Reclaiming the South African Dream
Post-apartheid South Africa moved in a straight historical line from one of the most
heinous, unjust and offensive social systems in the world called apartheid into a market
led development model, sometimes referred to as ‘Afro-neoliberalism’. This is the big
irony of national liberation. This great domestic leap has been a great leap into dystopia.
The deepening of the South African economies immersion into global financial,
production and trade structures through macro-economic adjustment has produced a
country with one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, obscene inequality, a
deepening ecological crisis and growing hunger. This is the short story of how the ‘South
African dream’ was stolen from the majority. Such a dream was not just embodied in the
words of the Freedom Charter but was more importantly part of the everyday longing of
the oppressed majority for a life of hope and dignity beyond the irrationality of
Compelled by this ugly and tragic crime against hope and dignity, the 1st Conference of
the Democratic Left, that met in Johannesburg this past weekend, announced its
emergence on the South African political scene. Buoyed by a confluence of South
Africa’s leading grass roots social movements (like the Anti-privatisation forum and
Abahlali Western Cape), community organisations (from Hangberg and the Vaal), trade
unions (like NACTU and GIWUSA) and left groups, this gathering of activists from
different parts of the country declared a commitment to transform South Africa.
However, the significance and uniqueness of what the Democratic Left represents cannot
be comprehended through the shallow liberal narratives that dominate South African
common sense about what is ‘politics’. The Democratic Left as an ‘anti-capitalist
ideological current’ and as a political form ‘in motion and in process’ opens up our
political horizons by re-imagining and reframing politics from below.
Mainstream liberal conceptions suggest that to count as a political force in contemporary
South Africa, a political actor has to form a party and contest elections in a one party
dominant model in a capitalist society. According to the Democratic Left, this
conception of ‘democracy’ is ahistorical, abstract and is narrow. It is ahistorical because
there is no organic or pre-given link between democracy and capitalism. In fact modern
democracy grew out of popular struggles alongside the development of capitalism. This
is the case in South Africa as well. Apartheid capitalism never gave us democracy,
instead the people, the workers and the poor, have struggled for it. It is a product of
sacrifice, of human will and a passion for liberation from oppression. It is precious
because it is essentially about rule by and for the people. It is not about rule by capital.
Mainstream liberalism is abstract and narrow because it fails to recognise the double
squeeze on contemporary South African democracy such that the needs of the people are
not met and the delicate ecological web is in jeopardy. First, such a squeeze is happening
inside the everyday workings of South African democracy through the disembedding and
deterritorialisation of the market. As a result the market has been utopianised. The
market has become our present and our future. It has been propagated in our public
sphere such that its values of greed, possessive individualism and competition are
naturalised in everyday South African life. These values guide our everyday social
choices and has produced a dog eat dog society. In this way it closes and it ends history
at the same time. There is no alternative. This trap and cage of the market master
narrative is profoundly undemocratic because it does not authorise other ways of
thinking about South Africa’s solutions. Second, and part of the domestic squeeze
against democracy has been a narrowing of the boundaries of democracy and the
meaning of citizenship. Our dream of a peoples democracy has been shrunk from the
triad of strong representative, associational and participatory democracy, dynamically
working together, to a form of weak representational democracy. Our politicians have
become technocrats in this context merely to serve the market and ultimately the power
of capital. Politicians must manage ‘market democracy’ such that the juggernaut of
accumulation is not constrained and growth is realised at all costs. This means a shallow
performance or semblance of democracy is enough. The index of electoral voting is a
measure of market democracy. A ‘free and fair elections’ with a voter turnout is
adequate to legitimate the rule of capital and give formal meaning to citizenship: I am a
voter. Actually, in this context we are not citizens but still subjects of capital.
The external squeeze on South African democracy emanates from the restructuring of
the South African state. Besides globalising the economy, a globalised state has also
reduced democratic space. This has happened through locking the South African state
into a global power structure serving and reproducing the rule of transnational capital.
The WTO, IMF, World Bank, G20, World Economic Forum, and the UN are all crucial
tansnational policy making fora. These institutions are not there to serve global
citizenship but are there to ensure global capitalism thrives. South Africa is a key player
in all these institutions. Through its participation in this global power structure South
Africa transmits a global consensus on what capital wants back into the domestic
context. A weak representative democracy is literally a transmission belt of this global
The dominant liberal image of South African democracy is also flawed because it
assumes narrow electoral party political forms are the only expressions of aspirations
and interests. Join a party or vote for one and this is how your life will be changed. Well,
the Democratic Left believes there are other ways of institutionalising political agency
such that the immanent power in civil society can be harnessed to transform society. This
implies a new way of understanding the political instrument of politics. For the
Democratic Left this is about ‘form in motion and in process’. This means the
Democratic Left Front (DLF), endorsed this weekend as the name of this political
creature, is the instrument of democratic left politics but is not a rigid formula. It is not a
political party in the liberal sense and neither is it a loose association of left groupings.
Instead, it is a political force in construction between these two extremes. This means in
practice it will achieve definition, shape and form as it immerses itself in grass roots
struggles. In particular contexts and at particular moments it would be a network or a
coalition or just a political front. It is experimental in how it seeks to find its true form.
This draws on a people’s history of mass mobilisation against apartheid, innovates on
the rich history of anti-capitalist front theory and practice that emerged in the 20th
century and as expressed through the World Social Forum.
Finally, another shallow liberal interpretation of South African politics suggests that the
ANC-led Alliance represents the ‘left’. The presence of a so called Communist Party in
this configuration is meant to accentuate this image. With the emergence of the
Democratic Left as an ‘anti-capitalist ideological current’ and as a political form ‘in
motion and in process’ this monopoly is ruptured. More precisely, how South Africans
think and understand the category of ‘left’ has to be revisited. In this regard there are
three fundamental differences between the ‘authoritarian National Liberation Left’ and
the Democratic Left. These differences provide the differentia specifica or specific
characteristics that disaggregates this generic category of the ‘left’ in contemporary
South African discourse.
First, the authoritarian national liberation left is implicated directly and indirectly,
consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or unintentionally, in engendering the
systemic crisis confronting South Africa and the double squeeze on South African
democracy. It is a left not transforming capitalism but trying to manage it even through
sacrificing democracy. It is a left not willing to go beyond capitalism. This has and will
express itself either as neoliberal variants of state capitalism, social democracy or
African capitalism. The Democratic Left on the other hand is seeking transformative
alternatives to the systemic crisis of South African capitalism and is seeking to renew
democracy as a weapon against capitalism. The Democratic Left is anti-capitalist.
Second, the authoritarian national liberation left is locked in a state centric practice.
Society must be engineered from above and through the state. The coercive apparatus of
the state, its intervention capacity, must be harnessed to bring change to the people. The
people are passive recipients of what is deemed in their best interests. The Democratic
Left, on the other hand, is seeking to democratise and embed the state in civil society. It
is about building the capacity of the people, particularly the working class and the poor
from below, to lead societal change. It is about a relational understanding of the state in
which the power of the people determines the power of the state.
The third defining characteristic of the Democratic Left is about our vision of hope and
dignity for South Africa. Unlike the authoritarian national liberation left our vision is
not technocratic or defined by an ideological vanguard. Our vision is people driven. It
recognises human beings in South Africa and the world over love to fantasize, to dream
and rearrange reality through hoping for more and for something better. Without this
disposition an intrinsic part of what makes us human is killed. To dream of a better
world and a South Africa based on hope and dignity is a use value. It is outside
capitalism and is an act of resistance. We intend to reclaim the South African dream by
listening to the people.
Author: Dr. Vishwas Satgar is a member of the national convening committee of the Democratic Left
Front (DLF) and conference process. This article draws on his keynote address given to the 1 st Conference
of the Democratic Left.