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South African splinters: From `elite transition' to `small-a alliances'
[The following article first appeared in AfricaFile's At Issue Ezine, vol. 12 (May-October 2010), edited by John S. Saul, which examines the development of the southern African liberation movement-led countries. It has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission.]
By Patrick Bond
October 2010 -- Since the freeing of Nelson Mandela in February 1990, the South African liberation struggle has witnessed the truncation, hijacking and reversal of its fabled "second stage": the National Democratic Revolution (NDR), which aims to transform the state and address class inequality. Instead, the state has become an even more blatant vehicle for crony capitalism and merely tokenistic welfarism than under the Afrikaners' Nationalist Party rule. By mid-2010, the contradictions had become unbearable, and a spate of labour unrest suddenly brought home the obvious point: Alliance politics must urgently restructure – as must national socio-economic policies – or face an historic breaking point.
The whole society began splintering just a few weeks after the World Cup provided a show of nation-building, broad-based excitement and unity. But the structural cracks had been widening during a long era of neoliberalism, for as the University of Cape Town's SA Labour and Development Research Unit recently reported, "income inequality increased between 1993 and 2008" (from a 0.66 Gini coefficient to 0.70) as South Africa raced ahead of Brazil to become the world's leader among major countries. The income of the average black (African) person actually fell as a percentage of the average white's from 1995 (13.5 percent) to 2008 (13 percent), and "poverty in urban areas has increased" (Leibbrandt et al, 2010).
|The structural cracks had been widening during a long era of neoliberalism ... How could a democratic government actually amplify apartheid-era race-class inequality?|
How could a democratic government actually amplify apartheid-era race-class inequality? It's stunning, but Mandela (1994–99) and his successor Thabo Mbeki (1999–2008), long-serving former Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, former Trade Minister Alec Erwin, former Reserve Bank Governor Tito Mboweni and current President Jacob Zuma, deserve recognition for constructing a "class apartheid" system that not even the most extreme pessimist would have predicted when the African National Congress (ANC) was unbanned.
According to the University of Cape Town researchers, inequality is "due both to rising unemployment and rising earnings inequality" which is in turn partly due to labour broking, i.e., the outsourcing of formerly secure employment at much lower wages with no benefits to around half a million workers. Yet, in his 2010 State of the Nation speech and more recently in the midst of a strike in which he threatened to fire the entire civil service, Zuma displayed "no appreciation of the full extent of the massive crisis of unemployment, poverty and inequality," according to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).
Indeed the two loudest anti-labour voices in Zuma's cabinet – Defense Minister Lindiwe Sisulu and Public Service Minister Richard Baloyi – provided a burst of neoliberal-nationalist political rhetoric and strident discord so loud, in late August, that it drowned even the sweet memory of World Cup vuvuzelas a few weeks earlier. Zuma's Treasury was most to blame, for refusing to spend an extra $700 million per year to quickly halt the public sector strike.
For those supportive of more genuine liberation traditions, the good news amidst the political and socio-economic rancour is that the centre of power, and associated neoliberal policies, may not hold. The extreme political divisions and ideological distortions associated with the ruling party's "big-A Alliance" with labour and the Communist Party may not permit the ANC's big tent to stay open to all, no matter Zuma's personal charisma and good-times inclusiveness. It may well be necessary, finally, to construct a "small-a alliance" – as John Saul (2005) named the idea – of organized workers, poor people, NGOs, environmentalists and other organized progressives.
The reason is simple: the neoliberal ruling clique is making the rich richer and the poor poorer. As one of the most prescient observers of South African politics, William Gumede, pointed out just after the 2007 ANC leadership putsch of Thabo Mbeki at the Polokwane congress, "For all the doubts that hang over Zuma's character, many argue that he offers a critical conduit for the poor's grievances. These people are going to be disappointed."
Instead the personal has become political. Asked in early September 2010 about the lucrative and extremely dubious deal that global steelmaker ArcelorMittal (formerly SA's state-owned Iscor) cut with a consortium (including his son, Duduzane), as well as his nephew Khulubuse's role in hotly-contested oil prospecting claims in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zuma replied, "Nobody has said, here is corruption. I think for people to think that if you are a Zuma you can't do business is a very funny thing, I tell you."
Not everyone is amused, and communist youth leader David Masondo coined a frank rebuttal, speaking of "ZEE" – Zuma Economic Empowerment. For Masondo, writing in City Press newspaper September 5, 2010), "ZEE is not only an assault on the Young Communist League and South African Communist Party resolutions – which called for the nationalisation of monopoly industries – it amounts to a burial of the Freedom Charter. Only a few can be misled to believe that there is no link between Zuma's rise to the presidency and his family's rise to riches."
But this isn't only about a family of fat-cats, in which the first B, "broad," in Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (promised as the antidote to Mbeki's elite-oriented Black Economic Empowerment), has apparently been replaced with a new B: belt-size (given the vast girth of several Zuma beneficiaries). More substantially, we now find at war the three main ruling-party power blocs: first, the group bent on personal accumulation projects willing to associate (mostly privately) with ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema's ascendant crew; second, those of the centre-left intent on gaining more influence on policy decisions (albeit with virtually nothing to show for their efforts to date); and third, the president's KwaZulu-Natal regional allies, who are now under extreme stress because of corruption probes that seemed to have emanated from Zuma's office. The ANC's late-September National General Council in Durban will feature such a bloody battle that in trying to keep peace, Zuma decided to withdraw from the United Nation's annual (this time decennial) summit-celebration of the world's failure to keep pace with the mainly meaningless Millennium Development Goals. Zuma's retreat to Durban is significant because in August, he was – apparently without irony – named by Ban Ki-moon to co-chair a UN commission on world sustainability.
The roots of the cracks
We have to go back at least to the early 1990s to explain the degeneration. The secretly negotiated terms of the elite transition provided benefits mainly for a few hundred at the top of the three divergent interest groups – white Afrikaners, white English-speaking business and the liberation movement – within the framework of neoliberalism. Increasingly shifting from white to black allies in South Africa, the "international community" – the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, other global-scale bankers, Northern "donor" governments and associated think tanks – together ensured that post-apartheid policies would deepen the country's vulnerability and destroy any residual self-reliance.
|The elite transition provided benefits mainly for a few hundred at the top of the three divergent interest groups – white Afrikaners, white English-speaking business and the liberation movement.|
This entailed several economic sabotage techniques: agreeing to repay illegitimate apartheid-era debt in part by taking on an unnecessary IMF loan of $750 million (1993), dropping trade tariffs even beyond what the World Trade Organisation required (1994), liberalizing exchange controls (1995) and then permitting the delisting of the largest SA firms (Anglo, DeBeers, Old Mutual, SABMiller, Investec, Mondi, etc) from the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (1999–2001), raising the foreign debt from $25 billion in 1994 to $85 billion today, adopting a bound-to-fail neoliberal economic policy and insulating the Reserve Bank from democracy so as to raise interest rates to SA's highest real levels ever (late 1990s), privatizing state assets destructively, and lowering primary corporate taxes from 48% in 1994 to less than 30% at present.
Many of us who anticipated opportunities for "structural reforms" (Saul, 2001) in the 1994 Reconstruction and Development Programme were foiled. Personally, of 15 policy papers I was asked to draft or edit from 1994–2000 in a dozen ministries (which I believe to be a record of repeated reformist mistakes worse than anyone else's in post-apartheid government), not one truly converted the era's developmentalist rhetoric into actual progressive change. Indeed the type-left shift-right process I participated in convinced me by 2000 that an NDR process within the government and even the Alliance was futile. A better perspective was that of the emerging independent left (e.g. Marais, 2000; Alexander, 2002; Hart, 2002; Desai, 2002; Bell and Ntsebeza, 2003; Bond, 2006; Ntsebeza and Hall, 2007; Legassick, 2007; Maharaj, Desai and Bond, 2010), which soon concluded that the elite transition to a failing neoliberalism required ever more desperate nationalist rhetoric to disguise ever more unpatriotic economic practices and ever more destructive national social and environmental policies.
One crucial problem during the entire post-apartheid period was labour's "corporatist" strategy, or what Carolyn Bassett and Marlea Clarke (2000) called the "class snuggle," that for a while replaced class struggle. This was especially evident in the National Economic Development and Labour Council, and in sites such as the Seattle World Trade Organisation summit in 1999 when Cosatu leaders found themselves in the "Green Room" with leading neoliberals like Erwin negotiating the next trade deal, instead of with the youth and environmentalists blocking the entrance.
|One crucial problem during the entire post-apartheid period was labour's "corporatist" strategy ... the "class snuggle," that for a while replaced class struggle.|
However, with class snuggle's main proponent (textile union leader Ebrahim Patel) chosen by Zuma to head what soon became an impotent new economic development ministry in 2009, more militancy soon emerged in Cosatu, as witnessed in highly successful strikes or strike threats by transport and electricity workers in parastatals before and during the World Cup, and in the subsequent fight for wage and housing allowance increases against a state determined to draw the line at 7% and US$97, not at the 8.6% and $140 demanded. (The potential settlement, to be agreed upon by the end of September, is 7.5% and $110.)
It was inevitable, this wedge between nationalists and proletarians. Tracing backwards to the 1980s and early 1990s, the old "Mass Democratic Movement" carried such enormous potential that its distraction into the creation of what Neville Alexander (2002) describes as an "ordinary country" was only temporary. In mid-2010, it did appear to be, rather, an extraordinary society, one whose the ruling crew had shifted in the region of $5 billion of state funding away from social needs and into a surreal soccer tournament – with unemployment having skyrocketed by 1.1 million over the prior year and a half, rising from 26.7% of the workforce to 32.8%.
This wasn't a function merely of "the world crisis," but of the way the local economy had been mismanaged, with fake growth in the 2000s – reaching 5% per annum for a few years – based on real estate speculation, construction mainly of white elephant infrastructure, consumer credit and exports of base metals. It necessarily crashed of its own account, not only because of declining world materials demand and the 50% fall in world stock market prices (although those contributed), with the consequent outflow of portfolio capital.
|The local economy had been mismanaged, with fake growth in the 2000s ... based on real estate speculation, construction mainly of white elephant infrastructure, consumer credit and exports of base metals.|
The supposed economic boost from the World Cup meant that, though a formal "recovery" was underway, nearly a fifth of those retrenchments were still taking place during the first half of 2010, as GDP increased (at a 3% annual rate). Blame for the tens of thousands of new job losses was not only due to the end of stadium building in nine of the country's major cities, but also to an ongoing shift away from an economy based on manufacturing employment in which unions won a variety of perks and a living wage, to one characterized by even more extreme labour casualisation.
(This was a phenomenon that Zuma and his labour team had vowed to Cosatu allies they would end: "labour broking." Not only did they not end it, but the most globally-embarrassing example of worker militancy, the Stallion Security workers wildcat strike during the first week of the World Cup, affecting half the stadiums, occurred because of abuse associated with outsourced work. And Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan's first budget speech, in February, threatened Cosatu with even more pressure in the form of subminimum wages paid by corporations to young workers through a forthcoming state subsidy scheme.)
The other major public infrastructure under construction – a few big dams, the Medupi power plant (whose electricity would be disproportionately channeled to large mining/smelting operations), a huge boondoggle industrial project featuring an unnecessary $8 billion heavy-petroleum refinery (Coega), a new Durban-Johannesburg oil pipeline, some road upgrades, and the Johannesburg fast train for elite customers – received occasional praise from ANC ideologues (e.g. Alan Hirsch, 2006) for conjoining social-democratic and industrialist potentials associated with a "developmental state." But this was merely dishonest posturing, given the underdevelopmental nature of so much of the state spending, such as the world's cheapest electricity gift to BHP Billiton and Anglo American Corporation ($0.015/kWh, compared to prices three times that high for most businesses and seven times that high for residents).
The war on poverty and the poor
Similarly, a package of minor interventions aimed at bandaging the poverty rift became, under Mbeki in early 2008, a so-called "War on Poverty" (WoP – for more see Maharaj, Desai and Bond 2010). Now another bandaid, the "self-help approach", constitutes one of the Zuma government's many continuities with Mbeki's neo-liberalism – with, the SABC reports, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe arguing that "the state believes such a project is the only way to fight poverty. He is of the opinion that such an approach will force people to help themselves out of poverty." And when the poor don't "help themselves"? It has become all to easy then for Motlanthe and his ilk to present the masses as simply refusing to fight dependency and as remaining stubbornly mired in their psychological hang-ups and their culture of poverty. With no amount of haranguing and coercion able to shift them away from their penury.
A classic case of "blaming the victim," of course, and there has been more from the ANC along the same lines. For example, Eastern Cape Premier Noxolo Kiviet confessed in April that "lack of coordination and integration of government services" meant that in the village of Lubala, where the WoP had been formally launched in 2008, "only 30 percent of the households surveyed received all the services needed". Yet he didn't even mention the lack of national-local resource transfers or the neoliberal character of SA social policy as structural causes calling out for structural solutions. Instead, he continued to rely on merely scattershot state services, and, no matter how bravely bureaucrat-warriors endeavoured to actually hit the enemy, such services were obviously too few and far between to genuinely defeat poverty on home turf. For example:
- the Departments of Agriculture and Rural Development assisted families with seedlings, and provided fencing "in more than 19 households";
- the Department of Water Affairs had "undertaken" to provide water and sanitation to Lubala Primary School, and to give water tanks to 15 households; and
- as for skills upgrading: "about 15 young people have been trained in areas such as First Aid, chain saw operat[ion], health and safety, personal finance and accounting."
To be sure, these quite localised insurgencies are not idealised leftist revolts such as might be characterised by mass-democratic organising and by a radical political consciousness. Indeed, they are even now called "popcorn protests," to evoke what happens when, with the application of intense heat, grains explode high into the air; then the wind or some unknowable physics formula may simply take them leftwards or rightwards (onto xenophobic terrain), up or down, with no pre-set ideological strategic landing, and no discernable pattern that would merit the description of a coherent "urban social movement." Still, what the popcorn protests showed was both that poverty is now deeply engrained in South African society and also that reactions against it, and resistance to it, will continue to emerge quite suddenly and unpredictably – in the form of toyi-toying youth, to take one example, who manoeuvre with seeming ease around the desperately outnumbered local police forces and even the SA National Defence Force.
|What the popcorn protests showed was both that poverty is now deeply engrained in South African society and also that ... resistance to it will continue to emerge quite suddenly and unpredictably.|
Amid thousands of such exemplary battles in the WoP, one was especially illustrative. Among the state's most feared symbols is an armoured vehicle, the Casspir, and on the auspicious date of 21 March 2010, Sharpeville Day, one found itself surrounded in the township of an Mpumalanga dorpie, Ogies. The SA Press Association's courageous reporter filed this story:
Captain Leonard Hlathi, spokesperson for the Mpumalanga police said the Casspir was irreparably damaged when it was "outrageously attacked" by a mob who petrol bombed it several times. The protesters apparently led the Casspir into an ambush, by leading it over an improvised spike strip to puncture its tyres. Three of the heavy vehicles' puncture-proof tyres were blown out when it drove over the spikes, that were camouflaged with branches. "Nothing working remained in the vehicle," said Hlathi. "Only the steel hull remained."
Hlathi said the protesters were targeting the 10 police members that were in the vehicle. The trapped police officers were forced to fight their way out, using live sharp point ammunition. "They had to get out of the vehicle. By that time it had been bombed several times," said Hlathi. "If they didn't fight back and if they weren't assisted by reinforcements who came to help, we would have been talking about a different matter entirely."
Hlathi said it wasn't clear how many times the vehicles, which [were] used extensively by police during unrest before the 1994 elections, were bombed. He also couldn't say how long the spikes that were used to blow out the tyres were, or what they were made of. "They do have puncture proof tyres, but the spikes were too long," said Hlathi.
One protester was injured during the violence, but Hlathi said there may have been more. "They [the protesters] carried the wounded away," he said. Sixty-one people have been arrested for public violence during service delivery protests in Mpumalanga over the long weekend. Twenty-nine of these were in Leslie near Secunda after a municipal building and other property were burnt down. Another 32 were arrested in the Ogies protest. "Several cars were pelted with stones and 20 complaints have already been registered for malicious damage to property cases." Four civilian Toyota Quantum minibus taxis, a Condo, and two bakkies were also burnt down.
The Ogies protest started on Thursday, when a march was held to hand over a memorandum to representatives of the provincial government. "It is alleged the authorities did not turn up as requested. The people went on rampage, barricading the roads with burning tyres and burning down property." – Sapa
Encountering these sorts of minefields across the country, the state had a choice: either rapidly move from the ongoing war of position (nice-sounding rhetorical speeches) to a serious war of movement against poverty, or to simply retreat. The latter course was easier, and in 2010 the WoP was relocated to the rural development ministry. Back in the Pretoria War Room, it must have appeared that the WoP was now a fully-fledged class war, unwinnable under the country's prevailing economic conditions, given the motley coalition of power brokers in the Alliance and the continuing grip of neoliberal Treasury and Reserve Bank officials. The poor were advancing relentlessly, and the WoP looked like a US-in-Vietnam or Soviets/US-in-Afghanistan story-line.
The state's forces were obviously confused and confounded. The older anti-poverty strategies were comparable to pre-1942 Maginot lines, easily broken through by a clever enemy. In this new terrain, trickle-down grants were simply not good enough to stem the broken dike. Poverty – and especially the poor themselves – fought back tirelessly, with sticks, stones and Molotov cocktails, retreating into the shack settlements and township alleyways before sallying forth for yet more outrageous attacks. Newer military techniques, such as aerial bombings or even US-style drones were either too high profile (an embarrassment when the state needed legitimation during its other war – to carry off a World Cup in the face of international elite scepticism) or simply ineffectual.
A small-a alliance?
The only good that can come from this chaos of warring nationalist factions and class conflict is a restructured political landscape. The only way that will happen, in the view of many political activists, is the formal departure from the ANC of its most oppressed subjects, from trade union proletarians to the poor lumpen-protesters, and everyone in between. But that in turn awaits either a conclusive victory or defeat in the ages-old struggle for the hearts and minds of the ANC base. That base surprised many by voting out Mbeki in December 2007, which makes more serious the threat from Malema's rambunctious Youth League on August 25 that the next national leader to be targeted is the party's General Secretary (and former mineworker leader) Gwede Mantashe, who is also the Chair of the Communist Party. And not only is party secretary (and higher education minister) Blade Nzimande feeling pressure from Malema's faction, but a near-rift between the SACP and Cosatu emerged during the recent public sector strike, given the weak support the unions were receiving. With more strike threats being made for the last third of 2010, the Alliance may well be in danger of "imploding," as a Cosatu statement expressed it in late August.
|A near-rift between the SACP and Cosatu emerged during the public sector strike, given the weak support the unions were receiving ... the Alliance may well be in danger of "imploding" ... (yet it) is likely to outlast this latest conflagration for at least a few more years.|
The Alliance has stuck together through thick and thin for two decades, and is likely to outlast this latest conflagration for at least a few more years. But, meanwhile, fearing another bout of Mbeki-style control of the airwaves, Cosatu has reemphasized its progressive values, defending media freedom and access to information, against ANC paranoia and secrecy.
The time is not yet ripe for much more. However, because the only formal political opposition not in disarray is the neoliberal Democratic Alliance – the next largest parties, Congress of the People and Inkatha, are imploding with internecine leadership wars – the most important medium-term dilemma for trade unions and genuine communists is whether a small-a alliance might be the basis of a new Workers Party. Municipal elections are scheduled for April 2011 and it is impossible that any substantive radical electoral opposition to the ANC would emerge by then. (The only political party to the ANC's left in parliament, the Independent Democrats, was consumed by the Democratic Alliance in August.) There are two overlapping independent left unifying initiatives – Amandla! magazine and the Conference for a Democratic Left – which are supporting the most logical means of outreach to the left forces in Cosatu: a nascent South African Social Forum, so far joined by forward-thinking public sector unions but, again, not likely to solidify as more than a small group prior to the Dakar meeting of the World Social Forum next February 5–11.
The situation is too fluid to predict with confidence, but the sense of disappointment on the left about Cosatu's "paradox of victory" (Buhlungu 2010) in backing not only the liberation movement in general but Zuma in particular, and "winning" (but thereby putting off necessary debates about basic policy and overall direction for some years) may yet – some time before the next national elections in 2014 – lift. The prerequisite is that labour actually does endeavour to draw the various now fragmented forces of South African socialism together so that they become a wedge for actually shattering the existing big-A Alliance once and for all. Then, it is felt, a firmly anchored political movement able to withstand any future round of tensions and even splits could form. As Gumede concluded in 2007, "The ragbag collection of groups that back Zuma ranges from socialists and trade unionists to supporters of virginity testing and the death penalty. Dashed expectations may be the catalyst for a breakup of the ANC – a breakup which is debatably overdue and can only be good for democracy."
Rebuilding a serious South African left will be a long, halting process. Along the way, extraordinary victories have already been won, such as the Treatment Action Campaign's reversal of Mbeki's AIDS policies and opening up of pharmaceutical corporate patent monopolies (Geffen 2010). And one of the coming issues of the age, climate change, will motivate a strong environmental justice movement, for South Africa will host the Kyoto Protocol Conference of the Parties global climate summit in late 2011 (Cock, 2008; Bond, 2011). As well, South Africa's impressive (but today beleaguered) feminist tradition (Hassim, 2006; Britton, Meintjes and Fish, 2008) will continue battling the resurgent patriarchy represented by Zuma at his 2006 rape trial.
On the terrain of ubiquitous community, student and labour protests that began in the late 1990s (Ballard, Habib and Valodia, 2006), the more visionary activists acknowledge that they have so far lacked capacity to educate and also to influence the direction and intensity of the uprisings (Ngwane 2010). Although the critique many independent leftists offer rings increasingly true, the post-World Cup fracturing shows how impotent radicals are, and how much effort it will take to finally organise a united labour-community front. As Cosatu's (2010) own most recent Central Executive Committee political discussion paper warned, "If we don't act decisively, we are heading rapidly in the direction of a full-blown predator state, in which a powerful, corrupt elite increasingly controls the state as a vehicle for accumulation."
|Rebuilding a serious South African left will be a long, halting process ... the post-World Cup fracturing shows how impotent radicals are, and how much effort it will take to finally organise a united labour-community front.|
But, on the other hand, as a
potential "opportunity" identified within such a scenario, the labour
leaders openly remarked that the movement "could become stronger by drawing on its militant tradition to
organise the resistance of workers; could broaden its perspective to take up
living conditions and political issues as well as wages; and could play a
central role in forging a new popular alliance, and in building a new socialist
movement in opposition to government." Brave words these latter, but a
promising foretaste of what may yet happen nonetheless.
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Ballard, R., A. Habib and I. Valodia, eds. Voices of Protest. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2006.
Bassett, C. and M. Clarke. "Class struggle or class snuggle." Southern Africa Report 15, 2 (February 2000).
Bell, T. and D. Ntsebeza. Unfinished Business. London: Verso and Cape Town: RedWorks, 2003.
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_____ . Elite Transition. London: Pluto Press and Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 2006.
Britton, H., S. Meintjes and J. Fish. Women's Activism in South Africa. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2008.
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Legassick, M. Towards Socialist Democracy. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2007.
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Maharaj, B., A. Desai and P. Bond, eds. Zuma's Own Goal. Trenton: Africa World Press, 2010.
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