Top Menu

Dear Reader, we make this and other articles available for free online to serve those unable to afford or access the print edition of Monthly Review. If you read the magazine online and can afford a print subscription, we hope you will consider purchasing one. Please visit the MR store for subscription options. Thank you very much. —Eds.

Starting from Scratch?

A Reply to Jeremy Cronin

John S. Saul, for many years an anti-apartheid activist, now works with the AfricaFiles initiative in Toronto and the Socialist Register editorial collective. His most recent book is Millennial Africa: Capitalism, Socialism, Democracy (Africa World Press, 2001). Also see “A Reply to John S. Saul” by Jeremy Cronin

It is interesting that, on one of the two main fronts of inquiry opened up in my original essay, Jeremy Cronin professes—despite the wounded tone he adopts throughout and for all his talk about my “frozen penultimates,” “sneers,” and “derision”—to be in considerable agreement with me. This concerns my reading of the overall trajectory of socioeconomic policy that the African National Congress (ANC) government has adopted since 1994. As he puts the point, “Saul goes on to argue that the ANC liberation front has erred seriously on two critical fronts—the choice of economic policies, and the relative demobilization of our mass constituency (except during electoral campaigns). I agree with Saul on both counts.” Indeed, he adds, “I agree substantially with the broad analysis of the last twelve years or so in South Africa that Saul makes in his pessimism of the intellect mode,” including, it would appear, my criticisms of the “government’s macroeconomic policy (the Growth Employment and Redistribution framework—GEAR), privatization policies, excessive liberalization measures, the failure to mobilize our mass base, or concerns about the growing bureaucratization and the influence of an emerging black bourgeois stratum on policy.”

These are not small points and, coming from one so close to the scene as Cronin, tend to reinforce my confidence in my own negative reading of the neoliberal socioeconomic project embraced by the present ANC leadership. Moreover, the further articulation of that project since my writing of the original article in 2000 has merely confirmed this reading, with further major adaptations to the neoliberal paradigm surfacing domestically: accelerated privatization; an apparent indifference to rising structural unemployment; the marketization of service delivery that makes such delivery unattainable to so many; and so on. Moreover, at least equally telling is the extent to which South Africa has emerged ever more clearly as point man for global capital on the continent, as, it would appear, that system’s subimperial power there. Though Thabo Mbeki, Trevor Manuel, and Alec Erwin profess to have an agenda for reform of the global market system in mind (even as they embrace it wholeheartedly), in practice their actions undercut more serious challenges to that system from the third world (as at the WTO meetings earlier this year in Doha).1 They mask, as novel and daring departures, entirely submissive and market-friendly initiatives from the continent that are of their own devising (such as NEPAD, the so-called New Partnership for Africa’s Development).2 Meanwhile, the chief goal of ANC free-marketeers seems to be to batter down barriers to South African-based capital’s own ambitious plans for expansion into the rest of Africa.

Would Cronin disagree with this further extension of my argument?3 Certainly such qualifications as he makes to this aspect of my original presentation are relatively minor—save for his extremely strained attempt, in his concluding paragraphs, to extract some scintilla of anti-imperialist consciousness and activism from Mbeki’s bizarre handling of the HIV/AIDS controversy in South Africa. Of course, one might then have hoped for some further explanation from Cronin as to why this kind of progression of the ANC project has occurred. The ANC leadership’s own favorite excuse, as least for its economic policies, is that the structure of the global economy simply permits no other choice. By suggesting that the ANC has “erred seriously” in this sphere (he also speaks, with reference to GEAR, of “mistakes” having been made!) Cronin does at least acknowledge that other options were indeed feasible. But does “erred seriously” really capture the dynamic of crystallizing class interest and preoccupation with consolidating power that has driven the ANC elite into both forging an alliance with global capitalist players and disempowering its ostensible mass base. More clarity regarding these processes—how structural they are and what room for maneuver they leave open—is required before taking seriously Cronin’s favored political remedies for what ails post-apartheid South Africa.

For whatever the degree of Cronin’s agreement with me regarding my socioeconomic analysis (and regardless of the silences he permits himself regarding that analysis) it is on the political front that he stakes his central critique of my position. Unfortunately, in stating his disagreements with me, he manages—whatever may be considered to be the merits of his own position—willfully to distort my own, doing so by means of three distinct (albeit linked) moves. His first, and broadest, move is to claim that my approach is “cynical” (he identifies “a problematic cynicism of the will,” said to be negatively twinned to my “healthy pessimism of the intellect”)—a claim reinforced by his emphasis on my deployment of the term “tragedy” and his suggestion that this too frames an almost entirely negative outlook on prospects for humane outcomes in South Africa.4 Thus, owing to my “imposition of this tragic reading onto what is…still a relatively open-ended, complex, and highly contested reality,” I am compelled (this is, in fact, his second move in misrepresenting my argument) both to overstate the degree to which neoliberal capitalist hegemony has been established and to denigrate the “programmatic perspectives and achievements of progressive forces” in the country.

As it happens, I now rather regret deploying the term “tragedy” (although, in truth, I only did so once in over fifty pages!) since, apparently, it can be taken to imply that I regard as ineluctable a certain downward spiral in South Africa. But the fact is that I neither evoke any such denouement elsewhere in the article nor do I believe that it accurately characterizes the situation on the ground. Indeed, Cronin knows perfectly well (as will any reader of the original article) that I have neither a grimly determinist view regarding the irreversibility of global capitalism’s hold upon South Africa nor a pessimistic view regarding the viability of resistance to it in that country. His first two points are, then, merely rather seedy ploys designed to set up the third and most crucial point that he wants to make against me: my “deep skepticism about the wisdom of progressive forces in South Africa sticking with the ANC.” Note, please, that this third point would make no sense at all if I did not think that there are deep contradictions, economic, social, and political, within South African capitalism that make resistance possible (even inevitable) and did not think, as well, that there are genuine and vibrant “progressive forces” in South Africa capable of fighting that system. Can anyone read my article and honestly argue that I do not present South Africa as offering “a relatively open-ended, complex, and highly contested reality”?

No, the real debate is not about my “cynicism,” “pessimism,” or “tragic” reading of the South African prospect. Really, for Cronin, it is about the judgment he imputes to me that “there is no longer a radical transformational potential within the ANC.” Indeed, he continues, “Nothing short of leading the ‘left’ out of ‘bondage’ to the ANC will, one suspects, begin to satisfy Saul.” Note again, however, that on this now much more substantive ground of presumed difference of opinion there is also little evidence in my original article to support Cronin’s reading of my position. I did argue that the stark contradiction between the ANC leadership’s chosen socioeconomic priorities and the felt needs of the masses are giving rise to real tensions that have begun to stoke the fires of a new mass resistance (to neoliberalism) in South Africa. But I left open the question of whether such energies would ultimately find their most effective expression within the ANC and its (capital “A”) Alliance—altering, even overthrowing, the current project of the ANC’s leadership from within—or would, instead, have to be mounted from outside that project. Of course, Cronin is ultimately forced to acknowledge this too of my argument, and is finally reduced to suggesting only that I have all too rudely underestimated just how much opportunity still exists to advance an effective left project from within. Nonetheless, we have now been permitted to reach the bedrock of Cronin’s actual argument: his defense of the virtually exclusive primacy of the ANC and the Alliance as the terrain for meaningful left assertion.

What is one to make of this? To begin with, it is worth noting several illuminating “footnotes” that cast further light on the position taken by Cronin in his MR response. One surfaces from a reading of the now famous interview given (about the time of his fashioning his response to me) by Cronin to Irish journalist, Helena Sheehan.5 As it happens, Sheehan was moved to interview Cronin by having read my original article and some part of the interview is directed towards evoking his reactions to that piece. What is especially interesting is that, in this and other sections of the Sheehan interview, Cronin has much franker things to say about the actual room for maneuver offered within the ANC family than he concedes in his MR version. In this interview, for example, he speaks of tendencies towards “the zanufication of the ANC” (ZANU being the ruling party in Zimbabwe under the authoritarian leadership of Robert Mugabe) and of “a bureaucratization of the struggle” and concedes that “the neoliberals” represent “a powerful force inside the ANC” (though this group, he insists, “has its own weakness”). He also acknowledges that there are, in ANC practices, “elements of a brutal [and] very dictatorial dealing with the left.” Noting in this regard the publication of an ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) bulletin denouncing an “ultraleft conspiracy” within the movement, he admits that he and others on the left “have been through a tough couple of years in the NEC. We’ve been marginalised, shouted down, subjected to heavy presidential attacks on us….We’ve stood our ground but it’s been hard.” Perhaps, in light of these admissions, Cronin himself might be “less impolite,” to use his phrase, to those (Cronin is quite willing to apply the term “ultraleftists” to them in his interview and other writings) who begin to argue that the more assiduous pursuit of left alternatives outside the ANC/Alliance is becoming both viable and necessary. For, even if it is arguable, it is far from “obvious” (once again, Cronin’s word) that progressive endeavor in South Africa “requires an ongoing commitment to and engagement with and within the ANC.”

And then there are the most recent of developments within the ANC, developments that have directly affected Cronin himself and that can also be considered to cast doubts on the adequacy of Cronin’s MR argument: how available can the ANC be considered to be for progressive assertion in light of what has befallen Cronin personally in the wake of the Sheehan interview? For he was soon under heavy fire within the ANC for the effrontery of his criticisms, and made the whipping boy at a highly publicized meeting of the NEC that ended with his abject apology for the remarks he made in this interview. There has since been much debate in South Africa as to how best to situate this incident. The initial attack on Cronin (coming from the notorious right-wing demagogue, prominent Kwazulu-Natal-based ANC politician Dumisane Makhaye) had a racist, black-nationalist edge, but there was much more to it than that.6 Was it, observers asked, primarily about disciplining heterodoxy, even of the mildest kind, within the ANC itself or was it about bringing to heel the South African Communist Party (SACP) within the Alliance? Something of both perhaps, although the most immediate drama was a more personal one. For Cronin followed up his in camera NEC recantation with the release of an extraordinary public statement:

The unqualified apology that I made to the ANC National Executive meeting over the past weekend, for the contents of the interview I gave to Dr. Helena Sheehan, was neither coerced nor tactical. It has been made sincerely and as a matter of principle. In its approach, tone, and in the discussion of many internal matters outside of our organisations the interview was a mistake. What I most regret about the interview is that the undisciplined handling of serious issues can, precisely, undermine the fostering of robust debate, criticism, self-criticism and unity within our movement, not least between communist and noncommunist ANC members. In the context of my own apology, the unambiguous reaffirmation by the ANC NEC of its commitment to the right of every member to raise and debate issues with and within the structures of the movement is one I welcome and remain dedicated to fostering.7

My own reaction (circulated widely on the Debate e-list in South Africa) was immediate and I reproduce it here only because it is germane to developing in the present article my response to Cronin’s overall position: “very sad—surely one thing the often sorry record of left endeavor during the twentieth century might have purged us of is this kind of ‘correct line’ bullshit—undisciplined be damned: I’ve read few more depressing paragraphs in recent years (in fact, it seems to confirm all my worst fears regarding the ANC, the Alliance, and much else, as expressed in the original article that Jeremy critiqued in his interview!).” Similarly aghast was Sheehan herself, agreeing with me that she too had “read few more depressing paragraphs in recent years. I thought that the twenty-first century would be different, at least in that way. It reads as if it is Lukacs and the Comintern.”8

Even more telling were voices raised by South Africans themselves, the distinguished journalist William Gumede in the Sunday Times urging his readers (in an article suggestively entitled: “Silence isn’t golden in a true democracy: The ANC is doing South Africa no favours by lashing at anyone who dares to criticise it”) to:

Be worried, very worried, about SACP deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin’s grovelling apology for “uncomradely” public criticism of the ANC. Be equally worried when two enforcers of the party line, ANC Youth League leader Malusi Gigaba and ANC Kwazulu-Natal leader Dumisani Makhaye, rage against those who criticize the government “under the auspices of freedom of expression and debate” and get the party bosses’ approval….This kind of “disciplining” by the ANC party bosses underlines the great pressure in South African society to conform and to defer criticism for the sake of “unity” and “patriotism.”9

As Gumede continues: “The problem is that in the ANC the exile culture predominates. It is one of excessive control, centralisation of power, absolute loyalty and the discouragement of open electoral contexts.” Moreover, “a loss of internal debate in the ANC has important implications for open debate in society. Quashing debate internally will inevitably lead to a muzzling of debate in broader society.” Interestingly, this interpretation echoes themes raised in a number of letters I myself received in reaction to my original article, notably one from the (now late) Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein, for over fifty years a key ANC/SACP activist. In that letter he thanks me for encouraging him to think further about “what is now happening to confound our hopes,” about what, in short, “went wrong?” His answer: “Somewhere in the transition of the movement from ‘home’ to ‘abroad,’ that movement’s leading cadre began to view liberation as meaning [merely] the acquisition of state power” and this “drive towards ‘power’ has corrupted the political equation in various ways”:

In the later 80s, when mass popular resistance revived again inside the country led by the [United Democratic Front (UDF)] , [this drive] led the ANC to see the UDF as an undesirable factor in the struggle for power, and to fatally undermine it as a rival focus for mass mobilization. It had undermined the ANC’s adherence to the path [of] mass resistance as the way to liberation, and substituted instead a reliance on manipulation of the levers of administrative power. It has paved the way to a steady decline of a mass-membership ANC as an organiser of the people, and turned it into a career opening to public sector employment and the administrative “gravy train.” It has reduced the tripartite ANC-COSATU-CP [A]lliance from the centrifugal force of national political mobilisation to an electoral pact between parties who are constantly constrained to subordinate their constituents’ fundamental interests to the overriding purpose of holding on to administrative power. It has impoverished the soil in which ideas learning towards socialist solutions once flourished, and allowed the weed of “free market” ideology to take hold.10

My point here is not to debate the wisdom of Cronin’s own choices in this affair or to score easy debating points off him, for purposes of the present exchange, in the wake of his personal discomfiture.11 We can note, in passing, that he himself seems to have learned his lesson well, announcing, in the first of his interventions made public since the events—and against almost all evidence—that “by and large, the ANC and the government have maintained consistent anti-neoliberal positions on all of the key issues of the day.”12 But, in any case, it is more important for present purposes to suggest that Cronin’s own fate further underscores the likelihood that he has distinctly overstated, in his reply to me, the space for left maneuver that the ANC as presently directed and institutionalized makes available. Moreover, this is a point reinforced by several documents released since the Cronin affair but bearing the marks of that event. First a leaked internal document from the ANC Political Education Unit fulminated against all those (especially various unnamed “foreigners”13) who charge the ANC with “neoliberalism,” these “anti-neoliberals” said, rather bizarrely, to now be in an “unholy alliance” with the neoliberals themselves to “carry out a counter-revolutionary offensive against the democratic revolution.”14 Equally ominous was the tone-setting statement made by President Thabo Mbeki to the ANC’s Policy Conference of September 27, 2002 which attacked the “ultraleft” without but also within the ANC. Noting that this ultraleft (pretty much defined as anyone who criticizes the leadership’s policies from the left) “works to implant itself within our ranks” and “hopes to capture control of our movement and transform it into an instrument for the realisation of its [socialist] objectives,” Mbeki then advances the proposition, as regards ANC membership, that “I am now convinced that we must also pay particular attention to the principle—better fewer, but better”!15

I might add here that, in a much more modest way, I myself experienced something of this same high-handed ANC/SACP treatment of critics during my own recent visit to South Africa. I was there to participate in several of the counterconferences organized to contest the World Summit on Sustainable Development [WSSD], but at a moment that, coincidentally, also stood in the immediate shadow of Cronin’s recantation. I chose to give a university seminar in Johannesburg designed to promote a discussion of my original argument in MR and of Cronin’s response, the better to frame, on the ground, the present reply to it. The discussant was Raymond Suttner, like Cronin an ANC and SACP stalwart and also, like him, an heroic figure in the pantheon of those who had put their bodies on the line in the struggle against apartheid.16 Unfortunately, Suttner seemed uninterested in engaging with the substance of my argument, choosing instead to caricature it and, with three or four other rather senior ANC and SACP personnel who had come to the seminar, to lend his voice to an attempt to carry out some kind of ritual humiliation of me. Fortunately, other South Africans at the well-attended seminar joined in helping me turn back this verbal assault. But, by the end of the meeting, nothing like enlightenment had occurred nor had any real airing of alternative views been encouraged to transpire. As one veteran of South African debate, long used to being on the receiving end of such tactics, said to me afterwards, now I knew what it was like to be “panga-packed” by the ANC/SACP.17

This kind of encounter was discouraging, but a second indication of ANC closure that I witnessed at first hand in South Africa that same week was far more dramatic. On Saturday, August 24, an all-day meeting of the Anti-Globalization Forum, a counterconference to the WSSD, addressed by such luminaries as Vandana Shiva, Maude Barlow, and Naomi Klein and attended by hundreds of South Africans wound down. Those in the hall were now to set out on a peaceful candlelight march from the University of the Witwatersrand campus, where we were had been in session, to the main police station in downtown Johannesburg in order to highlight the fact that the right to protest was being rolled back in the days leading up to the WSSD. (Substantial numbers of activists from each of three separate movements—Sowetans demonstrating against service cutoffs, landless people, and aggrieved former ANC soldiers—has been rounded up and detained in a manner reminiscent of the bad old days.18) However, only a few yards off the campus we were met by a strong police line and, almost immediately, by a brace of percussion bombs fired into the crowd. A young Canadian comrade (Karen Cocq) marching near me in the crowd was hit, suffering severe burns to her legs. The marchers did boldly rally and an impromptu meeting was held, anchored by the always impressive South African township activist Trevor Ngwane, before dispersing. For me, however, the event—and not least the scalding of Karen Cocq—served as grim wake-up call as to just what the post-apartheid state and its “Zanufied” ANC leadership might be prepared to do, now and in future, to defend its turf.

But if this was how that week in Johannesburg began it was to close on a quite different note seven days later: with a large and spirited march (well over twenty thousand people), on August 31, on the WSSD Summit. This demonstration had been called in opposition to the “official” march sponsored by the ANC, and only a week of tense negotiations with the authorities had encouraged the latter to yield in anticipation to the alternative march’s growing size and scope and declare it to be “legal.” Setting out in the impoverished township of Alexandra it covered, over a number of hours, the ten kilometers passage—from one world to another!—to the wealthy center of Sandton where the summit was being held. Meanwhile, the ANC’s own march drew only a few thousand people and quickly aborted, to be correctly described the next day as “a massive flop” by one South African newspaper.

It was impossible not to be caught up in the excitement. En route, I was stopped for a television interview by the well-known Canadian writer and activist, Naomi Klein. She immediately asked the most probing of questions, one I had myself been puzzling over in the week leading up to the event. “As a long-time anti-apartheid activist in Canada,” she asked, “are you surprised to find yourself now participating in a march against the ANC?” Many of us had suspected all along, I answered Klein, that it might prove easier to lay formal apartheid to rest than to tackle the capitalist-induced inequalities that were also part of the old order. But, I continued, it was hard not to see in the energies of the thousands surging forward on this day precisely the same spirit of resistance to inequality and injustice that those of us in the anti-apartheid movement abroad had been privileged to associate ourselves with in the 1970s and the 1980s. Moreover, it was no accident, I reflected to myself later, that such energies had come into focus against the ANC and its neoliberal policies.

For the chief protagonists of the unofficial march, both the leaders and rank-and-file of the “Social Movements Indaba” central to its success, were drawn from a range of increasingly well-organized grassroots initiatives that have surfaced in the past few years to focus the involvement of people in active resistance to their own government’s bankrupt policies. Indeed, it is the groups driving such initiatives that have begun to redefine the South African political landscape. They include, amongst others, the Anti-Privatization Forum, the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, the Treatment Action Campaign, the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, the Concerned Citizens’ Forum in Durban, and the Landless People’s Movement, and much of their spirit and thrust is captured in Ashwin Desai’s recent book from Monthly Review Press, We are the Poors: Community Struggles in Post-Apartheid South Africa, which can be recommended confidently to all present readers.19 But the mainstream press has also had to take note of such developments, a fascinating Washington Post article of a year ago focusing on the activities of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee whose guerilla electricians illegally reconnect those in the township whose supply has been shut off by the authorities for nonpayment. Moreover, the article gives voice to the likes of Soweto resident Agnes Mohapi:

“We shouldn’t have to resort to this,” Mohapi, 58, said as she stood cross-armed and remorseless in front of the home as the repairmen hot-wired her electricity. Nothing, she said, could compare to life under apartheid, the system of racial separation that herded blacks into poor townships such as Soweto. But for all its wretchedness, apartheid never did this: it did not lay her off from her job, jack up her utility bill, then disconnect her service when she inevitably could not pay. “Privatization did that,” she said, her cadence quickening in disgust. “And all this globalization garbage our new black government had forced upon us has done nothing but make things worse…But we will unite and we will fight this government with the same fury that we fought the whites in their day.”20

For all Cronin’s deep sense of commitment I fear that, in the end, the anger and urgency in Mohapi’s voice simply finds too little echo in his response. Equally instructive is the fact that Cronin makes no mention of the “social movements” just cited in his reply to me, even though their increased saliency was there for him to see by the time he wrote his reply. Of course, such is the volatility of developments in South Africa that it is not easy to keep abreast of their cutting edge. Take my own original article. In it I marked the beginnings of what I saw to be a sea change in South African politics—while noting (pace Cronin) both that the process of building an alternative politics was only then beginning and that it was far from certain whether the fresh stirrings of popular discontent already visible would find their most effective expression within or without the ANC and its Alliance. Still, I did argue the importance of an emerging (small “a”) alliance capable of drawing the trade unions into common cause with other actors in “civil society” (the churches, the South African NGO Coalition, and the like) to bring genuine pressure to bear on the ANC-controlled state (and, beyond that, on capital, world wide and local) in order to realize more humane and economically effective developmental possibilities in South Africa. Ironically, the groups I had then identified were the very groups that found themselves lured by the ANC into endorsing its own abortive march on the WSSD instead of linking up with the stirring demonstration of strength mounted by the Social Movements’ Indaba.21 In short, since I wrote in 2000, it is the other groups mentioned above that have stepped forward to give real substance to the radical promise of “working-class civil society.” It begins to appear that the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the NGOs will have to run to keep up with their sometime constituency as that constituency now turns left.

In light of this experience it has become easier to embrace the possible wisdom of those South African activists who do indeed seek to “lead the ‘left’ out of ‘bondage’ to the ANC” than it was when I wrote my earlier article. For, in fact, the ANC as presently directed and constituted has little to say to such people and to such groupings. Nor can one have any great confidence that, in this respect, the SACP will overcome the inevitable ambiguities of its ties to the ANC: in but not of it, without electoral purchase, and, although abused and disempowered within the Alliance, offering nonetheless—in the very fact of its existence—a convenient excuse for the ANC leadership to dodge any leftist vocation of its own by consigning that remit to its ostensible ally.22 One might expect the bulk of the trade union leadership to be even more promising potential tribunes for the people, but for them, too, entanglement in the Alliance increasingly seems to be at least as much snare as opportunity; a certain (valuable) recognition of union rights traded off against far too little leverage to affect progressive outcomes in most macropolicy spheres. Can one not then suspect, more strongly than ever, that the ANC project, the Alliance project, is—as one South African friend suggested to me—“exhausted”?

Perhaps, but, at the same time, I must refuse to be bullied by Cronin into accepting the mantle of “ultraleftism” which he proffers me or seeing the situation as being less complicated than it really is. It would be foolish, for example, to underestimate the strength of the ANC’s own continuing legitimacy, as the party of liberation, in many quarters, and the extent to which it still focuses the positive energies of numerous people who would nonetheless wish it were much more progressive than it has become. As one senior ANC official insisted in a letter to me in response to my MR article, the danger exists “of the left (defined in this case as the labor unions, the SACP and independent Marxists of various stripes and hues) isolating themselves on the left fringes of society” and thereby “handing the movement over to the right to do within it what it pleases. If, as I imply, the ANC is itself a site of class struggles, would it be the smart option to move out of it and by default hand it to the rising waBenzis, or would it be smarter to contest their thrust?” And a recent news article brings a report that, in the run-up to the ANC’s national conference this December, “leftists” are indeed lobbying to place many more “left sympathizers” on the NEC—although this same article suggests that President Mbeki’s most recent attacks on the “ultraleft” and the COSATU leadership are designed at least in part to help preempt any such outcome.23 And there is also the fact that the process of “starting from scratch,” if that is what is now required, will be uneven, more pronounced in Guateng (the province housing Johannesburg and Pretoria) say than in the Eastern Cape, where ANC hegemony is especially strong.

Similarly, it would be naive to overestimate the strength and unity of the new social movements, the breadth of their reach and of their alliances, the clarity of their strategies, and the current level of their organizational capacity.24 There is, without doubt, a great deal of work to be done in order to seal the promise of a more progressive and appropriate politics in South Africa along novel lines, whatever these may prove to be. It is true, for example, that many workers begin to sense that wearing the political hat of their township and “social movement” identities rather than that of their unions promises to give them more effective leverage on power. Beyond this, some on the left may wish to argue that—in addition to the pull on many trade union leaders to identify upwards in the power game—organized workers more generally are often just too well sited socioeconomically within the increasingly impoverished and polarized society that is today’s South Africa readily to identify downwards and outwards with the country’s vast army of the unemployed and the landless. And yet it would be foolish for radicals to ignore the South African “working class” and the formidable trade unions it has created: these unions’ size, their organizational and financial capacities, and their long history of militant struggle. Vulnerability to the assault of “neoliberal” policies in post-apartheid South Africa is widely shared, as many unionized workers have found out for themselves in recent years. Finding a way more effectively to link trade unions and social movements (in a “structured movement”? a political party?) for progressive purposes is just one of the many challenges, barbed and unpredictable, that must be on the agenda of the ANC leadership’s critics.

The issues thus raised are much too vast to explore in a mere “reply,” of course. Let me conclude by simply stating that I feel, even more strongly than I did in writing my original article, that we are now entering into novel and complex political terrain in South Africa, terrain that is extremely dangerous but also marked by genuine promise. Certainly, it is far too early to say that “the tide is turning,” as one of the leaders of the August 31 march from Alex to Sandton enthusiastically shouted out to me along the route. Nonetheless, it was difficult to be on that march and not sense that it served as a significant signpost on the road to a postneoliberal and postnationalist politics in South Africa—and as an impressive rallying point for those forces from below that might yet get things back on track in their country.


  1. A case made scrupulously by Dot Keet in her South Africa’s Official Position and Role in Promoting the World Trade (Cape Town: Alternative Information and Development Centre [AIDC], 2002).
  2. See, inter alia, Trevor Ngwane, “Should African social movements be part of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD)?” a speech presented to the African Social Forum’s African Seminar at the World Social Forum, Porto Alegre, Brazil, February 2, 2002 (circulated to the Debate e-list). See also Patrick Bond, Fanon’s Warning: A Civil Society Reader on the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Trenton and Cape Town: Africa World Press and AIDC, 2002)—downloadable at
  3. Perhaps now he would. In one of his first interventions (Jeremy Cronin, “No one is infallible: Jeremy Cronin argues that the ANC should be leading the anti-neoliberal coalition,” Mail and Guardian, October 10, 2002]) since his dramatic disciplining by the ANC (see below) he makes the astonishing, even fawning, claim that “Through Nepad and through a wide range of other multinational forums the ANC has been playing a role in redefining global priorities, In doing so they have been challenging the core assumptions of neoliberalism”!
  4. In his related interview with Helena Sheehan (see below) he, regrettably, even plays a crypto-racist card, suggesting my intervention to have been characterized by “a kind of northern skepticism, a northern left skepticism, about the left project in general, not least the left project in the south”—this a rather odd and disturbing charge given my own long history of advocacy of socialist efforts in Tanzania, Mozambique and elsewhere. Odd, but also ironic in light of the fact that he himself was to be “white-baited” in the wake of the Sheehan interview.
  5. Second interview with Jeremy Cronin by Helena Sheehan, recorded on digital video on January 24, 2002, and circulated as a transcript on the Debate e-list and at other websites.
  6. In a speech Makhaye referred dismissively to Cronin as “a white messiah and a factory fault,” stating more generally (with reference, some observers reported, to the SACP) that “there are dogs who are biting the ANC and these dogs are calling themselves our friends. The ANC would not be defeated, the ANC is strong. Some of us are prepared to die for the ANC and to kill for the ANC” (The Mercury, August 18, 2002).
  7. Statement issued by Jeremy Cronin, SACP Deputy General Secretary and ANC NEC member, August 19, 2002
  8. Personal Communication, August 20, 2002. But see, also, the front-page report of Sheehan’s response to Cronin in The Sowetan, August 28, 2002, under the headline “‘No apology was needed: Irish academic disappointed in Jeremy Cronin for having apologised to the ANC.”
  9. William Mervin Gumede, “Silence isn’t golden in a true democracy: The ANC is doing South Africa no favours by lashing at anyone who dares to criticise it,” Sunday Times, August 25, 2002; a much more demagogic critique of Cronin’s action was undertaken, from the right, by (then) Mail and Guardian editor, Howard Barrell, who suggested (Mail and Guardian, August 23–29, 2002) that Cronin’s “craven capitulation” marked the fact that he had “merely turned tail and fled the battlefield onto which he had led others”: “And you, comrade Jeremy? We shall see what magnanimity await you once you’ve said a dozen ‘Hail Thabos.’”
  10. Personal communication, June 8, 2001.
  11. Some have recalled, however, the active role Cronin himself played, several years ago, in the expulsion of left author and activist Dale McKinley from the SACP and suggested that Cronin, in that instance, may merely have helped to sharpen the knife which, more recently, has been pressed to his own throat. For McKinley’s own pungent take on Cronin’s Sheehan interview, see his “A Polemical Reply to Cronin,” distributed to the Debate e-list, May 1, 2002.
  12. See footnote 3, above. Moreover, Cronin was quickly to claim that this statement was an internal document, leaked, without his knowledge, to the press.
  13. “In time,” the document threatens, “we will explain who these South African-based foreign enemies of the ANC are.” This seems a particularly tasteless nationalist smear in light of the absolutely central roles played by activists, South African and black, like Trevor Ngwane, Virginia Setshedi, John Appolis, Oupa Lehulere, amongst many others and alongside ageless veterans such as M. P. Giyose and Dennis Brutus, in mounting the resistance, both intellectual and practical, that found one of its most dramatic expressions in the August 31 Alex-to-Sandton march (to be discussed below).
  14. ANC Political Education Unit, “Contribution to the NEC/NWC Response to the ‘Cronin Interviews’ on the issue of neoliberalism,” widely circulated on the web but eventually published in edited form as “Unholy coalition will not win: The ANC’s Policy Education Unit charges that the left is waging a counter-revolutionary campaign against the government,” (Mail and Guardian, October 11, 2002). The document concludes by claiming that in order to achieve its nefarious end (“a victorious socialist revolution”) “the anti-neoliberal coalition is ready to treat the forces of neoliberalism as its ally” it is difficult to attach any rational meaning to this and many other assertions in the document. See also Christelle Terreblanche, “Secret ANC paper slams ‘unholy alliance’: ‘Anti-neoliberal left’ and ‘pro-liberal Right’ have joined forces against ruling party, venomous document claims” (The Star, October 3, 2002).
  15. Thabo Mbeki, “Statement of the President of the African National Congress, Thabo Mbeki, at the ANC Policy Conference, Kempton Park, September 27, 2002.
  16. See Raymond Suttner, Inside Apartheid’s Prison (Melbourne and Pietermaritzburg: Ocean Press and University of Natal Press, 2001)
  17. “Panga” is an African word for “machete.” To be fair, in a subsequent private chat during my visit Suttner proved to be a much more open and sympathetic interlocutor. Indeed, one begins to feel that if the term “tragic” applies at all in contemporary South Africa it is to the plight of the Cronins, the Suttners and other uneasy ANC loyalists who are increasingly caught between a rock and a hard place as the ANC moves right and as the contradictions inherent in the SACP’s posture of fellow traveler vis-a-vis the ANC intensify.
  18. On events leading up to the August 24 abortive march, see Sarah Duguid, “ANC ‘behaving like Nat regime’: The government’s crackdown on world summit protests has raised unsavoury comparisons,” Mail and Guardian, August 23–29, 2002.
  19. Ashwin Desai, We are the Poors: Community Struggles in Post-Apartheid South Africa (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002); see also the important recent contributions of Neville Alexander, Issues in the Transition from Apartheid to Democracy in South Africa (Pietermaritzsburg: University of Natal Press, 2002) and Gillian Hart, Disabling Globalization: Places of Power in Post-Apartheid South Africa (Pietermaritzburg and Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of Natal Press and University of California Press, 2002).
  20. Washington Post, November 6, 2001, p. A1.
  21. To its credit, SANGOCO (the South African NGO Coalition) actually dropped out of the ANC rally and march at the very last moment, deeming these events to be too uncritically pro-government
  22. This is an oft-repeated ploy, recycled in almost exactly these terms by Thabo Mbeki in his recent speech, cited earlier. There, categorically rejecting any possible socialist tainting of the ANC’s “national democratic revolution,” he also makes the improbable claim that “our movement, like all other national liberation movements throughout the world, is, inherently and by definition, not a movement whose mission is to fight for the victory of socialism” (emphasis added).
  23. Jaspreet Kindra, “Left seeks soul of ANC: Leftists are pushing for the inclusion in the NEC of party members with strong activist credentials,” Mail and Guardian, October 11, 2002.
  24. Local, national, regional, global? Elections, demonstrations and representations, symbolic acts of defiance, more dramatic forms of confrontation?
2002, Volume 54, Issue 07 (December)
Comments are closed.