During an election, it’s not unusual for a politician to travel on public transport and engage in small talk with commuters while reporters tag along. But when South African President Cyril Ramaphosa tried it in March, it didn’t quite go to plan. Before his trip even started, the morning train in Tshwane was held up for two hours. Then, between stations, the train got stuck, delaying the journey another hour. All the while, Ramaphosa smiled, telling reporters, “Levels of frustration are quite high, but the people are surprisingly patient.”
That comment is a much more accurate description of the public’s relationship with Ramaphosa’s African National Congress (ANC) than it is with the country’s transit system.
Under other political circumstances, the ruling ANC party would be in trouble as it heads into the May 8 presidential election. Last year, the economy grew by only 0.8 percent and at one point dipped into recession for the first time since 2009. Unemployment slightly improved last year but remains stubbornly high at 27.5 percent. The previous ANC president, Jacob Zuma, resigned amid corruption allegations and factional battles.
The ANC, the anti-apartheid liberation movement turned political party, has ruled South Africa for the past 25 years. But these days it is more tolerated than loved. While the ANC has maintained its leftist rhetoric, it has left unchanged much of the economy it inherited from the apartheid era and has allowed public services to falter. Poor and young people are especially fed up. Yet the left has never mounted a serious electoral challenge. Since the end of apartheid in 1994, the ANC has dominated South African politics, and is expected to win again this month.
The Unions Divided
South Africa’s left is expansive and includes worker-led and community organizations, political parties, NGOs, and intellectuals. But the largest and most powerful leftist organizations are the trade unions, in particular the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which has historically allied with the ANC. But amid factional battles and an economy that has shed jobs in manufacturing and mining—sectors that were at the heart of labor actions in the past—the unions have lost much of their political clout.
“The South African left has never been weaker,” Steven Friedman, a professor of politics at University of Johannesburg, said about the country’s post-apartheid period. “If you’re on the left and you want to change the economic structures in a democratic society, you have two weapons: You can actually speak for fairly large numbers of people, or you can win the battle of ideas. On both of those cases, the left is performing worse than it ever has.”
It was not always this way. In South Africa, modern black trade-union activism began to form in the 1970s, and by the 1980s unions like COSATU were an integral part of the anti-apartheid movement, helping to organize strikes and protests at a time when the ANC itself was banned and its leaders in exile.
Its influence continued when the ANC took power after the country’s first democratic elections, in 1994. The new government gave members of COSATU high-ranking positions, and the union helped shape policy. Worker protections were adopted, and the government rolled out its first socioeconomic strategy to tackle the legacy of apartheid: the Reconstruction and Development Program, which laid out a plan for supplying housing, water, electricity, and other services to the poor.
But though they were part of the political alliance that led South Africa, COSATU competed to be heard over a cacophony of other interests, including nationalists, technocrats, and business interests. While policies such as protection for labor, social grants, and public housing were implemented, the ANC also cut spending and reduced the number of public-service jobs over COSATU protests.
This was the state of affairs in 2007 when COSATU supported Zuma over incumbent Thabo Mbeki in a battle for leadership of the ANC. Zuma promised the unions more say in the crafting of economic policies for South Africa’s poor and working class, such as loosening exchange controls to encourage manufacturing exports.
But the Zuma presidency was marked by corruption and state capture, most notoriously by the Guptas, a business family accused of corrupt dealings with state-owned companies—including the one responsible for the train Ramaphosa found himself stuck on. During his first term, Zuma continued many of the Mbeki-era economic policies. COSATU continued to support him, believing that he would move to the left. Instead, Zuma found himself mired in corruption allegations, and stories about the Guptas’ influence over his government dominated the media.
During this time, COSATU was riven by infighting, especially over whether or not to continue supporting Zuma and the ANC. In November 2014, COSATU expelled its largest union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), for its refusal to back Zuma. NUMSA took with it 350,000 of its own members as well as several smaller unions. The fight over Zuma split South Africa’s black trade-union movement in two. “[The Zuma years] destroyed it. It fundamentally destroyed it,” said Adam Habib, a professor of political geography at the University of the Witwatersrand.
COSATU officials had been given government positions under previous ANC governments, but during the Zuma years, critics said the practice hit new levels and impeded the independence of the labor movement. Habib explained that the ANC “demanded loyalty; and by using its patronage networks, it split these organizations; and by splitting them, it weakened them.”
Complicating matters is the changing composition of COSATU. Following the departure of NUMSA and its allied unions, the union has continued to lose members, especially in the private sector. Increasingly, the largest unions in COSATU represent public workers like civil servants, teachers, and nurses, leaving the organization increasingly dominated by educated, professional workers.
“A lot of those members are people in white-collar jobs,” Friedman said. “If you look at the socioeconomic structure of COSATU, it doesn’t really represent the really low-paid people, the really precarious workers who are obviously a huge part of the workforce.”
COSATU is now not the only trade federation in South African politics. Since its expulsion, NUMSA has organized its allied unions into a new trade federation, and last year it launched a political party: the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP).
Vashna Jagarnath, a historian and researcher who was recently elected to a leadership position in the party, said the SRWP has been organizing workers with the end goal of creating a socialist state. As she spoke, her phone buzzed constantly with activists asking about logistical tasks for the organization.
Jagarnath acknowledged that the party would probably have a “low impact” on the current elections, and said that some in NUMSA, including herself, were ambivalent about electoral politics: “Do you participate in elections when you know that the system isn’t going to deliver any of the radical needs your workers need and change society?”
The radical labor party isn’t going to win this month, but Jagarnath said that campaigning is being used to build the party for the long term. “Every day we’re building structures,” Jagarnath said.
Jagarnath said that SRWP wasn’t seeking to win influence through Parliament but instead wanted to create bold, new plans for South Africa. In language that evoked the anti-apartheid movement, she said they intend to make South Africa’s systems “ungovernable”: “[In the future], we can render the state that is not delivering to us ungovernable. We must be able to have alternatives. We must be able to have an alternative state.”
The Young and the Poor Fight Back
Twenty-five years ago, the ANC worked to upend white rule, create a black middle class, and desegregate white institutions. The party rolled out social-welfare programs like social grants, free housing, and antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV/AIDS. But political leaders struggled to confront endemic poverty and unemployment. Last year, a World Bank study found that South Africa was the most economically unequal country in the world. And given the legacy of apartheid, the poor here are almost exclusively black. The unemployment rate for black South Africans is over 30 percent; for white South Africans, it’s only 8 percent.
“The ANC said it was doing social democracy in the years 1996 to 2007, and it did parts of social democracy but not other parts, and it grew inequality,” Habib explained. He argued that, while the party pursued some social services, it failed to tackle structural changes to the economy, including redistribution of wealth.
Across South Africa in recent years, poor communities have protested the lack of jobs, land, and services. Organizations of working-class people such as the Landless People’s Movement (LPM) and the shack-dwellers’ movement known as Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM) have campaigned for the universal right to water, housing, and electricity.
These groups have also faced state repression. In 2004, according to an Amnesty International report, police tortured or maltreated four members of LPM. In 2009, 40 attackers stormed an AbM youth meeting, leaving two dead and several shacks destroyed. AbM blamed the ANC and the local police. And as recently as last year, AbM said several members had been forced into hiding due to threats on their lives, including by local ANC politicians.
These organizations have not been the only ones dissatisfied with the ANC. In 2015 and 2016, university students unhappy with year-on-year fee increases brought campuses to a halt with protests organized under the hashtag #FeesMustFall. Fees Must Fall was diverse, and its requests varied between universities, but at its core was a demand for free education.
The student protests ended in 2015 when Zuma agreed to not raise the cost of attending university. But they started up again the next year, with increasing calls to “decolonize” universities of their European legacies. These rallies ended with violent clashes and a crackdown on students by police and private security hired by the universities.
While that energy may have dissipated, many of the students have now joined other left organizations, said Brian Kamanzi, a writer and activist who participated in the student demonstrations. The youth movement, he told me, is beginning to feed into and reinvigorate the broader left.
“Many of the students who participated in strikes across the country come from communities that are directly affected by the issues of working people,” Kamanzi said, explaining that many of the student leaders are joining groups fighting to expand water, housing, and electricity.
“The battle for the future is absolutely on, and what is coming out of Fees Must Fall is the lesson that young people need to work more with community organizations and with workers if they want to achieve their objectives,” he told me.
The left’s youth are learning and starting to join and build coalitions. But, Kamanzi said, “It’s a long road.”