In my piece following the election, I referred to the Economic Freedom Fighters and uMkhonto weSizwe as “the left”. 

I received some pushback on this from an acquaintance whose views I esteem. “I don’t agree that MK or the EFF represent the left wing in any consistent sense (in fact, I don’t think left/right wing analysis is very relevant at all in SA).”

Coincidentally, that same day the Daily Maverick ran a piece by Rebecca Davis entitled “Look Left, Look Right: What does ‘Progressive’ mean in the Coalition Talks?” Unlike my interlocutor, Davis accepted the validity of a “left”-“right” spectrum – I’d wager she would place herself resolutely on the “left” – but objected to the manner in which some parties were being categorised.

Davis’s piece directly referenced a demand by former minister, ANC aristocrat and one-time party leader hopeful Lindiwe Sisulu, for a “Black Pact of Progressive Forces”, apparently a coalition between the ANC, MK, the EFF, Inkatha Freedom Party, and the Patriotic Alliance. She also pointed to comments from “” insiders” demanding that the ANC only make common cause with those to its “left”.  Again, the allusion seemed to be to the EFF and MK.

Her article went on to take umbrage at these monikers being applied to parties like the PA and MK. The PA, after all, took a hard line on illegal immigration, wanted to suspend legal protections in dealing with gang violence, sought to reinstate conscription and capital punishment, was sympathetic to Israel, and wished to institute religious principles in the governance of the country.

All of this, she averred, would “be classed as ‘far right’ in most other places on Earth.”

Well, I’m not so sure…

Davis herself acknowledged that “left” and “right” were ideas that were becoming “ever more nebulous and less useful.” Were they ever?

Chasing a definition

“Left” and “right”: I imagine – and maybe it’s just because this is how I see it – we all have an idea in our heads of this scale in which we can plot politics, with communists at the one extreme and Nazis on the other. But maybe that misses something.

The origins of the “left”-“right” spectrum go back to the French Revolution, and the placement of the deputies in the country’s National Assembly: those loyal to the king and tradition on the “right”, those demanding a more radical break on the “left”. As one deputy, the nobleman Baron de Gauville, described it: “We began to recognize each other: those who were loyal to religion and the king took up positions to the right of the chair so as to avoid the shouts, oaths, and indecencies that enjoyed free rein in the opposing camp.”

This is a revealing explanation: “left” and “right” were separated to manage the acrimony from the conflicting positions they took.

The seating arrangement endured in France’s legislatures – about which more in a bit – and became a generalised political signifier elsewhere. But a signifier of what? The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics and International Relations describes “left” as “indicative of the radical or progressive socialist spectrum”. It goes on:

What it is to be “left(‐wing)” varies so much over space or time that a definition is very difficult, but the following issue orientations would normally be involved: egalitarianism, support for the (organized) working class, support for nationalization of industry, hostility to marks of hierarchy, opposition to nationalistic foreign or defence policy. “Left” is used to distinguish positions within parties as well as among them. A left‐wing socialist is one who takes extreme positions on (some of) the items on this list. Left‐wing communism (described by Lenin in a pamphlet of 1920 as “an infantile disorder”) may be cynically defined as all forms of communism not supported by the prevailing leadership of the Communist Party. However, in the 1920s and 1930s, left‐wing deviation meant encouraging revolution among the people without caring sufficiently about the leading role of the Party; right‐wing deviation meant too much support for [Lenin’s New Economic Policy] and the market.

If that sounds a mite confusing, the entry for right(-wing) is a mind-twister:

The opposite of left. As with the term left-wing, the label right-wing has many connotations which vary over time and are often only understood within the particular political context. In advanced liberal democracies, perhaps more than anything else the right has been defined in opposition to socialism or social democracy. As a result, the ideologies and philosophies of right-wing political parties have included elements of conservatism, Christian democracy, liberalism, libertarianism, and nationalism; and for extreme-right parties, racism and fascism. As the policy platforms of parties have varied, so has the popular conception of the left–right dimension. In surveys, self-placement on a “left–right” scale is associated with attitudes on economic policy, especially redistribution and privatization/nationalization, post-materialism, and (particularly in Catholic countries) religiosity. 

Seen from these vantage points, “left” and “right” are inherently slippery, relational ideas, chameleonic in the sense that they adapt not only to time and circumstance, but also to the orientation of their co-ideologists – how a “left-winger” or a “right-winger” shapes up among his or her peers is greatly influenced by the positioning of other “left-” and “right-wingers”. Make a useful analytical tool of that if you can.


Does any of this have a necessary relationship with any set of policies? Returning to Davis’s critique, one could ask whether the stances that the PA has taken really make it an especially “right-wing” party at all. To my mind, this is not apparent, certainly not in any comparative sense, at least not when viewed historically.

What makes conscription “right-wing”? It has been widely practised around the world by all manner of governments. It could actually be viewed as a profoundly egalitarian institution, levying a “blood tax” on all as a condition of citizenship; moreover, its proponents would argue that it roots a country’s military in its broader society, rather than creating a state within a state. Cuba, the eternal cause celebre of the “hard left”, maintains an uncompromising form of conscription with limited alternatives for those wishing not to serve in the military. Sweden, the darling of the social democratic (call this the “soft left”) proponents, had conscription for generations before suspending it in 2010 and then reintroducing it in 2018. This was under a Social Democrat-Green coalition. The United States – the all-purpose imperialist villain, and (in certain circles) global avatar of the “right wing” – fields an entirely volunteer military.

Immigration? This has been subject to something of a Trump contagion – Trump is against it, so it must be bad (and super “right-wing” too). But open borders are a relatively rare thing; where they are formally open, as within the European Union, this has been an evolutionary process among countries voluntarily agreeing on free movement among themselves and with recognised external borders. I can’t see much evidence that “left-wing countries” are more inclined to be open to migration. Cuba, China, the Soviet Union and its satellites were (and for those currently in existence, are) all famously restrictive on letting outsiders in and insiders out. Countries like the ironically named German Democratic Republic literally built walls to do this – and shot people for trying to scale them.

In the United States, where “the border” has become something of a totem for that country’s ideological divides, it shouldn’t be forgotten that one of the great icons of its “left”, the Hispanic labour organiser Cesar Chavez, campaigned for the deportation of illegal immigrants and literally organised armed groups to patrol the border with Mexico to prevent strike-breaking labour being brought in. “If we can get the illegals out of California, we will win the strike overnight,” he once said, in an idiom that today might be reminiscent of a Tucker Carlson monologue.

Nor does playing fast and loose with civil liberties (or South Africa’s Constitution) tell us much. There hasn’t been much in their behaviour to differentiate “right-wing” and “left-wing” rights abusers in recent history, nor in their fealty to the niceties of constitutional governance. Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union matched each other in the legions of the arrested and imprisoned, and in the mountains of corpses they produced. How about the Regime of the Colonels in Greece, the Argentinian Junta of the Dirty War, or Alfredo Stroessner and the Colorado Party in Paraguay versus Mengistu Haile Mariam and the Dergue in Ethiopia, or the governments of Fidel Castro in Cuba and Nicolae Ceaușescu in Romania respectively? “Left” versus “right”, anyone? How about Saddam Hussein, the Kim Dynasty, Ayatollah Khomeini, Jean-Bédel Bokassa (aka Bokassa I), Robert Mugabe, or Idi Amin? How easily do they slot into the “left”-“right” continuum?

An enduring attraction

Still, there is something enduring about this terminology that maintains it as a convenient shorthand for both politicians and analysts. A good explanation for this was set out in a 1983 article by Asher Arian and Michal Shamir, “The Primarily Political Functions of the Left-Right Continuum”. Their argument, using contemporary Israeli politics as a its primary frame of reference, was fundamentally that these terms served a political function in describing oneself and one’s opponents and ascribing meaning.  In their words:

Left and right and liberal and conservative are political labels. They are cues given by the political system, in particular by political parties, with respect to political objects. The major political objects are of course the political parties toward which the citizen must orient himself: either approve, support, and vote for or oppose, reject, and vote against. The function is one of labelling for self- and party-identification on the one hand as well as of vetoing and rejecting others’ cues on the other hand. The left or right label is above all part of one’s political vocabulary, of one’s political education, of one’s political and social adjustment.

This, I’d say, helps to explain Davis’s sense of discomfort, and her choice of words. “Left” – as she and a good many others use it – is less a signifier of a particular set of policy choices, or even an approach to politics, than it is an affirmation of virtue.

Note that this is contextual. In South Africa, I’d venture that the term “right” has been tarnished by association with the lunatic fringe of white politics prior to 1994. The “white right”, as it was known, embodied a brand of recidivistic politics that many would prefer to avoid today – and I think this is true even for many of those sympathetic to latter-day Afrikaner nationalism of the respectable Freedom Front Plus variety. I seldom see anyone self-identifying as “right-wing”, except some podbro-type rebels-with-a-cause, who might revel in the term as denoting something tough and transgressive. 

The “left”, by contrast, lays claim to the anti-apartheid struggle. This is an important legitimating narrative and blends into the idea that it is inherently committed to “betterment”. Hence understand how the word “left” is seamlessly bound to “progressive”. “Progressive”, after all, is etymologically liked to the word “progress”, something intuitively positive. Who, after all, is likely to welcome being described as “regressive”?

To be “progressive” – or more accurately, to be acknowledged as “progressive” – is to be accorded a moniker of general honour. It carries the assumption that one is generous, open-minded, loving, rational and so on. “Inclusive”. “Compassionate”. “Peace-loving”.  “Sustainable”. “Anti-racist”.

The “right-wing” slur

And hence, also, the pejorative term “right-wing”. Jill Wentzel, for many years a prominent member of Black Sash and later a senior staffer at the Institute, described in her book The Liberal Slideaway how the “right-wing slur” would be deployed to blunt criticism of the liberation movement. The targets here were people opposed to the then government, but equally sceptical of the conduct of the ANC. The ANC and its surrogates were engaged in a struggle to win power; dominance of the moral narrative was one of its most powerful assets. Where criticism arose from those not connected to the state, condemnation was an effective counter. The hoped-for effect would be to stigmatise and discredit its targets, and also to place a painful personal rebuke on them. To be “right-wing” was to distance oneself from the cause of liberation and to ally oneself with the oppressor. It was a powerful incentive to good people to foreclose their independence and to retain their standing.

“Right-wing” retained that connotation in public discourse. The late Eusebius McKaiser was given to doing this on his radio show: I recall the hapless callers who would be denounced with the flourish of “that’s right-wing”. One got the impression that for him, this settled the matter at hand. But this was a condemnation, not an analysis. “Right-wing” here is a signifier of the negative. “Racist”. “Sexist”. “Phobic” (in its various guises). “Hateful”. “Conspiratorial”. And so on.

This was on display among some in the commentariat as the composition of the GNU became apparent. “Workers must brace themselves for the unholy alliance of right-wing forces in the GNU” wrote Phakamile Hlubi-Majola on IOL. “Dystopian future awaits under right-wing coalition”, warned Duma Gqubule. And of course, the arguments in Davis’s piece went not only after the PA, but MK too. MK, as Davis concedes, advocates economic policies associated with the “left” (“far left”, she says, adding the adjective that is typically reserved for the ”right”), but its social orientation – shipping teenage mothers off to Robben Island, repealing gay rights – make it “right-wing”.

This is so confused that none of it seems to offer anything of descriptive value, but I think this mistakes the nature of this binary: as it is invoked, it is essentially a normative and aesthetic binary. “Left” good, “right” bad.

And when we use “left” and “right” as cues, and signifiers of virtue, we can do some remarkable things. An oppressive communist government – say, Stalin’s Soviet Union, or the Kim Dynasty in North Korea (formally, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, of which name you can make what you will) – can become “right-wing”. So can self-professed Marxist-Leninist groups like the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the EFF here. And they can be bundled up with Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Mitt Romney (though maybe not when he’s speaking about Trump), the Democratic Alliance and the Rhema Bible Church. Or the Catholic Church when the topic is abortion. Or the Institute of Race Relations for some of our more excitable critics. We like the things we like and describe them accordingly.

What’s left? And does it matter?

I’ve had a passing interest in these matters for years. For me a lot of it had to do with the smugness that “left-wingers” would often exude. The eye-rolling and contemptuously dismissive laughter and instaquotes from Noam Chomsky, and the assumption that they were right (I mean ethically correct, and “left”). Since I didn’t count myself as “left-wing” and wasn’t so regarded (and was definitely not a “progressive”, perish the thought!) the implication was that I was on the morally decrepit side of history. I was never entirely clear what set of views categorised me in that way, though if I had to guess, I’d say it had to do (in the 1990s) with being sceptical of the ANC and more or less sympathetic to the geopolitical West. (Let’s not get into East and West, North and South as signifiers here…) And I thought the ANC was treading across some hazardous ground – I was absolutely vindicated – and that Western liberal democracy was a fine system, a view I still hold, while now acknowledging a range of issues I hadn’t considered back then.

The latter issue came into focus during the presidency of George W. Bush, the so-called War on Terror and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Bush was an object of hatred and derision on the “left” long before he took office, quite unfairly in my opinion. (It’s well to recall that Bush was quite sympathetic to immigration reform in a way that Trump would abhor…) The 9/11 attacks centred the challenge of Islamist terrorism.

For those on the “left” who were invested in democracy, secularism, gender equality, gay rights and so on, a regime like the Taliban embodied just about everything they deemed offensive. Bush’s push to “drain the swamp” and to “export democracy” proved enormously divisive – cutting across ideological binaries. Tony Blair, Labour prime minister of the UK (at the time seen as a harbinger of an innovative form of cool, “left-wing” politics that would appeal to a new generation), cooperated closely with the US on these endeavours. Some veteran “left-wing” voices, such as the late Christopher Hitchens, were highly supportive – while his “right-wing” brother Peter was opposed.

And surely one could despise Bush and even the US while appreciating that a totalising, theocratic mode of politics posed a profound ideological threat to everything democrats valued? But in the event, this showed some surprising alignments. Complexities and contradictions flowed from the wars. Lifelong “left-wingers” who’d steadfastly supported the exiled Iraqi opposition turned on their erstwhile comrades – actual Iraqis who’d fled Saddam Hussein’s regime – when they saw the chance of liberation in Bush’s doctrine. There are those who side with the Palestinians in their quest for statehood but avoid questions about the nature of that proposed state and the society it would preside over. And so on. Nick Cohen, another British “left-wing” journalist, addressed this is in his 2007 book What’s Left

Countering fascism

For Cohen, the “left” had always been about making clear moral distinctions, and in a political sense, its defining feature was that it was always committed to countering fascism. (Here I’d diverge somewhat, since I think fascism doesn’t really exist anymore, but no matter.) It struck him at the time of the 2003 invasion that the opposition represented the primacy of hatred of the US over support for a democratic Iraq, and the protest movement, a fusion of the “hard left” and “hard right”. Fascism, appropriately oriented, became an ally. When he argued that those advocating a course that would keep Hussein in power might wish to speak to those Iraqis – often themselves of the “left” – who had been subjected to his regime’s ministrations, he was not only denounced for his political views, but also on the basis of his perceived ethnicity – although, despite his name, he was not actually Jewish. (Note that by the writing of his book he acknowledged just how poorly the post-war occupation and reconstruction had been managed.)

“Where people stand on the political spectrum says nothing about their visceral beliefs,” he wrote. And perhaps also not a great deal about their policy positions. This is applicable to South Africa today.

Despite all of this, I do feel that “left” and “right” have some residual analytical value. Limited, to be sure, but something that provides a sense of orientation to political identities – the spectrum from communists to Nazis, in other words. My own sense is that this runs from complete economic and social control in the interests of a class-based frame of reference through to one of complete economic and social control in the interest of a racial order. (Ideologically, I think the EFF inclines very clearly to the left here; MK also, although somewhat more ambivalently. Though by all means, I’m open to correction.)  In between are various permutations; understand this with all the ambiguity and messiness that it implies, and how some groups would simply not fit into this scheme. Try quadrants perhaps?

Davis mentions populists adopting a “grab bag” of policies. Is this meant to be disapproving? My view is that this is now common, both among institutions and for each of us individually. When it comes to dealing with specific issues, surely it makes sense to draw from whatever solution seems appropriate, rather than what is ideologically prescribed.


For what it’s worth, I’m in favour of constitutionalism, devolved governance, secure property rights, legal and regulated firearm ownership, same-sex marriage, and expansive latitude for the free exercise of speech and religion, even if this offends someone else, maybe even myself. The state should be secular, but religious observance is a part of society and should be an unremarkable feature of the public square. I’m a fan of market economics and private enterprise. I also think a well-executed industrial policy can be a boon to a country.

State welfare support is a pragmatic necessity – my own inclination is to be quite generous here – but needs to be underwritten by a robust, growing economy; wage-earning employment is invariably better than welfare grants. Environmental protection is important, though I tend to be sceptical of totalising and apocalyptic claims – at the very least, I want to see the evidence. (Child messiahs who want you to panic should be avoided.) While I am in favour of a relatively open immigration regime, I think borders should be secured. I’m not opposed to state-owned companies, but don’t have much faith in the South African state to run them. And if we are to have a military, it must be properly equipped and combat capable. Not sure if I’m “left” or “right”, or maybe just a grab bag… I’m happy to be a grab bag.

And as I pointed out above, who counts as “left-wing” and. even more so, “right-wing” is a grab bag of its own.

In agreement

I am, however, in agreement with Davis in her concern for the constitutional order of the country. I fear that this is rather more severe than many of us recognise. But this is a matter of a threat to constitutionalism, not a “right-wing” or a “left-wing” matter. Understand it as such and understand that extremists can come at it from all directions; the severity of a threat is not lessened simply because in an ideal world we might have sympathy for the broad worldview of those doing the threatening.

As Cohen said:

There … needs to be a clean break with totalitarianism: both totalitarian regimes abroad and the totalitarian left – if it is still a left – at home. It is incredible that this point needs to be reiterated after the twentieth century; astonishing that we need to go through all that again. I hope I have shown that we do and that the worst traditions of the liberal-left are flourishing while the best are rusting from underuse. In part, the confusion is brought by confusion about religion. As religious beliefs are deeply held and religious culture produces much of value, many liberal-minded people are wary about having arguments with the religious. They have forgotten what the men and women of the Enlightenment knew. All faiths in their extreme form carry the possibility of tyranny because they place the revealed word of whatever god or gods they happen to worship above the democratic will of electorates.

Cohen was of course speaking of the “left”, but this is equally applicable to the democratic, constitutionalist “right”, and a lot more besides. All faiths, all cultures, all political traditions carry the potential for fanaticism and the capacity to destroy institutions. So, too, incidentally, does prostrating oneself without question before the principle of a democratic majority. As in so much of the human experience, each of these brings with it a dark underside.

Indeed, as the French Assemblies of the late 18th century illustrate, as the “left” radicalised, the “right” side of the hall became ever more sparsely populated.

[Image: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay]

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Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.