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New challenges in South Africa

This article is over 12 years, 6 months old
I’ve just returned from spending a fortnight in South Africa. It was my first visit since the early 1990s. A lot has happened since then.
Issue 2159

I’ve just returned from spending a fortnight in South Africa. It was my first visit since the early 1990s. A lot has happened since then.

The long and bloody struggle against apartheid reached its climax with the country’s first democratic elections in 1994. The black majority won equal citizenship rights and their main organisation, the African National Congress (ANC), has governed the country for the past 15 years.

There are many visible changes. In Soweto, where the wave of risings that finally broke white rule started in June 1976, Nelson Mandela’s house is now a tourist site. There is a very moving memorial for Hector Peterson, the first of many black school students to die at the hands of the South African police during the risings.

There is a lot of new building going on in the capital Johannesburg – partly in frenzied preparation for next year’s World Cup. And a confident, affluent black middle class that didn’t exist 20 years ago is now quite visible.

But there is a lot that hasn’t changed. Political apartheid may have gone, but the segregation that divided black and white has survived.

The United Nations (UN) has dubbed Johannesburg the most unequal city in the world. This is hardly a surprise if one contrasts the affluent, overwhelmingly white northern suburbs with the much more modest homes interspersed with shanty settlements that predominate in Soweto.

The real level of unemployment in South Africa is about two fifths of the workforce, higher even than in the apartheid era.

People – most, though not all, black – begging or engaging in the most marginal petty trading abound in Johannesburg. But much greater poverty is to be found in some of the old rural Bantustans where unemployment is at astronomical levels.

What lies behind this is in part the settlement achieved by the ANC and the old ruling National Party in the early 1990s. In effect, the whites surrendered political power in exchange for hanging on to economic power.

The ANC has pursued disastrous neoliberal economic policies in office. It adopted “Gear” – Growth, Employment and Redistribution – in 1996.


Finance minister Trevor Manuel promised a growth rate of 6 percent a year, which would be achieved by opening up to the world market and privatising.

This target has never been achieved. South Africa remains dependent, as it was under white rule, on the export of platinum, diamonds, and gold.

The big corporations that dominate the economy were allowed to move their headquarters to London and to shift capital out of the country.

Fortunately, South Africa boasts a militant and well-organised working class. Its struggles forced the abolition of apartheid and are now increasingly challenging the ANC’s direction.

A giant public sector workers’ strike in 2007 showed the depth of mass opposition to Gear.

The South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) – the political and industrial wings of the workers’ movement – discussed breaking their alliance with the ANC.

This is the background against which the ANC’s recent leadership crisis unfolded. Jacob Zuma was able to remove the unpopular president Thabo Mbeki thanks to the SACP and Cosatu’s support.

To win the elections in April, the ANC mobilised its activists on a scale not seen since the end of apartheid. It triumphed, and in the process brushed aside a right wing pro-Mbeki breakaway and the tribalist Inkatha Freedom Party.

Because Zuma tacked left to remove Mbeki and win the elections, there are huge expectations of his government. Two SACP leaders were given ministerial portfolios. But Trevor Manuel was promoted to a new planning job that makes him in effect prime minister.

This means that the ANC alliance is likely to be the lightning rod for the continuing conflict between labour and capital.

South Africa has a small independent left active in social movements. To have a future it must learn to work with the many activists in the SACP and Cosatu demanding that Zuma fulfils his promises.

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