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Is it a crime to fight for services?

This article is over 21 years, 11 months old
A POLITICAL show trial of 87 people began in Johannesburg this week. The accused face serious charges arising from demonstrations against privatisation and for the right to basic services.
Issue 1813

A POLITICAL show trial of 87 people began in Johannesburg this week. The accused face serious charges arising from demonstrations against privatisation and for the right to basic services.

Socialist Worker spoke to TREVOR NGWANE, who is one of those in court. Trevor is a leading militant involved in the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee. Trevor is also involved in organising protests outside the Earth Summit.

WHAT IS the background to the trial?

‘ON 6 April this year a busload of residents from Soweto township – pensioners, unemployed, workers and youth – marched to the residence of Johannesburg City’s mayor. He is Amos Masondo, an ANC member.

‘Masondo lives in the upmarket suburb of South Kensington. The group was marching in protest against electricity and water cut offs and against evictions from houses due to the ‘failure’ of working class people to keep up with their bills. The protesters wanted to present a document titled ‘Fire the mayor, fire the councillors’. It expressed their frustration with their elected local government officials who are implementing neo-liberal policies of privatisation and service cutoffs in the new South Africa.

‘The people also wanted the mayor’s electricity and water to be cut in order, as a mass meeting put it, to ‘give him a taste of his own medicine’. What followed was mayhem. The mayor’s bodyguard started firing live ammunition into the crowd, wounding two people.

‘The protesters retaliated with stones. The police came and arrested 87 people. They were kept in police station cells for three days and then 30 pensioners and minors were released. The rest spent another eight days in the notorious jail called Sun City. The guard who fired recklessly into the crowd was not arrested. All 87 face jail sentences of up to five years or huge fines. The rich are getting richer and the poor poorer in South Africa. Recent research puts the unemployment rate at over 40 percent with 13 million people, out of a total population of about 40 million, living below the poverty line.

‘During the struggle against apartheid the ANC offered popular policies – houses for all, jobs for all, healthcare for all and so on. But these refrains are now forgotten. Instead the ANC government has opted for a neo-liberal policy – the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) programme.

‘This was written with the collaboration of the World Bank. It is bitterly opposed by the majority of trade unions, NGOs and civil society in South Africa. Since GEAR was implemented the South African economy has lost more than a million jobs.

‘Privatisation of basic services has led to workers getting a much lower wage through contracting out and outsourcing of services. At the same time privatisation comes with a ruthless policy of cutoffs and an increase in the price of basic services. There have been more than three million water and three million electricity service cutoffs since 1994 because working class families have not been able to keep up payments.

‘The post-apartheid society was supposed to be a society of connections, connecting all those black working class people who had been deprived under apartheid. Instead the new South Africa is a society of disconnections. The dreams of a better life are being dashed on the altar of neo-liberalism. ‘

WHAT IS the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC)?

‘The SECC was formed in May 2000 when the various communities in Soweto township near Johannesburg decided to unite to fight electricity cutoffs. Incredibly, Sowetans paid more per kilowatt than rich people who live in the smart suburb of Sandton.

‘The structure of tariffs in Johannesburg looked like this at the time: Soweto 26 cents per kilowatt hour; Sandton 18 cents per kilowatt hour; businesses 7 cents per kilowatt hour. The SECC made a name for itself with its daring defiance campaign, ‘Operation Khanyisa’. This means ‘to light up’.

‘When ESKOM, the electricity company, cut people off, the SECC sent its struggle-trained technicians to reconnect the power supply. This was done under the slogans ‘Electricity is a right not a privilege’ and ‘It is better to break the law than to break the poor’.

‘Many of Soweto’s 40-plus township areas soon had an Operation Khanyisa team. The SECC’s bold campaign soon caught the national imagination and its campaign became prime time viewing. This campaign went hand in hand with a call to boycott electricity payments. The SECC demands free electricity. This follows the ANC government’s promise in the 2000 local government elections to provide free basic water and electricity for all.

‘It never materialised. It was dropped because it flew directly in the face of privatisation and its principle of putting profits before people. Today the SECC has adopted socialism as its vision for the future and is mobilising behind the demand for free basic services for all.

‘The SECC is an affiliate of the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF), a coalition of mainly community-based organisations fighting against the effects of privatisation and trying to unite labour and community struggles. In its two years of existence the APF has occupied a strategic place on the side of the working class. It is not yet a mass movement but seems destined to lead some great struggles in the near future.’

DO YOU feel part of a global movement?

‘The problems faced by South African workers are not unique. In other countries too workers face the ravages of neo-liberalism and globalisation. The South African working class was in a unique situation when, during the world lull in working class struggle, it was dealing telling blows to the apartheid regime.

‘Later, as the world working class was rising from its long slumber as exemplified by the rise of the anti-capitalist movement, South African workers were being demobilised from struggle. But the struggles in Seattle did not go unnoticed. Some comrades went there and came back to share their experiences. The Jubilee movement, for example, established itself in South Africa inspired by these international struggles.

‘The biggest challenge for South Africans is the fact that their president, Mbeki, is rapidly assuming the mantle of speaker for Africa and doing so speaking in neo-liberal language. He hopes to advantage South African capital by collaborating with international capital. So in a way South Africa will become the USA of Africa, dominating the continent’s economy, with a rising black bourgeoisie, an entrenched white bourgeoisie, a labour aristocracy of sorts and millions of poor people. South Africa is the weakest link in the chain of imperialism which is trying to squeeze the working class of Africa and the world.

‘NEPAD, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, is, like GEAR, a self imposed Africa-wide structural adjustment programme. Its aim is to circumvent the gains made by the anti-capitalist movement against institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO through claiming to be a plan made by Africans for Africa.

‘The best place to be to fight NEPAD is in South Africa. The struggle against apartheid taught us the value of international solidarity. We cannot conquer the capitalists and their destructive policies unless we turn this lesson into a practical programme of resistance and mass action.’

WHAT DO you think of the Earth Summit?

‘The summit offers nothing for the working classes of the world. It is a meeting of the rich and powerful intent on perpetuating their positions of power and privilege while lulling everyone to sleep with sugary theatrics and rhetoric.

‘Worse, the capitalists will try to use the meeting to get the world to endorse NEPAD and other policies that promote privatisation and trade liberalisation in favour of big profits. We have joined with other organisations in a forum called the Social Movement Indaba. It is organising protest action during the summit in the spirit of Seattle and Genoa.

‘This indaba is aiming to have a very big march on 31 August jointly with the Landless Peoples’ Movement and other emerging movements in South Africa. The ANC government of Thabo Mbeki is trying to muddy the water by calling its own ‘indaba’ and its own march whose aim is to lie to the world and claim popular support for Mbeki’s policies.

‘We believe that there can be no development without the mass participation of the working class in struggle against the bosses’ greed for profit.’

Globalise Resistance has organised a protest for the start of the trial of the 87. It is supported by War on Want and the World Development Movement. Thursday 15 August, 4.30pm, South Africa House, Trafalgar Square, London.

For more on the APF go to
For more on the demonstrations at the Earth Summit go to

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