BANG in the middle of his budget speech last week, Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan made an unexpected, coded remark. ‘What,’ he asked, ‘is to be done?’ He was using the title of a book written in 1902 by Vladimir Lenin. It was an apt comment given that tensions simmering in the African National Congress alliance for over 60 years may now be boiling over.

Since the Doctors Pact of the late forties there has been opposition by African nationalists, particularly in the ANC Youth League, to the influence of the Left and non-Africans within the alliance. The issue of dual membership of the ANC and Communist Party paralleled bitter debate about the objective of the national democratic revolution. Was it a socialist state; or should there be an interim stage of simple majority rule?

 For years the South African government tried to separate the Left in the alliance from African nationalists, and do a deal with latter. It failed. But is the alliance now achieving the apartheid regime’s aim of its own accord? The two-stage revolution has stalled on negotiated political liberation, the bourgeois triumph Lenin feared, and failed to move seamlessly on to socio-economic change for the masses.

Instead, on the back of ethnic preferment, graft and tendering irregularities, it has created an elite with a taste for power and conspicuous consumption. Former presidential spokesperson, Smuts Ngonyama, summed it up neatly: ‘I didn’t struggle to be poor.’ Party members of little talent and even less achievement are suddenly millionaires. Lenin’s concept of parallel party and state structures has, ironically, fast-tracked this outcome. This is exactly where vanguardism ends up and, in part, it explains a lack of service delivery to the poor.

The nationalists, increasingly indulged by President Jacob Zuma − now predictably emerging not as a man of the Left but a traditionalist with limited insight − favour militant rhetoric and muscular methods. Leader of the ANCYL, Julius Malema, a vulgar populist with expensive tastes, threatens violence whenever opposed (or booed) and claims to represent the ‘real ANC’. His predecessor, now a deputy minister, is the loudest exponent of a ‘shoot to kill’ policy when police are confronted by armed criminals, although they already have adequate powers. The newly enriched are suitably impressed. Naturally their assets must be protected from the growing numbers of the desperate and impoverished.

Malema calls for the nationalisation (read expropriation) of the mines as another means of elite enrichment, in imitation of Robert Mugabe’s current mining grab north of the border. Parastatals such as Eskom and Transnet are seen as vehicles for ethnic enrichment. Jimmy Manyi of the Black Management Forum screams blue murder about a lack of transformation in the economy and threatens well-run businesses with fines.

Racism is not far beneath the surface. The articulate communist and capable deputy minister of transport, Jeremy Cronin, was attacked as a settler for his reasoned opposition to nationalisation. Barbara Hogan, minister of public enterprises, has encountered harsh criticism for her diligence in tackling poor governance and tender fixing.

The apartheid-era spectre of rooi gevaar stalks the land again. Gwede Mantashe, in the anomalous dual position of chairperson of the Communist Party and secretary-general of the ANC, is often in the firing line. And the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) seems stuck in an ideological time warp: Lenin would have attacked it for narrow economism. Its leaders criticise the Reserve Bank’s policy of inflation targeting and forget that it is the very poor who suffer most from rising prices. COSATU’s claim that interest rate cuts will help create jobs is dubious in a country so spectacularly lacking in skills and productive, healthy labour. And it betrays young people by refusing to sanction any loosening of the labour laws to encourage job creation. The Left watches helplessly as state resources are plundered by the few, but the recent call for lifestyle audits opens up intriguing possibilities.

Fortunately South Africa is a well-developed welfare state. This created relative political stability in the years following liberation, but it has fragile foundations: there are many more grant recipients than taxpayers. Indeed, township insurrection could soon be the key issue. Burning down the Siyathemba library may seem an irrational act, but it suggests that the technicalities of service delivery are not the main issue. People are demanding real transformation, a share in power, a grassroots politics that will help them shape their own lives. In Lenin’s terms, shack dwellers are increasingly conscious of themselves as a political force; and ultimately the ANC’s main opposition.

In the unlikely context of a budget speech we have been reminded of Lenin, but what else did he have to offer? In his April Theses of 1917 he suggested that officials’ salaries should be pegged to the average of a competent worker. That would mean a real revolution in South Africa. His last writings were even more relevant: the importance of education, the possibility of a flexible social democracy, and the dangers of bureaucracy and national chauvinism. And closer to home, Albert Luthuli warned in an obscure article in 1953 that extreme nationalism constituted a far greater threat from within the ANC than communism. That sounds increasingly prophetic in 2010.

This article was first published in The Witness on 24 February 2010 and entitled ‘What is to be done?’