You've come to an old part of SW Online. We're still moving this and other older stories into our new format. In the meanwhile, click here to go to the current home page.

Patrick Bond on:
Ten years after the fall of apartheid

May 7, 2004 | Page 5

TEN YEARS ago, South Africa's racist apartheid system was finally swept away with the country's first democratic elections. African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela--who had been imprisoned under apartheid--for 27 years won the presidency.

The defeat of the brutal white minority regime was a one of the greatest victories of the liberation movements of the 20th century. It inspired millions of people around the world who had participated in solidarity campaigns with the struggle of Black South Africans. There were widespread expectations and hopes for working people and the poor in South Africa that the end of the racist system would open the way to radical social change.

A decade later, the scene is very different. Mandela's successor, Thabo Mbeki, recently won re-election--but the hopes of liberation have given way to free-market "neoliberal" policies that have left the vast majority of South Africans in the grip of poverty, unemployment and social crisis.

PATRICK BOND is a South African-based activist and author of several books on post-apartheid South Africa, including Elite Transition: From Apartheid to Neoliberalism in South Africa, Cities of Gold, Townships of Coal: Essays on South Africa's New Urban Crisis, Unsustainable South Africa: Environment, Development and Social Protest and Against Global Apartheid: South Africa Meets the World Bank, IMF and International Finance. His latest book, Talk Left, Walk Right: South Africa's Frustrated Global Reforms, will be published in the U.S. this fall.

He spoke to Socialist Worker's LEE SUSTAR about South African politics today.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE U.S. media portrays South Africa as Africa's success story. What's the reality?

THE REALITY, especially in relation to the economy and the class structure, is profoundly unstable, in contrast to the mainstream perceptions of stability. There is growing wealth and income discrepancy--and such extraordinary increases in unemployment that the place is best described as a pressure cooker, in which anti-"class apartheid" protests are growing at a more rapid rate than an earlier generation's resistance to racial apartheid.

So it's a very exciting society--to witness social justice and environment and gender equity struggles. This can be seen through the lens of AIDS in the struggle, for access to medicines so urgently required--or through the lens of water and electricity access at a time when disconnections are still running rampant.

And it's a time when people are terribly desperate for jobs. The election promises by the ANC for increased public works will prove both illusory and, even where there are a few jobs, super-exploitative. This frustration will lead, I am quite confident, to the emergence of a workers' party in the coming decade.

So on the surface, it looks like stability, in the form of a one-party state. Some 70 percent of the population that did vote supported the ANC, and the small opposition parties were basically destroyed in the process, for there was no real party of the left that presents any kind of opposition. A political party to the left of the ANC is inevitable as the trade unions finally recognize that their interests are outside rather than inside a neoliberal government.

THE RHETORIC of the Mbeki government often sounds left wing. Why?

THE PHRASE "global apartheid" that Thabo Mbeki has been using occasionally expresses his sullen and sometimes even explicitly angry reaction to the difficulty of getting reforms from global capitalism. That phrase masks the real process: Mbeki perpetually legitimizes the institutions of global apartheid. Instead of breaking the chains he's actually polishing them.

He's doing that through the New Partnership for Africa's Development--NEPAD--which brings a greater role for the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, multinational capital and the donor governments, especially the imperialist powers. They are using South Africa as a bit of a gatekeeper, with peer review mechanisms to assure coherence with the general neoliberal project.

Where there's talk of democracy, multiparty elections, permission for trade unions to form and human rights, we know it's little more than rhetoric. The proof is in Mbeki's nurturing of deep-seated repression just to the north of South Africa--in Zimbabwe. This is repression especially against poor and working-class people, including the International Socialist Organization in Zimbabwe.

The phenomenon we call "talk left" includes occasional critiques of global apartheid, but Mbeki acts right insofar as the institutions of global capitalist power are actually being invited in on a red carpet. And the processes by which they extract surplus, especially finance and trade, are being amplified.

So on debt relief, there's virtually no progress--tiny crumbs through the Highly Indebted Poor Countries initiative. This in spite of the fact that the finance minister from South Africa, Trevor Manuel, is head of the World Bank/IMF Development Committee and has extremely high status in the IMF-World Bank meetings in Washington, Prague, etc. You'll know that if you were demonstrating, for example, in Prague in September 2000, because it was Trevor Manuel who went out and defended these institutions.

The next head of the WTO is expected to be Alec Erwin, who's been the minister of trade. He periodically broke the unity of African trade ministers when they were getting a raw deal, because the interests of South Africa are very different from the rest of the continent.

And it's in that respect that when George Bush came to Africa last July, Thabo Mbeki was most hospitable, notwithstanding some rhetorical opposition to the Iraq war. We mustn't forget that during that war, the South African government permitted warships to dock in Durban harbor and sold $250 million of sophisticated weapons to the two main belligerent regimes, the U.S. and UK. So within weeks of occupying Baghdad, Bush made a trip to several African countries, with the warmest of receptions from Mbeki himself.

A local newspaper commented on the fact that camaraderie went well beyond the call of diplomatic duty. And that gives rise to a new fear: South Africa as a sub-imperialist power. The White House, Defense Department and State Department view South Africa as its most reliable partner on the continent.

We won't see any U.S. military bases in South Africa. But we will see South Africa playing more of a role policing the continent, hand in hand with the U.S. And that will include the buildup of a military arsenal that has recently worried a lot of Africans. More than $6 billion of high-tech weaponry was purchased by the South African government.

WHY ARE the former leaders of the liberation movement playing this role?

IT'S A MATTER of both internal and external forces. We sometimes ask it like this: were they pushed or did they jump? To understand the internal dynamic of a multiclass nationalist movement, we could probably go back to Franz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth, where he wrote of the pitfalls of national consciousness--and especially the role of a nationalist party when there is very little prospect of capital accumulation through a monopolized, settler-dominated private sector.

Under those circumstances, the nationalist party and the state become sites of patronage and crony capitalism, which in South Africa is reflected in the Black economic empowerment phenomenon. The first phase, based more on financial deals--borrowing to buy shares--crashed in 1998. From about 12 percent of the stock market, the proportion of Black-controlled companies fell to about 2 percent, because all of the financial deals were structured in a completely untenable manner.

More recently, state patronage and deal making with major capitalist sectors like mining and finance is very quickly generating a Black bourgeoisie. Whereas in some African countries, the state was the basis for a petty bourgeois bureaucratic class, the South African state is shrinking because of neoliberalism--from about 1.4 million civil servants in 1994 to around 1 million today.

As a result, there appears to be a desperate strategy to create an ultra-rich group. It's limited to fewer than a couple of dozen men. But I think it establishes more general aspirations for the nationalist movement leaders to consider the state as a stepping stone to their own personal enrichment.

So a great deal of energy is being spent upon identifying options for deregulation and liberalization for white business, so long as they give a few crumbs to Black cronies. There's a revolving door in which virtually every single one of the cabinet ministers and top officials in the government from the ANC who left the state have now gone into business to cash in on this phenomenon.

Aside from the internal class dynamic, there was an external force--the hegemony of the neoliberal model and the ideological panel-beating provided by the IMF, World Bank, U.S. Agency for International Development, all the international think tanks, all the donors that came in. This process really helped set the stage for the elite deal that was done during the early 1990s.

In short, the liberation movement dropped its historic commitment to not just racial liberation and democracy, but also to redistribution, as proclaimed in the ANC's 1955 Freedom Charter. The deal was simple: Black leaders could get the state, and the whites could get their money out. Afrikaners who were running the government, who themselves were getting quite rich through crony deals, plus the English-speaking capitalist class, more or less agreed to turn over state power as long as [currency] exchange controls were dropped and the biggest companies were allowed to leave the country, mainly for London.

It was in that very limited sense in which political liberalization and economic liberalization were meant to be mutually supportive. The result was an ideology in favor of increasingly deregulated markets, plus the rhetoric of liberation--from a venal comprador class of nationalists, a small group of fewer than 200 or 300.

I call it an elite transition--one in which you have, in reality, low-intensity democracy itself now under threat because of worsening state repression of the left social movements. Meanwhile, the possibilities of bringing forward the energy of the masses, social movements and labor, were just lost.

WHAT HAS the impact of South Africa's policies been on poor and working people?

THE MOST radical parts of the 1994 electoral program--the Reconstruction and Development Program--included promises for land, water, electricity, housing, jobs, education, health care. The promises were all immediately broken.

Ironically, the most rapid 180 degree turn on policy came from two Communists. Joe Slovo, who died in 1995, was the first housing minister, and he turned his policies over to the World Bank. Mac Maharaj, still alive and involved in various scandals at the moment, was the first transport minister, who privatized and deregulated transport beginning in 1994.

So already before 1996, when the Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy signified a full-fledged homegrown neoliberal project--co-authored by the World Bank--it had become very clear that the main policies were going to be market-driven, and all the campaign promises with any merit were going to be dropped. It was only in 2000 that free water and free electricity began to be offered in the wake of protests of people by people who were being disconnected, and in the wake of Africa's worst-ever cholera outbreak, which was very embarrassing.

It was only in 2004--a couple of months before the elections--that the first steps to delivering anti-retroviral medicines for AIDS were taken by the state. There are some 5 million HIV positive people in South Africa, and about half a million of them need those medicines right now. It was only then--notwithstanding 600 people dying each day--that those medicines were finally made available. And it will take vigilance by the Treatment Action Campaign to keep them in the state's clinics.

What all of this goes to show is that you can have excellent promises, and you can even make gains in some of the policies in the post-apartheid period. But the real practice of the government is neoliberal--aimed at lowering the extent of state intervention and replacing it with the market.

Given that underlying reality, it's going to require sustained, interlocking and overlapping social protests to enforce any progress in socio-economic sphere. So far, those protests have been marginally successful, winning a concession here and there, because they've been limited to sectors usually working in isolation from one another.

I think the challenge for the left movements is: (a) to win the trade unions away from the government, which will take a great deal of time and careful lobbying; and (b) in the process establish a unifying program--a new Freedom Charter, 50 years after the original Freedom Charter--that would stitch together these demands into what I think would have to be an explicitly socialist party platform, perhaps for the 2005 municipal elections.

Don't take that from me, a backroom academic. You can hear it in the grassroots rumble of organizing and protests coming from a variety of sectors--from land activists, from movements organizing around water and electricity, from the anti-retrovirals campaign, from the free education movement. You can hear the word socialism coming through very clearly now. That word is discredited by the Stalinist experience and the fact that the South African Communist Party adopted a social democratic posture, but endorsed policies like GEAR and the New Partnership for Africa's Development offered by the neoliberal government over this period.

Meanwhile, the independent left also must somehow synthesize two currents that have been working their way through South Africa since the World Conference on Racism in 2001, parallel to the global left--socialism and autonomism. I'm optimistic. A division of labor and a sense of strengths and weaknesses are now emerging. Those movements in cities like Cape Town and, to some extent, Durban that had been inspired by autonomism have also discovered the limits of self-activity in the cul-de-sac that pure localism represents.

Whereas the socialist-inclined movements, especially coming from the proletarian core in Johannesburg, are also aware that they can't be stuck in dogmatic formulations, but have to draw upon the energies and self-activity of the township base. From there, these same activist-leaders know their responsibility is also to build the national movement, and indeed the continent-wide movement through the Africa Social Forum, which embraces the diversity of these struggles.

It's a complicated effort by some of the main strategists--and I am thinking here of Trevor Ngwane, whom your readers can learn more about in the July-August 2003 New Left Review ( He works with cutting-edge community movements that have already adopted the word socialism as their core objective in their own constitutions, such as the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee.

In addition, the Anti-Privatization Forum in Johannesburg and its national networks will be at the core of the independent left's eventual development of a genuine mass workers' party.

Home page | Back to the top