WHEN SOUTH Africans went to the polls this week it marked ten years since black people won the right to vote. A cursory examination of South Africa today reveals deep cracks in the post-apartheid capitalist society. Despite big talk about what has been achieved, the rich continue to get richer and the poor poorer. The majority black ANC government wants South Africans to celebrate and relish the newfound peace, justice and national unity after centuries of conflict, division and injustice.
Brazenly cultivating a celebratory mood and atmosphere, the country’s new rulers capture in one motto their contradictory claim to history: “A lot has been done, a lot has still to be done.” President Thabo Mbeki, in a speech to open Freedom Park, where the main celebrations will take place on Freedom Day on 27 April, traces the struggle for freedom back to humanity’s ancestors. Some of these people’s remains, such as the famous skull of Australopithecus, were discovered on South African soil.
Freedom Park is a site on a hill overlooking Pretoria, the country’s capital, that has been recently constructed as a “freedom theme park”. This celebrates, according to the tourist brochure, the “seven events of conflict in South Africa’s past: genocide, slavery, the wars of resistance, the Anglo-Boer wars, the struggle for liberation, and the first and second world wars”.
The ceremony to open Freedom Park was preceded by “cleansing, healing and symbolic reparations” ceremonies held in the country’s nine provinces. This involved the collection of small samples of the remains of people and soldiers who died in the seven events. The idea behind this historically puzzling, superstitious and mystifying treatment of past injustices-conducted by African “traditional healers” and other “religious leaders”-is attributed to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
The TRC gave amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes against humanity during the apartheid era as part of the reconciliation process. The ANC government rejected the TRC’s more practical recommendations for reparations, such as financial payments to the victims of apartheid by corporations that profited from apartheid. No amount of symbolism can hide the reality of a nation increasingly divided along class lines in the last ten years.
The grudging admission that “a lot still needs to be done” by the ANC government is perhaps the understatement of the decade. All the major social indicators tell a story of immiseration and pauperisation of the vast majority of South Africans-the working class. Unemployment stands above 40 percent. Among certain sections of the population such as the youth, women and rural folk the rate of unemployment can be as high as 70 percent.
All the social ills and problems associated with eight million people sitting at home without gainful employment, on the back of a history of economic and social inequality, are asserting themselves with a vengeance. Like the US, South Africa’s rate of jailing one person for every 4,000 people in the population is sending more black working class youth to jail than to college.
South Africa is the rape and child molestation capital of the world. The biggest number of people living with HIV/AIDS is in South Africa. The ANC government recently published a report on its achievements in the past ten years. Undisputed is the achievement of the vote for all regardless of race, freedom of speech and movement, and freedom to protest.
Then follow the highly debatable socioeconomic claims. The ANC says ten million people now have piped water and have access to electricity for the first time; pension and child maintenance grants extended to two million people; free healthcare services to all pregnant women and children under the age of six, and so on. But, given the great need existing and policies which undermine these gains, the overall result is far from satisfactory.
Ten million people live in informal housing. These are mostly corrugated iron ramshackle structures which periodically catch fire, leaving thousands homeless. Ten million people have had their water and electricity cut off because they cannot afford to pay. In its annual report, Telkom, a state telecommunications company recently privatised, admits to connecting 13 million new telephone lines and disconnecting ten million.
The contradictions of so called black economic empowerment paint a vivid picture of what is really happening in the new South Africa. While companies lay off hundreds of thousands of workers and government outsources thousands of workers from secure state employment into a life of casual low paid employment, a few black individuals have become filthy rich multi-millionaires.
The former National Union of Mineworkers and ANC general secretary, Cyril Ramaphosa, now owns some of the gold mines he used to organise workers in. Mine owner Brigitte Radebe is the richest black woman in Africa. She is the wife to ANC minister and South African Communist Party leader Jeff Radebe. Many commentators on the left in South Africa surmise that the struggle against apartheid was getting too hot for the capitalist class in South Africa. So the capitalists took a calculated gamble to hand over power to a black (capitalist/puppet) government.
Its social base would be a newly created black capitalist class and middle class.
This plan would also serve the important function of containing and diverting the working class struggle from dangerous revolutionary anti-capitalist lines into safe liberal-democratic constitutional lines. The bosses’ gamble paid off. Today, in exchange for allowing the ANC and the working class its “freedom”, the bosses won the right to take their money and run.
All the big corporations that made their money under apartheid have, with the blessings of the ANC government, listed themselves on stock exchanges abroad. The bosses’ share of profit in 2003 was their biggest since 1981. Company tax has been brought down from 49 percent under apartheid to below 30 percent.
While government spending on education, healthcare and other social spending has remained static in real terms since 1995, South African capitalists, black and white, have been laughing all the way to the bank. The ANC government has been busy privatising state corporations such as Eskom, Telkom, Transnet and Denel. These companies dominate the country’s electricity, telecommunications, transport and arms industries.
Privatisation means taking assets which were accumulated and developed by the labour of workers under conditions of severe exploitation and handing these over to the capitalists. This takes place at the historical moment which should have been payback (reparations) time. When Telkom was listed on the New York Stock Exchange it was workers who again paid with thousands of jobs shed.
Privatisation and other neo-liberal policies only serve to strengthen the bosses while undermining working class power. The ANC government’s calculations about its achievements pale into insignificance if viewed from a class analysis of power relations. By embracing capitalist ideology and abandoning the working class politics that they espoused during the anti-apartheid struggle, the ANC leadership has given power to the capitalists.
Handing over all the commanding heights of the economy to capital has strengthened capitalism in South Africa and left little leverage and chance of the working class benefiting from the new situation. It is no wonder that there has emerged in South Africa a strong if small movement against neo-liberalism.
New social movements such as the Landless People’s Movement, the Anti-Privatisation Forum, the Anti-Eviction Campaign, Jubilee South Africa and others have emerged to lead and coordinate the defensive actions of communities who are under attack.
People are taking full advantage of the democratic spaces won against apartheid. Working class communities are organising themselves against water and electricity cutoffs, evictions and forced removals, the failure of government to provide treatment to people living with HIV/AIDS, and other attacks. Recently these social movements have formed the Social Movements Indaba in which they will organise long term unity and solidarity in the face of increasing state repression.
The challenges faced by the working class in South Africa are immense. The new social movements are struggling to win organised labour to their side against the ANC government and the capitalists. Cosatu, the largest trade union federation, is still in a political alliance with the ANC. Cosatu was calling for the workers to vote for the ANC in the national elections on Wednesday of this week.
The ANC will have won this election, but the sceptical attitude of the working class towards this election is in sharp contrast to the enthusiasm of the first election in 1994.
Many workers will have sat at home and not bothered to vote because of their disappointment with the ANC and the absence of a viable alternative. Even those who will vote for the ANC will do it out of habit rather than hope. This will be a fitting if sad tribute to ten years of much-acclaimed democracy which benefited the capitalists at the expense of the working class. Freedom will not be assured by the ANC doing more of the same. What is needed in South Africa is a party which will take power and undo the damage the ANC has done by following capitalist policies.
Two inspiring strikes show the way forward
We shouldn’t let them hide from the truth