South Africa: Rebellion, concessions and repression

Time for a workers’ alternative in world’s most unequal society

In the winter months immediately following the May 2009 inauguration of Jacob Zuma’s ANC government, South Africa was swept in a double-edged wave of protest – in workplaces for better wages and working conditions and in townships and squatter camps demanding basic services such as electricity, sanitation and water etc. Hardly had the ANC and trade union leaders sighed in relief at having calmed the troubled waters before the tide broke loose with renewed strength in October.

Poor residential areas, townships to where the black population was forcibly moved by the apartheid-regime, and so called ‘informal settlements’ (pure slums where thousands of people often live squashed together in shacks made of anything from tin to plastic and cardboard, without toilets, refuse or sewage systems, water or electricity), such as Diepsloot, Sakhile, Riverlea and Ntabazwe, have again poured out protesters to fill the streets with determined actions. In the case of Sakhile, the protests had the character of a local uprising.

Township protests

Sakhile – a revolt that overthrew the local government

The residents of Sakhile, the township attached to the small town of Standerton in the Mpumalanga province, rendered their municipality “ungovernable” for over two weeks from the end of September through demonstrations, repeated local “general strikes”, barricaded inroads and exits, as well as battles, with stones and petrol bombs, against the rubber bullets and tear gas of the police.

The Sakhile residents have, on good grounds, it seems, accused the town mayor and other in the local council of corruption. These ANC politicians, who have built themselves big mansions in the “white” suburbs, while the people who elected them to office lack functioning roads and protection from regular flooding, we well as a disastrous lack of jobs and education, are accused of embezzling up to R30 million that are “missing” from the council finances.

The trust and patience of working class and poor people, having been undermined by years of betrayed promises and deterioration living conditions, were provided some fuel by the Zuma-faction’s take-over within the ANC in December 2007 and later in the country itself; pushing aside the former president Thabo Mbeki who had come to be seen as a symbol for top-down rule and neo-liberal policies that are hostile to the working class. With a thin film of hope settled on top of layers upon layers of hopelessness and frustrations, peaceful marches were organised in Sakhile, in June, and memorandums handed over to indifferent local politicians. The slow grinding on that film of hope became a decisive cut when the community gained access to the municipality’s financial audit which revealed missing millions, over-priced social services etc. Anger accumulated over generations was laid bare in two weeks of rebellion. The peak was a mighty, partly armed, demonstration of 10 000 people on 13 October – nearly the entire population of Sakhile – marching into town, demanding an explanation to the missing millions or the resignation of the council within 24 hours.

While two councilors quietly vacated their seats and the police released 41 Sakhile-residents who had been arrested during the protests, the local government leaders had not provided any direct answers when the deadline was met. Instead, a blue-light convoy sent by the ANC’s national executive committee descended on Standerton (not daring to venture into the township itself, where all politicians except president Zuma had been declared ‘persona non-grata’). After the ANC leaders met with representatives from Sakhile they managed to calm the protests the following day. The hated mayor and at least six other councilors and officials were forced to resign, while silence surrounded the issue of people still in police custody or those that were killed by police bullets.

A striking feature of the struggle in Sakhile, found also in similar protests around the country, has been the total distrust towards all representatives of the government and the state. Increasingly desperate hopes are instead tied to the political persona of Jacob Zuma. The more his government tries to extend its space to manoeuvre by using this personal capital, the harder will it strike back once it is beyond all doubt that Zuma’s popular, ‘humble and listening’ attitude and charm cannot pull SA’s poor majority out of the misery of a capitalism in crisis. While quiet has returned to Sakhile, that moment of renewed protest could come sooner rather than later, as SA is deeply immersed in the global economic downturn.


The world’s most unequal society

South Africa (SA) is now officially the country in the world that has the widest gap between rich and poor. The latest comparisons (based on income data for the year 2005/6 when the SA economy was still in the midst of a boom) show that SA has sunk below Brazil, which previously held the first position. Poverty and inequality is expected to grow further in the next few years. In a country where the real unemployment rate has been around 40% throughout the past decade, a million jobs have been lost, so far this year, half of them during July-September. Hundreds of thousands have effectively had their wages cut as they have been forced onto “short-time”. The government is now sitting with an estimated R70 billion less tax income than expected for this year. Adding other negative posts sums up the government’s revenue shortfall to R83 billion. These, and many other figures, such as the rate of GDP “growth”, have constantly been revised upwards (that is in the negative) as reality has increasingly forced politicians and their expert advisors to dump their boastful illusions about the economy’s “sound foundations”.

In other words, the government is under severe pressure to cut expenditure – but it dares not! When the new Minister of Finance, Pravin Gordhan, presented his first medium-term budget policy statement on October 27, only the cutting of luxury expenditure – e.g. hotels, conferences, corruption – was mentioned while the total expenditure is instead set to increase by R7 billion (compared to the original budget presented by then Finance Minister Trevor Manuel in February) by taking new loans of R640 billion over the next four years. This means that the projected budget deficit more than doubles to R184 billion, or 7.6% of GDP. Gordhan avoided any mention of his own flagging for the need to dampen expectations and of the deteriorating credit climate (SA has been downgraded by credit rating institutes such as Moody’s this year, making it more expensive to borrow money). It is clear, however, that the government is taking quite a big risk. The rate of state debt to GDP, for instance, is increasing from the current 22% to 41% and will rise further in coming years.

Gordhan’s warnings barely a month earlier and the somewhat forced enthusiastic tone of the budget speech are of course set apart by the reignited protests in Sakhile and other places. The pressure on the Zuma government and its allies to deliver on the April election promises is enormous. Zuma had promised to focus on five priority areas: jobs, better health care, better education, fighting crime and developing SAs poor rural areas. As shown by the example of SAkhile, the reserves of patience conjured up by Zuma’s Cosatu and SACP-backed (the ANC-aligned Congress of South African Trade Unions and South African Communist Party) ascent to power are drying up very fast. The budget stance shows that the government also understands this. The increased expenditure and borrowing are however merely postponing the problem: the only way to limit the government debt and deficit is to cut the government’s expenditure; that is, the promised “priorities” and other social services. That means head-on confrontation with the working class – in workplaces, residential areas, and in the access to health care, education and basic services.

Already in this budget statement, Gordhan reassured capital by presenting a plan to decrease the budget deficit by limiting the growth in public spending to 1% per year over the next three years (compared to 9% growth this year). It also stands clear that the increased expenditure this year amounts to far less than what had been promised, let alone hoped for. Pro-capitalist economists estimated (in fear) that Zuma’s take-over as president would cost R1 billion in unforeseen expenditure, but this has only come to R562 million. The additional spending can buy the government a little bit of time, but amounts in the long run to no more than drops of rain in a burning desert.

“Separate development” in health care

Promises since the mighty 2007 public sector strike to fill the many empty posts in health care and the public sector at large have been thoroughly ignored by Mbeki, as well as Zuma. A review of public hospitals that was undertaken as the ANC government took over from the apartheid administration revealed in 1998 that R28 billion would be needed to upgrade the hospital infrastructure to a decent standard. Eleven years later, nothing has been done as it was deemed “too expensive”. The health care system, like every aspect of South African society, is characterised by the extreme class inequalities, which are still largely corresponding to the racial divide of apartheid. Infant mortality, for instance, is 7 deaths per 1000 born children among the white population compared to 67 per 1000 among black Africans. 15% of the population – those with medical aid – consumes two thirds of total health care resources. Most people have no choice but to queue for hours at public clinics which are in most cases staffed only by, often stressed-out, nurses. Medications are not always available, both due to the health departments’ lack of money to purchase them and to the lack of pharmacists and other health care workers. The Free State province has recently run out of ARV medications for the second time this year (interrupted treatment carries the risk of the HI virus mutating into drug resistant forms).

The government is planning a compulsory National Health Insurance scheme in an attempt to address some of these problems. The NHI is estimated to cost R100 billion and it is uncertain whether these plans will be realised within the stipulated five years.

Black working class youth betrayed

In the schools, the situation is similar: 5% of black African grade 6 learners can read and write on grade 6-level, compared to 85% of their white counterparts, according to a recent study done in the Western Cape province. R253 billion would be required to upgrade government-run schools (of which 80% are “dysfunctional” according to an admission by the former Minister of Education, Naledi Pandor) with basics like toilets, libraries and lab equipment etc. The Zuma government has continues the Mbeki administration’s programme of offering “no-fee-schools” for the poor. This year, the no-fee-schools’ share of the total number of schools is set to increase from 40% to 60%. While any opening-up of access to primary education will, of course, be greeted with relief by poor families, in particular since children with outstanding school fees would otherwise often be publicly humiliated and excluded from school, this scheme does not resolve the fundamental problem of class segregation in education. Rather, it actually deepens it, as poor working class learners are even more cemented into their places in schools without resources – resulting in class sizes of 60-80 learners or four classes being taught simultaneously in one room, for instance – while those with more money go out of their way to secure spaces for their children in schools where the parents pay extra to fund additional teachers and support staff, better facilities and equipment. The very wealthiest send their children to be inundated in resources and elitism at private schools.

Rural “development” mimics apartheid policy

In South Africa’s poor rural areas, and electricity services, running water, proper roads and something from which to make a living are all still scarce. Under pressure from the widespread frustrations with the so-called land restitution programme, Zuma’s election campaign promised major changes: the abandonment of the “willing seller, willing buyer” principle. This principle, together with a process that is focusing on merely restituting land to specific communities or individuals who can prove that land has been stolen from them, has helped ensure that only 5.9% of commercial farmland has changed hands since 1994. The white population of 9% still own about 80% of the land; a share that has been roughly constant since the racist Land Act of 1913 robbed blacks of the right to own land. Zuma’s promise now seems to have been silently dropped as even the funds to pay for already settles claims were depleted earlier this year.

Zuma has also made clear that “rural development” will rely even heavier than before on the so-called traditional authorities. These corrupt institutions based on local kings were propped-up, and partially reconstructed, by the colonial and apartheid regimes as a means to control the black population, in particular in the rural areas. The ANC, on taking power, continued to lean on these remnants of a disintegrated social mode, and is now signalling that it is moving even further to the right.

Government has no answer to one-million jobs slaughter

Unemployment is officially at 25%, but the real figure (including those who have given up looking for work) is much higher (probably over 40%). Among young people between 18 and 24 years, 2.8 million were chronically unemployed in 2007. Young black African women are worst-hit: in 2003, 75% of the group was unemployed. In Zuma’s inauguration speech, in May this year, he promised to create 500 000 jobs by the end of the year. This week, he admitted that this target will not be met. In any case, these jobs that overwhelmingly form part of the government’s “expanded” public works programme, are temporary, low-paid and without benefits. A “skills-enhancement” programme presented as an alternative to retrenchments (further training on half-pay for a period instead of losing your job) has met with interest from only 24 companies, with no tangible results reported. The government has no answer either to the accelerating job losses fuelled by the crisis or to the sick waste of talent that is built-in to the South African and world capitalist economy.

“How stop crime? Kill the criminals (and whoever gets in the way)!”

It is, of course, no coincidence that the world’s most unequal society also has one of the world’s highest levels of violent crime. Over 120,000 grave robberies were reported during April 2008-March 2009, for example. 18,000 people were murdered during the same period. One in four South African men admits to having raped a woman, according to a recent study undertaken by the Medical Research Council. About 40% of girls under 18 years old have been sexually abused. Without any solution to the problems, the Zuma government has resorted to the revival of apartheid-era authoritarian methods. Under the pretext of its aim to reduce the number of serious and violent crimes by 7-10% per year, the government is trying to push through a law change that can only mean giving police the right to “shoot-to-kill” even when the lives of police officers or civilians are not threatened (a ‘right’ that was formally abolished with apartheid), while also “re-militarising” the police according to old apartheid classifications (today’s “service” becoming a “force”, etc).

A three-year-old boy, shot dead at close range through the window of the car backseat where he was sitting on November 9, was the latest victim of the violent police rampages that have always existed but are now clearly been encouraged by this demagoguery. Others include a fifteen-year-old boy who was shot dead when police dispersed a street party while shouting racist insults at their victims. A 29-year-old woman was shot dead in her car as it happened to look like one that had been “hijacked”. It hardly warrants headlines when protesters are killed by police bullets. Five hundred and twenty four “suspects” and 32 “innocent bystanders” were killed by police in the year up to April 2009, the highest since 1985 (a “state of emergency”-year), while over 900 people died in police custody over the past year. The shoot-to-kill-speak was introduced in government by then Deputy Minister of Safety and Security (now, of course, renamed “Police”) Susan Shabangu, in April last year. President Zuma’s attempts at damage control by cautioning against a police “licence to kill” will not force the genie into the bottle. Organised criminals, meanwhile, have already responded by executing robberies military-style in big, heavily armed gangs. The reinforcement of the state’s repressive apparatus is also a sign of the ruling class’ rising nervousness ahead of the class confrontation of which Sakhile etc have only been the precursors, despite the Zuma-administration’s markedly more understanding attitude over Mbeki’s paranoid antipathy.

Right-wing authoritarian shift

The Zuma government’s approach to fighting crime is one part of the step to the right, which is one of its most important characteristics; one which few commentators have managed to put their finger on as it comes wrapped in an unusual package. While this government has come to power largely thanks to the support of Cosatu and the SACP and the widely held hopes that the ANC’s mythical “working class-bias” would be restored by Zuma, and while his government sheds smoke and thunder, threatening to ban labour brokers and extends the child grant eligibility, it is to an increasing degree relying on right-wing populism e.g. promising to “review” issues such as the death penalty and the right to termination of pregnancy. The enormous problems in the schools are assigned to ‘lazy teachers’ and lack of discipline. Zuma has threatened to send pregnant teenagers to forced study at some kind of remote detention centres, without mentioning the role of men or the social grounds for unwanted pregnancies. Such comments will only serve to increase the problems, as they legitimise the prejudices which result in women, in particular young women, who approach clinics for contraceptives or abortions being met with hostility and humiliation.

The danger inherent in this right-wing trait of the government became apparent in August when a soldiers’ strike was used as a pretext to, in effect, ban trade unions from the military. Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu imposed a council, handpicked by herself and mandated to deal with issues concerning wage negotiations etc, while pushing through the dismissal of about 2000 soldiers who had marched for higher wages (soldiers can earn as little as R1800/ month while their generals get more than R1 million/ year), with the support of President Zuma. The ANC as a party, however, opposed the government’s stance, as did the alliance partners Cosatu and SACP – Zuma’s most important levers of support in his rise to power.

Divisions at the top

This gives an indication of the divisions that have spread rapidly within the Zuma-coalition now that is has conquered. As the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) has consistently explained, the ANC’s alliance with Cosatu and the Stalinist-reformist SACP, regardless of who heads the government, is doomed to be torn apart by the conflicting class interests that are held hostage under the command of the capitalist ANC. Once Zuma had been brought to power, these tensions increased in strength. While Zuma needed the trade union federation leaders to rise to power, as always theorised and justified by the SACP leaders, and has rewarded some among them with ministerial posts, other more unashamed representatives of capital are at least as influential, such as Mbeki’s Minister of Finance, Trevor Manuel, who is now head of the new Planning Commission and denounced by Cosatu as an “imperial minister”.

Gordhan’s budget policy statement was the practical manifestation of what Zuma had said all along: that he would continue the same economic policies as under Mbeki. Both camps, in other words, represent the same class forces. The growing working class discontent with Mbeki’s hard-boiled neo-liberalism, in the absence of any independent mass-based workers’ party as yet having emerged to channel it, laid the basis for Zuma’s coming to power in a peculiar Bonapartist balancing act. For the SACP and Cosatu leaderships Zuma’s government is increasingly the last hiding place from the outcry for a working class political alternative to the ANC that is formed by the situation of workers and poor. They have themselves long held on to their genuine illusions that it would now be the Alliance, rather than the ANC, that rules, despite the first six months of Zuma’s rule providing ample evidence that the Alliance’s only role was to first secure Zuma’s victory and then implement and defend ANC policy. In desperate attempts to avoid criticising Zuma, the government, and thereby the Alliance and themselves, the Cosatu leaders made Trevor Manuel the target of attacks on the continuation of same old Mbeki-style policies. In recent weeks, Cosatu has been making a big fuss over its demand that the new Economic Development Ministry, under right-wing trade unionist Ebrahim Patel, should be given the decisive power to determine economic and monetary policy (rather than Manuel and the treasury). They also proposed to the Alliance summit, held last weekend, that it should “be made official” that policy is decided by “the Alliance” and not the ANC alone. This after Zuma had already broken his silence on the issue in his weekly ANC-newsletter two weeks earlier, warning against associating economic policies with individual ministers, when policies are actually not determined by them but by the ANC as a party. As the editorial in the Sunday Independent (Nov 1) correctly pointed out, Zuma had very skilfully “outmanoeuvred his communist friends” and now also “decided to show his hand: telling the communists he is grateful for their support and that the ANC will remain sympathetic towards the workers and the poor but will not introduce Das Kapital as economic policy”. As if this was not clear enough, the Cosatu leaders pressed on, only to be humiliated when Zuma laid down the law to them at the Alliance summit: spelling it out even more clearly: “the Alliance does not determine government policy” (City Press, Nov 15).

Violent pressure on Cosatu

The pressure on the Cosatu and SACP leaders, who are now directly administering the capitalist state under their favourite Zuma, is become increasingly violent. National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) representatives are reported to regularly address workers in the mines with gun-in-holster. Several union leaders have been injured when assaulted by their own members, as it appears in immediate violent disappointment at the leaders’ acceptance of low wage hike offers etc. The Cosatu congress at the end of September was characterised, on the one hand, by the leaders’ isolation from the working and living conditions of their members and, on the other hand, by the start of a search among the Cosatu rank-and-file for the organisational forms of opposition to the ANC-aligned leadership. For instance, busloads of retrenched mineworkers from the North West province and a delegation of prison warders from around the country arrived at the conference centre to protest against their local leaders whom they accused of dictatorial rule, corruption and collaboration with the bosses. The rifts also run deep within the SACP, in particular over some of its leaders’ taking up of ministerial posts.

After Zuma – nowhere left to hide

The temporary calming of the initial waves of protest in July, through pleas for patience, repetition of promises, action against certain corrupt officials, some concessions but also police repression, came at the price of rapidly growing divisions within the government and the Alliance. A massive public sector workers’ strike, for example, was only avoided by the Minister responsible for the negotiations, Richard Baloyi, apparently sneaking a relatively generous wage increase offer of 11.5% (still far below the unions’ demand of 15%) onto the table behind the backs of others in cabinet, in particular the Treasury, who found themselves facing a fait-accompli when the unions accepted the offer – withdrawing it would of course have been a political impossibility for Zuma’s “worker-biased” government. That politicians and media now constantly refer to this R12 billion wage rise as an explanation to the budget deficit is a preparation for the attacks on public sector workers and working class people in general that will be launched sooner or later. The episode also indicates how the Zuma government is pushed along its tightrope by direct and indirect pressures from contradictory class forces.

While the government’s handling of the first waves of protest bought it some time, it also consumed some of its reserves. People in the township have been prepared to listen and give Zuma a little more time. When no changes are to be seen in the everyday lives of people, however, the patience, already hard-tested by 15 years of ANC-rule, soon runs out. In the same areas that have become quieter after July’s protests, disappointment and the beginnings of new protests are already fermenting. The township Khutsong, belonging to the little mining town Carltonville close to Johannesburg, is a telling example: through waging a long struggle against the Mbeki administration’s heavy-handed “re-demarcation” of the Merafong municipality from the Gauteng province – the richest in the country – to the North West – one of the poorest provinces – entailing, for example, a complete boycott of the 2005 local government elections and a school stay-away. These protests were all led by the Merafong Demarcation Forum, and the community eventually got their victory immediately after Zuma took office. This seemed to demonstrate that this was a different kind of government; that significant concessions could now be won. After having been “back” in Gauteng for six months, however, discontent is again brewing in Khutsong. The same unemployment, the same dusty, dirt roads, poverty and incessant electricity failures remain while the Merafong Demarcation Forum has become a “Development” Forum absorbed into the government circles’ chase for lucrative tenders. The ANC is clearly trying to use the tactic of reigning in struggles by embracing selected local leaders, enticing them with the material advantages of political high life.

Such tactics, however, just as little as a more brutal police “force” or postponement of cutbacks on borrowed money will not be able to stem the tsunami of class struggle to which the past few months have only been a precursor. With a more and more pronounced search for political alternatives beyond barricades and pressurising those in power, the ground from which a new revolutionary socialist alternative can be built is becoming more fertile every day. The political vacuum on the left, which has kept great parts of the working class and the poor tied to the ANC or made people turn their backs in resignation, will be filled in one way or the other as Zuma’s bonapartism reaches its limits and the experiences of struggle assists the masses in formulating what it is they really want. The Democratic Socialist Movement (CWI in South Africa) is working hard to build links between the protest movements of today, as the first steps towards the formation of a new workers’ party with mass support. The continued simmering of xenophobia, recently exploding in De Doorns, an informal settlement in the Western Cape, where South African-born residents on 17 November 2008, attacked and drove out about 2,000 people originally from other African countries, whom they accused of being chosen before them for employment by commercial farmers, and the increased authoritarianism and police repression, warn of the risks should a political alternative capable of building class unity and hope through struggle not be built in time.

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