[DEBATE] : (Fwd) Hudis reportback on SA anti-capitalism
pbond at mail.ngo.za
Wed May 16 17:48:51 BST 2007
NEWS & LETTERS, April - May 2007
Anti-capitalist struggles in the 'new' South Africa
by Peter Hudis
A decade and a half after the end of apartheid, South Africa remains
caught in an assortment of contradictions--foremost of which is growing
friction between the government of Thabo Mbeki and the rise of new
freedom struggles, especially in the impoverished townships (where seven
million live). These and other struggles are posing the issue that is on
the mind of humanity today--is there an alternative to capitalism?
An indication of the political battles likely to intensify in coming
months showed itself on March 8, when Zwelinzima Vavi, leader of the
Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), indicated that it might
not endorse the African National Congress (ANC) in the 2009 general
elections unless it delivers “concrete results" to workers. Despite
Vavi’s criticism of the ANC, neither he nor COSATU is trying to break up
its "tripartite alliance" with the ANC and South African Communist Party
(SACP), which has ruled the country since 1994. Vavi is instead trying
to defuse what he calls "massive anger" from workers by pressuring the
ANC to "identify individuals who should be part of the new ANC
leadership"--such as Jacob Zuma, former ANC deputy president.
COSATU and the SACP have embraced Zuma as a "left alternative" to
Mbeki’s pro-business policies, even though Zuma is a conservative who
has engaged in shady business deals and recently stood trial for raping
a woman. Though Zuma was acquitted of the rape charge, his effort to
turn the woman he assaulted into a villain instead of the victim marked
one of the most shameful episodes in post-apartheid South Africa. Yet
COSATU and SACP leaders, entranced by being at the center of state power
for 12 years, view support for Zuma as a way to maintain their hold on
the ANC while mildly distancing themselves from some of its increasingly
The extent of mass unrest in South Africa today was reflected just days
before Vavi’s speech, when hundreds of residents of Khutsong township,
not far from Johannesburg, barricaded streets with burning tires and
fought police over efforts to incorporate it into North West province.
Protests have raged in Khutsong for a year over the re-incorporation
plan, as residents see it is a ploy by the government to undermine the
delivery of water, electricity, and housing. The struggles in Khutsong
are part of a growing movement in townships around the country, where
living conditions have barely improved, if at all, since 1994.
IN THE HISTORIC MIRROR
The continent that has experienced the most mass upheaval in recent
years is Latin America, as seen by events in Bolivia, Argentina,
Ecuador, and Venezuela. At the same time, many questions facing the
movements in Latin America are being grappled with by activists in South
Africa--such as whether or not to seize state power; the relation
between spontaneity, consciousness, and organization; and the dialectic
of class, race, and gender. In some respects the movements in South
Africa are posing these questions even more sharply, since the pitfalls
of tying mass self-activity to the exigencies of "popular" regimes is
nowhere more evident than in South Africa itself.
South Africa had the richest mass movement on earth in the 1970s and
1980s. In the mid-1980s it was on the verge of mass insurrection. Yet
unlike the opposition movements of the time in East Europe and the West,
its struggles did not move away from Marxism. The movement's depth,
along with the impact of an economic crisis spurred by the collapse of
commodity prices and the isolation of the regime, convinced South
Africa’s rulers by 1990 that it had no choice but to strike a bargain
with part of the opposition.
The negotiations of 1991-94 that brought the "tripartite alliance" of
the ANC, COSATU, and SACP to power led to an agreement that the white
rulers will transfer political power into the hands of the Black
majority while keeping its economic power and privileges intact. It led
to one of the most rapid demobilizations of a mass movement in history,
as former activists went over to the politics of accommodation. The
period 1994-99 was summed up in a phrase often heard today--"La Lutta
Discontinua" ("The struggle stops").
The end of apartheid marked a victory in ending formal racial
discrimination, creating a parliamentary democracy with one of the most
progressive constitutions on earth, and allowing some Blacks to enter
the political and even economic mainstream. These gains explain why the
ANC still enjoys overwhelming electoral support from the Black populace.
However that does not change the fact that Mandela and then Mbeki
committed South Africa to the "Washington Consensus" of neo-liberal
economic restructuring, IMF-imposed structural adjustment programs, and
all the economic and social disasters that come with it.
CRIPPLED BY CAPITALISM
Unemployment in South Africa now stands at 42%. Much of the populace has
never had a job. The gap between rich and poor has never been greater.
There are 1.7 million more in poverty today than in 1994, and South
Africa now has the most unequal income differentiation of any country on
earth. The white minority is making out like bandits while a small but
increasingly dominant Black bourgeoisie rakes in billions under the
slogan (as Zuma put it), "I didn’t spend all those years fighting
apartheid in order to remain poor."
South Africa’s economy grew 4% last year, but employment growth was
1%--barely enough to provide jobs for new entrants to the work force,
let alone put a dent in those already unemployed. In 2006, 140,000 jobs
were terminated in the transport, mining, and electricity industries.
Since 1996 the economy has been led by the Growth, Employment and
Redistribution (GEAR) program. It mandates export-led growth, low wage
increases, and limited government spending on health, education, and
sanitation. GEAR was written by a team of economists, only one of whom
was a Black South African, and was adopted with no input from the
populace. It marked the shift of the ANC from a post-liberation movement
to an enforcer of "free market" restructuring. As a result, annual wage
increases have decreased steadily since 1996, while labor productivity
has gone up from 3.2% to 6.3% ("Shifting Currents in South Africa,"
Centre for Civil Society, Durban, 2006).
The notion that there is no alternative to embracing the logic of
capital has thwarted even the basic goals of the anti-apartheid
struggle. Trevor Ngwane writes, "The new South Africa has failed to
overcome the geography of apartheid...The Black working class is to be
found in the old apartheid ghettos while whites live in their suburbs.
Some Black middle class people have moved into the suburbs leaving their
working class folk behind. New ghettos have emerged in the form of
informal settlements...The post-apartheid racial and class
reconfiguration of space seems to have made matters worse not better"
(THE ACCUMULATION OF CAPITAL IN SOUTH AFRICA, edited by Patrick Bond, p.
Meanwhile, South Africa’s neo-liberal regime--which is expanding its
economic, political and military power in parts of Africa to the point
that a major debate in South Africa is whether to label it an
"imperialist" or "sub-imperialist" power--is given a left cover by the
SACP, which controls 73 of the ANC’s 279 seats in parliament. The
government finds itself in the odd position of considering itself Bush’s
best friend in Africa at the same time as claiming adherence to "a left
progressive tradition" rooted in workers’ struggles.
NEW STRUGGLES IN TOWNSHIPS
Although the "great reconciliation" of 1994 led to an enormous
demobilization of mass activity, this did not spell the end of mass
struggles. New social movements began to arise in 1999. They are largely
rooted in township struggles that oppose the commodification of water,
electricity and land, and mobilize against housing evictions, the lack
of social services, and environmental devastation.
These include the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, which arose out
of struggles against electricity cutoffs and protests against prepaid
water meters and evictions. The Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign was
formed by residents of communities opposing forced evictions for
nonpayment of services. The Ethekweni Social Forum also fights water and
electricity cutoff and opposes efforts to evict people from shack
settlements in preparation for the 2010 World Cup.
The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance has protested
pollution from Island View Storage, the largest chemical shortage
facility in Africa--home to Shell Chemicals and others. It has also
protested oil spills in Durban harbor and explosions at oil refineries
within walking distance of poor communities. Earthlife Africa is
opposing the construction of a Pebble Bed Modular Reactor by Eskom, at
Koeberg. It opposes making South Africa a testing ground for new nuclear
The Treatment Action Campaign is an HIV/AIDS group that calls for
anti-retrovirals to be made available by the public health
service--which the government has dragged its feet on for years because
of its absurd claim that HIV does not cause AIDS. It has earned the
hostility of the government by taking it to court for failing to set out
an adequate program to dispense anti-retrovirals.
Movements have also emerged against land evictions. South Africa
produces 90% of the world’s platinum. Mining companies have taken over
land in Bushveld Mineral Complex, which stretches from North West
Province across Limpopo to Mpumalanga. Two of the world’s largest mining
companies--Anglo Platinum and Impala Platinum--have driven tens of
thousands off the land, herding them into hastily built townships with
no water or electricity. The companies plan to relocate an additional
10,000 in Mapela.
Efforts to form new kinds of unions based on casual and temporary
workers have also emerged, such as Sikhula Sonke (We Grow Together). It
is "a social movement labor union." It was started in the Western Cape
by women employed as seasonal farm laborers in response to the failure
of traditional unions to deal with casual workers (permanent workers
consist of 92% of COSATU’s membership). Sikhula Sonke deals not only
with workplace issues but also opposes evictions, fights for access to
HIV/AIDS drugs, and calls for an end to school fees. Like many of the
new social movements, it targets not just conditions in the workplace
but also the spaces of intersection between work and everyday life.
A key group is the Anti-Privatization Forum, formed in 2000 in
Johannesburg by activists in the Municipal Workers’ Union and the
National Union of Health and Allied Workers Union. A debate has occurred
in it over where to orientate itself to the spontaneous uprising in
townships such as Khutsong or to COSATU’s unions. One activist in it
argues, "Unlike the 1970s and 1980s, the neo-liberal restructuring of
the workplace has led to the weakening of employed and organized
workers...the technological changes and the restructuring of the
workplace have led to an increase in the number of casuals and
subcontracted work...COSATU trade unions have not been able to respond
creatively to this neo-liberal attack on workers" (THE STRUGGLE
CONTINUES, August 2006).
A crucial organization in the townships is Abahlali BaseMjondolo, the
largest movement of the poor in South Africa. It works for shack
dwellers and other poor people, like street traders. It grew out of a
protest at the Kennedy Road settlement in Durban in 2005, when land long
promised for housing was turned over to build a brick factory. Last year
it organized a boycott of elections for local councilors on the grounds
that "there is a difference between ‘party politics’ and ‘people’s
politics’ and while party politics is often about the politics of
ambition and control, people’s politics can be about creating democracy
where people live" (YZWI LABAMPOFU, December 2006).
Its president, S’bu Zikonde, stated: "We know that our country is rich
and we know exactly what makes it rich. We know that we were once
regarded as short minded and now we insist that we will think and speak
and act for ourselves. We are poor in life but not in mind. Let the time
of respect for the lives and experience and intelligence of the poor begin."
THE BATTLE OF IDEAS
What is most striking about the struggles in South Africa is how
seriously many take ideas of liberation. Marx, Luxemburg, Lenin, Biko
and Fanon are not distant figures. Their IDEAS are seen as integral to
grasping and transforming the present situation. This was evident at a
conference on "State, Party, and Popular Power" that I participated in
from March 1-3 in Capetown, sponsored by the International Labor
Resource and Information Group and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. It was
attended by 200 and brought together township dwellers, social movement
activists, and intellectuals from various left tendencies.
It was striking to see that Rosa Luxemburg is avidly read by many
activists and intellectuals in South Africa. Many see that her ideas
speak directly to questions being debated in the streets and
universities--such as the limits of bourgeois parliamentarism; the
relation between reform and revolution; the dialectic of spontaneity,
consciousness and organization; and the need for socialist democracy in
This level of discourse is tied to the fact that South Africa, unlike
much of the Third World, has a developed bourgeois democracy. As a
result, the Marxist Left does not feel the need to work alongside
bourgeois democrats to secure basic democratic rights. This enables the
critique of capitalism--and the ideas of MARX--to come to the fore.
Marxism may be in crisis, but it isn’t dead in South Africa. Many
realize that no movement can make meaningful progress outside of a
Marxian theoretical framework.
This was reflected in Capetown in debates over whether or not to "seize"
state power. Some said, "We have to take the power of the state away
from capital." Others said the idea of "seizing" state power should be
dispensed with, since it has led to one betrayal after another. An
activist said, "too often the state becomes the terminus of the struggle
instead of what we are fighting for." Many applauded the idea of
SMASHING state power and returning to Marx’s concept (from his CRITIQUE
OF THE GOTHA PROGRAM) of "converting the state from an organ
superimposed on society into one completely subordinated to it."
There was also discussion of how Luxemburg’s concept of socialist
democracy AFTER a social revolution differs from the SACP’s defense of
parliamentary democracy as a cover for supporting a neo-liberal
capitalist agenda. Molefi Ndlovu stated, "Yes, we got democracy after
1994, but neo-liberalism is not simply a result of the rise of a new
Black bourgeoisie. Instead, it is a modification of a globalized
capitalist project. The ‘democratic’ state is the manager of this
capitalist formation and is inseparable from it."
There was also much discussion of women. Shereen Essof spoke of Raya
Dunayevskaya’s study of Luxemburg as "both revolutionary and feminist"
in light of tensions in the Left between gender issues and socialist
transformation. Another women said, "we have suffered from the lack of a
comprehensive theory that explains how struggles play out in terms of
the connection between race, class and gender. We in the anti-Stalinist
Left have also been weighted down by a two-stage theory--the idea that
women’s emancipation comes after or is secondary to the class struggle."
It was refreshing to attend a conference where theory was neither
dismissed nor treated as an academic enclave. This is due to the legacy
of freedom struggles in South Africa, especially of Biko and the Black
consciousness movement, which posed ideas and consciousness as a force
of revolution. As one activist noted, "The entire social imagination of
the oppressed" must be elucidated in the effort to transform society.
This is a crucial insight, so long as it is coupled with recognition
that theory must also reach to PHILOSOPHY--to the philosophy of absolute
negativity that defined Marx’s transformation of Hegel's revolution in
philosophy into a philosophy of revolution. Needed today is a philosophy
that not only reflects the creative mind of the oppressed but which
spells out for our day MARX'S concept of a totally new, human society
that transcends capitalism. We cannot do without the creative mind of
Marx, his DISTINCTIVE concept of socialism, infused as it was by the
dialectic of absolute negativity as new beginning. There can be no
better way to solidarize with the ongoing South African struggles than
to develop this anew for our day.
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