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South Africa’s faded rainbow

Despite the ANC's record landslide in April's South African general elections, there is growing domestic resistance to the party's lurch to the right.

May 1, 2004
11 min read

Every struggle has its symbols. Nelson Mandela is South Africa’s. There were competitors, but Mandela remained pre-eminent for three decades. And so did the African National Congress (ANC), although it too was sometimes overtaken. But despite being banned and having its leaders incarcerated the ANC retained its organisational coherence, gained support across the Cold War divide, worked both with foreign governments and anti-apartheid NGOs, and did enough at the armed-struggle and propaganda levels to keep its organisational colours (black, green and gold), political programme (the Freedom Charter) and history (fact and myth) alive even when rebellions were unfolding relatively autonomously.

When, after 30 years in prison, Mandela was reunited with the ANC in 1990, there was a powerful and irresistible surge of popular support for the organisation. It used this momentum to turn itself into a mass-based electoral party. The South African political edifice that had held together 300 years of accumulation through dispossession, simple robbery and institutionalised white privilege fell after four years of negotiation.

Or so it was told. While the transition from apartheid to popular democracy was not peaceful (some 15,000 people died in political violence during the negotiations), it did create the constitutional conditions for South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. The ANC won an overwhelming majority and sought to build a government of national unity.

Mandela was inaugurated as president on 10 May 1994. It was a drama to behold. Before our eyes the racial hierarchy of apartheid morphed into the “rainbow nation of God’. The 20th century had come late to South Africa. But in this time of miracles, would not the last be first? Indeed, while South Africa was a new nation in 1994, it was a uniquely powerful one: it had symbolic, if not military, might. If ever there was a chance to re-imagine the conditions of existence for a “Third World’ state, to engender an economic ethics in a post-communist world, or simply to introduce honesty into domestic and international politics, then the Mandela government in the months after the end of apartheid had that opportunity.

While the right-wing threat, jittery investors and bureaucratic hostility could account for some of the new government’s reluctance to reach for the most radical outcomes, economically the ANC set its stall out with the laudably “people-centred’ Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). But the RDP was soon jettisoned. It has been argued that it was abandoned because it did not pay enough heed to the god of the market. Capital moves fast in the era of globalisation. By not abiding by the commandment “thou shall make maximum profits’ South Africa ran the risk of being abandoned in the wilderness for another 40 years.

In the RDP’s place a new gospel was preached – Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear), a home-grown structural adjustment programme that paid homage to neo-liberalism. The government presented the new programme as non-negotiable, with Mandela’s successor as president Thabo Mbeki quipping, “call me a Thatcherite’. Markets were opened, taxes cut for the rich, state assets were privatised, services commodified and social spending was reduced.

So, who has lost out and who has benefited the most from the ANC’s economic policies?

Nicoli Nattrass, director of the Centre for Social Science Research at Cape Town University, has pointed out that by restructuring and downsizing employee numbers business has increased profitability by some two thirds between 1990 and 2001, and that productivity and wages have grown steadily for skilled workers. But these gains have been accompanied by increased unemployment and casualisation of labour. There is also a growing gulf between the unionised and better skilled on the one hand and more marginalised South Africans on the other. There has been an increase in “atypical’ or “non-standard’ (temporary, casual, contract, part-time) forms of employment that has led to a relatively unstable and non-unionised workforce. And instead of the record profits trickling down throughout society they have gone to a smaller and smaller group of workers, with considerable amounts being “spirited’ out of the country.

Unemployment in South Africa has spiralled upwards, breaking the 40 per cent barrier. Social income has also been subject to merciless pressure. Pensions decreased in real terms between 1991 and 2000. At the same times basic services like transport have been privatised, water and electricity have been corporatised and the state has demanded “user fees’ for education, health and other services.

The commodification of basic services has resulted in a dramatic escalation in their cost for the consumer. Local authorities are increasingly more interested in “cost-recovery mechanisms’ (eg, disconnections of water and electricity) than in rolling out services to new consumers. Neo-liberal logic rejects cross-subsidisation, and insists that the community must “recover’ the full cost of service provision. This means that people hitherto excluded from services must carry the full cost of new connections. Hence the poor – the black poor – are having to pay much more for their water and electricity than was ever the case in white suburbia.

Furthermore, coercive measures to extract payment (disconnections and repossessions of property made at gunpoint) are disproportionately taken against the weakest people in society: once again, the black poor. For example, people in the Cape Town township Khayelitsha have had their property repossessed and their water disconnected for debts as low as 200 rand (£17), yet no action has been taken against the city’s elite cricket ground Newlands for a debt 200 times the size.

It would be perfectly possible to avoid all this by getting business and the rich to pay more for services and thus cross-subsidise the poor, but this is not done because these interests have the power to lobby effectively for the maintenance of their privilege. In this instance, as in many others, the enrichment of the developing black bourgeoisie is happening at the direct expense of the poor; indeed, it is parasitic on the poor. A similar argument could be made about what the ANC calls “black empowerment’ in a wide range of other areas – including, for example, the national lottery.

It would appear that the people who are doing the taking are not the poor or the marginalised. At the same time, corporate taxes declined from 48 per cent in 1994 to 30 per cent by 1999, and pre-tax dividends escalated to levels last seen during apartheid’s golden age in the mid-1960s.

The government’s own statistics reveal that as the ANC’s policies took effect whites got richer and blacks got poorer on average. In real terms average black “African’ household income declined by 19 per cent between 1995 and 2000, while white household income rose by 15 per cent. The poorest 50 per cent of South Africans earn just 9.7 per cent of national income, down 11.4 per cent from 1995.

The ANC has sought to win consent for its armed extraction of wealth from the poor through a strategy that exploits the twin discourses of nationalism and neo-liberalism: the former demands obedience to the leaders and the party; the latter demands obedience to the market. Sometimes the two ideologies are combined in novel ways, as with the government’s Masakhane campaign, which uses the language of ubuntu (humanism) to claim that the “good’ person is the person who pays for services. The main problem of the poor is defined as the poor themselves.

But are people in South Africa marching off “unresisting into captivity’, or is there any resistance?

While xenophobia, vigilantism and gangs are all on the rise in South Africa, so also is a new poetry being written. The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), for example, has been an inspiration. It has fought a heroic struggle to deliver to Aids patients anti-retroviral drugs that they have been callously denied by the government. It has exposed the rapacity of the pharmaceutical industry, brought to the local the empowering examples of the global challenge to corporate drug patents, linked legal battles with mass mobilisation, and opened the possibilities of both engaging with and confronting the state. Jubilee South Africa has exposed as “blood money’ the profits of those who did business with apartheid South Africa, and pioneered cooperation with US progressive groups. Organisations like the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF) have helped build a culture of resistance to evictions and electricity and water disconnections. Environmental organisations have raised the ante in campaigns against the destruction of South Africa’s Wild Coast and the oil companies responsible for giving people cancer and asthma, and have exposed, in the process, the limitations of the country’s celebrated constitution and the collusion between the state and capital. And the Landless Peoples’ Movement has led the way in revealing how a “willing seller, willing buyer’ approach has facilitated a bias towards the creation of a class of commercial black agriculturalists at the expense of the rural poor.

There are also signs that the great poetry-maker of the 1970s and 1980s, the once independent trade union movement (which has been unable to stem the tide of the ANC’s retrenchments) is linking up, albeit hesitantly, with the emergent movements of the new century. To the wrath of the ANC leadership, the Congress of South African Trades Unions (Cosatu) has given its support to the TAC.

Significantly, Cosatu-affiliated unions are turning their guns on the much-celebrated (at least by the government) black empowerment enterprises (BEEs). In what is post-apartheid South Africa’s longest industrial dispute so far, 800 baggage workers are striking at major airports in the country. Their employer is Equity Aviation Services, a partnership between the British company Serco and a local BEE. Equity owns a 51 per cent share in the once state-owned baggage-handling outfit Apron Services. The striking workers, who have seen their hours shoot up from 40 to 45 hours a week, are represented by the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu). The union’s general secretary Randall Howard has said that management was acting like “brute and ruthless profiteers’.

Jane Barret, Satawu’s policy and research officer, was quoted as saying: “If a strategy for BEEs ignores the economic needs of workers and focuses exclusively on access by black capital to equity and the transformation of management, can we really call the process one of economic empowerment? The argument seems to be that the rights of black workers are best left to negotiation. This ultimately means leaving worker rights to the market. The question is: if it is right to intervene in the market by adopting measures which actively promote the transformation of equity, why is it not right to ask these very equity holders to adopt a social code that demands intervention in situations where the actions of company managers result in the economic disempowerment of workers?’

There are strengths and weaknesses to the movements resisting the ANC’s policies. The local community movements have found it difficult and sometimes even been reluctant to build links with each other, and as repression has taken its toll they have turned inwards to more centralised forms of leadership. Nigel Gibson, assistant director of the Institute of African Studies at New York’s Columbia University, has highlighted the danger of the “muscles of immediacy’ taking the place of a “chain of reasoning’ within local organisations. According to Gibson, there is a drift toward authoritarianism and a narrowing of discussion locally. Rather than confronting problems through dialogue, tactics become strategy and theory is reduced to slogan and rhetoric. “There is,’ Gibson says, “an unrealistic sense that& all that is needed is more action.’ The TAC has employed a bagful of full-time personnel, which raises the possibility of the organisation becoming bureaucratised and centralising its decision-making process. The more it has engaged and joined with the state, the less it has been able to build alliances with other social movements. Given the TAC’s success at this level, there is also a danger that it will privilege the legal as its terrain on which to fight. The Landless Peoples’ Movement has also come under criticism for the way it relates to the agrarian-reform NGO the National Land Committee, and for its failure to actually pull off successful land invasions in the manner of its Latin American counterparts.

So, where do South Africa’s social movements go from here? If a formal political party to the left of the ANC does emerge, what will that mean for the vibrancy and “direction’ of the present civil society movements? What approach will Cosatu take? In the meantime, elements within the South African Communists are pushing for the party to participate in 2005’s municipal elections from outside of the ANC: they hope to exploit the radical, political ground sown by the social movements.

Whatever the shortcomings of the social movements and their divisions around strategic issues like elections, they have, at the very least, not meekly handed Mbeki the emperor’s crown. After 10 years, South Africa is still in revolt.

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