen parties such as the EFF as well as opening the door for other ultra-left and ultra-right wing racist and national chauvinist parties and leaders. Going forward, if the ANC wants to remain in power it must get its message right by moving further to the left.

Amien is social and political commentator 

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