As electoral support for the African National Congress (ANC) continues to erode, the clearest beneficiary appears to be the Democratic Alliance (DA), ensconced firmly to the right of South Africa’s ruling party. Against a backdrop of both parties augmenting the economic contradictions of apartheid, three potentially viable left alternatives have emerged: the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa’s (NUMSA) anticapitalist United Front, a professedly Marxist-Leninist-Fanonist party called the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), and a nationwide student movement challenging both austerity and the failure of South Africa’s universities to substantially decolonize. All three emerged following the ANC-ordered murder of dozens of mine workers in 2012 at Marikana.
We clarify why, of these emergent opportunities, only the EFF remains viable, even if we are deeply critical of its politics and potential. We chart the twin implosions of NUMSA’s United Front and the #FeesMustFall movement, arguing that organizational incapacity led to the demise of both despite a sustained rise in spontaneous unrest across the country.
Thuli Madonsela might be the most popular politician never to have been elected in South Africa.1 After her work for unions and as an anti-apartheid activist in the 1980s, Nelson Mandela asked her to run for Parliament in the country’s first democratic election in 1994. She declined. She played a key role in drafting the post-apartheid Constitution two years later and has continued to play an active role in legal reform since, but has never actually served as an elected official. Two decades after the democratic transition, she was again nominated to run for an African National Congress (ANC) position. Again she declined.
After Jacob Zuma was elected president in 2009, he appointed Madonsela to the Office of the Public Protector, where she was tasked with investigating corruption allegations by public administrators — Zuma included. When in 2014 she found2 that he had “benefited unduly” from the use of 246 million rand (about US $23 million at the time) in taxpayer money for home renovations in the name of security, she was attacked by national ANC leaders.
Through these revelations of corruption, she became something of a hero for the left wing of the ANC and its aligned unions in the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). After the textbook neoliberalism of Thabo Mbeki, there was a feeling in many quarters of the South African Left that COSATU and South African Communist Party (SACP) backing for Zuma, his archrival and former deputy president, would initiate a war of position to reclaim the soul of the ANC. The better part of a decade later, the left wing of COSATU finds itself on the opposite end of the spectrum from Zuma’s camp. This is the problem with empty coalitional politics articulated to populist leadership: it has no necessary direction beyond criticism of the status quo. The king may be dead, but the coalition throws its weight behind a new king, then acts stunned when he invariably refuses to respond to its demands.
As the populist coalition behind Zuma begins to unravel, a desperate search for left alternatives to the flailing ANC has begun. Three major options have emerged. First and foremost, the expulsion of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) from COSATU has allowed it the freedom to constitute its self-proclaimed United Front (UF) as a viable alternative to the capitulatory rule of the Tripartite Alliance (ANC, COSATU, and SACP). Yet, as we argue here, the UF’s misguided organizational strategies have reduced it to a public-relations organ without roots in shop stewards’ networks, let alone the township-based organizations that were at the heart of the freedom struggle in the 1980s.