The South African party political scene is undergoing substantial change amid shifting possibilities affecting both the ruling alliance and the collective opposition. Over the past year or more new parties, formations and trends have emerged, fed by general dissatisfaction with the African National Congress and its iron grip on power under President Jacob Zuma.
As predominantly two voices – the socialist workers’ left and the moderate middle-class centre – seek an effective platform, participants in the nominal two-stream party political system that has operated until now are being challenged.
On the one hand, the hitherto almost monolithic de facto one-party rule by the ANC alliance, with its two-thirds majority, faces a workers’ revolt for its perception of increasingly representing mainly a new black elite.
At the same time, attempts by the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), to forge an ‘opposition coalition’ led by itself, is being challenged from within the ranks of the moderate centre.
For the ANC and its two allies – the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) – the biggest wake-up call came last year with a workers’ revolt against Cosatu affiliate, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), in the form of violent clashes with the independent Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, which culminated in the Marikana shooting tragedy.
Non-unionised mineworkers, many of them former NUM members, also played a large part as labour unrest rapidly spread throughout the gold and platinum sectors in particular.
A similar situation followed on fruit farms in the Western Cape, with labour unrest driven by small independent workers’ associations or workers’ committees formed by non-unionised workers.
On the mines, the once hugely dominant NUM increasingly found it was losing members – and even losing its majority recognition status on some mines.
And in the Western Cape, farmworkers shunned Cosatu and its Food and Allied Workers’ Union as well as the ANC.
This trend culminated in an announcement about the formation of the new Workers and Socialist Party (Wasp). The driving force behind its formation was the local shaft-based and national strike committees formed during last year’s wildcat strikes and unrest on the mines.
According to reports, Elias Juba, chairperson of the mineworkers’ national strike committee, said the new party was a response to the lack of political representation of “the working class and poor”.
He reportedly said, “Marikana showed that we, the working class, have been abandoned by the ANC. The ANC is more interested in protecting the profits of the mine bosses at the expense of the living standards of the mineworkers, their families and communities.”
The party is to be launched formally next week and wants to contest next year’s general election.
It is nothing new for former liberation movements in Africa to break up, with their labour wings launching political parties in opposition to the erstwhile mother party. It has happened, for example, in Zimbabwe and Zambia. There, however, the new labour-based parties positioned themselves in the centre rather than the left as seems to be the case in South Africa.
Ever since the ANC came to power in 1994, it has struggled to manage the transition from liberation movement to political party, with repressive and undemocratic tendencies often surfacing. It has caused continuous tensions in its support base, leading to small splinter groups breaking away.
In the Zuma era, this has degenerated into open revolt and unprecedented factionalism in the alliance. Critics accuse Zuma and his close allies of corrupt patronage being used to retain support via public service jobs, lucrative political appointments as well as state tenders and business contracts.
Breakaways from the ANC started with Bantu Holomisa’s United Democratic Movement (UDM), followed by the Congress of the People (Cope) formed by former defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota and former Gauteng premier Mbhazima Shilowa.
Since Zuma’s rise to power in 2007, the alliance has been increasingly split by factionalism along pro- and anti-Zuma lines.
It was first largely driven by the anti-Zuma ANC Youth League (ANCYL) led by then president Julius Malema; since his expulsion, it has mainly shifted to a faction in Cosatu. This faction comprises Cosatu general-secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and Cosatu’s second largest union after NUM, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, as well as some smaller unions.
Zuma’s labour support comes from Cosatu president Sidumo Dlamini and other leaders mostly accommodated in ANC top structures.
Recent tensions in Cosatu have been driven to breaking point with an apparent witch-hunt launched against Vavi. Even ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe recently told a Cosatu conference that the federation was in danger of breaking up.
Opposition parties have been striving for years to establish a united coalition or front. For some time, DA leader Helen Zille has cherished this idea of a two-party system consisting of the ANC alliance on the one hand, and a coalition of opposition parties on the other.
To date, however, the DA has only managed co-operation agreements with smaller parties in some municipalities and provincial legislatures. It has also managed to co-opt Patricia de Lille’s Independent Democrats, but failed to reach a practical arrangement with the UDM, the Freedom Front Plus, Cope and others.
Recently, new impetus was given to the idea of an opposition coalition when respected businesswoman and academic, Mamphela Ramphele, announced the launch of Agang. Clearly at this stage still a water-testing exercise, she has varyingly referred to it as a political party, political platform, initiative or movement.
She has indicated that Agang may in some way participate in next year’s general election, but she has been in talks with the DA and others in opposition circles.
Lacking grassroots political structures and organisation, Ramphele can at best perhaps play a role in bringing opposition parties together under a common banner, with Agang as a platform. She may be well positioned to broker a co-operation deal among opposition parties to allow them to pool their resources for maximum benefit against the ANC in next year’s general election.
But in the foreseeable future, the strongest opposition force will most likely emerge from disgruntled workers and impoverished township residents who have spearheaded service delivery protests. They could form the nucleus of a new socialist left wing in which Wasp could play a leading role, with the SACP being a spent force largely reliant on the ANC for its existence.
Interesting times lie ahead in the run-up to the 2014 general election.