Dire position of South African capitalism and inequality adds momentum towards creation of workers’ party
The May general election in South Africa saw the African National Congress (ANC) returned to power for the fifth consecutive time since the end of Apartheid in 1994. But barely one hundred days since the election, there is widespread speculation that President Jacob Zuma will not see out his second term.
The scandal over the lavish state funding on ’security upgrades’ for his private Nkandla palace (including construction of a swimming pool, cattle kraal and amphitheatre) continues to dominate headlines. "Pay back the money!" has become a popular slogan across a country where millions continue to live in dire poverty in shacks and shanty towns.
Despite a 62% share of the vote, this was the ANC’s worst ever election result. A closer analysis nearly halves the ANC’s real support to just 35% – their 11.4 million votes dwarfed by the 14.3 million who did not vote. Only 36% of the ANC’s vote came from the ’metros’ – the big cities and industrial areas. In Johannesburg, Tshwane (Pretoria) and Ekhurhuleni, the ANC barely scraped a majority. Its vote share decreased between 10% and 15% compared to a decade earlier – these three areas alone accounted for over 20% of all the votes cast. It is fast becoming a rural party as significant sections of the working class and middle class break from them.
This poor performance has heightened tensions in the ANC post-election. The ANC-run Gauteng Provincial Government, which only just scraped back into office, is holding public hearings on the hugely unpopular motorway e-tolls, a major election issue in the province. It is trying to distance itself from the national government and revive the ANC’s dissolving electoral base in the area.
This is an act of open defiance against the national government which has insisted that motorists will have to pay e-tolls regardless of the enormous opposition finding voice through the public hearings. This is causing a split at the top of the ANC, with ANC General Secretary Gwede Mantashe ordering national government departments to boycott the hearings. But Mantashe’s deputy was reported as saying he would rather go to jail than pay the tolls!
The divisions in the ANC-aligned trade union federation Cosatu continue. The left in Cosatu, led by the metalworkers’ union Numsa, Cosatu’s largest affiliate, is fighting against the subordination of the federation to the ANC. A victory was won in April when the High Court ordered the reinstatement of suspended Cosatu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, a vocal critic of the ANC. However this victory has not ended the factionalism. The pro-ANC faction has said that nothing less than the expulsion of Numsa will satisfy them. A split is almost certain.
DSM (CWI South Africa), alongside a number of mineworkers’ strike committees, founded the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP) in the immediate aftermath of the 2012 Marikana massacre that saw 34 striking mineworkers murdered by the police. WASP set itself the task to begin to assemble the forces that could lay foundations for the creation of a mass workers’ party with a socialist programme. The creation of WASP has helped speed up the debate taking place among the most combative sections of the working class on the necessity for such a party.
Even the capitalist class seems convinced. One newspaper, rounding-up the ’scenario planning’ of several capitalist think-tanks noted "the consensus is that, eventually, a workers’ party must emerge". This is informed in no small part by Numsa which took the historic decision to break from the ANC at their December 2013 Special National Congress and has picked up the idea of founding a workers’ party and made it its own.
Road to a party
While remaining resolute in the face of the vitriol heaped upon them by their former ’comrades’ in the Tripartite Alliance, including death threats, the route the Numsa leadership is taking to a new party is not the most direct. Their early failure to take a position on who their members should vote for in the 2014 elections left some people doubting how serious their commitment to founding a workers’ party really is.
The Numsa leadership correctly understands that a workers’ party will be best placed if it emerges from struggle. But they have attempted to create struggle in an artificial manner according to a timetable. The leadership proposed to create a United Front (UF) to assemble the forces that could create a workers’ party. But attempts to muster the forces for the UF via a series of mass actions on broad socio-economic issues were called off after the working class, beyond Numsa’s own membership, largely failed to respond.
While pursuing this unsuccessful strategy, the Numsa leadership simultaneously failed to link the call for a workers’ party to the decisive strike action taken this year by the two most important sections of the South African working class. Over 70,000 platinum mineworkers were out for over five months, seeking to finish the campaign for a living wage begun in the Marikana strike wave. Becoming the longest strike in South African history, it ended with an important, if partial victory. Just one week later, 220,000 of Numsa’s own metalworkers began what would be a five week long strike for better pay, also achieving important gains.
The solidarity between the two strikes, exemplified in the metalworkers’ slogan that they would "turn their strike into a Marikana" showed the enormous potential. Unfortunately, in the face of the propaganda onslaught against ’political’ strikes by the capitalist media, the Numsa leadership were silent on their own call for a workers’ party throughout. However, Moses Mayekiso, WASP president and founding general secretary of Numsa, was widely quoted in the press and appeared on TV insisting that the strikes, if anything, should be more ’political’ and should push forward the creation of a workers’ party.
Despite these early missed opportunities, the Numsa leadership have since reconfirmed their commitment to a new party and the mood among members is decidedly in favour. Serious preparations are underway for the establishment of the UF. Gauteng province is launching its UF on 16-17 November by organising a mass action in Ekhurhuleni – the country’s industrial hub and Numsa’s main base. It is to coincide with the anniversary of the 1984 two day general strike that began a period of mass uprisings against the racist apartheid segregation system and culminated in the birth of Cosatu.
Similar initiatives are under way in other provinces. The indications are that this process is taking on its own life, especially as the crisis of the ANC adds fuel to the fire and the working class weighs the options of continued mis-rule versus creating their own alternative.
While Numsa deferred the question of a new party until after the election, the desire for a left alternative found one expression in the electoral breakthrough of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the first breakthrough for a party to the left of the ANC. The left-populist EFF, headed by former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, won 25 MPs campaigning on a programme of partial-nationalisation and land reform. Since entering parliament the EFF has done well at exposing the ANC and the limits of capitalist democracy, provoking an enraged response from the ANC who are at sea over how to handle the ’fighters’.
In one remarkable incident, riot police were called to parliament when Zuma refused to answer Malema who asked him, in a reference to the Nkandla scandal, when he would "pay back the money?" The parliamentary session was suspended when the EFF MPs started chanting demands for Zuma to answer the question. The summoning of the riot police ignored the ’immunity’ of parliament and was in breach of the constitution.
At a press conference the next morning, hosted by ANC security ministers rather than the ’independent’ parliamentary security officers, one journalist was prompted to ask, "Is this a coup?" This was just the latest anti-democratic and authoritarian act by the ANC, a dangerous and growing tendency that has become pronounced under Zuma’s leadership.
Going into the election the ANC rallied behind the deeply unpopular Zuma calculating that it would be more damaging to their electoral prospects to dump him before the election. The outrage at ’Nkandla-gate’ has been fuelled by Zuma’s contempt for any effort to hold him to account. He has refused to respond to the report by the state’s Public Protector (PP) recommending that he pay back a "reasonable portion" of the money and now a witch-hunt is in full-swing to discredit the PP, including the ludicrous charge that she is a CIA agent!
Further piling on the pressure is the release of the five year delayed ’spy-tapes’. These contain recordings of a series of telephone conversations between government officials allegedly conspiring to manipulate the legal process to ensure the dropping of a staggering 700 or more corruption charges faced by Zuma.
If proved, this would be a conspiracy of epic proportions as the dropping of the charges took place in the run up to the ANC’s 2007 conference that saw Zuma elected president of the ANC. Becoming president of the country was merely a formality once that battle was won. In another desperately transparent bid to save himself, the state prosecutor with the power to reinstate the charges is suddenly being investigated for his "fitness to hold office".
Despite his tenacity, there is a good possibility that Zuma will fail to save himself. He could be deposed by a party recall, the same method that Zuma orchestrated to depose former president Thabo Mbeki, assuring his own rise to power. All eyes are on the ANC’s 2017 conference, though it is possible things could come to a head well before then, with trigger fingers becoming itchy as the 2016 local elections approach.
Crisis of capitalism
The crisis of the ANC and of Zuma is a reflection of the crisis of South African capitalism. The economy is stagnant with the first quarter of 2014 seeing the economy contract by 0.6% and the second quarter only growing by the same. Growth this year is predicted to be just 1.7%, even worse than 2009 which saw recession and the loss of one million jobs in the wake of the world economic crisis.
The current account deficit has widened to 6.2%. In June, South Africa’s sovereign debt was downgraded by the global ratings agencies. Two months later the top four banks were downgraded. In mid-August, African Bank, the largest unsecured lender in South Africa collapsed, prompting a government organised bailout.
Meanwhile the crisis of South African capitalism leaves it incapable of even beginning to address the dire living standards of the working class. Of the 22 million South Africans that make use of credit, nine million are three months or more in arrears. Unsecured lending has been increasing at more than 30% a year as workers try and make ends meet.
But the working class continues to respond with determined struggle. Alongside the platinum and metalworkers strikes, there has been no let-up in community struggles or struggle among the youth. In Ga-Nchabeleng WASP members played a leading role in a two week struggle of the community, culminating in a 3,000 strong demonstration that forced the municipality into a retreat over the cancelled opening of government services in the area.
Mass protests have taken place on several university campuses. The Socialist Youth Movement, WASP’s youth wing, played an important role in a still ongoing student strike over inadequate financial support for students from a poor background at the Tshwane University of Technology which led to the closing of five of the six campuses.
Immediately upon being re-elected in May the ANC reconfirmed its commitment to plough ahead with its neo-liberal National Development Plan. This will provoke an inevitable response from a militant and confident working class.
The ability of the capitalist class to respond will be weakened given the crisis in the ANC which will ultimately lead to a bloody and debilitating succession battle not to mention the crisis faced by their ’labour-lieutenants’ in Cosatu. The disastrous role of Zuma, the never-ending corruption, and the ANC’s growing irritation with the ’niceties’ of parliamentary democracy has all the makings of a looming constitutional crisis. The post-1994 settlement has decayed beyond repair and change is coming.
What Numsa’ does on the question of a new workers’ party in the next period has profound implications for the future. With raised expectations about the creation of a workers’ party, the dire position of South African capitalism, and the severe poverty and inequality faced by the working class, the momentum toward the creation of a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme, at this stage, seems unstoppable. The birth of such a party will open up a new chapter in the history of the working class and put the question of socialism firmly on the agenda.