South Africa loses its ‘War on Poverty’

By Patrick Bond, Durban

August 6, 2010 – Shortly before Pretoria’s presidential power change from Thabo Mbeki to Jacob Zuma two years ago, the South African state announced its War on Poverty. What news from the front, in the immediate wake of World Cup host duties that showed observers how very pleasant life is for the rich and middle class here?

We don’t know, because the War on Poverty is one of the most clandestine operations in South African history, with status reports kept confidential by a floundering army in rapid retreat from the poor, who are estimated at half the society.

Initially the War on Poverty appeared as a major national project. Early hubris characterised the war, as happens in most, with victory claimed even before Mbeki officially launched it in his February 2008 State of the Nation speech.

Five months earlier, finance minister Trevor Manuel bragged to parliament that people in poverty “dropped steadily from 52.1% in 1999 to 47% in 2004 and to 43.2% by March this year”. (Such claims would wither under scrutiny, e.g. from a University of Cape Town research team showing virtually no change from 1993-2008.)

In August 2008, a national “war room on poverty” was established in the office of deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Akin to the “Total Strategy”, to borrow a 1970s apartheid regime phrase, the War on Poverty was meant to include both low-intensity warfare techniques – such as welfare grants (old-age pensions and disability grants of around $100/month and child grants of $30) and temporary Extended Public Works Program jobs (usually no more than six months in duration) – as well as high-profile shock-and-awe tactics, like water piping extension to black schools.

By late 2009, the new deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe unveiled a special weapon: self-help. Instead of soldier-bureaucrats doing the fighting, winning the War on Poverty would be outsourced to the masses. The Afrciab National Congress government’s BuaNews reported that Motlanthe “is of the opinion that such an approach will force people to help themselves out of poverty”.

But would the people “help themselves” (and the state) in the War on Poverty, or instead continue to harbour the enemy in their houses? Would the masses fight dependency, or instead continue nurturing a psychological thug deep within their hearts, minds and homesteads?

Frankly, not enough is known about the War on Poverty to answer these questions.

Why so little reliable information? After all, contemporary wars feature extraordinary public relations offensives. But those in Pretoria leading the War on Poverty established a secret society, as is obvious when checking the empty website or requesting research information directly from the webmaster.

British management consultant Ian Houvet, a War on Poverty mercenary who runs the site when not working for Barclays and Vodafone UK, replied to me, “I am afraid the War on Poverty web site is for government officials associated with the War on Poverty only and therefore access cannot be granted.”

The problem goes deeper than a secrecy fetish. Unlike the apartheid-era “winning hearts and minds” (WHAM) strategy, when Pretoria maintained a lasting commitment to “oil spots” and other pacification strategies during the War on Black People, there really isn’t enough action in the current War on Poverty to merit journalistic interest.

War on Poverty reporting ceased nearly entirely by 2010, aside from unreliable South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and BuaNews journalists who are hopelessly embedded among bureaucrats and politicians. So with War on Poverty off the media radar screen, the only information we have about the state’s infiltration of enemy ranks with the new self-help artillery are filtered dispatches by civil servants.

Although genuine battles by the poor against the state were raging across the country daily, the next official War on Poverty sighting was only in April 2010, when General Motlanthe returned to rally troops and inspect weaponry at Ground Zero, the Eastern Cape’s wretchedly poor Lubala village, where the War on Poverty’s first shots were fired in 2008.

There, confessed Eastern Cape Premier Noxolo Kiviet, “lack of coordination and integration of government services” meant that “only 30 per cent of the households surveyed received all the services needed”.

Those services were bravely aimed to hit the enemy hard, but were obviously too few to defeat poverty on home turf: seedlings and fencing “in more than 19 households”, water and sanitation for Lubala Primary School and water tanks for 15 households; and “about 15 young people have been trained in areas such as first aid, chainsaw operator, health and safety, personal finance and accounting”.

Useful as these incursions might be in the tiny Protected Village of Lubala, and notwithstanding SABC’s enthusiastic broadcast of such meaningless skirmishes, the rest of the country was in flames. Poverty was clearly winning the War on Poverty.

Of course in any such war, troops will be lost to friendly fire, such as seemingly ubiquitous “service delivery protests” that turn the state’s attention from attacking poverty, to attacking the poor themselves.  The poor in turn reacted by blocking roads, burning down state buildings and evicting councilors in townships ranging from small Mpumalanga dorpies in the mountainous east, to the big-city ghettoes and highways on the plains of the Western Cape.

Poverty was by now bunkered in and heavily fortified. From time to time the enemy would emerge in the form of marches by toyi-toying youth, who maneuvered with ease around desperately outnumbered local police.

Amidst thousands of such battles recorded by the police annually, one this year was illustrative. A large, heavily armed vehicle -- a “Caspir” identical to those used by the South African Defence Force during apartheid -- entered the township of Ogies in Mpumalanga province, on the auspicious date of March 21, Human Rights Day (memorialising apartheid’s fatal shooting of 69 people in their backs at Sharpeville in 1960).

The Caspir’s driver was soon surrounded on all sides by extreme poverty. According to police spokesperson Leonard Hlathi, the vehicle was “irreparably damaged” after being “outrageously attacked” in an ambush. A wire service reporter explained the tank trap: “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.”

Molotov cocktails followed. “Nothing working remained in the vehicle”, said Hlathi. “Only the steel hull remained.”

Police personnel escaped without casualty on this occasion, but did wound the enemy (with live ammunition) as they shot their way out of the trenches.

The proximate cause of this incident was familiar enough: desertion. Apparently, according to that rare media dispatch, “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.”

Back in the War Room that weekend, the War on Poverty must have appeared as a full-fledged class war, unwinnable under the country’s prevailing economic conditions given the motley coalition of power brokers in the African National Congress and the continuing vice grip of uncompromising, neoliberal treasury and Reserve Bank officials.

At the same time, one of President Jacob Zuma’s four wives refused to pay her long-suffering domestic servant even a pittance salary, suggesting how far up the hierarchy practical sabotage had emerged against the War on Poverty.

Meanwhile, structural forces continued pounding Pretoria’s War on Poverty. A million formal sector jobs were lost over the prior year, and macroeconomic “recovery” was accompanied by further job shedding. The poor were advancing relentlessly, and the War on Poverty looked as bogged down as US troops in Afghanistan.

Pretoria’s forces were obviously confused and confounded, their anti-poverty strategies, like Maginot lines, easily broken through by a clever enemy. On this shakey new terrain, trickle-down grants were simply not good enough to stem the broken dikes. Poverty – and especially the poor themselves – flooded through tirelessly, with sticks, stones and petrol bombs, retreating into the shack settlements and township alleyways before sallying forth for yet more outrageous attacks.

Finally, state strategy took a new turn. Three days after the Ogies debacle, Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform Gugile Nkwinti dropped a bombshell: the War on Poverty was relocating to his department.

Apparently the generals had decided that one of their fronts, South Africa’s towns and cities, was now too dangerous. After all, a January report of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development prepared by Cape Town academics declared that in recent years, “poverty incidence barely changed in rural areas, while it increased in urban areas”.

Thus a crucial component of the new plan is, apparently, retreat.

But a tough question must be asked: is the War on Rural Poverty’s new leader fighting fit for a counterinsurgency against peasant guerrillas? Nkwinti’s most recent audit reveals resource abuse comparable to the US Pentagon and Halliburton in Iraq: “A total of 5.9 million hectares had been redistributed since the end of apartheid but 90% of that land was not productive.”

According to Nkwinti, there is a clear reason his money is going to waste: the beneficiaries’ own inability to “continue producing effectively and optimally on the land”. The poor obviously want to remain poor.

As a result, the counteroffensive would require a new tactic: financial starvation of the desperate landless. According to a recent War on Poverty dispatch, Nkwinti’s department “failed to pay $480 million in post-settlement grants to beneficiaries of land reform with potentially damning consequences”.

Then suddenly last month, in the wake of the silent surrender on the urban front and the rural fiscal squeeze, another disaster emerged in the countryside: the colonel directing the troops apparently walked off the job. Nkwinti’s director-general, Thozi Gwanya, resigned. But in secret, like the War on Poverty itself.

Aside from War on Poverty saboteurs in an opposition party whose press release hinted about a mysterious, allegedly damning auditor general’s report on Gwanya, no one else breathed a word about this traitorous act. Days later, the alleged departure was denied, described as a “malicious” report by Nkwinti’s spokesperson. Yet within four days, Gwanya was finally acknowledged as a genuine casualty.

The battlefield carnage was now too close to home. Just as Pretoria lost its previous war, against Cubans on the outskirts of the Angolan city of Cuito Cuanavale in 1988, it was impossible to disguise the body bags of high-profile War on Poverty warriors (then it was younger white men, now older black politicians).

Two of South Africa’s supreme War on Poverty leaders, respectively, were fired and went absent without leave: Mbeki and Mlambo-Ngcuka. Motlanthe may yet get more SABC coverage, but where a fighting spirit is required – amongst generals like Nkwinti, colonels like Gwanya and especially ordinary bureaucrat grunts – it has obviously fizzled.

Pretoria’s last-gasp strategy, even if dangerously short term and lacking the bread that comes with the old Roman circus (and we know what happened to that empire), was to deploy 31 squads of imported soccer players across the country last month and simultaneously introduce millions of Chinese-made plastic trumpets (“home-grown vuvuzelas”), as a quaint and at least briefly effective distraction.

However, actually winning the War on Poverty does seem utterly impossible, given the balance of forces, the leadership, the chosen weaponry and the economic terrain upon which the battle rages. So it’s probably best for Pretoria to not even talk about this struggle any more. The War Room is best isolated within the state’s least effective ministry, and the secret dispatches can continue being left off the web. If Pretoria is lucky, no one will notice.

Then, if one scenario plays out – a quiet state surrender in the War on Poverty – history can finally begin. Initiatives that might genuinely move South Africa to a post-class apartheid society can get underway.

Service protests can shift from chaotic self-destructive and sometimes xenophobic ruptures, to a national movement of poor and working-class residents. Trade unionists, community activists, immigrants, environmentalists, feminists, gays/lesbians and all the other oppressed can finally unite.

That would mean, however, that the poor would be victorious in the War on Poverty, a scenario too ghastly for Pretoria to contemplate, but surely a better outcome than the present quagmire.

[Bond directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society in Durban and, with co-editors Brij Maharaj and Ashwin Desai, will release next month Zuma’s Own Goal: Losing SA’s War on Poverty, through Africa World Press.]

"By late 2009, the new deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe unveiled a special weapon: self-help" - This may be the first time that "self-help" has been associated directly with the war against poverty, but this kind of voluntarism has been around since Mbeki's vaunting of "vuku'zenzele" (get up and help yourself) in one of his State of the Nation speeches, perhaps a few years earlier. Vuku'zenzele these days is used primarily to refer to promoting entrepreneurship among those who at least have some resources on hand to help yourselves out of the quagmire of poverty (but clearly, in this form, it doesn't - can't - do much for those who have no resources at all). The problem with vuku'zenzele, or however we might describe existing forms of voluntarism in Mzantsi, is exactly that it is a means of the state removing the onus for poverty alleviation from itself, it is a means of denying responsibility, of washing ones' collective hands of the affair. Bond in the past, critiquing the notion of the "developmental state"-as-it-exists (I think), has accused the SA govt of "talking left while walking right". They're no longer even doing that. Umzabalazo uyaqhubekeke!