The images on our TV screens of jubilant South Africans at football’s Confederations Cup in June have been quickly replaced by those of South Africans burning tyres and building barricades.
Over 100,000 workers have taken part in strikes recently and, although council workers called off action after reaching a deal last week, more strikes look set to follow.
The recent wave of township protests and strikes came just months after the re-election in April of the African National Congress (ANC), and election of Jacob Zuma as president.
Many people, particularly those in the giant trade union federation the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), saw Zuma as representing a new start for the ANC government.
Many have been disappointed by the last 12 years of former president Thabo Mbeki’s neoliberal policies. The protests and strikes have caught many people by surprise.
One example expresses the depths of the anger. Last month in Siyathemba township, a small mining and farming town in Mpumalanga province, the local ANC mayor Lefty Tsotetsi arrived in an armoured police car to address local residents.
He was advised that it was too dangerous for him to get out of the car. Protesters carrying clubs and pipes accused him of living in luxury and giving out jobs to his friends and family.
Some mainstream commentators have sought to describe the recent protests as simply xenophobic after foreign-owned shops were targeted. The reality is quite different.
In Siyathemba for example, violence was sparked when police attacked people who were leaving a community meeting with rubber bullets, teargas and, according to some residents, live ammunition.
Protesters set fire to two buildings—a small municipal office and a partially ruined school store. Anti-foreigner sentiment was limited and local protest leaders condemned it.
It is the outbreak of national strikes that makes the recent protests explosive. These strikes follow the month long action in June 2007—the longest and largest public sector strike in the history of South Africa, which involved over 700,000 workers—and a general strike in August 2008.
Fifteen years of ANC rule has seen South Africa become home to a high level of protest. Government and police figures show that between 1997 and 2008 there were 8,695 violent or unrest-related crowd management incidents and 84,487 peaceful demonstrations or peaceful crowd management incidents.
Government officials believe that the rate of protests in 2009 will exceed those for 2007 and 2008.
What lies behind the protests? Under the ANC, South Africa has become the most unequal country in the world. It is Africa’s most successful economy—but not everyone has benefited.
Neoliberal policies have hit the poorest hard. Money has been diverted from public spending into funding tax cuts for the rich and middle class.
The ANC government has slashed corporation tax from 50 percent in the early 1990s to less than 30 percent today.
While there has been investment in infrastructure, it has been based on Private Finance Initiatives similar to those in Britain. Money has gone into tourist projects and developments that will largely service the rich and middle class.
Many households and communities remain trapped in poverty. There are still 2,000 informal settlements in which people live without sanitation and electricity in shacks made of corrugated iron and rubbish. On average there are ten shack fires a day, killing hundreds of people every year.
Unemployment is officially 23 percent—but most serious observers and activists put the figure at over 40 percent.
It is set to rise as the global economic crisis hits a country whose recent economic fortunes have depended on growing global demand for commodities such as coal, gold and platinum.
Half of all 18–24 year olds are unemployed and thousands of those protesting today are young.
Little wonder that demands for jobs and decent wages are central for township protesters and striking workers alike. This is a country in which one worker feeds, on average, five members of the family.
Zuma recently promised to create 500,000 jobs. But he also said, “These are not the permanent jobs the economy should create but opportunities that should help our people survive in the short term.”
Some see Zuma as a friend of the workers who is willing to listen to the trade unions. He and his supporters argue that he was victimised by Mbeki and his supporters.
Some on the left argued that Mbeki was replaced as president due to the internal conflicts inside the ANC.
But these conflicts reflect the anger and frustration with ANC neoliberal policies. Mbeki’s fate was not sealed by internal party manoeuvres but by protests and the 2007 general strike.
Zuma is a pragmatist who has sought, so far successfully, to reassure the country’s capitalists that he will not make a lurch to the left.
At one point prior to his election Zuma talked of establishing a “pact” between businesses, government and unions to address low wages, strikes and inflation.
The strikes and protests have shattered this idea. It is very difficult to know what the political fallout of this latest wave of protests and strikes will be.
There is always talk of the Alliance between the ANC, Cosatu and the SACP breaking up, but many leading activists still feel that it is better to work inside it.
What is clear is that the militant strikes and the township protests have blown apart the neoliberal consensus in the Alliance.
They have also dashed any hopes that Zuma would usher in a new period of social stability.
The government has tried to blame “municipal incapacity” for the failure of “service delivery”—the provision of basic services including water and electricity—in an attempt to deflect public anger.
But as protester Mzonke Poni told reporters, “Whenever the ANC government fails to deliver, it comes up with excuses and blames it on individuals.
“It’s true that its councillors lack commitment and skills, but it is the national leadership that is also to blame.”
This climate of rebellion creates immense opportunities and challenges for socialists—both to help organise the protests and also to unite the struggles of the unemployed township poor and workers into a political alternative to challenge the dominance of the ANC.