Strategy turns full circle in South Africa

There was a time in South Africa when political activists thought all that was required for change to occur was to dangle before the working class a revolutionary program of action, and the working class would spontaneously rise en masse. How wrong they were. Eight years after the formal demise of apartheid, there is still political apathy, grinding poverty, and gross inequality in the overall distribution of wealth. Nor is the situation likely to change in the immediate future.

The notion that the poor and exploited are possessed of an instinctive revolutionary essence was effectively dispelled by the recent failure of South Africa’s main labour federation to bring the country to a vowed standstill with a two-day general strike. Although the strike by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) did send jitters through the government and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party, progressive ideology in South Africa clearly cries out for a new kind of critical analysis and an enhanced quality of strategic thinking.

Activists are enraged by the profound ideological shift has occurred in the ANC-led government since the release of Nelson Mandela from prison 12 years ago. At the heart of the simmering conflict between labor and government are the alarming levels of unemployment and government’s failure to implement poverty alleviation policies. Singled out for particularly rancorous criticism is the government’s plan to privatize State-owned utilities controlling the country’s electricity, telecommunications and railways.

The ANC won the country’s first democratic election in 1994 largely on the strength of electioneering promises replete with socialist rhetoric decreeing that the national wealth would be “restored to the people”. Mines, banks and monopoly industry were specifically identified as targets for transfer of ownership to “the people as a whole”. Mandela himself, in a message smuggled out of prison before his release, promised that “nationalization is the policy of the ANC and a change or modification f our views in this regard is unthinkable”.

But eight years down the line, ANC-led government policy has turned full circle with an increased emphasis on privatization and a corresponding marginalization of nationalization. The government argues it is bent on deregulating State assets because apartheid was a system built on regulation for the benefit of the few, whereas post-apartheid deregulation is “for the benefit of many, to open up the economy, to broaden its base”.

What the government really needs to do, however, is improve the State bureaucracy’s level of service delivery. South Africa’s 1.2 million civil servants are, for the most part, hopelessly inert and unmotivated. Rampant corruption is just one symptom of the malaise. Although ample budgets are in place for social spending and poverty relief programs, the State bureaucracy has failed to disburse available funds. Such lethargy, activists argue, is the price the poor must pay for a government that has abandoned the revolutionary fervour and socialist principles that brought it to power.

SA Communist Party general secretary Jeremy Cronin warns that a distancing of the government’s leadership from its grassroots support base puts it at risk of chaos and anarchy. He cites government policy formulation as an example of how bureaucrats, with the assistance of American and World Bank private sector consultants, are replacing mass involvement in key decision making processes.

Many explanations with varying degrees of merit have been put forward by various experts for the astonishing post-apartheid turnabout on privatisation in particular. One view is that South Africa, in the triumphal aftermath of “liberation”, found itself locked into a global system fundamentally hostile to its socialist aspirations — a system now concentrated around international monopoly capital, with no opposing force to its increasing hegemony after the disintegration of the socialist and non-aligned blocs.

Due to the profligate military spending of the former, apartheid government, the ANC is also saddled with an enormous burden of foreign debt running into many billions of dollars, with interest repayments alone being the present government’s second largest budgetary item. International banks have refused to write off this debt, and failure to repay it would only create problems for the government in securing new loans. Hence in part its selling off of State assets.

At the same time, the militant rightwing in South Africa is strongly committed to a market-driven economy. The ANC’s policy switch on privatisation can be seen in part as a trade-off with its former enemy in the interests of “reconciliation”. Clearly, no one in his right mind wants a resurgence of the kind of neo-Nazi terrorism that marred political negotiations in the run-up to South Africa’s first democratic elections eight years ago. The ANC was forced then to make political compromises and to adopt policies it might not otherwise have contemplated, were it not for the real and immediate threat of right-wing terrorism.

The fact that right-wing extremism is still very much alive in South Africa was highlighted recently when police thwarted a plot by terrorists to blow up the conference centre at the United Nations’ World Summit on Sustainable Development, taking place in Johannesburg. Eleven white conspirators including senior serving army officers are currently awaiting trial on charges of treason and terrorism. Their underground leader, named by police as former army officer Thomas Vorster, is still on the run. He is alleged to have links with white supremacist groups in the United States.

Whatever the dubious merits of “reconciliation”, meanwhile, it is certainly the case that the ANC’s and the government’s broken promises of social transformation have resulted in widespread cynicism among broad sections of the population and a weary distrust of all things political.

The country’s communist-led labour movement persists in denouncing the capitalist path being “slavishly followed” by the government. Cosatu warns that if the government continues to thwart majority aspirations, it is only be a matter of time before workers and the poor “take the future into their own hands”. Time and pressure will show if that is a true reflection of the mood on the ground. Given the degree of apathy evidenced by a relatively low turnout for Cosatu’s recent two-day general strike, the labor federation’s prediction of a workers’ uprising appears to be based on wishful thinking and it lacks analytical rigour. The real challenge facing Cosatu is to rise above its short-term political need of feeding the headlines, and to make a critical reassessment of its long-term strategy.

At the same time, political dissatisfaction on the Left seems to have gone beyond disillusionment to a kind of desperate intellectual nihilism. Leftist critics, like their rightwing counterparts who are determined to be miserable, have developed a curious capacity to wallow in the bad news. They fail to give credit where credit is indeed due to the government. Nearly two million poor families have been moved from squalid huts and shacks to proper housing. There is free medical care for the needy, the availability of child support grants, an equalisation of pensions, and the provision of clean water and sanitation where none existed before.

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