The political economy of the rise of social movements in South Africa

By Dale T. McKinley


Class struggle revisited

New resistances

Facing realities


When South Africa's first democratic elections in April 1994 resulted in an overwhelming victory for the African National Congress, there still remained a broad-based (but mistaken) expectation amongst the black majority that the new ANC state would immediately begin to pursue a more socialist—or, at the least, radically redistributive—political economy.

Besides the contextual backdrop of militant, mass-based political and socioeconomic struggles that had been waged since the mid-1980s alongside the continued radical rhetoric of the ANC itself, such an expectation was fuelled by the ANC's adoption of the Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP) as its main policy platform on which it had based its electoral campaign. With its rhetorical centrepiece being the creation of a "people-centred society", the RDP proposed to pursue growth and development through reconstruction and redistribution, sought a leading and enabling role for government in guiding a mixed economy, prioritised the meeting of basic socioeconomic needs for the poor majority and argued for a living wage as a prerequisite for achieving the required level of economic growth.1 The millions of organised workers and unemployed who had provided the ANC with both its political and organisational power looked to the RDP's promises to create millions of jobs, provide massive increases in infrastructure, meet basic social needs and redistribute large amounts of white-owned land.

It did not take long, however, for the new ANC state to make it known that the basis upon which the objectives outlined in the RDP were to be approached would be through a tightly controlled macroeconomic balance. Thus, at the same time that the RDP was being seen by ANC supporters and most black South Africans as the framework for a more radical and substantive shift in the country's political economy, the ANC government was stressing the need for fiscal discipline, export-oriented growth and decreased levels of corporate taxation.2

Importantly, then, the first two years of the "new" South Africa witnessed the ANC's gradual, even if at times contested, political and ideological acceptance of the broad framework of a globally dominant neo-liberal economic orthodoxy. This was ameliorated to some extent by a period of intense legislative activity designed to repeal apartheid-era discrimination and facilitate new social and economic opportunities for "historically disadvantaged sectors of the population.

Crucially though, the rightward ideological shift of the ANC was parallelled by the systematic dismemberment, or incorporation into the organisational framework of the ANC itself, of almost all independent and allied community organisations (historically known as "civics") in South Africa. By the mid-1990s the vast majority of those community organisations, which had been so central to the radicalisation of the anti-apartheid struggle and which had sustained the hope of millions for an anti-capitalist transformation of South African society, had been swallowed by the ANC and, to a lesser extent by its Alliance partners (the South African Communist Party [SACP] and the Congress of South African Trade Unions [COSATU]).

As a result, the political and organisational terrain for active and militant resistance to the ANC's creeping neo-liberalism and elite deal-making was contained within the ANC and its Alliance partners. In turn, this ensured (in the short term at least) that the possibilities for independent, mass-based and anti-capitalist organisation and struggle were severely curtailed. Indeed, the last thing that the newly empowered ANC leaders wanted was the rise of social movements outside of their political, organisational and ideological control.

The ANC's political decision to turn its back on previous commitments to its black majority constituency to implement more radical socioeconomic policies was institutionally codified with the formal unveiling of the overtly neo-liberal Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) macroeconomic strategy in mid-1996. GEAR committed the ANC state to: slash government spending (as a means to reduce the budget deficit), keep inflation in single digits (through high real interest rates), provide tax holidays and other incentives for corporate capital; phase out exchange controls, create a more "flexible" labour market, encourage "wage restraint" and speed up the privatisation of state assets.

Key to the future political role for, and economic impact on, the millions of workers and unemployed, however, was GEAR's choice of socio-political "vehicles" for carrying though the much anticipated transformation of South Africa's political economy. GEAR proffered that a combination of economic affirmative action (through land distribution to a new class of black commercial farmers and state assistance to emerging black industrial entrepreneurs) and new black economic empowerment initiatives through "partnerships" with corporate capital would best "deliver" the desired outcomes of economic redistribution, equity and growth as well as job creation. Just as GEAR had now rubbished any latent applicability of the RDP, so too was the oft-stated "leading" role of the ANC's historic mass base—the millions of workers and unemployed—rubbished as the vehicle for transformation of post-apartheid South Africa.

Leonard Maleokazi, a shop steward for the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union and ANC member, captured the dominant mood of that increasingly dissatisfied and restive constituency:

I thought that the ANC would deliver things that were previously denied to us. Like for instance, I thought that the health would be free. I had thought that the education would be free. Those are the things that I had in mind … People thought that first of all people would not be hungry, there would be jobs, there would be shelter, the doors of education and culture would be open … at your workplace in the townships, there was great expectations that everything is going to be great.3

Class struggle revisited

Having largely succeeded in its strategy of political/organisational envelopment and cooption of independent, mass-based and anti-capitalist movements and struggles, the ANC leadership could now more actively pursue its historic petty bourgeois class agenda. As former ANC President-General Dr. Xuma had elucidated such an agenda many decades previously, "It is of less importance to us whether capitalism is smashed or not … it is of greater importance to us that while capitalism exists, we must fight and struggle to get our full share and benefit from the system."4

Indeed, that class they aspire to join, the bourgeoisie, has defined the understanding of class power that the majority petty bourgeois leadership of the ANC has always held. Instead of seeing the radical potential of both the organisational forms and struggle praxis of the broad South African working class to forge a different type of society, the potential generated was used to gain strategic access to existing institutionalised political and economic power. This strategy was pursued regardless of the tactics adopted at different phases of the liberation struggle, including left-wing rhetoric, armed propaganda and militant mass action.

By the mid-1990s, if not before, it should have been clear to anyone paying attention that anti-capitalist class struggle, generated and led by organised workers and the poor majority, had been fundamentally rejected by the ANC as a strategy for political and socioeconomic change. Rather, the ANC's strategic path was firmly located within its earlier acceptance of a negotiated solution to a de-racialised South African capitalism.

Nowhere have the political and organisational consequences of such a strategy been more acutely realised than in relation to the political role of the ANC's Alliance partners, COSATU and the SACP. Their acceptance of an unequal political relationship within an anc-dominated Alliance has served to tie organised workers and large numbers of community activists into a false sense of ideological and strategic unity and to continuously weaken the ability of the broader working class to fully engage in anti-capitalist class struggle. In turn, this surrendering of political, and thus organisational, independence has facilitated the believability of the interlinked notions (energetically propagated by the ANC and Alliance leaders) that South Africans can "find" a "national consensus" about the economic and social path upon which the country should travel, that class struggle can be "suspended" and that the emerging contradictions can be successfully managed.5

Thus, at the same time that the ANC state moved full steam ahead with the implementation of GEAR in the mid-late 1990s, the main organised forces capable of leading a collective working-class struggle against the logic and practical effects of capitalist neo-liberalism succumbed to the exigencies of the ANC leadership's petty bourgeois politics. Rather than face the realities (i.e., that the ANC is a capitalist party, governing a capitalist state and implementing capitalist policies), and acting accordingly, COSATU and SACP leaders continued to waffle on about the need for political compromise, "flexibility" on privatisation and the necessity of seemingly never ending discussions between the ANC government and "civil society".

Not surprisingly, such subjective choices could do very little to stem the tide of objective realities that were being experienced by workers and poor communities across South Africa as a direct result of the ANC's embrace of capitalist neo-liberalism. Massive job losses were visited upon those members of the South African working class who had been fortunate enough to be employed, the "experience" being accompanied by all the attendant social and economic devastation to already poor families and communities. To make matters worse, the ANC state also implemented basic needs policies that turned such needs/services into market commodities, to be bought and sold on the basis of private ownership and the profit motive. This was facilitated by a drastic decrease in national government grants/subsidies to local municipalities and city councils and support for the development of financial instruments for privatised delivery. In turn, this forced local government to turn towards commercialisation and privatisation of basic services as a means of generating the revenue no longer provided by the national state.6

The logical result of these developments was a huge escalation in the costs of basic services and a concomitant increase in the use of cost-recovery mechanisms such as water and electricity cut-offs that necessarily hit poor people the most. So, in 1999-2000 more than 75,000 water cut-offs occurred in the Greater Cape Town area.7 During 1999, close to 20,000 houses had their electricity supplies cut off every month in Soweto. Brian Johnson, the manager of Eskom, openly boasted, "The aim is to disconnect at least 75 per cent of Soweto residents".8By the turn of the century, millions more poor South Africans had also experienced cut-offs and evictions as the result of the ANC's neo-liberal orgy.9 Similarly, the ANC state's capitalist-friendly land policies, which ensured that apartheid land ownership patterns remained virtually intact, meant that South Africa's long-suffering rural population continued to taste the bitter fruits of labour exploitation and landlessness.

It was the cumulative result of such experiences, combined with the failure of the main traditional forces of the South African working class (e.g. COSATU, SACP) as well as "civic" structures like sanco [South African National Civics Organisation ]to lead and sustain counter-mobilisations and active class resistance that eventually led to the rise of new social movements.

New resistances

At first in South Africa's main urban centres and then later in rural communities, a collection of social movements arose to challenge water and electricity cut-offs, evictions and lack of land redistribution. As Ashwin Desai has noted:

The rise of these movements based in particular communities and evincing particular, mainly defensive demands, was not merely a natural result of poverty or marginality but a direct response to state policy. The state's inability or unwillingness to be a provider of public services and the guarantor of the conditions of collective consumption has been a spark for a plethora of community movements [and] the general nature of the neo-liberal emergency concentrates and aims these demands towards the state … activity has been motivated by social actors spawned by the new conditions of accumulation that lie outside of the ambit of the trade union movement and its style of organising. What distinguishes these community movements from political parties, pressure groups and ngos is mass mobilisation as the prime source of social sanction.10

The rapid growth of social movements and their increasingly militant opposition to the policies of the anc-run state during the first two years of the new century soon led to a rupture between those organisations/movements opposed to the ANC state's political trajectory and economic policies and those that chose continued (even if at times critical) loyalty to the ANC "line". This was best exemplified in the run-up to, and during, the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD—August 2002), which experienced a decisive split between the two "camps"—the former gathering together under the rubric of the Social Movements Indaba (SMI) and the latter collectively grouped under the Civil Society (People's) Forum. The most visible results of this developing fault line were the dual Alex-to-Sandton marches of the WSSD, with the march by the SMI and allied formations such as the Landless People's Movement attracting 25,000 people onto the streets and the anc-backed forum march attracting fewer than 5000.11

This fault line represents nothing less than a clear ideological and organisational divide amongst historically progressive forces in South Africa. The bulk of the new social movements represent those that still believe in principled internationalism and the possibility of a socialist future and who pursue an independent, mass-based mobilisation and struggle as the only meaningful and realistic option for resisting global neo-liberalism and forging an ideological and organisational alternative to the capitalist ANC.12 On the other side stand the "traditional" progressive forces in South Africa, represented in the main by the various leaderships of COSATU, SACP, sanco and sangoco [South African National Non-Governmental Organisation]. While employing socialist rhetoric and claiming organisational independence, they have critically accepted the ANC state's capitalist developmentalism, lost what confidence they did have in the "leading role" of the broad working class (both domestically and internationally) and chosen institutional privilege and access rationalised by reference to historic Alliance loyalties and the "realities" of global capitalism.

The response of the ANC state to the emergence and activities of the new social movements was to embark on a political propaganda campaign that sought to portray these movements and their activists as "criminals" and "anarchists". When this seemed to have little effect on the activities and growth of the social movements, the ANC leaders chose to use the state's repressive apparatus to launch a coordinated "law and order" crackdown. This culminated in physical assaults on, and arrests and imprisonment of, hundreds of social movement activists and community members across the country before, during and after the WSSD.13

When COSATU's affiliated unions, energetically supported by several social movements, embarked on an anti-privatisation strike soon after the WSSD (despite the Alliance leadership's attempts to negotiate the strike away), a more systematic and high-level ANC propaganda campaign kicked into GEAR. The ANC accused all those who were actively critiquing and opposing its neo-liberal policies of being an "ultra left … waging a counter-revolutionary struggle against the ANC and our democratic government", and of siding with the "bourgeoisie and its supporters".14 Even President Mbeki weighed in by claiming publicly, "This ultra-left works to implant itself within our ranks … it hopes to capture control of our movement and transform it into an instrument for the realisation of its objectives."15 Mbeki went further: "They should also have known that the people know that, historically, those who opposed and worked to destroy the ANC, and tried to mobilise the workers to act against our movement, were the same people who sought to entrench and perpetuate their oppression".16

Such shrill and high-level ANC attacks on the social movements (and that minority in COSATU, the SACP and other allied organisations who have continued to actively resist ANC state policies) have only served to widen the political and class fault lines that now so clearly divide South African society. Both SACP and COSATU leaders were soon back to practising their own unique version of mea culpa politics, publicly distancing themselves from the social movements and disclaiming the label of "ultra-left".

Indeed, this appears to be precisely what the ANC desires, as the tactical means to pursue a strategy of divide and rule, specifically as applied to those forces on its left. This was confirmed later in 2003 when the ANC deputy secretary-general, Sankie Mthembi-Mahanyele, distinguished between "positive social formations" (i.e., those that have responded positively to the state) and those with whom "we have a bit of a problem". She added: "We are a young democracy … we need a consensus. So we cannot behave in a manner like societies [that have been] independent for many years".17

What better and more convenient way to confirm the presence and evident threat of an enemy of the state and people (i.e., the "negative/ultra-left" social movements), while affirming the ANC and the state as the guardians of real democracy and socioeconomic progress, than to let loose the vultures of insinuation, caricature and demagogy and in effect to proscribe anti-capitalist (and thus, anti-state) dissent and struggle? Unfortunately, the script has been all too familiar: manufacture an "enemy", construct its self-fulfilling destructive character and purpose and then launch a sustained assault against it under the guise of rationality, "law and order", the preservation of the nation's political heritage and identity and, of course, the "people" themselves.

Facing realities

The "story" of the rise of new social movements in South Africa is a "story" of how the ANC leadership and the state it now controls have wilfully ignored the political and socioeconomic realities wrought by their own betrayal of the broad South African working class, or as other intellectual-activists have called them, "the poors".18 Rather than own up to the fact that there are sizeable numbers of South Africans who are opposed (some more actively and militantly than others) to the very purpose and attendant consequences of the version of capitalism that they have so unapologetically pursued, they choose to wallow in the self-comforting, but ultimately self-defeating, realm of class arrogance and manufactured enemies.

While it remains too soon after 1994 to offer a longer term prognosis of the new social movements, they are not about to simply shrivel up and die. Indeed, the ANC's propaganda notwithstanding, the realities of South Africa's contemporary political economy strongly point to both a qualitative and quantitative intensification of the political activities of social movements. The daily "bread and butter" issues and struggles that these social movements are increasingly taking up are symbiotically linked to the equally intense (and resilient) politics of South African and global capitalism. In trying to come to grips with this evolving dialectic, it is, as Ashwin Desai (utilising the arguments of Slater) points out, "useful to think of the idea of politics and the political".

Politics has its own public space; it is the field of exchanges between political parties, of parliamentary and governmental affairs, of elections and representation and in general of the type of activity, practices and procedures that take place in the institutional arena of the political system. "The political … can be more effectively regarded as a type of relationship that can develop in any area of the social, irrespective of whether or not it remains within the institutional enclosure of `politics'. The political then is the living movement, the kind of `magma of conflicting wills', or antagonisms; it is mobile and ubiquitous, going beyond but also subverting the institutional settings and moorings of politics".19

The new social movements were born out of the politics of the South African transition but are "operating in the political". They have now come to "constitute the most relevant social force, post-1994, from the point of view of challenging the prevailing political economy … [and] are challenging the very distribution of power in society …"20 The collective resistance evinced by the social movements is not ephemeral; it is both necessary and never ending for as long as the barbarism of capitalism exists. The fundamental reason for their existence and the essence of their resistance is to be found in the struggle for human dignity and for life itself.


1. For a detailed exposition of the "fundamentals" of the RDP, see National Institute for Economic Policy (1986), "From the RDP to GEAR", Research Paper Series, Johannesburg, niep.

2. See Adam Habiband Vishnu Padayachee, "Economic Policy and Power Relations in South Africa's Transition to Democracy", University of Natal-Durban, School of Development Studies Research Paper, 2000.

3. As quoted in Peter Dwyer, "South Africa Under the ANC: Still Bound to the Chains of Exploitation", in Leo Zeilig, ed., Class Struggle and Resistance in Africa, Cheltenham, New Clarion Press, 2002, p. 123.

4. Quoted in Robert Fine & Dennis Davis, Beyond Apartheid, Labour and Liberation in South Africa, Johannesburg, Ravan Press, 1990, p. 52.

5. For an overview (since 1994) of the varying contents and consequences flowing from this reality, see Dale T. McKinley, "The Congress of South African Trade Unions and the Tripartite Alliance since 1994", in Tom Bramble and Franco Barchiesi, eds., Rethinking the Labour Movement in the `New' South Africa, Aldershot, Ashgate Publishers, 2003.

6. See David McDonald, "The Bell Tolls for Thee: Cost Recovery, Cut-offs, and the Affordability of Municipal Services in South Africa", Special Report, 2000.

7. David McDonald and L. smith, "Privatizing Cape Town", Occasional Papers, No. 7, Johannesburg, Municipal Services Project, 2002, p. 41.

8. Mail & Guardian, April 6-12, 2000.

9. See McDonald and smith, as well as Edward Cottle, "The Failure of Sanitation and Water Delivery and the Cholera Outbreak", in Development Update, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2003.

10. Ashwin Desai, "Witnessing the Transition", <>, 2002.

11. See "Historic United Social Movements Mass March to WSSD Sends Clear Message—The People Will Be Heard', SMI press release, September 1, 2002, <>.

12. For a more detailed exposition of this position, see John Apollis, "The Political Significance of August 31st", in Khanya, No. 2, December 2002, pp. 5-9.

13. For an extended critical analysis of the WSSD and the role of the ANC state's attempts to repress opposition to it, see Patrick Bond, "The World Summit on Sustainable Development: Critiques From the Left", presented to the University of Pretoria Department of Sociology, July 18, 2002. Also see the excellent collection of essays in Simon Kimani, ed., The Right To Dissent, Johannesburg, Freedom of Expression Institute, 2003.

14. African National Congress, "Contribution to the nec/nwc response to the Cronin interviews on the issue of neo-liberalism", Internal ANC paper by the Political Education Unit, September 2002.

15. Thabo Mbeki, "Statement of the President of the ANC, Thabo Mbeki, at the ANC Policy Conference", Kempton Park, September 20, 2002 <http:///>.

16. Thabo Mbeki, "Letter from the President: The Masses are Not Blind", ANC Today, Vol. 2, No. 40, October 4-10, 2002. <>.

17. As quoted in Marianne Merten, "The thrill of uhuru is over", Mail & GuardianI, August 15-21, 2003.

18. See Ashwin Desai, We are the Poors: Community Struggles in Post-Apartheid South Africa, New York, Monthly Review Press, 2002.

19. D. Slater, quoted in Desai, "Witnessing the Transition, <http://www/>, 2002.

20. Ashwin Desai, "Witnessing the Transition, <http://www/>, 2002.

Dr. Dale McKinley is a former chairperson of the Johannesburg Central branch of the South African Communist Party. He is a leading activist in the Anti-Privatisation Forum.