Left and Right in South African Politics To-Day I - The Left

In these two briefs, Charles Simkins traces the evolution of the South African Left and Right and considers their respective futures.
Left and Right in South African Politics To-Day I - The Left


For decades now, the main theme in South African politics has been nationalism, both Afrikaner and African. Nationalism in itself is neither left nor right, though it is invariably led by a section of the middle class who are its main beneficiaries. However, it has to deliver sufficient goods and services to the working class and under class to keep them mobilized under a nationalist banner. However, the contention between left and right, most salient in the Smuts-Hertzog years, has never disappeared[1]. This brief, and a second one, will offer an outline of its current status.

Trade unions and left political parties: a brief history

The Labour Party was formed in 1910, and participated in every election until 1958. It achieved its strongest showing in the 1920 election, gaining 21 out of 134 House of Assembly seats. In the 1924 election, it gained 18 seats and entered government with the National Party. In 1928, the party split into two factions over the recognition of the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union and the responsible Labour Minister was excluded from the Cabinet. The conservative wing of the party retained representation in the Cabinet after the 1929 election, even though the National Party had won a majority of seats. After the 1933 election the conservatives aligned with Smuts, and the rest remained in opposition. The last Labour leader, Alex Hepple, tried to pursue a socialist policy as well as maintaining relations with groups like the African National Congress from 1953 to 1958. These were steps too far for the party’s supporters and Labour Party was dissolved after the 1958 election.

In the 1930s the dominant trade union federation was the South African Trades and Labour Council(SATLC). It was non-racial and accepted affiliation of black trade unions. Some black unions were members of the SATLC, while others affiliated with the Council of Non-European Trade Unions (CNETU). In 1954, SATLC split, with conservative unions forming the Trade Union Council of South Africa (TUCSA) and other unions joining with CNETU unions to form the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). It was driven underground in the early 1960s. TUCSA continued to exist until 1986. The Congress of South African Trade Unions, founded at the end of 1985, is the heir to the SACTU tradition.

 The Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) was formed in 1921, and it was soon involved in the 1922 Rand revolt. The Party reoriented itself at its 1924 Party Congress towards organising black workers and was influential within the SATLC, the first general secretary of the CPSA, becoming the first secretary of the SATLC in 1925. The CPSA dissolved itself at the time of the passing of the Suppression of Communism Act in 1950 and it was replaced by the South African Communist Party (SACP), formed clandestinely in 1953.

The relationship between communist parties and national liberation movements was one which preoccupied the Third International (the Comintern, formed to promote communism throughout the world, from 1919 to 1943). The issue was whether communist parties should align themselves with national liberation movements or devote themselves to organizing the working class. Comintern positions within this spectrum shifted back and forth over time, influencing the SACP, always respectful of the Comintern and the Soviet Union. Several factors pushed the ANC and CPSA/SACP together, including the radicalization of the ANC in the 1940s, the suppression of the CPSA first and the ANC later, the increased polarization of South Africa after the National Party came to power in 1948 (heightened once decolonization started), and the period of exile during which the ANC and SACP were supported by communist countries. Within the SACP, two related positions underpinned the co-operation: that the revolution in South Africa would proceed in two stages, ‘national democratic’ and ‘socialist’ and that the pre-1994 system in South Africa could be described as ‘colonialism of a special type’, marked by singular social and political arrangements flowing from the sizeable and settled white community[2].

The triple alliance and its problems

The scene was thus set for the emergence of the triple alliance between the ANC, the SACP and COSATU, worked clandestinely in the 1980s, and openly after the unbanning of the ANC and SACP in February 1990. It remains in existence, and some now add a fourth partner: the Congress of South African Students. The left is thus embedded within African nationalism. Particularly at the time of the 1994 election, the alliance appeared solid and powerful, but there were problems then, and they have deepened over time. Five, in particular, deserve attention:

  1. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, destroying the model of state and society held by the CPSA/SACP from inception. An alternative form of statism had to be found, and it was found in the East Asian (specifically Japanese) ‘developmental state’[3]. The developmental state was embodied in an elite corps of civil servants, able to manage the political system, business and labour, and steer all three in the direction of long term growth. All three parties to the alliance have committed themselves to its construction. It would be absurd to describe the current South African state as developmental, with its rapid turnover of senior public servants, cadre deployment and widespread incompetence and corruption. And, while promises to clean up corruption have been made frequently by both the Zuma and Ramaphosa administrations, a plausible path to a competent, politically neutral public service, attracting the best minds in the country, has not been defined.

  2. While all three partners could commit to the Reconstruction and Development Programme in 1994, the same could not be said of the Growth, Employment Strategy in 1996. The immediate need was for greater macroeconomic stability, by way of reducing fiscal deficits, lowering inflation and stabilizing the exchange rate. The case for doing all three things was strong and hard to oppose, but the justification for GEAR went further, promising much improved private investment, job creation and GDP growth. The intention was to sugar the pill, but it had the effect of antagonising both COSATU and the SACP, both of whom characterised GEAR as the ‘1996 class project’ of introducing ‘neoliberalism’ in economic policy.

  3. There are two key points to note about the unions. The first is that union density (union members as a percentage of people working for pay), as measured by the Quarterly Labour Force Survey, has shown no trend between 2010 and 2018. Given sampling error, it would be reasonable to conclude that it has remained roughly constant at 29%[4]. In 2018, the most heavily unionised industrial sector is mining, followed by government, utilities (electricity, gas and water). Manufacturing is quite a long way behind, with union density increasing with the size of the work force in enterprises[5]. Transport, finance and business services, and trade have union densities between 20% and 30%. The second point relates to trade union federations. The three largest federations are the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) and the Federation of Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA). It is impossible to provide precise membership numbers of unions belonging to each federation, but recent estimates suggest 1 600 000 for COSATU[6], 700 000 for SAFTU[7] and 500 000 for FEDUSA[8], implying that just over a million trade union members are affiliated with smaller federations or not affiliated at all. COSATU was seriously weakened when the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa and the Food and Allied Workers Union left COSATU and affiliated to SAFTU, and further by losses in membership of some of its key affiliates. Competition between unions organizing the same groups of workers has increased in recent years.

  4. The rise of the political influence of the black rich and middle classes poses an important problem for the left. These classes divide into three main components - those who have made it on their own, especially as restrictions on black economic activity were lifted, those who have benefited from black economic empowerment in its various forms and those who have built up assets through corruption and other forms of illegal activity. The SACP and, more sporadically the unions, are to be credited for opposing state capture, though neither are blameless for the political decisions which exacerbated it. Black economic empowerment and preferential procurement pose a more complex problem for the left. BEE has oscillated between the great enrichment of a few, to a more broad based approach, and then to an increased emphasis on what makes middle class hearts beat faster: ownership and the composition of senior management. For instance, on 23 April 2019, Business Day reported that the Black Economic Empowerment Commission, that monitors compliance with empowerment legislation, has declared that the vast majority of transactions involving broad-based BEE trusts are not compliant with the law, as the Commission regards trusts as not genuine nor leading to effective black ownership. A left position would favour the broad based approach. It would also have to note that preferential procurement makes components of the social wage more costly.

The SACP estimated its membership at close to 300 000 at the time of its 14th Congress in July 2017. Nearly two thirds of its members at that time were unemployed. The State of the Organisation report to the Congress noted that the most worrying issue is the low intake of workers despite the work done in unions. The motto of the Political Report to the same Congress was: Defend, Advance, Deepen the National Democratic Revolution: The Vanguard Role of the SACP. The tropes of a century ago live on in a party determined not be demoralised or in denial about the reasons for the major set-back that the collapse of the Soviet Union represented, and the justification of alliances remains as it was in the 1950s. Perhaps the last word should be left to Ronnie Kasrils in a post-election debate with Jeremy Cronin in Daily Maverick[9]:

We need to find a modicum of courage to question the old tired formulas, and creatively relate to the challenges of the current period characterised by unemployment, precarious labour, gender-based violence, homophobia and xenophobia, right wing populism, threats of global warming and destruction of the ecosystem.

Such a perspective opens up the possibility of connecting the SACP more effectively with single issue activism. Moreover, there is a greater interest in left thought internationally than at any time since the 1970s. Engaging with it would expand intellectual space for innovation by the South African left.

Charles Simkins
Head of Research


Table 1


Union membership

Paid employment

Union density








































Source: Statistics South Africa, Quarterly
Labour Force Surveys (third quarter)

Table 2


Union density











Finance and business services




Social and personal services






Private households


Source: Statistics South Africa, Quarterly
Labour Force Survey 2018 (third quarter)

Table 3

Number of employees

Union density

1 to 9


10 to 19


20 to 49


50 or more


Source: Statistics South Africa, Quarterly
Labour Force Survey 2018 (third quarter)
Manufacturing only

[1]The classic text on this subject is Jack and Ray Simons, Class and colour in South Africa, 1850-1950, International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa, 1983. No matter what one thinks of its normative orientation, it contains a wealth of information not readily available elsewhere.

[2]On the latter point, see David Everatt, Alliance Politics of a Special Type: the Roots of the ANC/SACP Alliance,

1950- 1954, Journal o f Southern African Studies 18(1), 1991

[3] The classical text is Chalmers Johnson, MITI and the Japanese Miracle, Stanford University Press, 1982.

[4]See Appendix: Table 1

[5]See Appendix: Table 2

[6]SiviweFeketha, Cosatu Bleeds Members, IOL Politics, 13 Sept 2018

[7] Edward Webster, South Africa has a new trade union federation: can it break the mould?, Mail and Guardian, 26 April, 2017


[9] See Ronnie Kasrils, A curate’s egg of an election, DM 14 May 2019, Jeremy Cronin, Wrecking ball of state capture was halted from within ANC movement itself, DM 16 May 2019, and Ronnie Kasrils, Response to Jeremy Cronin on the question of opportunism, DM 20 May 2019