South Africa’s election on 7 May is its most important and contentious since the one that ended Apartheid in 1994.
The ruling ANC is still expected to win comfortably, but its popularity has plummeted as ordinary people come to identify it with neoliberal cuts and corruption.
South African politics froze after 1994, with most activists seeing no alternative but to work within the tripartite alliance of the ANC, the trade union federation Cosatu and the South African Communist Party.
But this consensus was shattered after the massacre of striking miners at Marikana in 2012. A new wave of radicalism swept the country.
Recognised unions lost members as workers flooded to join unions like the miners’ Amcu that were prepared to lead unofficial strikes.
The federation went into crisis as several unions led by the metalworkers’ Numsa, demanded an end to the unquestioning acceptance of ANC policy.
Former youth leader Julius Malema broke from the ANC to form a radical new political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Then last December a special congress of Numsa withdrew support for the ANC and announced plans to facilitate a new workers’ party.
As a backdrop to the election some 80,000 platinum miners in Amcu have been in a bitter and entrenched strike for a decent wage for three months.
The establishment, including president Jacob Zuma, has been shaken by allegations of corruption. The trade union movement is not immune. Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of Cosatu, returned to work last month after eight months of suspension.
A high court reinstated him. Much of Cosatu’s membership believe he had been targeted for his outspoken opposition to the ANC government.
Cosatu’s leadership has confirmed a “ceasefire” regarding Vavi and Numsa. But this involves Vavi having to actively campaign for the ANC during the election campaign.
These seismic shifts in the political situation can be difficult to keep pace with even for revolutionaries active in South Africa.
Many strikers and other activists who have been enthused by recent events are thinking about electoral choices for the first time.
Rehad Desai, a long-time socialist activist in South Africa in the Democratic Left Front, told Socialist Worker, “The striking miners want to give the ANC a bloody nose and that’s why they gravitate to EFF.”
The EFF has taken the initiative. When Malema split from the ANC he brought many people who were schooled in organisation.
“The EFF has built the most important youth movement since the 1980s. It’s set to capture more than 10 percent of the vote,” Rehad said.
Many on the left are wary of the organisation and its leader. South Africa has a long history of leaders who talk very left until they come to office. But recently Malema has actively supported strikes and the young people EFF has recruited should be central to any future developments after the election.
Numsa has spoken of having a new workers’ party in place in time for local elections in 2016, but what kind of party is still to be decided.
“Many in Numsa seem to be enamoured with the model of Syriza in Greece,” said Rehad. “But general secretary Irvin Jim talks about creating a Leninist vanguard party.”
Socialists like Rehad are making sure that they will be involved in the discussions over the next year. They hope to try and create a militant democratic structure that can help make the leaders’ radical rhetoric become a reality.
However the election comes out, it is just a step in the continuing radicalisation of South Africa.
‘The struggle against Apartheid did not liberate the working class’
Irvin Jim, the general secretary of South Africa’s biggest union the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), thinks the time is right for a new struggle for socialism
“Our wish is the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system that has brought us to where we are,” he said.
“The ANC led the struggle for liberation in South Africa. Twenty years on it is clear that 1994 did not deliver liberation.”
Numsa voted last December to withdraw support for the ANC and wants to see a new workers’ party.
“While there have been marginal improvements in water, sanitation, electricity, education, housing and so on, all these have been on the basis of retaining the basic racist colonial economic framework of capitalism.
“Numsa cannot continue to support an ANC that implements neoliberal policies and protects the dominant capitalist interests.”
He hopes that the current row in Cosatu will not force a split.
“Our central objective in this moment is to maintain the unity of workers organised in Cosatu unions and to unite the working class,” he said. “Whether we achieve this through reforming Cosatu or not, only the future will tell.”
Irvin thinks planning is required to get a new party right—and that it must be based on workers.
He said, “Work is underway to explore the history and practice of socialism, and the many forms in which the working class have organised for the struggle.
“It is our objective to work towards the creation of an independent political party for the working class, to spearhead the struggle for socialism.”
“We hope the working class will support this revolutionary demand. Only the working class, through the struggle for socialism, can resolve the colonial question.
“South Africa’s working class has a long history of socialist struggles against capitalism and imperialism.”
‘We need socialism but there’s no hope of radical change under the ANC government’
Human rights lawyer Dali Mpofu is standing as a candidate for the new Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party in Gauteng province. He wants a young and diverse left challenge to the ANC
“EFF is part of the historical evolution of resistance politics since 1652, the arrival date of the first colonial settlers in the Cape,” he said. “We believe in a future non-racial society and we accept white membership.
“Our revolutionary outlook is primarily focused on class oppression, although it clearly manifests itself in racial terms given the history of South Africa.”
Dali thinks the ANC went astray in abandoning its radical tradition. He had been a member of the organisation for more than 30 years. He has been defending the families of miners killed in the Marikana massacre.
“The ANC, at its December 2012 national conference, deviated significantly from its own stated agenda and shifted to the right,” he explained.
“The future is socialism. There is no hope in hell to bring about the necessary radical transformation within the neoliberal outlook of the present government.”
Dali is keen to emphasise that EFF is a serious contender. And he is proud of EFF’s ability to attract young people.
He said, “It is due to this youthful energy that the party has grown so fast and so rapidly. However, there is clear and noticeable support coming from other age groups.
“We make deliberate efforts to recruit across race and gender. This is reflected in our candidate lists and leadership structures.”
“We have very ambitious plans to reach the million member mark in record time.”
EFF is watching Numsa’s project with interest. “We support Numsa’s calls for a conference on socialism and a united front of the left,” he said.
The miners’ fight is still on
Around 80,000 platinum miners in the Amcu union have been out for three months demanding a living wage of 12,500 rand (£700) a month.
Bheki Buthelezi, a community activist with the Marikana Support Campaign in Rustenberg, spoke to Socialist Worker.
“Regular mass meetings attended by about 6,000 people per shaft keep people going,” he said.
This is where people discuss ways to win—and much more.
“Most of our lives we spend eight hours at work for five or six days a week,” explained Bheki. “But now people can come together to discuss things we don’t normally have time to talk about.
“We have a chance to show the world who we really are.”
People from the townships join the strikers in the discussions.
“For example, people have agreed not to pay their rent until the strike is over, and to make sure no one is evicted,” said Bheki.
The miners have had to develop ways of surviving with no money coming in. Bheki said, “Most come from rural areas. They have land where they cultivate their own food.”
The government and the company have tried to undermine the strike by setting up a scab union and sending buses to the townships to pick up people prepared to work through the strike.
Bheki said, “Most of the people on strike are skilled rock drillers. So management can take these people in to work. But they are not able to produce any platinum.”
Strikes in the wave after the Marikana massacre were unofficial and usually short. This one is official and protracted—and the miners have not buckled.
Bheki said, “It will change the atmosphere in South Africa for a long time to come. Township activists have been blockading roads for ten or 12 years—but this is affecting the government.
“The union has opened a fund to help those who cannot afford food etc. Support the strikers. The capitalists support their side and we need to support ours.”
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