Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Any Options Left for South Africa?

For some time, fledgling parties on the political map have been centrist.  After all, even the South African Communist Party is ensconced in the ruling alliance that is brought to you by Neoliberalism.  Some of the ANC’s top cadres are from the SACP, which many believe would not fare well if it contested an election on is own.  These ministers live in the same “fat cat” fashion that the ANC is known for – saying one thing about lifestyle audits and doing another (rather like Breshnev in the heyday of scientific socialism).

Then there are the trade unionists.  They are said to be toying with the idea of forming a Labour Party for the next election, but again, they have been ensconced in the ruling alliance.  Until recently when some principled unionists have raised the question whether they belong in a ruling alliance that espouses Neoliberalism.

Few are their voices – those diehard Leftists like Tony Benn of the UK, who died recently.  He is remembered as “champion of the powerless.  The British PM said: He was a magnificent writer, speaker, diarist and campaigner, with a strong record of public and political service.

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband said: “Tony Benn spoke his mind and spoke up for his values.  Whether you agreed with him or disagreed with him, everyone knew where he stood and what he stood for.  For someone of such strong views, often at odds with his party, he won respect from across the political spectrum.  This was because of his unshakable beliefs and his abiding determination that power and the powerful should be held to account.

This sounds a bit little like the trade unionist leader Vavi, who declined to be listed in the national executive council of the ANC.  But such principled leaders are rare.  Tony Benn was elected to the House of Commons at 25, but his parliamentary career seemed to come to an abrupt end in 1961 when his father died.  As the new Viscount Stansgate, he was barred from the Commons so that he could take up membership in the unelected upper House of Lords.  For three years he battled to change the law to allow hereditary peers to renounce their titles.  Voters in his parliamentary district of Bristol West elected him once more, even though he couldn’t take his seat in the Commons.  In 1963, the bill passed, and the Times of London declared, “Lord Stansgate will be Mr. Benn today.”

Benn favoured abolition of the monarchy, British withdrawal from the European Union, and any strike that was going, hadn’t changed.  His image evolved from a demonized figure in the 70s and 80s to that often-treasured English archetype: the radical dissenter.  Tony Benn renounced his aristocratic title rather than leave the House of Commons.

Enter the radical dissenter
While the parallels with principled Leftists are few among those running the incumbent alliance, a wave of populism is rising behind a new party called the Economic Freedom Fighters.  They are led by a firebrand young leader called Julius Malema.  There are some amazing parallels between him and Canada’s Tommy Douglas, who was regarded by many as its most influential citizen ever.  He formed the first social democratic government ever in North America - the CCF stood for Co-operative Commonwealth Federation.  It promoted co-op models - from agriculture to banking.  The CCF party went on to win five consecutive provincial elections in Saskatchewan.

His roots were in the church – his career, which started as a Baptist minister, coincided with the beginning of the Great Depression.  At that time, farming had not mechanized to the extent that it has since, so Saskatchewan was the third most populous province in Canada (900 000 people in 1930).  It was populated by farmers from all around the world, who had converged on the Canadian prairies following the launch of Durham wheat in the 1890s - which could be grown at such northern latitudes.

As a man of the cloth during that era, he was no stranger to humanitarian assistance.  He spent a lot of his time working with youth and the unemployed.  As a pastor he wanted to fight for social justice as well, but his church forced him to choose between running for public office and the ministry.  So he decided to run in his Weyburn riding for a new party called the CCF - in national elections.  He was elected by his riding and cut his teeth in politics as an MP representing his constituency in the national capital, Ottawa.

Some amazing parallels with Julius Malema begin here. Both entered politics as youth.  In fact, Malema was the leader of the ANC youth league and still has solid support from his core constituency – youth.  However, like Douglas, his elders/bosses ran him out of the organization that he loved – so he decided to run for office on the merits of his own track record and convictions.  His is the youngest of all party leaders, and by far the best speaker.

The EFF party was launched, symbolically, in Marikana.  This is another striking parallel (pun intended).  For it was the hostility towards miners of the police collaborating with mine owners – during a strike at Estavan, Saskatchewan – that had shook Douglas out of his complacency and comfort as a church leader, into the political arena.

When the CCF later decided to run a full slate of candidates in the provincial elections, Douglas decided to resign as a national MP and lead the party in his province.  He ran on a platform of “public ownership”.  This in not unlike the Economic Freedom Fighters, whose manifesto includes nationalizing some mines, and expropriating some farms.  Thus its critics dubbed the CCF “Communize Canada through Fear”.  Douglas responded that it rather stood for “Children Come First”.

His detractors tried to label him a Bolshevik, a Communist, and so forth.  (One has to remember that the great excesses of Lenin had not yet come to light in the 1930s and Stalin had just come to power.)  But he was not an ideologue - he was basically a kind, honest, forward-looking chap… a straight-ahead guy.  He did not finish high school before entering an apprenticeship in the printing trade.  But he completed his studies in order to enter seminary, where he merged the evangelical and social gospels.

Is Malema a Marxist? or a populist?  If by “populist” one means a politician who listens to people’s grievances and builds their platform based on that, then the parallels with the CCF continue.  Douglas called it “a struggle for economic democracy”.  The EFF says that South Africa has gained political independence but not economic freedom.  This is reminiscent of Douglas’s famous fable about Mouseland.  The mice kept electing a government of “fat black cats”… when they could no longer bear it, they voted in a government – of white cats!  (The order should be reversed when Malema’s re-tells the story!)  Until finally one brave mouse came up with a radical new idea – why not form a government composed of mice?  For which he is locked up by the cats.  This parable concludes that while both mice and men can be locked up – you can’t lock up an idea.

This is very significant for both Douglas and Malema.  The CCF government introduced agricultural cooperatives, credit unions, car insurance, minimum wage, paid holidays, unemployment insurance into Saskatchewan’s economy.  Not to mention education for all and Medicare as part of its social security system.  Quite frankly, while “scientific socialism” collapsed a few decades later, CCF ideas have become the gold standard of modern democracies.   

Douglas never lost a provincial election.  After five consecutive victories and the introduction of his flagship Medicare, he decided to move back into national politics.  He became the first leader of the NDP – formed by merging the CCF (stronger in the west) with the Labour movement (stronger in the east).  The same thing is now in gestation in South Africa.  About half of COSATU’s members have already started withholding their dues from the ANC, and given notice of departure.  That is distinct from the emergence of the EFF, and more ideological.  Malema is leading a populist movement that is grievence-driven.  Why not?  South Africa is passing through tough times of high unemployment not unlike the “dirty thirties” in Canada.  This creates conditions for the mice to ask: why do we keep voting in governments composed of fat cats?!

The NDP has never won a national election in Canada, though.  Today it does form the official Opposition (second place) and it has formed governments in several provinces.  In various minority-government scenarios, it has held the balance of power and used that to further people-centred causes.  For example, Medicare went national under Lester Pearson while Douglas was leading the NDP, holding the balance of power in Parliament.  You can’t lock up an idea.

The consecutive CCF governments in Saskatchewan were fiscally sound and eventually eradicated a heavy provincial debt that was inherited from the previous Liberals.  There is no reason to suppose that the EFF cannot find creative solutions to gain more economic equality while at the same time being fiscally responsible.  The two are not mutually exclusive.  Douglas proved that to posterity.  Yes it could mean increasing taxation, nationalizing some mines or expropriating some farms.  Ultimately, the greater good must prevail.  There is no need to completely abandon capitalism in exchange for socialism.  Home-grown solutions in a mixed economy can work just fine.  Nkrume said that Africa does not need to look to the East, or to the West – it needs to look ahead.

One great leap forward would be to reduce waste and corruption.  Nkandla has become an emblem in this respect.  As premier of Saskatchewan, the official car that Douglas used was a Dodge.  He did not use a Cadillac.  When asked what epitaph he would like on his gravestone, Douglas replied: “He loved people”.  You cannot steal from people you love, or cheat them.  Nor can you waste what belongs to them.  He once summed up his credo by saying that what matters most is how we look out for each other, not how we look out for ourselves.  This sounds very much like ubuntu.  Neither Nkandla nor Marikana give the impression that the ANC loves the people.  Malema is their new champion… in the footsteps of Tommy Douglas.

Malema was recently asked about his own “fat cat” lifestyle as leader of the ANCYL.  He credibly answered that he had simply adopted the culture of the ANC.  He added that the EFF abides by different guidelines and he now accepts that a bling lifestyle is inconsistent with the EFF’s pillars and goals.  The CCF also made mistakes.  Some of its experiments did not succeed.  When he entered the fray of national politics, Douglas did not even always win in his own riding.  Similarly, Malema may have to sit out a season in the EFF office, not in parliament, for legal reasons.  He is young enough to absorb this - even if it is caused by government manipulation - and not too old to learn and change if it is not.  Douglas was bitter the first time he lost in a riding, as that was new to him.  But he got past it and moved on.  You can lock up a mouse, and a man – but you can’t lock up an idea.  Julius Malema is the only real contender on the Left in the 2014 election.