SOUTH AFRICA: Protests cause cracks in ANC-led alliance

Issue 

Leo Zeilig, Johannesburg

The March 1 municipal elections in South Africa have again triggered questioning of the future of the Tripartite Alliance, the coalition led by the governing African National Congress (ANC) that includes the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the country's largest union federation.

The alliance has helped maintain an uneasy calm in South Africa since 1994. Throughout this period the ANC government has stuck with determination to a program of neoliberal policies that has won praise from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

However, these policies' impact on the poor has led to bitterness among millions of South Africans.

Matjhabeng in the Free State province is a good example. The sewage system has collapsed; old leaky water pipes result in frequent water shortages, with an estimated 40% of water lost. Thousands in the area have no private access to water, and hundreds of people are forced to share single taps. More than 15,000 use what is euphemistically called the "bucket system" — a household bucket used as a toilet, with slopping out in communal dumps every morning. Across South Africa almost 900,000 people are forced to use the bucket system.

The growing frustration has been expressed in significant township rebellions and protests during the last two years. Tens of thousands of people across the country have refused to accept these conditions 12 years after the end of apartheid.

For example, since the middle of last year, there have been more than 50 large protests in towns and cities across South Africa. Every major city and provincial authority has been affected. Most have been triggered by the ANC's failure to deliver basic services, and resistance to the introduction of user-pays for water and electricity services.

As Cape Town protester Mzwandile Qolintaba told Reuters on May 25: "I feel a lot of pain. We don't have electricity, we don't have toilets ... our children are sick because we don't have any water. I am angry."

What has been the reaction of the ANC? The police have used rubber bullets, stun grenades, tear gas and live rounds to disperse demonstrators. Over the last two years thousands have been arrested. The national Sunday Times wrote last year that the protests are reminiscent of the 1980s, when apartheid confronted its greatest challenge from the mass protest movements. The response of the state also evokes memories of the '80s.

Many local branches of the SACP have sided with their communities in these protests. SACP members have even led many of these protests. This is the case in a number of important protests over decisions by the government to redraw the boundaries of communities that straddle provincial borders. Frequently, this means moving already poor communities into more impoverished provinces. The decisions are often made by the ANC government without any consultation with the communities involved.

In Khutsong, the SACP has led protests against the redrawing of municipal boundaries to relocate Khutsong from the relatively prosperous Gauteng province to Merafong municipality in the North West province. The local SACP is refusing to canvass for the ANC. A similar struggle is taking place in Moutse, which is being transferred from Mpumalanga province to the poorer Limpopo province. All 11 SACP candidates in Moutse have now decided to stand as independents.

Hundreds of independent candidates — many current and former members of the ANC, and SACP members — are standing in the elections. The weekly Mail and Guardian reported at the end of January that the ANC was seeking to "whip electoral dissidents back into line". The ANC has kicked out more than 30 members — frequently SACP members — who have decided to stand against the ANC as independents in both the Western and Northern Cape provinces.

In the Western Cape, more than 160 ANC dissidents are standing as independents. Only one ANC independent bothered to turn up for a disciplinary hearing. There are also widespread reports from several provinces that the ANC leadership has excluded SACP and COSATU members from its candidate lists, especially those activists who have led community struggles against ANC-controlled municipalities.

The dissatisfaction with the ANC of many rank-and-file SACP members contrasts starkly with the enthusiasm of the leadership of the SACP. In a statement released in early February, SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande declared that "the SACP has decided to throw its full weight behind an overwhelming ANC victory in all municipalities". Nzimande urged: "Don't waste your vote on small protest parties. Opposition is a luxury."

The anger at the ANC's unrelenting neoliberalism is also filtering up from the members and shop stewards of COSATU, influencing some in the federation's pro-alliance leadership. According to a report in the February 17 Johannesburg Star, a COSATU executive meeting that week saw several affiliated unions argue that it was time for the SACP to contest elections independently of the ANC.

COSATU general secretary (and SACP member) Zwelinzima Vavi dismissed these arguments, claiming that they represented only "pockets of problems" in a few unions. Vavi insisted that COSATU and SACP members standing as independent candidates withdraw and fall behind the ANC and the "democratic movement". Vavi conceded that "there are problems ... that some of the people who are standing as independents do have grievances against the ANC or the government. But real and true revolutionaries do not move away from problems."

From these developments some important political formations have emerged. The most significant of these are the community groups that have evolved into, often ad hoc, political groups. The January 13 Mail and Guardian reported that "At least eight social movements in Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni will field a total of 55 ward candidates and three social movement groups — Operation Khanyisa Movement, Thembisa Concerned Residents and Katorus Concerned Residents — have registered ... as political parties to participate" in the March 1 poll.

The Operation Khanyisa (light) Movement (OKM), for example, is contesting seven wards, across three townships, in Johannesburg. The OKM emerged from the militant Soweto-based Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC), which has been at the forefront of the protests against the commodification of basic services. SECC's Nonhlanhla Vilakazi estimates that it has reconnected approximately 20,000 residents whose power has been cut off for non-payment since 2000.

The group has also led resistance to pre-paid water meters that the ANC city council's corporatised Johannesburg Water has been desperate to introduce across the city. At the launch of the OKM in January, supporters celebrated their resistance to the meters by marching through Soweto waving meters freshly torn from residents' gardens.

In Durban, under the slogan "No land, no house, no vote", the militant shack-dweller's movement Abahlali base Mjondolo is leading a boycott of the municipal election.

Feeling the pressure of the protests, South African President Thabo Mbeki in January announced a huge spending boost for local government, spread over the next five years. The end of the bucket system by the end of 2007, clean water and sanitation for every South African by 2010 and electricity for all by 2012.

The new political formations, progressive independent candidates and community groups are unlikely to pick up large votes in the municipal elections. Nor is the Tripartite Alliance, which has many times in the past bailed out the ANC government, in its death throes. The more likely result will be that a large number of people will simply not vote at all (the turnout at the last municipal elections was 48%).

[Leo Zeilig is a socialist and activist based in South Africa.]

From Green Left Weekly, March 1, 2006.
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