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Trevor Ngwane: Leading South African activist speaks out

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Trevor Ngwane is a leading activist in South Africa against neo-liberalism and for socialism.
Issue 1775

In 1995, in the first wave of local elections after the end of apartheid, he was elected as an African National Congress (ANC) councillor for Pimville in the giant township of Soweto near Johannesburg. He served for four years, and was then suspended for speaking out against privatisation.

He objected to the ANC’s plan to privatise public services like electricity, water and parks. He was offered the chance to ‘redeem himself’ by apologising for his stand. He consulted his constituents, and refused. Trevor spoke to Socialist Worker when he visited Britain recently.

The war

In South Africa there is very widespread hostility to what the US and Britain are doing. Very large numbers of people reacted to the events of 11 September with sympathy for the victims, but with the sense that this was the direct result of the way the US has behaved.

The US has, for example, backed all the most brutal forces in Africa. It supported UNITA in Angola, members of Bush’s party supported RENAMO in Mozambique, and the CIA put Mobutu in charge in Congo. And, of course, for a long time US governments and businesses were friends of the apartheid state.

There is a serious anti-war movement in South Africa. There have been protests in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. They have not been huge, but they are good signs. The government is politically with Bush, but it is not directly participating in the war. It is scared of the reaction at home.

But the government’s ‘neutrality’ is not at all acceptable. It won’t stop the bombs on Afghanistan. It won’t stop the B-52s and the murder of children.

South Africa today

South Africa is being delivered into the hands of global capital. The ANC government has decided that capitalism and the drive for profit are its priorities. That is now the god they serve.

The government is pulling out all the stops to force through privatisation. It is now tackling the ‘big four’-telecom, transport, electricity and the arms industry.

Local government services such as water are going out to private firms. All the talk is of public-private partnerships. Very hard struggle and international solidarity got rid of apartheid seven years ago. Apartheid based on race has gone, but we still have apartheid based on class. When the ANC was first elected its central policy was the RDP-the Reconstruction and Development Programme.

This was supposed to roll back the legacy of apartheid through massive house-building, big improvements in healthcare and other services, plus the democratisation of the state. Within two years the RDP had been buried. Instead we had GEAR-Growth, Employment and Redistribution. It is openly about market-driven development-which means development for the rich. The rich have got richer and the poor have got poorer. There is a fightback.

The most important resistance to privatisation was the general strike called by the COSATU federation and supported by other unions at the end of August. Five million workers took part. The demonstrations in Durban at the UN conference on racism also saw a huge mobilisation of around 25,000 people against colonialism and imperialism. There are also campaigns based in the community, like the Anti-Privatisation Forum that I am involved with.

We are active, militant and ready to take on the authorities. For example, people are too poor to pay power bills. Prices have risen by up to 400 percent in the run-up to privatisation. Half a million jobs have gone since 1993.

The power utility Eskom disconnects people at the rate of around 20,000 a month in Soweto. When they do a cutoff, the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee goes in and reconnects people. It’s illegal, but it’s better to break the law than break the poor. In Durban organisations have begun moving evicted families back into their homes.

Organisations like the Anti-Privatisation Forum and the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee are small beginnings-I am under no illusions about this. But I am also aware that history can move in leaps and bounds.

Anti-capitalism and socialism

The anti-capitalist movement is crucial. In the harshest days in South Africa there have been campaigns, like the one for debt cancellation, which have given people hope and a big picture of the way the world works.

Seattle was a turning point for people across the world. The task for the anti-capitalist movement is to bring together our general struggles against the system and the small battles over rent, water or whatever. If you are anti-capitalist you have to be pro-worker.

In some quarters working class politics are seen as outdated. But there is no other way forward if we want to put together the power to defeat capitalism. Any anti-capitalist movement which is not pro-worker will get lost. If you are anti-privatisation you should be pro-nationalisation-of course, under workers’ control.

The working class is the only class which produces the wealth and can enjoy the benefit of that wealth without exploiting anybody. It is at the centre of production, and it can offer the way forward for all the oppressed. We have to develop a political form which can direct that power. In South Africa we have all manner of campaigns-against privatisation, against war, for women’s rights, and so on. This is all well and good, but we have to bring these forces together to make the most of our strength.

The only way that will be done effectively is through a mass workers’ party, a party based on workers’ unity and struggle. It would not have a totally revolutionary programme, but its central policy will be against collaboration with capitalism and capitalists. In other words, it would have to be going in the completely opposite direction from the ANC.

The union leaders will not form such a party. They criticise the government, but their main trend is to deliver the workers to the government. We need a complete break from market politics. We want a new kind of socialism that serves the needs of workers and the poor.

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