A Political Overview of the Current Situation – Some questions for the left in South Africa

By:  David Van Wyk

2014 was born in class struggle. Mineworkers on the Platinum Belt immediately resumed the struggle for a living wage. This struggle is now in its third year. Working class communities immediately resumed the struggle for services, and the children of the working class the struggle for university admission and ultimately the right to education. The first month and a half of the new year saw more working class action in the form of protests the previous three years combined. The bourgeois media are questioning the ability of the African National Congress (ANC) to control the masses, the ruling class are doubting the wisdom of handing political management to the ANC in 1994. The ruling class expected the ANC through its tripartite alliance and the corporatist NEDLAC to systematically blunt the class struggle and to demobilise and neutralise the radical elements of popular mobilisation and struggle that emerged in the decade leading to 1994.

Mineworkers in the platinum mines are out on strike and working class communities are in the streets demanding change. Worker members of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) federation are increasingly questioning the role of the Tri-partite Alliance in blunting the class struggle instead of advancing it. The National Union of Metal (NUMSA) workers for long the most radical component of COSATU, noting the ANCs attempts to domesticate the federation and turn it into a lapdog of the bosses, is threatening to break away from COSATU. Working class communities and students are facing the riot police in the streets in townships, villages and campuses.

That there is an intensification of class struggle cannot be denied. This struggle is provoked by the failures of the state. Starvation wages, super exploitation, lack of water, poor sanitation, appalling living conditions, an ever-increasing cost of living, poor health and education provision all add to dissatisfaction and indignation among the masses. The ANC government claims that this is caused by the success of its programs in twenty years of ‘democracy’, and by a failure of effective communication of these successes. But mineworkers and working class communities would not down tools and enter the streets to meet the riot police face to face, and be shot at with live ammunition because of the delivery successes of the ANC or its poor communication networks.

The masses are confronting the police because it is becoming obvious to them that this is not their government, it is the government of mine bosses. This is the lesson they learned at Marikana. This is a government, which is prepared to shoot workers in defence of capital. This is a government, which will not support their demand for a living wage; a government that cannot provide decent jobs, quality housing or free health and education services and government that squanders funds allocation for services to the poor through personal self-enrichment.

Twenty years of democracy has left workers and working class communities, the masses of poor people with a bitter taste in the mouth accumulated against the backdrop of the sacrifices they made in the 1980s through strike action, boycotts, and mass actions to make Apartheid ungovernable, only for their perceived victory to be snatched by mine bosses and international capital. The masses feel deceived and robbed, those whom they considered allies in their struggle and their champions in government used the opportunities presented by positions in government not to advance the struggle for a new society, but as a chance to join the exploiters and oppressors in enriching themselves.

The ANC in government, compromised by board positions and corporate shares owned by its leadership especially in mining, and therefore lewdly peddling itself like a prostitute in the market place, is incapable of meeting key national questions, those of unemployment, poverty, housing, education, health and the environment. Its failure to meet these key challenges is exposing the bankruptcy not only of the long forgotten two-stage theory, it sold to uncritical youth in guerrilla training camps in Dar es Salaam, but also the bankruptcy of its ‘multi-class’, ‘broad church’ approach to politics. This has resulted in splits leading to the formation of the United Democratic Movement (UDM), the Congress of the People (Cope), the Democratic Left Front (DLF) and lately the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

The UDM and Cope are composed of disaffected elements of the ANC who felt that they did not get a fair chance at list processes and are therefore denied the opportunity of using the state and public funds to accumulate personal wealth and capital, as they see the core leadership of the ANC doing. Both organisations are constructed around charismatic egos, Bantu Holomisa, Terror Lekota, and Sam Shilowa. Both organisations function around autocratic principles, neither will ever change their leaders and allow no room for democracy – there is little difference between them and old Bantustan parties such as the IFP.

The DLF is composed of former left wing members of the ANC, the old United Democratic Front (UDF) and the trade union movement. It represents in many ways the left wing intelligentsia in the country. The DLF is hamstrung by an inability to effectively connect with working class struggles in the work place and in communities. The DLF needs to get beyond its image as an organisation of leftist academics stuck in universities and urban centres. It needs to get into the streets, townships, villages and work places, it also needs to capture the imagination of the youth.

However, the possible break away of NUMSA from COSATU could provide the DLF with exactly the kind of mass base, which is required for it to become a force to be reckoned with. NUMSA is the biggest union in COSATU, if it breaks away it will take many smaller unions with it. If it allies itself with a political party it will immediately elevate such a party to significant national status. It has already said that it will not support the ANC in the 2014 elections. NUMSA is also ranged behind a charismatic figure in the person of Irwin Jim. The DLF could also play a guiding role in nurturing collectivist and radical thinking and action in the EFF and the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP) if a left front is realised. This will serve to check undemocratic and personality cult tendencies in especially the EFF, while simultaneously giving voice to youth and student grievances around issues of youth unemployment and the right to education.

The EFF is composed of the expelled Youth League of the ANC and its former charismatic leader Julius Malema. Malema is portrayed as corrupt to the core by the bourgeois media, and the ANC government has sought to neutralise him by means of legal and financial persecution. Malema and his colleagues have successfully exploited student grievances, actively joined community service delivery protests and have made strategic appearances at mineworker strike meetings. Of all the parties participating in the elections the EFF has the most radical manifesto.

The question that begs an answer is whether the EFF leadership created the organisation simply because as ANC youth, their expulsion did not preclude them from a fair chance at the opportunity of using the state and public funds to accumulate personal wealth and capital, as they see the old guard of the ANC doing? The organisation, with the aid of the bourgeois media, is also creating a personality cult around Malema and in the process strengthening undemocratic and dictatorial tendencies in the EFF. The EFF has succeeded in capturing the minds of the youth by addressing itself to their problems of education and unemployment. It is able to draw the youth in their tens of thousands. It has demonstrated that it is a force to be reckoned with.

While there is a crisis of representative politics in South Africa the appearance of the EFF on the scene will probably restore some confidence of the youth and the poor in the election process. The question that arises is whether this is simply a false hope, as the structures and institutions of bourgeois government has a tendency to domesticate and pacify even the most radical amongst us – to paraphrase Marx, our material conditions determine our consciousness.

WASP is an offshoot of the old Inqaba ya Basebenzi, or Marxist tendency of the ANC. What we are observing is various factions of the liberation movement falling off the driverless broad bus of the ANC and the Tri-partite alliance.  WASP has some following among students and workers, but does not yet call forth a critical mass of support. The electoral system in South Africa is predicated on the ability to massively campaign, which requires a huge purse. The Electoral Act allocates funds to political parties according to the number of seats in parliament. This favours those parties able to woo the bourgeoisie and capitalist corporations. The system is therefore essentially undemocratic and unequal. Not one that leaves any scope for election surprises.

In the meantime, the ruling class thought that the historic compromise reached in 1994 offered them a new opportunity at international legitimacy by filling the seats of parliament with black politicians instead of white. Yet expecting these politicians in government to full-fill the same role as the executive arm of the ruling class, as managers of national labour hired out to the bosses and stabilising conditions for continued plunder.

The Tripartite Alliance leadership quickly exposed their true nature as criminal plunderers, blinded by limitless greed and paralysed by a want of talent. The appetite of the ANC leadership for personal wealth and enrichment using state resources grew in proportion as one wave of leaders fought previous waves for access to state coffers, an ebb and tide, which created the impression of a new government in power after every election despite it being the same party in power. New ministers had to get new cars and perks and privileges, appoint new cronies, ditch empty policies of previous incumbents and introduce new even more bankrupt ones.

The frenzy of the successive governing cliques at the trough of the state coffers grew in proportion to the realisation by the masses of the people of the government’s complete inability to cope with even the most elementary challenges of governance, of industry, the economy, services and the environment. The misery of the people grew simultaneously, deepened and became more acute – especially due to the government prostrating the country before global capital, and the 2008/9 crisis of global capitalism. This has brought the realisation among the masses that a new generation of workers and youth need to take force politics and power out of the boardrooms, away from the cushioned seats of parliament, and into the streets. A repeat of the 1980s.

The question before the left in general and the DLF in particular is: Where do we stand in relation to this new unfolding reality? Mine bosses and the ruling class have drawn the battle lines. Cutifani of Anglo American raised their battle call by demanding that they “stand firm.” The bosses are militarising corporate security, remobilising the Apartheid army to command mercenaries from war zones all over Africa. Their lack of trust in the oppressive apparatus of the capitalist state is demonstrated by the fact that private security outnumber the combined military and police forces of the state by 3 to 1. Global capital has deployed Africom, and the US army has regular joint exercises with the South African National Defence Force. The ruling class clearly will not sacrifice an inch in its perceived right to rape, pillage and plunder our country and continent. The working class and the youth are rising to the challenge, their question to the left and to the DLF is, “Are you prepared to join us, or will you betray us?”