South Africa’s New Apartheid


A group of building workers relaxed on the pavement in central Cape Town, enjoying their lunch break. Every minute was precious; nobody was in a hurry to get back to work. “They pay us peanuts,” said a bricklayer with a gold tooth. On the equivalent of $1,470 a month, he is not too badly off; in the run-up to the 2010 World Cup, the builders’ unions secured pay increases of 13-16% by threatening not to complete work in time. They are the exception.

There has been extreme tension in South Africa since 16 August, when the police killed 34 strikers at Lonmin plc’s platinum mine in Marikana, near Johannesburg, an incident of huge symbolic importance, since the forces of law and order shooting at demonstrators remind all of the apartheid era. Yet South Africa is now a democratic and multiracial state, since 1994 governed by the African National Congress (ANC). The strikers were part of its historic electoral base, South Africa’s poor and black majority. According to official figures, poor households (62% black, 33% mixed-ancestry) make up half the population (25.5 million) of this industrialised country, the only emerging market in sub-Saharan Africa.

The reaction to the Marikana killings recalls that to the Sharpeville massacre of 21 March 1960, when the forces of the apartheid regime (1948-1991) killed 69 black people in the township, 60km from Johannesburg. They had been demonstrating against the requirement for “non-whites” to carry passbooks outside their homelands or designated areas. When the news reached Cape Town, rioters in the black township of Langa burned public buildings.

Since Marikana, there have been wildcat strikes by mine, transport and farm workers. Farm workers in Western Cape Province have demanded that their pay be doubled from the minimum wage of 75 rand a day to 150 rand ($20). This has led to clashes with the police, the burning of vineyards and the looting of shops. Workers have been sacked, but there is no social dialogue. In November two farm workers were killed during a demonstration in the village of De Doorns, 180km from Cape Town.

The Lonmin miners had demanded a pay increase from $540 to $1,620 a month; after a six-week strike, they secured a rise of 22% and a bonus of $255. With the help of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the farm workers around De Doorns won a 52% rise in February, bringing their pay to 105 rand ($13.50) a day. “It’s like cancer spreading,” said Andile Ndamase, a union representative at a cement company in Cape Town and disillusioned member of the ANC. “The riots started well before Marikana; since then the unrest has only got worse. We are demonstrating for a better tomorrow, and we are tired of waiting for it.”

Political heritage

The social power struggle is part of the political heritage of the apartheid era. The black trade unions affiliated with Cosatu were authorised in 1985 by a racist regime that had its back against the wall and needed negotiating partners. While Nelson Mandela was still in prison and the ANC was banned, Cosatu took part in a huge protest movement. Its calls for a national strike helped to paralyse the South African economy, under pressure from international sanctions since 1985.

Today the black trade unions, which have 2.2 million members, are demanding real social policies from the government and improved working conditions for all. Yet these unions are in government. In 1990 Cosatu, the South African Communist Party and the ANC formed a “revolutionary” tripartite alliance for far-reaching social change. The left wing of the ANC is made up of Communists and trade unionists, whom the party tries to keep in line by giving them key jobs. Senior Communist Party figures fill many ministerial posts; representatives of Cosatu sit on the ANC’s national executive committee. This undermines the credibility of their opposition to the ANC’s neoliberal economic policy.

Change in our lifetime?

Early in the morning, the station in Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s biggest black township, was crowded with people buying tickets. A one-way trip into town costs 8.50 rand ($1.15); a monthly public transport pass is $13.50, 5% of the average salary of a private security guard ($270). On the train, women caught up on their sleep while vendors walked up and down selling crisps, drinks, socks and earrings. In Cape Town, many of the passengers made their way to the bus station, on the roof of the railway station, where minibuses and taxis waited to ferry them to the white residential suburbs where they work. These private taxis make up for the considerable deficiencies of the public transport system. From dawn to dusk, they cover most of the transport needs of black South Africans who don’t own a car. The journey costs 5 rand.

“I fear the wheels are coming off,” said Sipho Dlamini, in his 60s, referring to the political situation. He described himself as an unsung hero of the fight against apartheid. As a member of the military wing of the ANC, he spent the best part of his life fighting for change in his lifetime. (“In our lifetime” was a watchword for South Africans in the 1980s, remembering the generations who had fought in vain since the ANC was founded in 1912.) Dlamini was disappointed, not just by corruption among the black elite, but also by the riots: “They happen so often now, that nobody pays any attention.” Police data reveal that South Africa had an average of three riots a day between 2009 and 2012. That’s a 40% increase on 2004-2009, according to sociologist Peter Alexander of the University of Johannesburg (1).

The trouble at Marikana was provoked by gross injustice: foremen at the Lonmin mine got a pay rise; the men who dig the ore did not. Another issue was the management’s extensive use of private brokers to recruit temporary labour and curb the power of the unions. Cosatu has condemned the practice, but looks the other way. Its friends in the ANC — including the head of JIC Mining Services, Duduzane Zuma, son of South Africa’s president — have extensive interests in the industry.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), affiliated with Cosatu, is one of the biggest unions, with more than 310,000 members. In Marikana it was for the first time unable to handle an industrial dispute, and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (a breakaway faction of the NUM) assumed leadership of the protest movement, promising a pay rise of 300%.

There is also a lack of social dialogue in the mining sector. Even after the tragedy, the Lonmin management continued to give the miners ultimatums for going back to work and to threaten them with dismissal. This is not simply a hangover from apartheid. “The politicisation of social conflicts, which undermine the authority of the ANC and its leaders, scares the big mining groups,” said Thaven Govender, a young importer and distributor of mining equipment. “In fact, everyone — the strikers, the unions and the ANC — will lose out as a result of this business. The big mining companies employ people because labour is cheap in South Africa. To avoid another Marikana, they will mechanise operations and make people redundant as fast as they can.” In January Anglo-American Platinum, which also faced strikes last year, announced that it was cutting 14,000 jobs at two of its mines, around 3% of its workforce.

President Jacob Zuma visited Marikana, but a few days after the killings. He did not meet any miners and talked only to the Lonmin management. His political rival Julius Malema, 31, a former head of the ANC Youth League, thrown out of the ANC in April last year for “lack of discipline”, took advantage. Malema, who has made himself spokesman for the disappointed grassroots members of the ANC, took up the strikers’ cause. He went with them to court, where 270 were initially charged with murder under an old anti-riot law introduced by the apartheid regime (the demonstrators could be charged with murder on the grounds that they had provoked the security forces). When this caused a public outcry, the charges were dropped and a commission of inquiry was set up. Malema seized the opportunity to call once again for the nationalisation of the mining sector and to denounce collusion between the government, the black bourgeoisie, the unions and “large cap[ital]” companies (see Legalised corruption).

‘We are free only on paper’

Observers wonder which will be the first to implode under social pressure: the ANC or Cosatu. But the forces involved are far more complex than a simple left-right divide, and are preventing a split.

None of this interests Dumisane Goge, 20, who was “born free” — after the fall of the apartheid regime. He doesn’t plan to vote at the next general election, in 2014: “We are free only on paper,” he said. “The right to vote is meaningless when the choice is between the ANC and the ANC.” At 16, he spent four months in prison for robbing a shop with friends. Determined never to go back, he resumed his studies, passed his school leaving exams and enrolled on a marketing course in Cape Town, which he pays for by working part-time at a petrol station. He expects nothing from fat-cat politicians and is outraged that “Zuma is building a palace that will cost 240 million rand [$31m] at Nkandla, his home village in KwaZulu Natal, when children in the schools don’t even have textbooks.”

South Africa’s black bourgeoisie live far from the townships, and don’t spend their money there. Their taste for luxury and their wealth became apparent under Thabo Mbeki (president from 1999 to 2008), thanks to the rapid economic growth of the 2000s. But since Zuma came to power in 2009, Archbishop Desmond Tutu (2) and the South African Council of Churches have been warning of a “moral decline”, of far greater concern than the price of the sunglasses worn by the “Gucci revolutionaries”. “It’s very obvious that many social relationships are motivated by greed,” said a black business lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous. “People talk about sex at the dinner table, and not just in connection with our polygamous president. Corruption is spreading…” A former senior manager at De Beers accused of corruption replied: “You get nothing for mahala [nothing].”

Like riots by the poor, political assassinations don’t make the front page in South Africa. Yet in KwaZulu Natal, Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces, people kill for positions of power in which they are likely to be offered bribes and juicy commissions on public works contracts. Lydia Polgreen, head of The New York Times’s Johannesburg bureau, incurred the wrath of the ANC by describing this phenomenon (3).

The rising violence is worrying in a country that is still a model of democracy in Africa. Before the last ANC congress, in December, members came to blows over the selection of candidates. Chairs were thrown in Eastern Cape Province, there were fist fights in North West Province and an armed gang interrupted an ANC meeting in a township in East Rand, near Johannesburg. Supporters of Zuma threatened violence against supporters of vice president Kgalema Motlanthe, who was standing for chairman of the party. ANC membership has grown rapidly over the last few months, prompting rumours that it was the votes of “ghost members” which gave Zuma his victory. Opinion polls had suggested that Motlanthe, seen as having greater integrity, was in the lead.

The ANC, which won two-thirds of the votes in South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, serves as both government and opposition owing to a lack of other parties capable of asserting themselves in debate. Only the Democratic Alliance can make its voice heard. It is led by Helen Zille, 61, a white woman who is a former mayor of Cape Town and the serving premier of Western Cape Province. The party attracts white and mixed-race supporters, but is less successful with the black population. With 16.6% of the vote in 2009, it has only 67 of the 400 seats in South Africa’s parliament; the ANC has 264.

Decided behind the scenes

Years of secrecy, suspicion and infiltration by the special branch of the apartheid regime’s police have created a distinctive political culture within the ANC. “The important things are decided behind the scenes, not in public,” said South African political scientist William Gumede. Party unity is sacrosanct, even if yesterday’s enemy, the Afrikaner “Nats” (National Party), are no longer on the political scene. Revealing internal dissent to the outside world is still taboo, and the ANC’s relationship with the press is tense.

Leftwing party members who believe the party is betraying its ideals often express themselves in veiled language. Cosatu’s secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi, who is among those most critical of Zuma is more direct. He has attacked the ANC’s “corruption, mediocrity, bad policies” and accused it of being a party that stands for “Absolutely No Consequences… whether it’s about flights, about textbooks, about corruption”, referring to the lack of accountability among the senior echelons of the party. He is suspected of wanting to launch a competing party and has received death threats.

The power struggles within the ANC are both insidious and violent. After beating his rival Cyril Ramaphosa to the presidency in the 1990s, Mbeki fired Zuma, his vice president, who was on trial for rape and corruption. Zuma found it easy to present the charges as another conspiracy devised by a head of state known for dirty tricks. This allowed him to mobilise widespread support.

Mbeki, a UK-educated technocrat, was seen as uncharismatic, out of touch with the people and unable to take criticism. Zuma presented himself as an authentic Zulu: he was polygamous, like some village chiefs in KwaZulu Natal, but very few city dwellers; he had earned his stripes in combat; his friends referred to him as a “true African” and a “political titan”. His election victory left the ANC deeply divided after the Polokwane congress of 2007. The first sign of dissent came in October 2008, when Mosiuoa “Terror” Lekota, a former minister loyal to Mbeki, founded a new party, the Congress of the People. He was immediately branded a traitor by the ANC and only won 7.42% of the vote in the general election of 2009.

On the defensive

Since Marikana, Zuma has repeatedly said there is no leadership crisis in South Africa. When he does not take refuge in denial, he is on the defensive. He hides behind anti-apartheid struggle songs such as Umshini Wam (Bring Me My Machine Gun) and Somlandela Luthuli (We Will Follow Luthuli — the only other Zulu to have been chairman of the ANC), and defends himself with statistics, such as the number of new houses built and households that now have water and electricity — though he never mentions the number of jobs created or of black South Africans who have graduated from university.

Unemployment is officially 25.5% and social inequalities are only slowly being diminished. The “black diamonds” — the black middle class that emerged in the early 2000s and of whom economists had such great expectations — have turned out to be only “cubic zircs” (cubic zirconia — fake diamonds) as the harshest critics put it. According to leftwing Afrikaner economist Solomon Johannes Terreblanche, “ANC policies have created a black elite of 2 million, and a middle class of 6 million. The gap between these 8 million rich blacks and the 20-25 million poor people has grown dangerously wide.”

Twenty years after the end of apartheid, South Africa’s whites still earn more than its blacks: six times more according to the 2011 survey; their average income is $49,275, compared with $8,100 for black households. There is no national minimum wage, but there are variable minimums in occupations identified by the government as being the most vulnerable, where trade unions are less active and workers are at the mercy of their employers: domestic servants, farm workers, cleaners, private security guards, taxi drivers and retail sector workers. The last pay increase for domestic servants was in December 2011, when minimum wages rose to 1,625.70 rand ($216) a month for those working over 27 hours a week and 1,152.32 rand ($155) for those working fewer than 27 hours.

Social welfare — child allowance and old age benefits — is the only source of income for 54.7% of poor households, according to the results of a survey by Statistics South Africa in November, which also revealed that one South African in four does not have enough to eat. Several ANC ministers have opposed the introduction of a Basic Income Grant (BIG), a minimum income for physically able adults, whether employed or unemployed, which they see as a subsidy for “alcoholism and lottery tickets”. After more than a decade of discussion, the BIG has yet to be implemented.

Meanwhile, the despair is evident. In Khayelitsha, some drown their sorrows with gospel music, others with dagga (cannabis), Mandrax (methaqualone) or tik (crystal methamphetamine).

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