OUTSPOKEN: William Gumede says freedom fighters are often too ideologically rigid to make good democrats once they come to power. Picture: EUGENE GODDARD
Prof William Gumede from the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Public and Development Management. Picture: EUGENE GODDARD

THE dramatic success of the Brazilian Workers’ Party — Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) — in reducing inequality and raising incomes has prompted many on the South African left to ask whether South Africa could follow that path.

With the possibility of the formation of a Workers’ Party now really on the agenda, following the break of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) from the ANC in December, the intellectual debates have a new sense of reality about them.

Earlier this week, the Chris Hani Institute, a leftist forum for political debate with ties to the labour movement, brought together a panel discussion involving academics from Brazil and South Africa as well trade unionists, to consider the potential for "a Lula moment" in South Africa.

The "Lula moment" is a reference to former Brazilian president Ignacio Lula da Silva, who was a metal worker and a former president of the PT, and is largely credited with introducing Brazil’s pro-poor income redistribution policies during his second term from 2007 to 2010.

The panel — which included Alfredo Saad-Filho, professor of political economy at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, and Prof William Gumede from the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Public and Development Management — had some sobering warnings: building a workers’ party along the lines of Brazil’s would be a tall order. Not only are local and international conditions unfavourable but workers would fail if they made a go of it alone. A broad-front approach would be essential.

There is much to admire in the achievements of the PT and of Lula in Brazil. By significantly raising the incomes of the poorest, during a growth phase fuelled by the commodities boom and after that, Brazil created a virtuous cycle of income-led growth in which higher wages created a domestic market for locally produced consumer goods, fuelling further economic and jobs growth.

From being one of the world’s most unequal countries, "incomes of the working poor are rising to a standard no one would have imagined a decade ago", writes Gay Seidman, in one of the essays the Chris Hani Institute has published in a book, A Lula Moment for South Africa.

The incomes of the poorest have risen much faster than those at the top. Between 2009 and 2011, the incomes of the poorest 10% of Brazilians rose by 29%, while the national average rose by 8%, says Prof Seidman. About half of Brazil’s citizens moved into the country’s lower middle class. This was achieved by social welfare policies, such as the Bolsa Familia family grant, but also far more importantly by rising minimum wages. By the time Lula left office in 2010, Brazil’s minimum wage had increased by 60%. It continues to rise as annual increases are linked both to inflation and economic growth.

Could South Africa do the same? Alt hough both the PT and the ANC have as a key component a large, militant trade union federation that actively engages in social policy, the ANC has not followed pro-poor policies with the same enthusiasm or success. A PT-type party in South Africa could only come from two possible places, says Prof Gumede: an entirely new workers’ party or political movement; or if unions were able to take over the ANC and create a Lula moment.

However, he is not bullish about either prospect. While labour parties in Europe were "taken over lock, stock and barrel" by a new generation in the postwar period, the same has never been done in Africa. An ANC "turnaround" would pose an enormous challenge as any attempt to restore internal democracy would bring a response from those who hold power in the organisation now.

The creation of a workers’ party by unions would also be difficult. The PT’s success is due to the many social groupings it drew together from beyond the unions, such as the landless people’s movement, and the middle and business classes.

"A ‘Numsa moment’ could work only if it is broad-based and can appeal to people beyond the union movement," says Prof Gumede. "Numsa would have to corral a broad alliance that shares its vision and agenda, in the context of a hostile domestic climate."

Building a movement such as the PT in South Africa today "would be much more difficult", Prof Saad-Filho says. "In Brazil this was done before the transition to democracy, not after. Here the domestic environment is less conducive. Also, South Africa lacks a strong domestic bourgeoisie … in the case of the PT they were a necessary ally.

"So it is a tall order and these difficulties cannot be overstated."