In the past they might have accused journalists of sensationalising “healthy debate” among alliance partners. On 18 May this year, about 20,000 workers gathered in Johannesburg during a one day national strike for jobs. They heard Zweli Vavi, the general secretary of Cosatu, say that the gulf between the people of South Africa and the cabinet of President Thabo Mbeki is the gulf between rich and poor. Now both the CP and Cosatu are discussing various futures, which include fielding independent Communist candidates in future elections.
The CP and Cosatu allied with the ANC believing it would represent all black people. That is being supplanted by the realisation that Mbeki has a “particular class project”, in the words of CP leader Blade Nzimande.
South Africa is today the second most unequal society in the world. Inequality between blacks and whites has diminished slightly, but inequality among black people has grown in the past decade. Big business credited Mbeki’s strict neo-liberal program with achieving an economic turnaround after years of crisis, when some of their number declared bumper profits last year.
Profits were restored by a shrinking job pool and lower company taxes. Mbeki’s government pushed the official unemployment rate below 30 percent only by redefining it. Although real wages have risen since the end of apartheid, the share of the national product going to wages fell while profit’s share increased. There is no state unemployment support because the fashion is to limit state spending, so those wages spread thinner and thinner as workers carry the burden of unemployed relatives.
Unlike the electricity and water cut-offs, which affect mainly the very deprived, the jobs crisis touches everyone. The union leaders found that Mbeki’s vision of the alliance was a leash joining the hound to its master, not the open dialogue they imagined. An unpopular economic programme has pushed Mbeki to become ever less democratic in his own organisation. The neo-liberal Growth, Employment and Redistribution programme was forced on the ANC without discussion in the 1990s.
Two things finally brought the crisis into the open. Last year, with local elections on the horizon, people in some of the poorest areas rioted to demand what was promised to them in the last elections. Faced with the real prospect of losing popularity, ANC members rebelled against what they call Mbeki’s arrogance at a national conference. Among other things they rejected his proposals to lower labour standards for young workers.
The second event was the firing of the deputy president Jacob Zuma. At first, it seems, the union leaders intended to wait out Mbeki’s presidency. They’d placed their hope in Zuma, not because he is a champion of working class politics but because they believed Uncle Zuma would be more pliable. When Mbeki fired Zuma it came across as a direct attack on them. The defiance at the top of the alliance encouraged a militant strike wave among workers disgusted at measly pay offers after their employers bragging about increased prosperity.
So where to next? Mbeki wants to shut down dissent within the ANC, disguised under a re-education “strategy” of compulsorily political schools conducted by top ANC leaders. It seems this will have limited success if Mbeki’s opponents are willing to tackle the arguments head on.
The idea of going it alone is especially popular within the Young Communist League, but the top of the party believe that what is really needed is a return to the ANC and a president that will listen to all classes.
The resistance uncomfortably straddles the struggles on the ground and Zuma’s bid for the presidency. Party and union members collected millions for the Friends of Zuma fund but did not form a similar fund to support the security strikers, who finally ended their three months strike with an unsatisfactory deal.
Zuma is popular because he has the common touch but he is not the natural leader of the working class discontent. When he does speak independently, he plays up traditionalism, tribalism and sexism mixed with a defiant tone.
The wild card which can continue to pull the resistance left is that people are renewing their experience of militant organisation, while the tensions tearing at the ANC have opened a real debate about how the working class can defend their own needs in South Africa today.
Claire Ceruti is a member of the South African organisation Keep Left
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