A bad day at the polls for the left as Numsa stumbles

12 May 2019 - 00:02 By IMRAAN BUCCUS

This election has overwhelmingly been a vote for the liberal centre.
Anyone who has spent any time on social media or reading think pieces in the mainstream media would have concluded that Nelson Mandela's idea of the Rainbow Nation is long dead. But the vast majority of votes in this election went to parties led by Cyril Ramaphosa and Mmusi Maimane, both of whom have positioned themselves as Mandela's true heirs.
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It is true that the crude racial populism of the EFF and the Freedom Front Plus made some gains, but in the overall picture they remain a minority. Mandela's vision of racial reconciliation clearly still has the support of the majority of South Africans.Other populists who won lots of media space before the election, like Hlaudi Motsoeneng and his African Content Movement (ACM), and Andile Mngxitama and his Black First Land First (BLF), were routed at the polls. If the media starts to take actual popular support rather than sensationalism seriously when allocating media space, we should be spared too much more of the ravings of these types.
And we know that the ACM and BLF are Zuma-aligned, as is the right-wing populism of the African Transformation Movement (ATM), with a base in conservative churches. Many wondered if the ATM, with its links to churches with huge membership, would do well at the polls. It did get some votes, but it's hardly a game-changer.
Church membership didn't automatically translate into votes for a church-aligned party.
This outcome means that SA is doing relatively well in avoiding the curse of populism. The populists in the ANC have been seriously weakened by Ramaphosa's success. They will be further weakened by the now much more credible criminal justice system.
The downside of this election, though, is that while Mandela's vision of an inclusive SA has been overwhelmingly endorsed by the electorate, this has come at the price of an endorsement of mainstream economics. The ANC under Ramaphosa, and the DA under any of its leaders, are parties of the neoliberal economic mainstream.
In SA, and everywhere else in the world, neoliberal economics makes the rich richer and the poor poorer, and leads to environmental catastrophe. With massive unemployment, terrible poverty and the world's worst inequality, SA is urgently in need of progressive alternatives to neoliberal economics. We need a socialist or social-democratic alternative.
In order to nudge our economics to the left, we need a viable leftist party. No serious analyst considers the EFF to be a leftist party. It carries many features of hardcore right-wing populism as well as some features that are typical of the left, such as opposing xenophobia.
The EFF is clearly aligned to the mixture of crude nationalism, authoritarianism and gross looting of the state that has characterised the Zuma faction of the ANC.
A genuine left alternative will have to come from elsewhere.
This year, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers' Party (SRWP), formed by the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), was on the ballot paper. Numsa, with a membership of over 300,000 workers, is the largest trade union in SA.
It is very difficult to imagine any kind of viable leftist party emerging without some sort of mass base, and the only existing national mass base is in the unions. But the SRWP was formed just a month before the election. That is not nearly enough time to set up structures and build an effective campaign.
Numsa made a serious strategic error in rushing into this election at short notice. No doubt there will be serious internal recriminations. But if the union, and its party, can muddle through this failure at the polls, and focus on building structures and a campaigning strategy for the next election, in five years' time they could become a serious electoral project.
• Buccus is senior research associate at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute, a research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and academic director of a university study abroad programme on political transformation..

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