The OKM Experience and the lessons for 2009

KC JOURNAL NO 20 November 2008

John Appolis reviews previous election tactics used within the social movements and argues for a spoilt ballot in the upcoming elections.

The 2009 national elections are around the corner and we are confronted with the task of developing a parliamentary tactic that corresponds best to the present historical conjuncture. The term parliamentary tactic is employed on the assumption that it is common cause amongst socialists, except for those of a particular anarchist variant, that participation in bourgeois parliaments is viewed as a tactical question and not one of principle.

One such parliamentary tactic undertaken was the formation of the Operation Khanyisa Movement (OKM), an electoral front, initiated by the Socialist Group (SG), to contest the local government elections of 2006. The single most important problem of the OKM was that it committed all the errors associated with narrow electoralism.

An artificial creation

The source of OKM’s narrow electoralism lies, first of all, in the manner of its formation. It was an electoral front mooted in the Johannesburg region of the Anti-privatisation Forum (APF) to contest the 2006 Local Government Elections. The APF had planned a discussion on the 2006 elections but before it could have such a discussion the organisation was confronted with the formation of an electoral front by one of its region.

The APF criticised the formation of the OKM as being divisive and undemocratic, with the potential of fragmenting the movement. There was no regard for organisational protocol. A decision of such magnitude is the preserve either of the Annual General Meeting or Co-ordinating Committee. Even here a very thorough preparatory process is to be followed before such a decision becomes a reality. OKM’s formation ignored all such processes. What confronted the organisation was the possibility that the other three regions could also have formed electoral fronts. This would have caused unimaginable difficulties of political cohesion and organisational integrity at a time when the movement was not at its strongest.

Where were the masses ?

There was also no real mass involvement in the actual formation of the OKM. The affiliates who initially constituted OKM had one or two discussions in the JHB region but no real engagement took place amongst their own mass constituencies. Only after the formation of OKM were constituencies made aware of its existence, composition and purpose. Such hastily formed organisations always have built in problems of confusion and division. Immediately after the appearance of the launch pamphlet, one of the affiliates whose name appeared on the pamphlet disassociated itself from OKM.

Critically, OKM had no history and tradition within the communities and was basically an unknown and untested politically entity. Activists had to first introduce and explain where it came from before they could address the matter of elections. The absence of such a political identity caused the OKM to appropriate the identity of the APF, where today it refers to itself as the OKM-APF.

No clarity on the role of councillor

There was no programmatic clarity amongst leading OKM militants as to the political attitude towards bourgeois parliaments and what role councillors should play once elected. The haste of its formation did not allow for the unpacking of the nature of SA capitalism in this period and the role of parliaments in it. Under neo-liberalism, the South African parliament has been hollowed out to an empty shell. Parliament has lost its status of sovereign of the people. It has no oversight over the executive or important financial budgetary plans and decisions. Power is concentrated in the office of the presidency. The potential for winning palpable gains through parliament amounts to zero.

No thought was given to what potential role the councillors must play once elected. Unsurprisingly, the OKM councillor jumped ship and joined the Democratic Alliance (DA). To its credit the OKM detected the intended defection early and prevented the councillor from taking the seat with her to the DA. Surely a political defection of this nature needs some explanation?

No consideration of state of affiliates

OKM was launched without consideration for the state of the affiliates. Vast differences existed in the levels of mass implantation between the different affiliates. The structures of accountability of these affiliates were also different. Some of the affiliates went into decline immediately after the elections. It can be argued that there will always be unevenness in the state of organisations. But then it must be recognised and stated upfront and taken into account when deciding on the appropriate electoral tactics. The state of the affiliates must also be taken into account when deciding on the organisational and structural arrangement of the instrument to contest the elections. It is instructive that the OKM did not opt for the constituency-based system but rather for the proportional representation system covering 8 different townships.

Also, an electoral tactic like the OKM requires the existence of a broad layer of militants who can politically anchor and guide its participation in the councils and exercise democratic oversight and control over the councillors. Such a broad layer was absent.

This omission resulted in the OKM leaning on the SECC. The OKM has largely become an extension of the SECC, where the SECC provides the political and organisational resources for OKM. This has, created enormous internal differences and bitterness within the OKM, and over the period five of the eight affiliates withdrew from the OKM. Surely the withdrawal of the majority of its affiliates needs an explanation?

Though not entirely due to the OKM at least three of the affiliates of OKM are hardly in existence today. Their experience with OKM has entrenched a political abhorrence for participation in bourgeois parliaments, and confirmed in a negative sense the problems associated with participation in such institutions.

The APF’s approach

All the reasons that the APF advanced in its disagreement with OKM constituted the basis upon which it charted a different tactical approach to the 2006 local government elections. The tactic involved a few affiliates fielding a limited number of candidates in selected constituencies where those affiliates and the APF have a level of relative mass implantation and a layer of activists. These affiliates would then field a limited number of candidates on the constituency-based system. The APF would then put its political and organisational muscle at the disposal of these affiliates.

A mistake repeating itself?

It seems that the OKM has not learnt any of these lessons and is repeating the same mistakes in relation to the upcoming 2009 elections. The OKM is proposing a UNITED FRONT of like-minded socialist movements and parties to contest the 2009 elections.

One glaring mistake with this position is that there is no conception which movement(s)/ organisations are going to be the anchors of such a front. For an Electoral Front to work, it must be anchored by strong, mass movements that would provide the political perspective, clarification, organisational and mass muscle to glue the initiative together. And mind you, this front is not intended to be a local, regional or provincial one but a national front, thereby multiplying tenfold the problems of an OKM. Without such a mass anchor, every organisation, political grouping and party is going to compete for their political and organisational stake in the electoral front set-up. Enormous difficulties are going to be encountered by the front to find common ground.

Whilst the proponents are claiming that this front is not going to represent the APF nor rely on it for organisational and other support, in the absence of a mass anchor it is in reality going to rely precisely on organisations like the APF. The proponents know full well that movements like the APF are not at the same level of combativity, mass implantation, and internal strategic capacity as three or four years ago. Yet it and others are going to be required to not only sustain their own movements, but a whole new national electoral front. The front would have to construct, in the next month or so, a political identity, agree on a manifesto that spells out its views on a whole range of issues, set up a national structure with a well- oiled election campaign machinery built into it, and find the necessary organisational and financial resources to undertake these tasks. We know from experience that it takes a long time to fashion a mass political identity that captures the imagination of the people and becomes the very essence of the daily lives of the masses.

Such a political undertaking is possible in the context where the masses are on the ascendancy with high levels of mass combativity, self-initiative and where a broad layer of militants possesses a united, elementary political class consciousness of the struggle for political power. Even under such conditions the necessary caution would have to be exercised. After 8 years of struggle the social movements have not as yet been able to build a strong national co-ordinating structure, let alone a single unifying national electoral front.

Another glaring mistake is that again no attention is being paid to the present conjuncture, where there has been a significant shift in the attitude of the masses towards the ruling party and parliament. This attitude is distinct from what existed at the time of the 2004/6 elections. The removal of Thabo Mbeki as president by the ANC has restored the confidence of large sections of the masses in the ruling party and the parliamentary process. There is renewed hope that changes can come through the party and the institutions of bourgeois rule. Polokwane is seen as the culmination of years of struggle against the neo-liberal project of the Mbeki administration. The masses under the auspices of the allied organisations like COSATU view Polokwane as their victory, as the wresting back of the ANC from the clutches of the bourgeois Mbeki faction.

Socialists and militants within the social movements, on the other hand, know that a Zuma presidency is not going to dismantle the bourgeois class forces consolidated by the ANC since the early1990s but instead entrench them. No social movement militant has any illusions about a Zuma presidency. They understand that the Zuma faction does not represent an alternative class project to that of Thabo Mbeki. This clarity is not only borne out of eight years of struggle against the ANC government, but by the newly installed president, Motlanthe, when he states he is going to continue where Mbeki left off. However, even within the broader constituencies of the APF the Zuma factor has rubbed off, where some also have this belief in the ‘new’ ANC.

A new dimension is the recent formation of the Congress of the People (COPE). They are projecting the image of people who respect the constitution and the rule of law. Whether this claiming of public space by ANC members to voice political opposition to the current leadership of the ANC is going to lead to a new political formation is not clear at present. What is known is the track record of Lekota and his lieutenants on the anti- working class policies of the ANC government.

They were the drivers and implementers of GEAR, privatisation, trade liberalisation and so on. Their loyalty was firmly on the side of the capitalist class.

Notwithstanding this track record, no one can say for certain at present who among the working class is going to support this initiative. If the meeting held in Langa, where thousands of people from surrounding townships were in attendance, is anything to go by, then clearly we need to follow closely the upcoming events to uncover the social base of this new initiative. The question that is emerging is: will this initiative connect up with the general disgruntlement of ANC supporters and the broader masses?

We are thus confronted with a situation where, on the one hand, the militants organised in the social movements are under no illusion as to what the new ruling elite in waiting represents. But, on the other hand, other sections of the masses – amongst some constituencies of the movements as well as those located in the allied organisations – have new hope in the ANC, believing it still represents their aspirations. At the same time, some sections might throw their weight behind the Lekota initiative.

The question is: how do we relate in an electoral sense to the masses? What then is the appropriate electoral tactic?

A protest vote for now!

As in the case of 2004/6 elections, the social movements are not in a position to present an alternative parliamentary option to the masses as a whole. The movements have since that time, in fact, suffered further setbacks in their strategic capacity and implantation within communities, with many organisations in a state of bare survival. An added dimension is the fact that some sections of the communities organised by the social movements have a mistaken belief in the new elite-in-waiting.

The central task we need to carry out in the present conjuncture is to expose the bourgeois class nature of the Zuma elite-in-waiting. To some extent this exposure is underway with the assumption of office by Motlanthe. But as matters stand, with the given balance of forces, the elections must be used to make a political statement about the pro-capitalist inclination of the ruling ANC. The appropriate tactic to advance to make this political statement is to register a protest vote by spoiling one’s ballot paper. The number of spoilt ballot papers will be the signature of this protest vote. Its purpose is to consolidate the social movements, its cadre and to make a general call to struggle.

The protest vote is a tactic and with any tactic its applicability depends on the mood of the masses and state of organisation. If dramatic developments unfold around the Lekota initiative, for instance, where large sections of the working class align themselves with it, then a rethinking of the electoral tactic would be appropriate.


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