The death of Nelson Mandela has made the South African political establishment look at its own aims and record. Compared to the ideals of 1994 and the sacrifice of Mandela, their aspirations fall very short of what the mass of South Africa’s people want.
A general election is due before June 2014. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) is in a panic over the likely results. Its attitude may seem odd to outsiders as it has been in office without serious challenge since the first non-racial elections in 1994. It got more than 65 percent of the vote in the last election and few people seriously believe that it will not win next year.
Conservatives have tried to make something of the revelation, since his death, that Mandela was on the central committee of the South African Communist Party (SACP) when he was arrested.
But the politics of the ANC have long been interchangeable with those of the SACP.
Even when he was negotiating from prison Mandela reassured representatives of big business that an ANC government would not threaten them.
This was largely true in office.
Union radicals like the National Union of Mineworkers’ Cyril Ramaphosa became wealthy businessmen.
Thabo Mbeki—who succeeded Mandela as president in 1999—asked last week, “Do we have the quality of leadership such as was exemplified by Mandela and others, sufficient to respond to the challenges we face?”
This is a little like former British prime minister Tony Blair’s attacks on his successors. Mbeki neglects to remind people that he was removed by his own party because his relish for neoliberalism was desperately unpopular.
Jacob Zuma, who ousted Mbeki, used radical language rather than any change in policy towards working people. He looked to anti-apartheid resistance, famously singing the song Umshini Wami (Bring Me My Machine Gun).
His popularity has fallen as his government has failed to improve life for poor people during the recession.
The left populist Julius Malema got into trouble with the ANC leadership for singing another revolutionary song Dubul’ibhunu (Shoot the Boer). He has gone further politically though, breaking from the ANC whose Youth Wing he used to head.
Malema has set up a new political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). It is fuelled by the radicalism and strike wave that exploded after the massacre of miners in Marikana in 2012.
Several parties challenge the ANC. But the shifts in the past year are liable to be seen as more of a threat to the hold of the tripartite alliance of the ANC, the SACP and the Cosatu union federation.
So the Congress of the People, founded largely by ANC conservatives who supported Mbeki against Zuma, has 30 of the 400 seats in South Africa’s parliament.
But it still exists within the orbit of the ANC and official politics. EFF appears to have broken this mould. And there are rumours that it will be followed by a new organisation set up by the militant National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa).
Numsa had planned a special congress for this week. It will now be held from 17 to 20 December in Boksburg.
Union spokesperson Castro Ngobese said the union wanted to mourn Mandela. He described Mandela as a “freedom fighter, political prisoner, people’s hero, people’s servant, leader of our people, and founding father of our post-1994 democratic dispensation”.
The ANC’s National Development Plan (NDP) and youth wage subsidy are particularly unpopular. Numsa said it will start a mass campaign, including strikes, against these policies early next year—just as electioneering begins.
It issued a statement saying, “If we support the ANC’s election campaign now, would we be able to stand firm after the elections and say we reject the NDP?”
Political pundits like to pretend that politics is shaped by what politicians do behind closed doors. The reality is that the shift in South Africa’s politics is down to the return of its working class to the stage of history.