South Africa: Balance shifts left, anger grows

June 28, 2009

With high-volume class strife heard in the rumbling of wage demands and the friction of township "service delivery protests", rhetorical and real conflicts are bursting open in every nook and cranny of South Africa.

The big splits in society are clearer now. The 2005-09 dispute within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) between camps allied to former president Thabo Mbeki and President Jacob Zuma has resolved itself largely in Zuma's favour.

Economic crisis

The bigger story now is the deep-rooted economic crisis. Government fiddling at the margins with Keynesian policies is not having any discernable impact — not nearly enough tinkering to stave off a serious depression.

Since the early 1990s, neoliberal policies have made South Africa economically more vulnerable than at any time since 1929. If five major currency crashes since 1996 were not evidence enough, the 6.4% quarterly GDP decline for early 2009 was the worst since 1984.

By late 2008, it was apparent that there would be vast job losses. The South African economy is likely to shed a half-million jobs in 2009, especially in manufacturing and mining.

In January, there was a 36% crash in new car sales and a 50% production cut, the worst ever recorded, the National Association of Auto Manufacturers said. The anticipated rise in port activity has also reversed, with a 29% annualised fall in early 2009.

Repossessed houses have increased by 52% from a year earlier. House prices are down 11% with much greater falls ahead. Most minerals are 70% off their peak of a year ago.

The stock market lost nearly 50% last year.

Worse is to come, because thanks to the liberalisation of trade and finance, South Africa now has among the world's highest current account deficits and is the most risky emerging market, The Economist magazine said recently.

The reason: vast sums of money flood out of South Africa to the new London financial headquarters of South African corporations.


In the first two weeks of June, protests across South Africa showed how angry communities are: there were protests by thousands of Durban vegetable market traders threatened with eviction due to the 2010 soccer World Cup; 5000 protested in the small town of Mashisheng against corruption and non-delivery of services (with one shot dead by police); furious activists demanded houses and services in many places; and public sector workers went on strike over poor pay.

Class struggle has been building with such ferocity that Zuma's impressive presidential victory in April earned the ANC only a day or so of honeymoon.

After propelling Zuma to power with 65% of the vote, workers gained a few favourable cabinet appointments.
South African Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande and the party's leading economist, Rob Davies, are now ministers of higher education and industry respectively.

Other SACP notables are new deputy ministers, although Zuma dropped from his cabinet the two Mbeki-era left-leaning ministers in communications and social welfare.

But without a deeper left-shift in the cabinet, it is likely that continuity, not change, will characterise macroeconomic policy.

Overall economic "planning" — a new ministerial position within the presidency — is headed by the neoliberal Trevor Manuel.

Economic development strategy will be championed by a new minister, Ebrahim Patel. He was the Congress of South African Trade Union's (COSATU) main advocate of "corporatism" (big government, big capital and labour working together) when he led the textile workers' union.

New struggles

The new health minister, Aaron Motsoaledi, defended the Canadian-style single-payer plan in a June 5 speech to parliament: "The Constitution, under the Bill of Rights Section 27, asserts that health is a right of every citizen and the NHI is going to be implemented to make sure that everybody exercises that right."
Motsoaledi said that, thanks to privatised health insurance, "7 million people enjoy 5% of the GDP to take care of their health and a whopping 42 million will have to do with the remaining 3.5% of the GDP. If it is ideological to resolve this state of affairs, then I fully subscribe to such an ideology, for it cannot be that humanity is allowed to go on like this."

With other flashpoints of conflict exploding across the horizon — dramatic job losses, state failure to keep wage promises, public transport restructuring and huge electricity price increases — the rising class struggle could even shift economic policy.

On June 1, 2000 metalworkers protested at the SA Reserve Bank for a large cut in interest rates (they got 1%). Reserve Bank governor Tito Mboweni arrogantly refused to accept the metalworkers' memo of grievances.

National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) president Irvin Jim said: "Anyone who rejects peaceful demonstrations and refuses to accept petitions from the South African working class, who are experiencing extreme economic and social difficulties not of their own making, is inviting big trouble.

"You are warned."

Mboweni's long-time ally Manuel told the World Economic Forum's Cape Town session on June 11 that capitalists should now stand up and fight the class war: "When anybody in the trade unions opens their mouth, they run like hell. There's no counterweight in society, and if there's no counterweight, you can't have outcomes that actually advance and progress.

"If we're going to have cowards in business, we're not going to get very far."

NUMSA spokesperson Alex Mashilo responded. "If Mr Manuel's utterances reflect the view and role of the national democratic state in relation to class struggle between labour and capital then the future of the working class and the poor is doomed."

NUMSA had been run by a faction favourable to Mbeki until a few months ago, but has now turned sharply left.

A NUMSA congress resolution from May said: "NUMSA and the federation must push and drive the perspective that another world is possible and that therefore the slogan Socialism is the Future — Build it Now must be concretised in concrete programs in the current period."

Some such programs include: "Companies threatened with closure and still viable should be taken over by government or be assisted to form cooperatives.

"Key sectors producing strategic raw materials e.g. steel, oil, should be considered for nationalisation. NUMSA must lead in the creation of 'green jobs' and campaign for funding for cleaner vehicles."

The congress concluded: "Neoliberalism has collapsed. NUMSA resolved to engage in all international platforms to win the fight against tendencies that continue to defend the Washington Consensus from being consigned to the dustbin of history ...

"We will also be talking to the left to hold an international Conference of the Left to develop alternatives to neoliberal policies."

Will this spirit heal historic splits that kept independent leftists outside the ANC-SACP-COSATU alliance from participating in such conferences?

One indication of residual tensions was the justifiable anger that South African trade unionists expressed toward the World Social Forum for holding its most recent international meeting in Morocco, which continues to occupy the Western Sahara.

There was a minor backlash against NUMSA's Reserve Bank protest from ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, who said the protest was "unhelpful" because "the door is open".

Young Communist League president David Masondo replied: "Yes, the door is open but the opening is very small for the working class to make an impact."

Mantashe should know. In 2004, he led a delegation of several thousand mineworkers to the Reserve Bank to unsuccessfully demand rate cuts.


So the left continues banging on the door to open it wider. The police reported more than 30,000 "gatherings" (15 or more people in some form of protest) from 2004-08. Of these, 10% generated "unrest".

These figures will only rise while the crisis deepens.

Beyond the half-dozen leftist governments in Latin America, the world seems ripe for socialist renewal from below, forged from labour-community unity.

[This article is abridged from Links, international journal of socialist renewal. Patrick Bond directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society.]

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