Nelson Mandela, jailed for 27 years for fighting the apartheid regime in South Africa, is an inspiration to millions fighting for freedom and justice around the world.
People in South Africa celebrated Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 because it signalled the possibility of change in their lives. But it seems that their modest hopes have proved too large for the stingy confines of 21st century capitalism.
In his first speech after his release, Mandela said, “There must be an end to white monopoly on political power and a fundamental restructuring of our political and economic systems to ensure that the inequalities of apartheid are addressed and our society thoroughly democratised.”
Today, 18 years after Mandela walked out of jail, one in ten South Africans still use bucket toilets. At least one in three people of working age is unemployed in a country with no unemployment benefits.
Black people now run the government – the African National Congress (ANC) has been the ruling party since 1994. But before the ANC came to power it was clear that radical economic restructuring was off the menu.
It promised to leave the market economy intact and abandoned policies such as nationalisation, which could have given the new government control over wealth accumulated in private hands. Instead it aimed to overcome apartheid inequality by stimulating economic growth through limited state provision of basic needs like housing.
Bizarrely, it expected that the social welfare previously reserved for the minority of poor whites would be sufficient to tackle black poverty.
Meanwhile it strangled its own funding by cutting corporate taxes from 48 percent in 1994 to 30 percent by 1999.
Limited Keynesian reforms quickly evaporated in the cold light of a cut-throat world. Local companies sat on their money rather than invest it in low-profit schemes such as housing for the poor. The biggest companies invested elsewhere.
In 1990, 38 percent of national income went to profit. By 2005, it had grown to 42.5 percent. Meanwhile, the share going to wages fell from 51 percent to 45 percent. The Gini co-efficient, which measures inequality, rose from about 0.6 in 1994, the year of the elections, to 0.72 in 2006.
These policies left a fearsome social crisis. In 1994 the government promised to build a million low-cost houses within five years, already too few. In the end that took ten years. Meanwhile people streamed to the cities to find work, ballooning existing informal settlements.
The number of people living in shacks and backyards grew 26 percent between 1999 and 2001. Pressure on housing undoubtedly contributed to the awful attacks on immigrants which swept through poor areas recently.
By 2005 about 2.4 million people were living in shacks, leading even the housing minister to comment that “apartheid’s legacy remains strongly tenacious”.
Democracy too has been undermined. Police now routinely use rubber bullets and teargas on strikers and protesters. A few years ago, around 100 members of the Anti-Privatisation Forum were locked up overnight so that Thabo Mbeki, the president, would not have to see their placards.
Few Marxists outside the South African Communist Party expected the ANC to bring socialism. It talked about socialism because it relied heavily on the working class, but its politics were nationalist.
But even the traditional nationalist goal of turning a white economy black has been severely curtailed. Less than one fifth of companies on the stock exchange were black-owned in 2006.
The lion’s share of black economic empowerment deals went to just four prominent politicians-turned-businessmen. The black middle class that is supposed to have mushroomed at the end of apartheid relies heavily on borrowing.
Recent interest rate rises threaten to shove very many of them right back down into the proletariat.
It’s hard to see how the social crisis can be resolved without restructuring that goes much deeper even than that envisaged by Mandela on his release – restructuring that bursts through the very idea of private ownership and profit.
In an era of ageing capitalism, when the working class fights for democratic reforms they will be pushed to fight beyond them because the space for reforms within the system is narrowed to a hairline.
In 1994, because the powerhouse of the working class placed its hopes in ANC government, this fight was derailed.
But the crisis cannot unfold without constantly calling into existence a collective response from those at its receiving end.
The attacks on immigrants show the ugly side, where a minority replied to their own misery by turning on their neighbours.
But the strikes and anti-government protests that started in 2005 promise hope. Building independent working class politics is key to the future.
Claire Ceruti edits the South African magazine Socialism from Below » socialismfrombelow.googlepages.com