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Beyond the ANC: A new UDF or a mass workers' party?

Jane Duncan

2012-11-05, Issue 605

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It seems likely that more South Africans who really care about the future of the country will move beyond the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and start the difficult, protracted affair of building political alternatives. Some already are.

For decades, the ANC has represented the concretisation of significant transformation gains for many South Africans and because of this, mass support for the party has had a rational and objective basis. But this basis is being eroded.

It is clear that the ANC does not have a way out of the morass that South Africa currently finds itself in. Its politics have led to it managing rather than transforming the capitalist system. The deeper social structure inherited from apartheid remains largely intact and as a result, the country is becoming increasingly unstable.

So where to beyond the ANC? Already, there is growing evidence of a search for a new politics and new political forms and in this respect, two options that have been floated recently merit serious debate.

The first involves the re-establishment of a ‘new UDF’, referring to the United Democratic Front (UDF) that was launched in 1983 and that was at the forefront of many of the struggles against apartheid in the 1980s. The second involves the establishment of a Mass Workers’ Party (MWP). Although both are new initiatives, both have their roots in older, established, political currents.

The new UDF was re-launched in Cape Town in August. In its new incarnation, the Front claims that it does not aspire to become a new political party or provide an opposition to the ANC. Rather it aims to build networks of autonomous peoples’ power in the wake of the widespread failure of government to tackle society’s chronic problems. The new UDF also champions the Freedom Charter, whose ideals it feels have been betrayed by the dominant political tendencies.

Initiatives that attempt to exercise power from below are important, as potentially they can build capacities for self-activity and self-organisation.

But is a new UDF what South Africa needs to pull itself out of its downward spiral? Answering this question requires an analysis of the political strengths and weaknesses of the old UDF.

The old UDF was enormously impactful in uniting a range of organisations against apartheid and ensured that its demands for a united, non-racial and democratic South Africa became the dominant ideas of post-apartheid society. During the height of repression, it kept the political traditions of the Congress Alliance alive. Many of its activists made great sacrifices in pursuit of these ideals.

But the UDF was a multi-class popular front, uniting the broadest possible opposition to apartheid. In spite of its mass base being firmly rooted in the working class, in time it became dominated by middle class elements that steered the front into a reformist direction.

Many former UDF activists have argued that the reason why the ANC made the compromises it did in the transition to democracy was because it demobilised the UDF, leaving it without the mass base to keep it on the ‘straight and narrow’. Rarely is South Africa’s compromise transition understood partly as a consequence of the UDF’s own political trajectory.

The UDF’s approach to the national question was also highly problematic, relying as it did on the assumption inherited from the Freedom Charter that South Africa consisted of four ‘races’: black, white, coloured and Indian. This assumption took for granted that ‘races’ existed as valid biological entities and that as a result, there was nothing wrong with organising ‘racial groups’ separately.

This meant that the UDF’s non-racialism was, in effect, multiracialism: a political approach that did nothing to counter ‘race thinking’ in society, including in its more progressive elements. If the main liberation current was unable to divest itself of the notion that races actually existed, then it is unsurprising that the society that it gave rise to in part is unable to transcend race as a dominant social identity, with all the attendant dangers for social stability.

Then there was the authoritarian character of UDF, in spite of its mass democratic credentials and ideological pluralism. The UDF was extremely tolerant of different political currents, providing they were within the UDF. Influenced by the dogma of the Third Communist International (the Comintern), which was transmitted into South African politics by the South African Communist Party, the struggle had to pass through distinct stages to ensure that society was at the necessary level of development to achieve socialism.

Activists who failed to recognise the UDF as the sole and authentic representative of the oppressed during this first stage, and who opposed Comintern orthodoxy, placed themselves at serious personal risk. Many were attacked and some necklaced.

In this regard, the authoritarian turn in the country’s politics should be understood as a continuation of a distinct political tradition in Congress politics - rather than a deviation from it – as this less than savoury political tradition has placed an unmistakable imprint on the post-apartheid state.

In weighing up the argument for a new UDF, there is a need for a more balanced assessment of the front’s political legacy, because a failure to learn the lessons of history may lead to this history being repeated, warts and all.

Another alternative that has been proposed by organisations such as the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) is the establishment of a MWP. The DSM has signalled its intention to register such a party for the next elections.

The MWP is an old idea in South African politics. In response to the Stalinisation of the workers movements globally, Trotskyite organisations argued for the establishment of workers’ parties. This led to the formation of a South African Workers’ Party in the 1930s, which was subsumed into the Non-European Unity Movement.

The need for a MWP was raised again just before 1994 elections and then again in the early 2000s, but at those stages the conditions did not exist for the idea to take root. The DSM has raised the idea again in the context of the recent mineworkers’ strikes and massacre at Marikana, and this time the idea seems to be gathering momentum.

While potentially being a purer expression of working class aspirations than more populist parties or movements, MWPs are not without their problems. After the collapse of communism, actually existing workers’ parties such as the Brazilian PT, which always had a strong middle class current, shifted to the right.

Another problem is that the concept of a MWP dates from an earlier period in industrial history, when workers were the motor of revolutionary change. However, the workers’ movement has been weakened, partly because of the rise of mass, permanent unemployment. In South Africa, with its 40 percent unemployment rate (according to the expanded definition), it is doubtful whether a MWP that focuses on the labour movement only will succeed.

Furthermore, struggles are not taking place at the point of production only, but at the point of consumption too. This reality raises a further challenge of organising not only workers, but those engaged in struggles at their places of residence, in schools, hospitals and other sites of ‘service delivery’. But on the upside, the global economic crisis has created the objective conditions for the building of a MWP, and this time the idea may actually catch hold.

In the wake of Marikana, there is a political vacuum in progressive politics. This vacuum opens up opportunities for a fundamental rethink of South Africa’s political trajectory, and the new political forms needed to take the country forward. In this regard, no matter how grim the current period seems, it is also pregnant with great promise.


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* Professor Jane Duncan is Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society, School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University. This article was first published by The South African Civil Society Information Service (

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