South Africa: Small but significant steps towards raising independent working class voice at local government elections May 2011

ANC retains big majority but political authority weakened

The official image of South Africa’s May 18 local government elections is of a rather yawn-inducing event. Although the elections marked developments in a much larger poll for the biggest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), and a small decline in the African National Congress’s (ANC) share of the vote, these would not on their own be any cause for serious concern for the ruling party. An overwhelming majority, 63 percent, of the votes cast were, as usual since the first fully democratic elections in 1994, for the ANC. The DA is nowhere near competing with that, despite leaping forward to 23 percent (from 16 in the last elections in 2006). Under the surface, however, these elections mark an important turning point – previously passive protests such as stay-aways and pure apathy have begun to turn into active attempts to raise independent working class voices.

Against the background of intensifying struggles in poor working class communities and in workplaces, as well as growing disgust against the ruling elites’ unashamed lives of luxury and corruption, the number of independent candidates and new, fighting organisations – many with socialist orientation – rose to unprecedented levels. Several of these new formations have now made significant advances.

The final election results were presented on May 24: the ANC got 63 percent, compared to 66 percent in the latest local government elections in 2006 as well as in the 2009 parliamentary elections. The DA, a neo-liberal White-dominated party, gained after absorbing a smaller party (the Independent Democrats) and running an intense campaign to present itself as ‘the official opposition’. Despite its desperate attempts to shake off the apartheid-privilege stamp, a vote for the DA is still unthinkable for most blacks. The DA’s gains, and in particular its capacity to build further on them without any alternative to offer the working class and poor, should not be exaggerated. That they made it past the 20 percent-mark, with some gains in black working class areas, is significant mostly for its effect on the ANC’s self-confidence and for how it will accelerate the unmasking of this right-wing party in the eyes of those who have now given it protest votes or who actually believe they will make a difference.

In a climate of increasing social and political polarisation, the election turnout was bigger than usual in local elections at the same time as smaller opposition parties lost support. The steepest fall was that of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), the formerly apartheid-sponsored Zulu nationalist party which has had a strong base in the KwaZulu-Natal province – something which definitively came to an end with the near total collapse in IFP votes in these elections. The party will now rule only two municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal, with most others run by coalitions of the ANC and a split from the IFP (the National Freedom Party).

The ANC and its Tripartite Alliance partners – the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu, the country’s largest and historically most radical and militant trade union federation) – have despite the victory been unable to hide the relief in their voices when claiming that the results show the people’s undying confidence in the ANC. In the same breath, they have felt compelled to openly urge measures to stem the tide of discontent over the ANC’s rule of municipalities. Politicians are to be sent ‘out’ to ‘problem areas’ to listen to the people. A new system of accountability for local councils and mayors is to be put in place soonest possible.

The nervousness is a sign of how the ANC’s political authority, despite the large majority, stands weaker than ever. Firstly, a closer look at the arithmetic of the elections in and of itself reveals that the party has received its lowest share of the vote since 1994: 63 percent of the 13.6 million voters means 8.1 million votes. 23.7 million people had registered to vote – in other words more than 10 million of these abstained. In addition, more than 8 million eligible voters did not even register. More than 18 million eligible voters did not vote; more than double the number who voted for the ANC. The ANC received only 25 percent of the support of the total voting population.

During the election campaign it was apparent that the ‘liberator’ halo, though it continues to be the ANC’s strongest card, has lost much of its shine in the eyes of working class people. In the final days of campaigning, the attempts to play this card out assumed ever more crude and racialised expressions – Nceba Faku, an ANC leader in Port Elizabeth, for example, said that those who did not vote ANC (implying in particular white people) should be ‘driven into the sea’. Overall, though, the campaign was characterised by a dampening down of the customary arrogance by a more humble approach of ‘we know there are problems but please give us another chance at solving them’.

The police murder of demonstrator Andries Tatane on April 13, right in front of a TV camera team, also contributed to a more muted approach. Andries Tatane, 33, was amongst the leaders of a march for clean water in the Meqheleng township of the small town Ficksburg. He made himself the target of the police’s power demonstration by questioning their shooting at an elderly man with a water cannon. Eight policemen’s blows and bullets against the unarmed Tatane until he collapsed and died were seen by millions on the news the same evening and shook the whole country. It has contributed, among quite wide layers of the population, to an increased understanding of which class the government actually represents.

Police violence against mass protests is nothing new, with several demonstrators shot dead in the past few years. A SAMWU (municipal workers’ union) shop steward had also been killed by police a month earlier at a march of striking bus drivers in Tshwane. After the elections, other demonstrators have already been shot and killed by the police, now safely out of sight of TV cameras. The state’s repression is increasing as part of a general lurking towards authoritarian right-wing populism. The police have received directives to ‘shoot-to-kill’, and returned to the apartheid era’s military ranks and drill, amongst other things.

The march in Meqheleng was one amongst many as the months preceding the elections have been yet another high tide in South Africa’s now several years long stream of so called ‘service delivery protests’ – demonstrations and sometimes outright uprisings locally for better and more justly distributed government services such as housing, electricity, water, sanitation; against corruption and self-serving politicians.

South Africa is the world’s officially most unequal country. The richest one percent of the population own 70 percent of the economy. The poorest 20 percent own only 1 percent. Although South Africa has avoided the bank- and state debt crises which have hit other economies during the ongoing global economic downturn, the country was still hit hard by the crisis. Industrial production fell by over 7 percent in 2009. More than one million people lost their jobs in the 18 months up to mid-2010, adding to the already permanent mass unemployment which is at 36 percent (officially 25 percent). Like the world economy as a whole, SA’s current recovery is weak and limited. So far this year, municipal workers such as garbage collectors and bus drivers have been on strike, but increasingly hardened positions in negotiations between metal- and mining industry workers’ unions and their respective employers could mean new strikes coming up.

The 1,3 million worker-strong public sector strike in August 2010 was an important turning point in development of the most conscious organised workers’ view of Jacob Zuma’s ANC government. President Zuma came to power in the 2009 general election after taking the leadership of the ANC on the back of an SACP- and Cosatu-led virtual membership revolt against former president Thabo Mbeki at the party’s conference in December 2007. His government’s stiff resistance to the public sector workers’ demands, backed up with harsh repression of the strike (e.g. police brutality and mass arrests), dealt a deadly blow to the myth of Zuma as the friend of the workers and the poor.

The pressure on the SACP and Cosatu leaders who had herded their members into the Zuma kraal (stockade) intensified enormously in the aftermath of the public sector strike. The divisions within the ‘Communist’ Party which provides Capital with its most reliable ministers in the ANC government are becoming more and more obvious, as seen on the question of elections. The SACP does not itself contest elections but support and work within the ‘progressive bourgeois’ ANC. After the SACP tops had apparently put the lid on the membership’s frustrations over this and other issues, there were some break-away groups which contested the elections on their own.

Division between the SACP leadership and their ideological disciples in Cosatu is also increasingly apparent. In October Cosatu called a ‘Civil Society Conference’ jointly with several social movements (such as for example the Treatment Action Campaign which fights for equitable care for all HIV-infected people). The conference appeared as an attempt to unite workers and poor around a new political programme – and neither the ANC nor the SACP were invited. This provoked maximum intimidating thunder from the ANC headquarters, accusing Cosatu of wanting to effect ‘regime change’.

Regime change and the formation of a new, independent workers’ party were, unfortunately, far from the objectives of the Cosatu leaders. The Civil Society Conference was an attempt at gate-keeping against the possible emergence of genuine efforts to build a workers’ alternative to the ANC – something which is hanging heavier and heavier in the air. Although it may appear as if they have so far pulled that trick off, the conference has on a more profound level had the opposite effect of legitimising the idea that the workers’ movement can work out its own political programme separate from the ANC and its Alliance.

The ANC leadership’s paranoid response to the Civil Society Conference points to the dread with which it approached May’s elections. To check what they must have feared would have been a significant disintegration in their voter base and a possible hostile mobilisation of the non-voters, the ruling party resorted to extra-ordinary measures: instead of allowing ANC structures to elect the party’s local government candidates as usual, the process was ‘democratically’ opened up for the participation of entire communities. Non-ANC-members were thereby given the opportunity to decline hated and corrupt local ANC politicians and appoint candidates of their choice on the party’s behalf. This so-called democratisation was in actual fact a veiled bureaucratic coup within the ANC, depriving the party’s members of their sovereign right to elect the representatives of their organisation. Inevitably, the party tops’ coup was in many instances met with counter-coups by lower layers and factions within the party bureaucracy, ignoring the communities’ choices in favour of their own counter-posed ones. Across the country, fierce mass protests against the ANC structures’ imposition of candidates followed.

With election day approaching, the situation was becoming so unstable that president Zuma saw fit to intervene with a promise that ‘ANC-imposed’ candidates would be replaced once the elections were over. He probably did not even have a mandate from his party for this emergency measure, which is now, as could have been expected, fanning rather than taming the flames of factionalism within the ANC and the Alliance. For example, the first meeting of the Municipal Council in the Eastern Cape town of Bizana had to be postponed on June 1 as the City Hall was blockaded by an angry crowd which went as far as throwing in a petrol bomb. The police responded with rubber bullets and the arrest of 38 protestors.

In previous elections, the more or less organised stance by working class community-based organisations involved in ‘service delivery’ protests has been to punish the ANC by boycotting the polls. This has been most clearly summed up in the slogan of the slum-dwellers’ organisation Abahlali baseMjondolo Movement: ‘No Land, No House – No Vote!’ Alongside the attempts to force ‘the people’s own’ candidates upon the ANC, these elections were marked by a shift amongst struggling communities towards actively challenging the ANC. The number of independent candidates increased by 14 percent compared to the 2006 local government elections (among such candidates there are of course some opportunists but in the main they represent organised, fighting constituencies in their areas). In addition, about 1000 candidates were put up by various protest-oriented organisations such as ‘community forums’ and ‘concerned residents associations’. Amongst these were also several new socialist-oriented organisations, including break-away groups from the SACP. The Mpumalanga Party in Moutse, Mpumalanga province, for example, was formed two months before the elections out of a veritable local collapse of the Tripartite Alliance. It won 12 council seats with the support of an estimated 11 000 people!

A very telling example is the of Khutsong township in the Merafong municipality south of Johannesburg. Here the residents, organised under the Merafong Demarcation Forum, carried through a near-total voter boycott of the 2006 elections (only a handful of votes were cast) in protest against the township’s ‘removal’ from the Gauteng province (the country’s richest) to the North West (one of the poorest) through a re-demarcation of provincial boundaries. This eventually led to victory – the ANC backed down and the whole of Merafong was incorporated into Gauteng. This was an important win symbolically – but concretely hollow as the needs of the working class continue to be neglected in all provinces. Meanwhile, the Merafong Demarcation Forum morphed into the Merafong Development Forum as its leadership was largely co-opted by the ANC. It is very significant activists involved in this protest movement, which was an example to communities across South Africa, based on these experiences have now formed the Merafong Civic Association to continue the struggle including by contesting, instead of boycotting, the elections. The MCA did well winning the votes of over 600 people.

The Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM), the South African affiliate of the Committee for a Workers’ International, has in these elections supported the campaigns of the Operation Khanyisa Movement in Thembelihle and Soweto on the outskirts of Johannesburg, as well as an independent candidate in Soweto and the Socialist Green Coalition in Durban – all on fighting platforms and committed to the principles of the right to recall, no privileges, etc. With a total of 4,400 votes (including Proportional Representation-list votes and votes for ward candidates), the OKM managed to retain the PR-seat which the party has held since 2006 and was the main contender with the ANC over the wards it contested. The DSM is also in contact with other organisations which stood candidates, such as the newly formed Socialist Civic Movement (SCM) which has come out of the past few years’ stormy protest movements in the Balfour municipality in Mpumalanga. The SCM won just under nine percent of the vote in Balfour! The DSM hopes to build on these small steps forward and the heightened political consciousness which these represent by taking the initiative to an assembly, in the next few months, of as many as possible among these organisations together with grassroots unions, youth and students to set out a strategy for the uniting and focusing of the struggle for a political alternative for the working class.

The new left initiative, the Democratic Left Front, which was launched in January 2011 and in which the DSM has participated since its beginnings in 2008, has unfortunately missed the opportunity to try and pull together the many, but among themselves isolated, protest movements which continue to rock poor working class communities, workplaces and educational institutions. Following the intervention of the DSM, the DLF was forced to declare its support for genuine independent, socialist and struggling candidates in the elections, but in practice this meant little more than dutiful statements circulated on e-mail lists.

The potential for a new workers’ party has however been underline by the successes of, e.g. the SCM and the Mpumalanga Party. Although the trade union leaders still hold most of the organised workers politically captive within the Tripartite Alliance, it is obvious that the tensions this creates inside, in particular, the Cosatu-unions are becoming increasingly unbearable. The municipal workers’ union SAMWU threatened to unleash a nationwide strike just days before the elections, having announced a few weeks earlier that it was becoming impossible to convince workers to go and vote for the ANC. The government intervened with promises and the strike was suspended at the last minute, but once such a political challenge has been pronounced it cannot simply be withdrawn. Regardless of what other considerations may have influenced the SAMWU-leadership’s stunt, it reflects the workers’ testing of the political room for manoeuvre within their unions.

The Alliance with the ANC means that the Cosatu leaders often directly work against the interests of their members, by importing the fights between the ANC’s various pro-capitalist factions to the workplace, and by transferring their political class collaboration with the bosses’ representative of choice – the ANC – to concrete class collaboration with the bosses themselves. Disgracefully, Cosatu leaders are often found focusing on establishing mutually beneficial relations with the capitalists instead of working out a programme for workers to act as a united front against all representatives of the bosses. In the latest, and one of the most appalling yet, development, 9,000 workers at Lonmin’s (the world’s third largest platinum producer) Karee Mine in Rustenburg have been fired after going on a spontaneous strike – provoked by the company management’s collaboration with their own national union leaders in the National Union of Mine workers (NUM, Cosatu’s biggest affiliate), in suppressing the workers’ democratic election of shop stewards. The Karee workers also saw the link to the ANC and disrupted the local polling station on Election Day in protest.

The local government elections of 2011 were held against the background of, and have themselves reinforced, the strengthening class contradictions and the cracks in the myth of the ANC government being the friend of the workers and the poor. Despite the support and protection of the SACP and Cosatu leaders, the ANC stands more and more exposed as a friend of big business and of its own pockets – a far cry from the change many hoped for when Mbeki was ‘recalled’ from the Presidency in 2008. While the political establishment celebrates the ‘maturing’ of South Africa’s young democracy, the illusions of 1994 have actually matured first into disillusion and confusion, and now increasingly into organised fury. A membership revolt in one of the Cosatu affiliates could be the break-through in the search for a new party that can unite struggling workers, youth and unemployed people through a socialist programme. That new left-wing organisations made progress in the elections constitute early, as yet small and scattered, steps in that direction. Now a force is needed which can unite these mass organisations and work out a basic joint programme and weld together the council seats that have been won into a spearhead towards the formation of a new socialist mass workers party.

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June 2011