South Africa: Transforming community protests into an uprising

A protest in Gauteng in May.

There were protests galore in the build up to South Africa’s May 8 national elections, which coincided with the 25th anniversary of the people’s victory against Apartheid. Protests occurred in many parts of the country but predominately in Gauteng, the nation’s industrial heartland, and in the Western Cape, with its legacy of colonialism.

The correlation of protests and elections is not new in South Africa. What was new, however, was the ferocity and proliferation of the protests. The images of chaos in the country’s urban working class townships during the elections implied that there was a crisis underlying South African politics. 

South Africa’s “urban crisis” is a crisis of labour. The central problem is that those who produce are not benefiting enough from the fruits of their labour. Workers are getting less than they need for themselves, their families and their communities to have a decent life.

As a result, the majority endure everyday life with inadequate access to food, water, electricity, sanitation, housing, healthcare, education, transport, etc.

It is worse for unemployed workers who are forced to depend on the overstretched wages of employed family members and friends or the paltry social grants provided by the state.

Youth suffer the most because four out of 10 are unemployed and they have less social power, experience and networks to survive the hardships of working-class life.

With freedom and the vote, little has changed. 

A new social force

Dissatisfaction with capitalist democracy is not unique to South Africa.

Since the dawn of the 21st century we have seen people rising up everywhere in protest against various aspects of the political and economic order: the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings, the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the high school students’ climate change movement and France’s Yellow Vests, to name a few.

But an organised working class has not systematically led this resistance. Instead, an insecure middle class or groupings of refugees from the organised working class have more often than not led it.   

In South Africa, unemployed and precarious workers and youth, including those eking a living in the informal sector, have been at the forefront of protests. 

Protest action mostly takes place in poor working-class communities, with about a quarter taking place in shack settlements or being led by shack dwellers. 

The number of protests has risen consistently and sharply since 2000 — the days of mass mobilisations by the “new social movements”.

From ‘new social movements’ to community uprisings

These new social movements included organisations such as the Landless People’s Movement, Treatment Action Campaign, Jubilee SA and the Anti-Privatisation Forum, among others.

At the time, they organised across communities and sought to build national, and even international, campaigns mostly around a single issue or set of related issues.

Since 2004, there has been a proliferation of community-specific protests focusing on local grievances. These protests have mostly been about “service delivery” (water, houses, roads), although dissatisfaction with the “quality of democracy”, in terms of accountability and government responsiveness, appears to be a crosscutting issue.

That working-class communities timed their protests to coincide with the election season suggests a political calculation on their part: the political elite would be most receptive to their demands as these same elites wanted their votes.

South Africa’s social and economic order excludes and marginalises the 9 million unemployed and the millions who live in shacks. Solidarity between employed and unemployed workers could provide an organic basis for developing a working class consciousness that unites the various segments of the class.

But, organisationally, these ties were broken when organised labour was drawn into a formal alliance with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party. As a consequence, it turned its back on the poorer sections of the class, especially the unemployed.

For 20 years, the militancy of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) was contained and pacified in the name of supporting the ANC government.

The unemployed youth of today know no other labour movement. It has not seen a workers’ movement willing to move forward in determined and sustained struggle against the bosses and in the name of the working class, as in the 1980s.

The only militancy it sees that it can be part of is that of protesting working-class communities fighting and challenging state and corporate violence, and rebelling against state neglect, super-exploitation and grinding poverty.

For this youth, the resistance of protesting communities is the most dynamic source of fundamental rebellion against an unjust system.

Some of this youth has been inspired by the message of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). During the elections, the EFF deployed its militant rhetoric of struggle, of land redistribution, of nationalisation of the banks, mines and factories. Significantly, it attacked xenophobia and called for the dismantling of Africa’s colonial borders.

But like all other political parties, its currency was promises and it presented itself as a messiah that would solve peoples’ problems.

Some young and older workers looked to the new National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA)-inspired party, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP). Some unemployed township activists joined the party and campaigned for it.

But the SRWP turned out not to be a mass party but rather a vanguardist one, in the elitist, top-down sense. Its greatest shortcoming was its apparent failure to even convince members of NUMSA and the South African Federation of Trade Union (SAFTU), to which NUMSA is affiliated, to vote for the SRWP. 

From community protests to class politics

Community protests have generally been fragmented, inward-looking and sometimes xenophobic. They need class politics.

Employed and unemployed workers, including youth and students, face the same enemy.

A missing ingredient is therefore a workers’ movement that can provide a centre of authority for the various struggles. There is a need to support the revitalisation of the workers’ movement through recognising and supporting every instance and opportunity of struggle by the class.

There also needs to be a struggle for power — the power to bring real lasting solutions. If the bosses’ government is forever in power, and the bosses forever own the wealth, workers and communities will forever be in struggle, because there will forever be problems, not solutions. 

The first step on this road is to unite protesting communities. One way of doing this is to develop a set of common demands that can provide a basis for solidarity and joint campaigns by communities in protest.

The United Front in Johannesburg, together with a group of protesting communities, has drawn up an Emergency Program of Demands. It has been presenting this document to all protesting communities in South Africa under the slogan: “One voice, one action, one rebellion. Free quality services for all”.

The idea is to overcome fragmentation and stop the government’s divide-and-rule tactics. The aim is to combine movements and protests and turn them into an uprising.

From protest to uprising

Single issue and community struggles are important to keeping the fires of struggle and hope burning among the various sections of the working class.

But the militancy of community protesters must be combined with that of organised and unorganised workers, students and unemployed youth, women fighting against rape and patriarchy.

A conscious and planned build-up for an uprising can provide a basis for joint work and knitting together campaigns, with the aim of winning partial victories and strengthening bonds between the different sections of the working class movement.

An uprising will show a glimpse of what is possible when the working class movement is moving together in solidarity and action. It will liberate the creative energy that can generate new ideas and methods of self-organisation and struggle.

It will generate convulsions that can change the balance of forces and provide emerging movements with goals that can be generalised beyond the local and sectional.

It will restore hope in the vision that things can be different, that a better world without oppression and exploitation is possible.

[Trevor Ngwane is the chairperson of the United Front (Johannesburg Region). Edited and abridged from Amandla!]

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