THE ever-rising poverty, joblessness and homelessness in South Africa might actually weaken the Left - Cosatu and the SACP within the ANC family - rather than strengthen its influence.
The conventional wisdom among Cosatu and SACP strategists is that poverty should naturally strengthen the power of the Left.
In the current fight between Cosatu and the SACP, on the one hand, and the African nationalists and populists on the other, Cosatu and the SACP are in real danger of losing to such an extent that, by the end of the Zuma presidency, they might end up only as a lobby group within the ANC.
Rising poverty might actually strengthen populist and tribalist and narrow nationalist politics in South Africa.
One of the costs of severe mass poverty is mass alienation, mass family breakdown, mass breakdown in individual self-esteem, especially in our country where self-worth is now increasingly measured by how much money one has.
It might also cause a mass rejection of democracy. In moments of crisis, people often seek solace in tradition, tribe, identity and patriarchy.
This is frequently translated into over-assertions of "Zuluness" or 'Xhosaness".
Rising poverty in South Africa is changing society and also its politics- some populist leaders in the ANC with more developed political antennae have already exploited these changes in society. They have adopted to their platform supposedly left positions such as "nationalisation'", combining it with social conservatism and muscular-type policies.
Such a populist programme will typically include the "shoot-to-kill" and ask-questions-later policy to bring down crime.
The typical populist programme would also regularly attack "elites", whether white or black or big business.
For Cosatu leaders the dangers should be obvious. Increasing poverty and job losses will reduce their membership base.
The poor - jobless, homeless, rural peasants and the young - are now in electoral terms the overwhelming majority. With a smaller base, the trade union federation will face the danger of becoming a "labour aristocracy" - of organising only a small working class base.
The SACP is organised as an elite movement with a relatively small membership, typically trade unionists, students and those working in civil society. As more South Africans become poorer, the SACP might also become unrepresentative of the impoverished majority.
Unless the SACP and Cosatu dramatically refocus, modernise and change strategic direction, their influence may decline, rather than increase.
To adapt to the changes, Cosatu may have to start operating more as a social movement. It must now focus specifically on organising the unemployed, rural poor and youth. It will also have to play a bigger role in agitating for improved housing, better public transport and dealing with crime and consumer rights.
At the same time the SACP will have to turn itself into a mass party, with mass community, youth and rural branches.
A mass-based SACP, and a social movement Cosatu, will not only have to provide answers on economic and political issues, but also progressive answers to difficult questions that include alienation, family breakdown, a more caring male identity and the balance between tradition and democratic values.
If they don't, they might end up the biggest political losers in our changing society.