Great celebrations have been taking place amongst many in the upper echelons of the traditional left in South Africa. Their man, Jacob Zuma, has finally captured the highest seat of state power in the country. With the appointment of certain members of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) to his cabinet, the joy that these leading officials had been feeling turned into ecstasy. They said that these appointments to the cabinet were proof that the ANC had indeed shifted leftwards. No doubt, some intellectuals who had been blustering on about how Polokwane had created new space for the left also experienced smug moments of satisfaction about the appointments. These (mostly) men of great faith have continuously and forcefully stated that the backlash against Mbeki at Polokwane signalled a victory for left forces within the alliance – despite the fact that Zuma had close relations with arms corporations and continuously made misogynistic statements. Some of these intellectuals even went as far as backing up the claims of leading SACP and COSATU officials that the new ANC government would put an end to the neo-liberal juggernaut which the poor in South Africa have been forced to face for the last 20 years. Coupled to this, they argued that the new government would be serious about addressing inequality in the country through adopting a pro working class agenda. Indeed, they have argued that through the SACP and COSATU, the ANC was being driven to the left and that a ‘workers agenda’ would become hegemonic.
The first two weeks of Zuma’s presidency, however, have shown that the faith that many of the SACP and COSATU leading lights had in him, and his new government, was misguided at best. Just days after the formation of the new cabinet, it was announced that the government would definitely not be moving away from its present pro-rich neo-liberal economic policies. Perhaps even more disturbing, various new government ministers have openly stated that as part of maintaining the current pro-corporate policies, workers should be willing to make sacrifices supposedly in the name of the greater good. For example, the new Minister within the Presidency openly stated that the "state cannot collapse the economy because workers have problems". This statement was then shortly followed by further anti-worker sentiments from the new Economic Development Minister – Ebrahim Patel – when he said that "if tough decisions requiring sacrifices by labour were necessary to achieve long-term economic growth, these would not be avoided…". Before being anointed to his cabinet post just over a week ago, Ebrahim Patel was the General Secretary of the South African Clothing and Textile Worker’s Union – a COSATU affiliate. As such, he was supposed to be a COSATU man within the cabinet and was one of the appointments that the Federation had been so pleased about. If Patel’s utterances are representative of the type of views that are dominant within the new cabinet, and from all signs they are, then clearly there is no left shift in the new government. Indeed, it appears that Patel too has joined the long line of SACP and COSATU officials, such as Alec Erwin in 1994, who have overnight embraced and vehemently defended pro-corporate policies as soon as they entered government. So much for a workers’ agenda becoming hegemonic.
The economic policies that the new government is now electing to uphold – in order to please speculators, corporations, the US and the EU – have caused untold misery for the poor of the country. Due to privatisation and the commercialisation of services, as many as 10 million people have had their water and electricity cut since 1994. Under neo-liberalism, and the restructuring of corporations, the unemployment rate has more than doubled to an astronomical 40%. Likewise, the economic policies that the new government is choosing to maintain have led to over 2 million people in urban areas being evicted from their homes, while over 1 million workers in the rural areas have been evicted from farms. Similarly, due to the promotion of the ‘free’ market, South Africa’s public healthcare system is shockingly under-funded and under-staffed to the point where patients have even died in long queues waiting for services. The fact that many within the new cabinet, including Zuma himself, were part of the previous governments that imposed such neo-liberal policies explains why they decided to keep them, despite the evident misery that such policies have caused. What is even scarier, however, is that the Zuma government once again expects the poor and workers to make even further sacrifices. In South African political lexicon this means that the elite want the poor to be prepared for their already miserable conditions to deteriorate even further.
It should perhaps come as no surprise that despite the new government’s maintenance of neo-liberal policies and their anti-worker sentiments, many on the traditional left – certainly within the SACP – have continued to claim that South Africa is no longer a neo-liberal state. In fact, due to their unwavering support for the ANC, most SACP officials had already declared that South Africa was no longer a neo-liberal state, but a ‘developmental’ one, during the second term of Mbeki. The evidence that was used at the time to back up this claim was that the South African state had begun undertaking major infrastructure projects, such as upgrading the ports and building soccer stadiums for the 2010 World Cup. Of course, what the SACP and ANC leadership failed to point out was that these infrastructure projects were mainly aimed at benefiting the corporate sector, not the majority of people. The fact that a state also selects to spend vast amounts of money to assist corporations also does not mean that it has shifted from neo-liberalism; rather states spending money to assist giant corporations is an important aspect of neo-liberal ideology, although an often overlooked one.
More recently, the COSATU leadership added their voices to those of the SACP when they stated that they had seen a left-shift in the ANC since Mbeki was unseated at Polokwane. Unfortunately, COSATU was seeing left-shifts where there were none. Despite having some history of opposing aspects of South Africa’s neo-liberal policy – GEAR – COSATU leaders in the aftermath of Polokwane suddenly congratulated the ANC on its "economic and social policies". They said that these policies had created "significant reductions in the level of severe poverty" and had led to the "improvement in the quality of life of millions of South Africans" over the last 15 years. To back up their congratulatory claims, COSATU’s leadership used the same statistics that the ANC has used to argue it was ‘developmental’, which have been widely challenged and discredited. Of course, what the COSATU leadership failed to point out, in their congratulatory but contradictory message, was that there is a huge amount of evidence that the ANC’s economic and social policies have in fact led to growing inequality and poverty. Indeed, South Africa is now a more unequal society than it was even in 1994. COSATU perhaps did not want to point this out because it would totally undermine any notion that the ANC was progressive.
Linked to their defence that the ANC has shifted leftwards, COSATU leaders have also placed a great deal of faith in social dialogue with the ANC government and business. Historically, this has borne little fruit for workers and has failed to address the high unemployment rate. Nonetheless, COSATU leaders seem to still believe that they should continue to make deals with the ANC and business. Instead of promoting direct action to defend jobs during the current economic crisis, COSATU leaders decided to enter into social dialogue with the ANC government and big business. The aim of this was to produce a framework for addressing the crisis. The willingness of the COSATU leadership to compromise during the negotiations was immediately evident. As part of the framework agreement, the COSATU leadership agreed with business and the ANC government that it was important for South Africa to strengthen its capital markets. This would entail South Africa’s economy becoming even further financialised. The fact that COSATU agreed to this is extremely worrying as it was the financialisation of the local economy that made South Africa vulnerable to the crisis in the first place. It was also the financialisation of the economy that added to the extremely high unemployment rate.
Unfortunately, it appears that COSATU has become a former ghost of itself and for the foreseeable future it will remain tethered to the ANC. This means that in effect it has to defend the ANC, and does so by claiming that the ANC is moving left or is becoming ‘developmentalist’. In fact, some people feel that many leaders within COSATU and the SACP actively play a key role in defusing the anger that workers feel towards neo-liberalism. It has been argued that through this they protect the interests of the ANC and the corporate elite within South Africa. By ensuring that the workers militancy is defused, the leadership is also perhaps protecting its own interests. This is due to the reality that a vibrant and militant membership would certainly call for a change to the current centralised and hierarchical nature of COSATU.
Whether or not many COSATU and SACP leaders may or may not play a role in defusing workers’ anger, the sad reality is that COSATU is no longer the most vibrant site of struggle within South Africa. Far smaller and sometimes very fragile, community-based movements – the largest of which include the Anti-Privatisation Forum, Abahlali baseMjondolo, and the Anti-Eviction Campaign – have emerged as some of the most vibrant areas of struggle. As such, these community based organisations have taken up key struggles against privatisation, evictions, and even patents. They are far more radical than COSATU; they all reject alliances with political parties and some also reject alliances with NGOs. Nonetheless, many people involved in these movements have attempted to reach out to workers in order to form alliances. The unfortunate reality is that most leaders within COSATU unions, with a few notable exceptions, have actively undermined these initiatives. Most elements on the traditional left, especially within the SACP, have also viewed the emergence of such community-based organisations as a threat. Indeed, the SACP’s General-Secretary has often condemned the protests of the community based organisations as "irresponsible" and "infantile".
The most vibrant struggles in South Africa, however, have been spontaneous and have occurred outside any formal organisation. People simply come together and decide to take to the streets where they live to demand service delivery. Each year South Africa has thousands of such protests, which are unconnected to any party, union, community organisation or NGO. For example, during the week that the new cabinet was announced, residents in Khayelitsha and Athlone in Cape Town took to the streets in their areas. They erected barricades, closed off streets, and demanded houses, electricity and water. As part of this, they made it explicit that they were not linked to any political party or organisation. They said that they were simply people who were frustrated with the system, and that they had come to realise that voting for parties was not going to get them houses, jobs or water. They explicitly stated that only direct action, like blockading roads, had any result. These types of protests appear to be very important sites of self-education, where people learn lessons including realising that self-organisation and direct action are the best ways to get a response from the authorities. This is a far cry from the COSATU leadership who seem to have placed most of their faith in social dialogue. Perhaps saddest of all, most of the COSATU officials have failed to offer any significant form of solidarity to the spontaneous forms of protest that have been erupting for the last few years. In fact, their alliance partners in the ANC have actively condemned these protests. At one point, the ANC even unleashed the National Intelligence Agency – staffed by many ex-apartheid employees – to put a halt to the protests.
The truth is that if we are going to create a better South Africa – defined by something akin to workers’ self-management, the eradication of markets, an end to inequality, participatory planning of the economy and the creation of a new participatory politics beyond the state system – then unions are going to have to play a vital role. However, at the moment, due to its hierarchical nature and the control that a co-ordinator class has over it, COSATU is currently in no shape to play that role. Most of its leadership seem to believe that only a select few should decide on the direction of society. They have placed a great deal of faith in a central figure – Zuma – who they view as some kind of great hope. Unfortunately for them, and perhaps even known to them, Zuma offers no real hope and simply plans to further entrench the status quo. Already, he and his cabinet have stated that they would be willing to attack workers in the name of corporate growth and the markets. In fact, Zuma – and many in his cabinet such as Trevor Manuel – played key roles in past governments and proved most willing to impose neo-liberalism on the poor. Perhaps an important lesson for the workers who are going to be attacked by the new Zuma government can be taken from the community protests that have erupted around the country in the last decade. That lesson is that the state and corporations only shift when they are confronted with direct action by the poor themselves, which either embarrasses or threatens them. As such, change will not be achieved by officials that place their faith in the ANC government or that enter the cabinet to take up comfortable seats of power. Change will also not be achieved by allowing union leaders to enter into social dialogue to make deals with the government and business. The reason for this is that most of the leadership within COSATU have shifted further right than at anytime in the Federation’s history. Creating a truly equal society, within the unions and the economy, would perhaps be as much of a threat to them as it would be to the new ANC cabinet.
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