At its special national congress last month, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) took a significant decision not to support the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in the next elections. Numsa is the largest union affiliated to the troubled Congress of South African Trade Unions, and its clout is considerable, so its decision is a turning point for the country's politics.
Numsa supports socialist ideas and, as a result, at the congress, it resolved to explore the establishment of a movement for socialism '... as the working class needs a political organization committed in its policies and actions to the establishment of a socialist South Africa'. The union may well spearhead the formation of a mass workers' party, which could become the first truly mass based political alternative to the left of the ANC.
Many media commentators were ambivalent about this development, welcoming the break as a sign of political diversification, but expressing deep discomfort at Numsa's ideological trajectory, which was portrayed as being loopy, eccentric and out of date.
Media responses to the Numsa declaration reveal a much bigger truth about the public sphere they help to constitute. There can be little doubt that socialist ideas continue to enjoy huge support in South Africa. The most significant progressive organizations have either committed themselves to socialist ideas, or have socialists within them.
Yet any visitor to South Africa, unfamiliar with its political landscape, would not realize how hugely popular socialist ideas are from the media: in fact they'd probably conclude that socialism was consigned to the dustbin of politically bankrupt ideas long ago. The nearly complete absence of systematic public justifications for socialism, given the huge currency in South African politics, is confounding.
The media are awash with arguments for capitalism, in spite of the many indications of system failure, most recently in the 2008 economic recession. Yet, still, capitalism is considered to be the 'common-sense' position from which serious debates proceed. Business media and business journalism are in relatively rude health, while labour journalism is in a parlous state.
These realities suggest that there is a fundamental mismatch between the ideas that circulate in society and the ideas that circulate in the media. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the so-called 'debates' on economic policy, which are usually little more than debates about various shades of capitalism.
Yet on the ground, an increasing number of people are searching for genuine political alternatives. This is a hugely positive development of recent years, as millions of people have taken it upon themselves to become change agents, rather than outsourcing this responsibility to a professional, bureaucratized and often corrupt political class. These activists know they will be ostracized in the elite public sphere, as they operate on an ideological terrain that is hostile to socialist ideas.
When spaces do emerge for a real contest of ideas, media bosses may find them threatening and squash them out of existence. In all the media hullabaloo about the removal of Cape Times editor, Alide Dasnois, by the new owner of Independent Newspapers, Iqbal Survé, there has been little reflection on the staff allegation that he removed her because she was too 'left leaning'.
Dasnois became known as an editor who attempted to counterbalance systemic centrist and right-leaning biases in media discourse. This did not make her biased, merely fair-minded. In any event, the silencing of progressive ideas, including socialist ideas, does not make commercial sense, as a newspaper reduces its mass audience appeal if it does not reflect the real debates taking place in society. The Dasnois affair strongly suggests that Survé's agenda at Independent Newspapers is more conservative than transformative.
Ironically, Dasnois has been attacked for editing a newspaper that, in the words of Songezo Mjongile of the ANC, is 'a mouthpiece of neoliberal fascists'. Yet Mjongile remains silent on other media spaces that are much more out rightly neoliberal. Perhaps this is because they fail to reflect the real levels of dissent against the ANC on the ground, and this distance from grassroots ferment serves the party well.
In spite of their importance in South African politics, left debates are often caricatured in the media and important nuances are missed. For instance, Numsa and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are often lumped together as being part of the left. Yet, the EFF's stance is anti-capitalist, not socialist, which means that it does not, as yet, offer a fundamentally different vision of how society should be organised. This means that Numsa's reservations about the EFF do not stop at reservations about Julius Malema's personal proclivities, as the media debate seems to suggest.
Numsa's approach to socialism is mass-based. This may allow them to avoid many of the traps that more vanguardist left groups have fallen into, and which have often turned the left into an object of derision, rather than a serious political contender.
Media commentators have mocked Numsa for embracing a failed ideology. But they ignore the fact that capitalism too has failed, and millions of South Africans live that failure daily. Furthermore, what failed in the soviet bloc countries was not socialism. This is not well understood as the concept itself is ill understood and prone to distortion.
Socialism is a simple idea: workers who form society's productive base should control the means of production. They, more than anyone, understand the productive process and should lead how it is organized.
It should be clear from this definition that democracy is fundamental to socialism: yet what emerged in the Soviet bloc was anti-democratic, and a perversion of the original vision. However, the South African Communist Party discredited itself by parroting the Stalinist line for decades, and to this day has never quite shed this disgraceful legacy.
Needless to say, socialism has conceptual weaknesses. The classical Marxist definition fails to take account of the new twin realities of structural unemployment and reduced workforces: realities that make over-reliance on the factory as the epicentre of organising inappropriate. These weaknesses are not insurmountable, but they do require ideological rethinking and renewal.
However, what is also not well acknowledged are socialism's successes. As a transformative ideology, it encourages ordinary people to see that they have the inherent ability to shape their own lives, and makes them realize that life can be lived very differently to how it is lived now. To this extent, it provides a substantive vision for equality and democracy.
Socialism is not just an economic philosophy. It adopts a 'whole of society' approach, encouraging people to re-imagine social relations afresh. It argues that people do not have to accept a dog-eat-dog, everyone-for-himself (less so for herself) society. Societies based on care and compassion, that encourage both mutual solidarity and individual creativity, can be built.
These basic insights have inspired mass movements across the globe, from the labour to the women's and environmental movements. These movements have won important gains, not only for workers, but for society as a whole. Women's equality, environmental justice and secularism - all ideas inspired to an extent by Marxism - have become mainstream political ideas, and society is the richer for that. It is to these legacies that Numsa now turns.
The political landscape shifted fundamentally in December in favour of greater genuine political diversity. Up to that point, mainstream South African electoral politics gravitated towards the political centre. With the exception of the EFF, several newer parties have offered pretty much 'more of the same', especially on economic policy.
This means that in spite of terribly depressing recent developments, culminating in the Marikana massacre, this current period is filled with great promise. But the media and other opinion makers must come to accept that this diversity may not be on terms and conditions that they have become used to, or even feel comfortable with. But that, after all, is what diversity is truly about.
Professor Duncan is Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society, School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University.
Read more articles by Jane Duncan.