South Africa: Thabo Mbeki set to win election

ANC has failed the masses – Time for a new party of the working class

South Africa went to the polls on 14 April, for the third time since the end of apartheid. The African National Congress (ANC) is expected to win comfortably. According to the BBC online: “President Thabo Mbeki is expected to win a second five-year term, despite criticism for his handling of HIV/Aids, poverty, unemployment and crime.”
Weizmann Hamilton, from the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM – CWI in South Africa), looks at the background to the elections, why the ANC has failed the black masses, and explains why a new mass party of the working class is needed.

Thabo Mbeki set to win election

The most striking feature of South Africa’s 2004 general (national and provincial) elections – only the third since the defeat of white minority rule in 1994 — is the widespread disillusionment amongst the masses. In the run up to the elections opinion polls indicated the possibility of a marked decline in the voter turnout, especially amongst the youth.

One early poll indicated that no more than 60% of voters would bother to cast their votes. The youth, in particular, are deeply dissatisfied and have not responded to the Independent Electoral Commission’s registration drive (it some cases it was as low as 2%!) Most surveys indicated that a significant number of people would not be voting – registered or not.

Despite the fact that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) government is assured of an overwhelming victory, the leadership was alarmed by the implications of a low poll. With opposition parties offering nothing fundamentally different from the ANC, they pose no threat to the ANC’s grip on power. However, the view of the masses would be an entirely different question. A low poll would reflect that the growing discontent would be far more significant than even a two-thirds majority victory for the ANC.

In an attempt to shore up the vote, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) embarked on a vigorous registration and propaganda drive late last year. The failure of the first round of registration, which was presented to the electorate in an arrogant “last chance” tone, had to be followed by a more appealing second round of registration.

This had a certain success, with 20 out of 27 million eligible voters now registered. Amongst youth, registration reached 58%. The IEC, carried away by its “success”, is presenting this as a resounding success and predicted a 99% voter turnout for the elections!

The ANC, its resources bolstered by substantial cash injections by big business, (which have sought to disguise their support for the ANC by making donations also to smaller parties as a “contribution to reinforcing democracy”), has pulled out all the stops for the elections. It reversed its 1999 Thatcherite election campaign policy of promising as little as possible (“blessed are those who expecteth nothing for they shall not be disappointed”). The 2003 budget provided for a significant increase in social spending and a state-sponsored job creation programme that promises a million jobs in five years, top-ups in social pensions, child support and disability grants. Most significantly the roll-out of free anti-retroviral [to combat HIV/Aids] was set to begin to begin on 1 April 2004, exactly two weeks before the elections.

The normally aloof S African President, Thabo Mbeki, was given a make-over and transformed into a “people’s president”. He made house-to-house visits, especially in poor areas, posing for the cameras with babies in his arms. He expressed shock at the levels of poverty he witnessed. Claiming disbelief at the fact that in the black township of Mamelodi, near his official residence in Pretoria, people were being subjected to electricity and water cut-offs, Mbeki announced that the whole question of local government service delivery financing would have to be revisited. He claimed surprise also at the level of white poverty he saw. A group of white women approached him during one of his walk-abouts, appealing for his intervention to stop police from harassing them as they tried to make a living out of sex-work. There was no other way of making a living, they said.

By cynically playing on peoples’ hopes and fears, and with an opposition consisting of different cooks offering different varieties of the same capitalist menu as the ANC, it is likely that the ANC has managed to avert a poll as low as the 60% indicated by one survey. The ANC arranged busses, gave out free t-shirts, and organized concerts of well-known musicians as part of their election campaign rallies, including an 80,000-strong rally at the First National Bank Stadium near Soweto.

However, it is clear that even at 20 million (a 15% increase compared to 1999), 7 million people have not registered. There is a growing mood of protest. The 58 % level amongst youth is particularly significant, given the historical role of the youth in the struggle in S Africa.

As the first person to cast a vote at a polling station in Soweto said on national radio: “I am voting but I want these promises to be fulfilled.”

All manner of “experts”, in and out of government, say that this is a sign that S Africa’s young democracy is maturing; that we are now living in a “normal” society; that low participation rates in elections is an international trend based on a general satisfaction with the government’s performance; that the ANC’s majority is so huge that its supporters are complacent knowing that its re-election is assured anyway.

Are People Really that ‘Dof’?

Yet, barely ten years after the right to vote was won through a bitter and bloody struggle against the former Apartheid regime, the government has found it necessary to campaign to explain, especially to young people, the so-called “born frees”, why it is important to vote. Some adverts even describe those who are not interested in voting as “doff”.

The increase in registration, and the change in the ANC’s electoral strategy, however, will not succeed in maintaining the level of voter-turn-out at previous elections. Many people have taken advantage of the registration campaign to get identity documents more cheaply and easily. It remains more likely that there will be a lower poll than in previous elections. The reason is political not administrative. It is a reflection of a seething discontent beginning to bubble to the surface.

The low voting level in a number of “older democracies” is not explained by “maturity”, complacency, or apathy, but by disillusionment – dissatisfaction with the policies offered by capitalist parties and recognition that the opposition parties do not have anything fundamentally different to offer. That this should have happened in S Africa, only ten years after liberation, is an indication of how widespread the disillusionment is, especially amongst youth, towards political parties and the ANC government.

An opinion poll conducted by the popular youth radio station, ‘YFM’, found that “ninety eight per cent of 18 – 24 year olds surveyed …believe that some government officials are not honest.” (‘Mail & Guardian’ 30 January – 5 February 2004). These opinions are not confined to the youth. The latest SABC/Markinor poll, “found that 48% of voters who were not going to register did not want to vote. Of these 44% were aged between 18 and 24.”

This disillusionment is due to a deep sense of betrayal over the performance of the ANC government.

ANC’s ‘achievements’ – A richer capitalist class and a poorer working class

The ANC’s election manifesto claims many “successes” in the “transformation” of the country. A closer examination of the list of government “successes”, however, shows that these claims are at best exaggerated, if not outright distortions. In a cynical ploy to give the impression of steady, if slow, progress, the government has now resorted to manipulation of socio-economic statistics. Throughout the last few months there has been a furious debate about unemployment. The claim by Minister of Trade and Industry, and South African Communist Party (SACP) Central Committee member, Alec Erwin, that the economy has created 2 million net jobs since 1995, is the most cynical example of what Star Business Report columnist Terry Bell (quoting Mark Twain) referred to as “Lies, damned lies and statistics”. This little miracle was achieved by redefining employment and unemployment at the same time. The 2 million extra jobs Erwin refers to consists of people who have attempted to ward off destitution by hawking. But as Terry Bell points out, “nearly 1 million of these statistically counted people were paid less than R200 a month for their labours and 367,000 earned nothing at all.”

Between 1 and 2 million jobs have been lost since the ANC came to power and the trend is set to continue. The gap between rich and poor has widened. The ANC government has reduced taxes – including company tax from 48% to 30% — over the past 10 years, a windfall mostly to the wealthy, amounting to a staggering R74 billion.

The government confesses: “There are more poor households than there were in 1994…Then 28% of all households lived in poverty; that figure has now grown to over one in three households”(Mail & Guardian, 26/10/03). According to the Reserve Bank, the working class’s share of the national income has declined from 57% in 1990 to below 52% in 2002. Average white household income has risen 16%.

As the General Secretary of the Congress of South Africa Trade Unions, General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, points out: “In 2003 the nightmare of unemployment and poverty got worse. Even by the definition that excludes people who have given up looking for work, 31.5% of the workforce is out of a job. By the broader definition, the figure is well over 40%, or about 8 million people. It all adds up to at least 22 million people living in desperate poverty, and 5.3 million children suffering from hunger”. (Business Report 23/12/03)

The ANC’s “achievement” has been to enable the enrichment of a tiny black elite at the expense of the majority. The fastest growing gap is no longer between white and black income but amongst blacks. “In 2000 the most affluent 10% of black households took home more than 50% of total income accruing to blacks, while the poorest 10% obtained less than 1%” (Servaas van den Berg, Star Business Report, 25/02/04). The billions poured into so called ‘Black Economic Empowerment’ in the budget will ensure that this gap widens even more, as the black capitalist elite join in the orgy of self-enrichment previously reserved for white capitalists only.

Despite the fact that millions more are enrolling in schools, the drop out rate has increased. The matric [exam] pass rate has increased but millions are excluded from tertiary (higher) education. It is commonly accepted that less than 5% of those lucky enough to pass matric will get jobs. 20% of African graduates (8% mixed race and 5% whites) are unemployed. It is not surprising that crime has increased and prisons are overcrowded.

Despite free access to health for children under six years of age and pregnant mothers, the health, especially of the poor, has deteriorated. Worst of all, S Africa has the highest HIV/Aids infection rate in the world. Under pressure, the government started rolling out anti-retroviral prescriptions from 1 April, 2004. Despite the fact that its inaction has led to 650 people dying everyday, the government has declared it has no regrets about the way it handled the pandemic. Dr Costa Gazi’s description of the government’s inaction as “genocidal” is not inaccurate.

Defenders of the ANC government often accuse its critics of seeing only the failures and not the successes. We are being asked to have faith; to believe that, but for this or that shortcoming, the ANC government is headed in the right direction. Critics of the ANC government are said to be impatient, unrealistic and even “ultra-left”. No government, they argue, could have overcome the legacy of over 300 years of white minority misrule in 10 years.

ANC government policy – 10 years of social tragedy for working class

However, it is not a question of this or that success, but the fundamental basis and direction of ANC policy.

Increased spending on the black population was an unavoidable imperative. If the ANC government had failed to do so, the present disillusionment would have translated into active mass opposition much earlier.

The ANC cannot demand the eternal gratitude of the people for doing what it was elected for, little as it is. Nor is it being accused of doing nothing at all. The ANC leadership’s crime is that it consciously adopted a capitalist economic policy knowing full-well that it could not solve the problems inherited from apartheid – of poverty, unemployment and the social deprivation of the majority.

Finance Minister, Trevor Manuel, confessed as much in 2000: “I want someone to tell me how the government is going to create jobs. It’s a terrible admission, but governments around the world are impotent when it comes to creating jobs.” (Ashwin Desai,, 24/02/04).

The experience of the ANC’s policies is the reason that the ANC leadership stands accused of deception – of concealing the class interests they represent, that of the capitalist class and the new black elite — behind the mask of being a party for all classes.

The constant pleas for patience and understanding the position the ANC finds itself in, of “having to balance competing claims”, of the poverty of the country as a result of the ruinous policies of the apartheid regime, all these arguments have begun to wear thin. The increased wealth of the capitalist class and the development of the new black elite, contrasted against the deepening impoverishment of the black majority, have revealed, very sharply, the class character of this government. It is a government of the rich.

Even the inadequate reforms the government has introduced are constantly undermined by its obligation to protect the interests it represents — the mainly white capitalist class, and the aspirant black capitalists, who exert relentless pressure on the government to create opportunities for wealth creation and self-enrichment.

Basic services cut

The increased access to water and electricity, for example, is constantly undermined by the policy of cost recovery, cut-offs and privatisation. So, while the government boasts of its successes in increasing water connections, it is silent on the millions who are cut off. The 6000 litres free water, per household, per month, introduced as an election gimmick before the 2000 local government elections, are completely inadequate for the needs of the typical household in poor black communities,. They are also far below the minimum level, per person per day, recommended by the World Health Organisation and supported by Cosatu, Samwu, and originally contained in the now discarded ‘Reconstruction and Development Programme’. Even worse, if the limit of free water is exceeded then the entire amount, 6 000 litres, plus the excess, has to be paid for. Failure to pay results in cut-offs.

Yet, the reason people do not pay is that they cannot afford to, because of unemployment, low wages, and the continued increase in the cost of basic foods, school fees, transport etc.

The government claims that more than two-thirds of the population has been connected to electricity. It is silent about the ten million who have been affected by cut-offs. To add insult to injury, the government accuses people of simply not wanting to pay because they have developed a “culture of non-payment”; that the people do not seem to understand the difference between the illegitimate apartheid regime and the legitimate ANC government. To “solve” the problem, the government is now installing pre-paid meters, so that the poor should police their own consumption and cut themselves off.

Housing, education and land

Housing is a similar story. Millions still live in shacks. Housing provision is riddled with corruption, the houses built are poor quality, and no bigger than the ones built by the apartheid regime. This is why people refer to them as ‘Fiat Unos’. People are forced to “downsize”, that is to move into smaller, “more affordable”, housing. So far, three million people in rent and rates arrears have been forcibly evicted and their household goods sold to recover the arrears.

The government has made it clear that it has no intention of abolishing school fees. Yet school fees are increasing the cost of education and pushing it beyond the reach of working class people.

Secondary schooling, especially through the exorbitant fees charged by former model C (white) schools, has in effect been privatized, as has tertiary education (with its unaffordable tuition fees and a mounting debt burden for black working class students). The Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) found that over 1 million youth leave school each year, half of them between grade 1 and 11! The HSRC report also found that of the 74% (a figure that has been artificially boosted) who pass matric (with and without a university entrance pass) 75% do not get into tertiary education. It is well known that the drop-out trend does not end at tertiary education level. It continues under the pressure of high tuition fees and student debt.

Land redistribution is also lagging far behind the needs of the landless. The latest land bill reinforces the power of tribal authorities inherited from apartheid. The bill is already crippled by the property clause in the constitution, which protects the property, especially of the biggest landowners — the big corporations and commercial farm owners — from the democratic claims of the landless. Even where people have received their land back, lack of state support means communities have no resources to develop the land and make a living from it.

Women suffer the most

The most damning indictment against the ANC government is the effect of its policies on the position of women in society. While the ANC boasts that in parliament it has achieved one of the highest levels of female representation in the world, working class women have borne the brunt of its neo-liberal policies. In 2001, according to South Africa Statistics’ narrow definition (excluding those who have given up looking for work); unemployment was 46.4% for women compared to 35.3% for men. In rural areas, the figures were 53.6% for women and 42.2% for men. In the farming sector there is an increasing trend to replace permanent labour with highly exploited women workers, who are employed as casual labour. The gap between men and women’s wages has increased under the ANC government.

The burden of cuts-offs of basic services, due to privatisation and the elimination of subsides for pre-school education, are also borne disproportionately by women. The benefits of progressive gender legislation have almost completely undermined the position of the majority of working class, especially black women, benefiting only the rich.

A mass workers’ party on a socialist programme

As the Democratic Socialists Movement’s (DSM – the CWI in South Africa) special election edition of Izwi La Basebenzi explains, the call for a boycott of the elections, such as the call by the Landless Peoples Movement of “No Land Not Vote”, is understandable but mistaken. The DSM calls for a boycott of the parties but not the elections. We call for a protest vote and suggest that voters write their demands on the ballot paper. We suggest that these demands should be selected from our programme, including: “For free basic services”, “Scrap the arms deal”, “For free education and health care” and “For a Mass Workers Party on a Socialist Programme” etc.

We argue that working class communities could use the elections as an opportunity to discuss what a programme of a mass workers party would be. We also call for working class communities and trade unions to use this approach to the national and provincial elections to prepare for next year’s local government elections. We call on working class communities and trade unions to put up candidates in next year’s local government elections on such a programme. Candidates standing on these policies should do so on the basis of the right of recall and pledging, if elected, to live on the average income of their constituents.

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April 2004