COSATU and the Liberals

Jeremy Cronin asks whether Vavi isn't playing into the opposition's hands

Whose Terrain?

"In the art of war, each belligerent chooses the terrain considered most advantageous for its battle for the offensive and tries to impose that terrain on its adversary, so that it is put on the defensive. The same goes for politics..." (Samir Amin, "The Battlefields Chosen by Contemporary Imperialism")

The truth of Samir Amin's observation is particularly evident in the current South African reality. Those in our society who are opposed to fundamental transformation naturally seek to shift politics onto a terrain that they calculate is most favourable for them to put us onto the defensive. They seek to produce a particular reading of South Africa that, they hope, will dominate on the air-waves, in the print media columns, and generally hegemonise public debate. If you succeed in shaping the terrain, then you shape how most of us then often unconsciously begin to understand our challenges and how we respond to them in practice.

As things have shifted, these anti-transformation forces have adapted their tactics. For instance, with the implosion of COPE, they have once more swung much of their attention and hopes away from the party political terrain and back towards "civil society". But the underlying strategic agenda remains the same - to constrain the democratic state, to weaken and divide the majority, to sow popular demoralisation about government, and to mobilise against what is supposed to be a dire threat to our constitution emanating from the "ruling elite".

We should, of course, not be in denial about the serious gaps opened up for this line of attack by real weaknesses within the state and the ANC and our alliance formations. In particular, there is a compradorial and parasitic rent-seeking stratum within our movement, often linked to a demagogic populism that has little respect for legality or the constitution.

As we have argued elsewhere, anti-majoritarian liberal forces are happy to provide a media megaphone for this demagogic populism - the better to be able to condemn us all. The existence of this phenomenon (what we have called "the new tendency") creates space for all manner of anti-ANC forces. This is why it is absolutely imperative that the government, the ANC and its alliance partners together lead the process of dealing firmly, and without fear or favour, with the scourge of corruption and demagogy.

However, using the gap created by this minority "new tendency" within our own ranks (and seeking to present its antics as the "real" ANC), the anti-transformation forces seek to displace the liberation movement's strategic hegemony with their own anti-majoritarian liberalism. In essence this consists in trying to displace the idea of an ongoing national democratic revolution with a politics of "civil rights claims". This is done by establishing a false dichotomy between the realisation of civil rights in SA and the NDR, with the latter portrayed as the "enemy" of civil rights and the Constitution.

Civil rights "versus" the national democratic revolution - a false dichotomy

Liberalism exists in SA in two basic forms - a right-wing, free market, anti-majoritarian liberalism and a more centre-left leaning, NGO/ "social movement" liberalism. There are differences between these currents of liberalism, but they share a common fundamental paradigm and, for a variety of reasons, there has been a growing practical convergence between them in the recent period. In our current reality liberalism (in both its versions) seeks to shift the centre of our national debate:

From the necessity for a radical structural transformation of our society (notably, placing our economy onto a "new growth path")... to a debate about defending civil rights. (As if radically transforming our economy was not fundamental to the real consolidation of civil rights for ALL South Africans.)

From the necessity of organising and building people's power both outside and INSIDE of the state... to defending individual rights by organising "civil society" as a watchdog against the state. For right-wing liberalism the emphasis is on restricting the state, for social liberalism the emphasis tends to fall more on demanding that the state "deliver" on its constitutional mandate (i.e. an essentially "redistributionist" rather than transformational agenda).

This largely redistributionist approach quickly plays into a right-wing liberal agenda that says - fine, but to redistribute you need the private sector to "grow the size of the cake". Whatever the differences of emphasis, both currents tend to "blame" the state (and ruling party) one-sidedly for all short-comings and problems (whether a lack of delivery or corruption). Linked to this, is the attempt to move the debate and strategic programme -

From an analysis of ALL power relations in our society including the power of an analysis that suggests that all (or most) power vests with the state and the rest of society is "civil society" a collection of powerless individual citizens (or at best minorities) whose private property (according to right-wing liberalism) or basic social rights (the social liberals) are constantly under threat from the state and political elites. We get a politics that masquerades as a-political, an anti-politics politics that regards political-politics as fundamentally "dirty". This anti-politics politics is, in turn, linked to the attempt to shift us programmatically -

From a radical and popular NATIONALISM that is inclusive (i.e. non-racial and non-tribalist), that organises and mobilises on the basis of the black majority's extensive traditions of struggle and ongoing (and legitimate) sense of national a discourse about the "tyranny of the majority" and Afro-pessimism.

In this discourse we are increasingly getting choral interplays between right-wing liberals and social liberals, like the duet pioneered by RW "Bill" Johnson and Khehla Shubane (chummy partners in the Business Day's long-running "Dear Bill/Dear Khehla" series). Lately, cde Kader Asmal's soprano declaration "it is time to scrap the NDR", has been warmly responded to by a right-wing liberal chorus (eg. Paul Hoffman, "Asmal is right: it's time to abandon the ‘revolution'", Business Day, 8 Nov 2010). Linked to which is the attempt to displace the national debate and our programmatic agenda...

From locating our own national democratic struggle within the wider context of an internationalist struggle against imperialism and the head-long destruction of our planet by capitalism's profit-maximising imperative of resource-depleting compound the idea of "post"-colonialism (i.e. oppression of the South is supposedly now more or less over, any problems can be ascribed to Third World/African political elites).

The SACP, socialism and liberal values

Historically, the SACP has always understood that we should incorporate what we might call "liberal values" into our strategic programme. Indeed, it was the Communist Party in SA that was decades ahead of any other political formation in advancing the call for one-person one-vote in SA. It was the CPSA way back in the 1920s that pioneered in theory (and in practical, day-to-day organisational work) the fundamental principle of individual equality, regardless of race or gender.

And it was the CPSA that was in the forefront of struggles around freedom of speech and media freedoms. We were in the vanguard in SA on these civil liberties precisely because we understood them to be part and parcel of a wider revolutionary struggle for democracy (and socialism).

We understood then (as now) that democracy in SA cannot be advanced, deepened and defended unless there are major socio-economic structural transformations of our society. Indeed, placing our economy onto a new job-creating and more egalitarian growth path is not incidental to democracy, it is the KEY (national) democratic task of our time.

Linked to this approach to "liberal values", the SACP in practice has also always sought to work with a wide range of social liberal forces - whether within the ANC and our broader movement, or, as in the 1970s and 80s, with many such forces that formed part of the international anti-apartheid movement.

Over the past ten years with our successive Red October campaigns we have, likewise, worked with and learnt from active campaigning together with a wide range of forces, including many NGO/social movement and faith-based formations, around transforming the financial sector, or land reform, or dealing with the scourge of corruption. In all of our campaigns, while respecting the independence and diversity of other formations, we have always endeavoured to locate the campaign within our strategic perspective of advancing the national democratic revolution.

For this reason, we have always invited, as a key priority, our Alliance partners to participate in these campaigns. And while, generally, COSATU and its affiliates have done so, most often the ANC has supported the campaigns in theory, but there has been very little practical engagement from its side.

In fact, however, it is the ANC that should really be leading a wide range of progressive, "civil society" forces in popular campaigns to transform the financial sector, or for land reform, or against the scourge of corruption. But this has not happened for many reasons, related mainly to the problematic transformation of the ANC through the latter half of the 1990s and into the 2000s from a movement into an electoral machine often beset with competing groupings narrowly focused on electoral lists and factional slates. The ANC collectively is very much aware of these negative developments - as the recent resolutions of the NGC attest.

The COSATU-convened "Civil Society Conference"

It is against this overall background that the SACP appreciated COSATU's convening of a "civil society" conference involving over 50 formations on the 27th and 28th of October. The SACP also noted the assurance given by COSATU that this was not an anti-government or anti-ANC alliance gathering, nor, we were assured, was it aimed at eventually establishing a new "workers' party". The SACP also welcomes the positive elements contained within the subsequent "Declaration of the Civil Society Conference".

However, in the light of our preceding discussion about the dangers of a deepening convergence between right-wing anti-majoritarian liberalism and social liberal NGO currents, a number of critical issues do arise concerning the "Civil Society Conference". These critical issues essentially revolve around one major issue: What exactly were the STRATEGIC assumptions underpinning the conference?

"Civil society" and the NDR

In response to criticism of the Conference made by the ANC's secretary general, Cde Gwede Mantashe, COSATU was quoted in the media saying that Cde Mantashe failed to "understand the nature and role of civil society in the national democratic revolution." But what IS the role of "civil society" in the NDR? Certainly, nowhere in the conference's Declaration will you find any explanation - in fact, you will not find any reference whatsoever to the NDR.

The NDR (the core strategic platform of the ANC-led alliance and of all COSATU congress resolutions going back to its formation in 1985) is nowhere to be found in the Declaration. Of course, it shouldn't just be a question of using the words "national", "democratic" and "revolution", but the absence of the NDR as an organising CONCEPT in the Declaration is symptomatic of a wider issue that relates to the notion of "civil society".

So what about the other core concept that the ANC supposedly doesn't understand - "civil society"? If the NDR has disappeared from the Declaration, the notion of "civil society" is to be found everywhere. Here are a few examples from the Declaration:  

  • "as well as backing the government's efforts to investigate corruption allegations, we need a civil society anti-corruption mechanism [that] should be a civil society owned initiative."
  • "The conference agreed to the concept of a Social Justice Charter, which can be used as a campaigning tool to mobilise society, particularly workers and communities, around issues of social justice... Any new Charter must... reflect civil society values. It can't simply repeat principles already in the Constitution but must expand on principles such as public participation to enforce social justice."
  • "It [the proposed Charter] must reflect the duty of civil society to hold government accountable...while expressing the need for solidarity and unity of civil society."
  • "There will be annual meetings of labour and civil society to take forward the social justice movement."

 But what exactly IS "civil society"?

The confusion around this concept is immediately apparent in the very last quotation cited above referring to annual meetings of "labour AND civil society". Does this mean that "labour" (i.e. presumably, organised labour) is not PART of "civil society", but rather an "ally" of "civil society"? Elsewhere the Declaration is clearly using the concept of "civil society" to embrace labour. But this is merely a minor symptom of a much bigger problem.

"Civil society" is a core liberal concept supposedly designating that part of society which is "non-state". Within a liberal paradigm the "state" is, basically, a necessary evil - "civil society" (i.e. the "market") requires some regulation and policing (but preferably not too much). "Civil society" is, by contrast, supposedly a realm of "freedom", of individual choice, creativity and entrepreneurship.

Academic and media commentator Prince Mashele (who was a participant in the "Civil Society Conference") usefully exposes precisely all of these liberal assumptions about "civil society" in his defence of the Conference against the criticisms of the ANC's secretary general, who, he says, was:

"demanding that the ANC or the government must always be present whenever ordinary citizens meet [of course, cde Mantashe made no such ludicrous demand at all] ...What is wrong with ordinary South Africans meeting to declare war on corruption? Is there something seditious about powerless non-governmental organisations who call for an ethical society?" - "Cry freedom and let loose the ANC hounds such as Mantashe", Sunday Independent, 7 November 2010)

There are a host of problems in Mashele's argument here. What disqualifies non-invitees like the ANC, the SACP and SANCO from being "non-governmental" organisations? And what makes COSATU, the TAC, or the Social Justice Coalition suddenly "powerless non-governmental organisations"? And notice further the slippage between these supposedly "powerless" (but well-funded) formations and the idea that this was a meeting of "ordinary citizens...ordinary South Africans".

Above all, note how what Mashele is doing here is exactly the liberal manoeuvre that we noted at the beginning of this intervention - turning a strategic question (what was the transformational agenda of the Conference?) into a "civil rights" matter (COSATU and others have the "right" to meet whenever and with whomsoever they choose - of course they do! But that isn't the issue).

Mashele goes on to ask what motivated the ANC's concerns around the Conference. And he answers his own question thus:

"While there could be numerous other explanations, the most compelling seems to be in the dirty politics of post-colonial Africa. Many things have now occurred to burst the bubble of South African exceptionalism. We are a typical post-colonial African state."

Again notice how other core themes of the current liberal offensive against the NDR are picked up - Afro-pessimism, the idea of "post-colonialism", and the supposedly inevitable "dirtiness" of African politics.

It might be argued that these are all Mashele's individual views. Unfortunately, however, there are moments when, for instance, Cde Zwelinzima Vavi appeared to be falling into the same paradigm.

For instance, could it be a similar assumption of inherent dirtiness that informed cde Vavi's explanation for why the ANC and SACP were not invited to the conference: "We kept the gathering CLEAN and did not involve political parties." (Sunday Times, 31 October 2010). Perhaps this was just an unfortunate metaphor? Maybe. But in his prepared written speech to the Conference, cde Vavi told delegates:

"we are making our political parties new battlegrounds where we have replaced the apartheid regime in killing and poisoning...Look what is happening in COPE, IFP. Now even Lucas Mangope is not safe. Look what is happening in the ANC in some provinces. Look at the number of splits in EVERY political party. Genuiness is fast becoming a rare commodity!"

Although, "every" political party is accused here, notice how the political parties cde Vavi actually mentions are all those that are predominantly black parties. This anti-politics politics with its hint of Afro-pessimism, unintentionally no doubt, plays straight into the hands of anti-majoritarian right-wing liberals - in fact, it represents their hegemony.

Apart from "cleanliness", Cde Vavi explained the exclusion of political parties from the Conference on the grounds that if some were invited all the others would also want to be invited. But why does this not also apply to the tens of thousands of potential "civil society" invitees who were not on the guest list?

After all, De Beers and Afriforum are also part of "civil society". And if big corporations and relatively successful (if conservative) social movements like Afriforum are also part of "civil society", then what exactly does the Conference Declaration mean when it calls for "the ... solidarity and unity of civil society"?

Of course, in drawing up the invitation list the organisers quite correctly included some and excluded others, i.e. they made POLITICAL decisions. And so, again, we return to the same question: what precisely were the underlying political (i.e. strategic) assumptions that informed the guest list and everything else about the Conference? Perhaps these were not clearly thought through on the side of COSATU, but what about the other leading participants?

The Treatment Action Campaign, Section 27, and the Social Justice Coalition

Apart from COSATU, three NGO formations quickly asserted a co-convening posture - the TAC, Section 27 and the Social Justice Coalition. Notwithstanding a passing genuflection to COSATU's economic policy paper, it is the language and campaigning demands of these three formations that dominate the Declaration.

These three formations are basically run by a handful of overlapping personalities. Section 27 and the SJC morphed out of the TAC at a time when, thanks to the defeat of AIDS-denialism (in which the TAC's progressive campaigning played a major part), the single focus of the TAC had lost some of its traction.

The leading personalities in all three formations overlap and inter-connect. Many also share an activist history going back to the 1980s when they were involved in the "Marxist Workers' Tendency" - a left-wing entryist formation that sought to transform the ANC into a workers' party.

While the Declaration of the "Civil Society Conference" speaks of working WITH government, this isn't necessarily how some of these formations appear to position themselves. For instance, in a web-posting calling for volunteers to apply for internships, the SJC tells us:

"The organization focuses on the failure of government in the areas of service delivery, corruption and accountability, and the attacks from political leaders on the Constitution and Judiciary."

How does that differ from the FW De Klerk Foundation? We accept cde Vavi's assurances that there was no oppositionist, anti-government, or anti-Alliance agenda on COSATU's part in convening the Conference. The position of the leadership core of the TAC/Section27/SJC is less clear. But it would certainly be extremely surprising if the major funders of these latter formations (both domestic and international), who have also been major funders of COPE, did not have an agenda that was a wee bit more than just philanthropic.

We are not saying something crass like "these formations are simply imperialist agents". Nor are we remotely alleging that they are part of some "major conspiracy". Nor are we saying that we should never work with them in their respective campaigns - on the contrary.

But we ARE saying that, as Alliance partners, we need to be very careful that we are not manipulated into someone else's strategic agenda, particularly when that agenda is itself increasingly hegemonised by a much more right-wing, anti-majoritarian liberalism.

This article by SACP deputy general secretary first appeared in the Party's online journal, Umsebenzi Online, Volume 9, No. 22, 17 November 2010

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