Africa Economy National Question South Africa

South Africa: Ending the ‘Class Apartheid’?

By Lal Khan and Javed Iqbal

The South African ruling party African National Congress (ANC) suffered a serious defeat in the recent local elections losing millions of votes to Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party throughout the country. ANC nationally received 53.9% of the vote; the Democratic Alliance polled almost 27% while the Economic Freedom Fighters’ party on the left polled 8.2% of the vote. The ANC lost its majority in the party’s stronghold of Nelson Mandela Bay, losing in key metro cities like Port Elizabeth an important industrial city, Pretoria the national capital and Johannesburg the country’s financial capital. This is a very serious setback for a party that negotiated an end of apartheid under the careful eye of USA imperialism and came to power under the leadership of Nelson Mandela in 1994.

When ANC came into power in 1994 the black majority population had huge expectations and aspirations. They were looking forward to a life of free of apartheid but more importantly they were yearning for a life of free from poverty, unemployment, inequality, squalor and degradation. In the last two decades we have witnessed hundreds of thousands of jobs disappear, an alarming increase in unemployment, inflation has spiralled out of control with costs for the basics such as electricity, water, food and rents skyrocketing.

After being patient with ANC for twenty-two years black South Africans used these local elections as a clear warning to the ANC to say enough is enough and that ANC historic role in fighting the apartheid system and ending it no longer guarantees it the right to govern. The opposition Democratic Alliance over the last two decades has been regarded as a party of the white apartheid and has been seen as predominantly the official voice of the white middle class for the first time find itself challenging the one-party rule of the ANC and more importantly has made inroads into the black townships as well.

Expressing the indignation of the workers, Jay Naidoo, former general secretary of COSATU in an article entitled, “Can’t you hear the thunder?” wrote,
“All they see is the obscenity of shocking wealth and the chasm of inequality growing. The platinum mines they toil in, for a pittance, yield a precious metal that makes exorbitant jewellery that adorns the necks of the affluent and catalytic converters for the expensive cars the middle classes drive. The workers live in hovels, in informal squatter camps, surrounded by poverty and without basic services. All they experience is a political arrogance of leaders who more often than not enrich themselves at the expense [of] the people. They are angry and restless.”

The apartheid system left behind a gargantuan task for the ‘new’ South Africa to overcome. Black ‘education’ was limited to producing ‘hewers of wood and carriers of water’, thus the critical skills and infrastructure needed, especially in governance and education would, even with the best will in the world, take a generation or more to produce if the country was to redress the imbalances created by white minority rule.  South Africa under apartheid was perhaps the only country where there are locks on fridge doors to stop the servants stealing food.

But what became known as Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), was and is largely a bad joke, limited to the tiny black elite who was rapidly co-opted into the existing white, capitalist power structures. Ironically, no longer the pariah of the world, South Africa’s white minority is even better off now than it was under apartheid. The only blacks to have gained are a tiny minority, many from the ranks of the ANC and the trade unions as well as the South African Communist Party (SACP). The corruption scandals whirling around the president, Jacob Zuma and many others in government have not the party of Nelson Mandela.

The division between rich and poor has widened, while a tiny layer of businessmen associated with the ANC have become millionaires. Cyril Ramaphosa, former head of NUM who became closely involved with the apartheid era corporate bosses, the Oppenheimers and the Anglo-American Corporation running the diamond and gold mines. Ramaphosa is on the board of mining giant Lonmin at the centre of the massacre of the Marikana miners, as are some members of the SACP also now big capitalists. In 1994 everything changed in the post-apartheid world when the ANC ceased to be part of the liberation movement after it transformed itself into a political party that followed the western capitalist model.

Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki and those around him had already thrown in their lot, first with Tony Blair’s Labour Party and later with Clinton’s Democratic Party. The deal was done. The US even allowed South African communists such as Joe Slovo, SPSA’s general secretary, formerly branded a terrorist, to visit the US. The ANC even bought the services of Greenberg-Lake, the US public relations company that had engineered Bill Clinton’s successful election campaign, as ‘advisors’. Then the US National Democratic Institute (NDI), the Democratic Party’s think-tank tried to get in on the act, quickly followed by the Republican Institute. The tragedy at Marikana was the logical outcome of the fundamental contradiction that exists when a powerful trade union such as NUM is allied to a political party, the ANC that is pursuing neoliberal, anti-working class policies.

There’s none so blind as those that won’t see and while it’s true that giant, transnational mining corps do all they can to exploit the contradictions as the capitalists do, it’s still no excuse to talk of “deepening the unity of our Alliance”, as the SACP put it, when COSATU is de facto complicit in supporting the ANC’s neoliberal policies and all in the name of preserving an alliance that doesn’t actually exist. The SACP had support in the townships and COSATU-affiliated unions in the workplace, that they could have called out the masses and taken the transformation down an entirely different path had they chosen to.

“While the middle classes are upset about government incompetence and corruption, the working classes are economically frustrated by the lack of jobs – let alone decent jobs with good salaries” Sebastian Spio-Garbrah a South African economist told the Guardian. President Zuma’s handling of the economy has caused particular frustration. Socio-economic stagnation and crippling unemployment are affecting over a quarter of working-age South Africans and disproportionately its young people are plagued with it in South Africa.

There is also anger about widespread inequality. About 80% of South Africa’s 54 million citizens are black, but most land and companies remain in the hands of white people who make up fewer than 10% of the population. At the same time 70 percent of top managers are whites. Among blacks in South Africa, according to official figures, the unemployment rate is 28.8 percent, compared with 5.9 percent among whites. Almost two-thirds of whites spend more than 10,000 rands, around $625, on their monthly living costs, compared with 8 percent among blacks, sometimes described as an emergent middle class.

Those disparities reflect the flagrant injustices in the distribution of wealth and land along with many other equally intractable malpractices, including corruption and mismanagement. Global research quotes the journalist Shaun de Waal raising two questions that haunt the race debate as much as its subject. “Where to from here?” he asked, and “Is this the death of the ‘rainbow nation’ dream?”

In South Africa unionised labour constitutes about 10% of those with formal jobs, which isn’t saying much, given perhaps as much as 60% of the population are employed in the ‘informal economy’ and thus are not counted or represented by COSATU or the SACP. However their trade unionism is that of industrial capitalism complete with its ‘labour aristocracy’ and yet another depressing legacy of a reformist left, only this time in Africa.

The figures in the World Bank’s latest report exhibit a startling inequality with 0.7 percent of the population having 58% of the country’s income, while the bottom 50 percent less than 8%. South Africa’s growth is stuck in low gear with real GDP growth estimated at 1.3% in 2015/16 and projected at 0.8% for 2016/17 due to a combination of domestic constrains and external headwinds arising from the fall in commodity prices and a slowdown in the Chinese economy.  The weak growth in economy has exacerbated already high unemployment, inequality, and macro vulnerabilities. The weak economic outlook has made the regime go for even greater cuts on the living standards of ordinary South Africans. In the 2016/17 budget, the government announced tax measures to reduce the budget deficit from 3.9% of GDP in 2015/16 to 3.0% of GDP in 2017/18 and stabilize the gross debt burden at about 51% of GDP.

Anthea Jeffery, head of special research at the South African Institute of Race Relations in Johannesburg, said in an interview, “The number of people living in shacks has gone up since the fall of apartheid, from fewer than 1 million in 1995 to about 1.4 million today. Poverty figures are also on the rise, with 4 million South Africans living on less than a dollar a day, up from 2 million people in 1994. Official unemployment figures of 4.5 million jobless people fail to mention the 3.5 million unemployed who have simply given up looking for jobs. Many blacks say they live in a “cappuccino” society, with a lot of black coffee at the bottom, a layer of white foam on top of that, and a sprinkling of cocoa on the very top, for the show.” In black-majority townships such as Soweto, where many blacks feel that political freedom has brought them little more than a few changes to the same old white-dominated economy.

Neva Makgetla, an economist who formerly worked for the Council of South African Trade Unions told the Christian Science Monitor, “It’s class tension coming into the black community…What you had before, during apartheid, was substantial unity in the community. Now, when you see old comrades becoming billionaires, it’s really strange. It’s become a lottery…It’s a good recipe for revolution,” he warns. “One day the people will rise. The next revolution is for food. Everywhere around us, the signs are there. The clouds are gathering. We are going to have rain.”

Few governments would have enjoyed such an extended period of good will of the masses as the ANC since it came to office in 1994 under the presidency of Nelson Mandela promising to create a “Rainbow Nation” in which the entire population would share the economic benefits of the mineral-rich country. The ANC’s much-touted “Black Economic Empowerment” programme has betrayed the majority of the oppressed masses living in townships and rural areas that lack even the most essential amenities.

Class tensions have been developing for several years, while the ANC pursued free market policies that resulted in mounting unemployment and failed to meet the needs of the toiling masses. President Jacob Zuma came with the deposition of Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, promising to provide jobs, housing and services. But he has continued the same pro-business policies, resulting in growing poverty, misery, deprivation, disillusionment and the anger.

What the ruling elite fears most is that the majority of the population, who are not organised in unions, may begin to mobilise and a mass insurgency similar to the one, which brought about the end of apartheid may erupt. Some 50 percent of young people are unemployed. The conditions exist for a social explosion and a major event or a massive strike movement may ignite it. Deep fissures are opening up in the South African national movement, as fundamental class conflicts re-emerge with immense force under the impact of the global failure of the capitalist system. These will only widen, as the government attempts to carry out the demands of the international markets and diseased capitalism in terminal decay.

In the coming period there can be a massive and abrupt eruption of open class struggle in South Africa, pitting of millions of workers against the bourgeois nationalist ANC or any other capitalist government.  Such a movement can go the whole way towards a revolutionary transformation. Such a gigantic change will conclusively demonstrate that the only way to complete the democratic revolution and resolve deep-seated questions such as the distribution of land and the provision of essential services is through the overthrow of the profit system and the organization of production on the basis of social need, not profit, through a socialist revolution. A revolution in South Africa the most important country of the sub-Saharan Africa shall inevitably spread like a wildfire throughout the Black continent.

Leave a Comment