Is South Africa heading left?

June 22, 2009

Patrick Bond, author of Looting Africa: The Economics of Exploitation examines political developments in South Africa in the wake of the recent presidential election.

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 the society are clearer now. Distracting internecine rivalries within the main left bloc--which saw off the main trade union federation's president and the South African Communist Party (SACP) treasurer last year--have subsided. From 2005-09, the ruling party's huge wedge between camps allied to Thabo Mbeki and to the new president, Jacob Zuma cleaved the African National Congress (ANC) in two, but the latter's troops have mostly flushed out the former's from the state and party.

So the bigger story now is the deep-rooted economic crisis. Government fiddling at the margins with Keynesian policies is not having any discernable impact. A lower interest rate--down 4.5 percent from last year's peak (to around 10 percent prime with around 8 percent inflation)--and a probable 5 percent state deficit-to-gross domestic product ratio (last year's was a 0.5 percent surplus) are not nearly enough tinkering to stave off a serious depression.

South African President Jacob Zuma
South African President Jacob Zuma

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 percent quarterly GDP decline for early 2009 was the worst since 1984. By late 2008, it was apparent that labor would suffer vast retrenchments, what with a 67 percent reduction in average work hours per factory worker over three months, the biggest decline since 1970.

The South African economy is likely to shed a half-million jobs in 2009, especially in manufacturing and mining. January 2009 alone witnessed a 36 percent crash in new car sales and a 50 percent production cut, the worst ever recorded, according to the National Association of Auto Manufacturers. The anticipated rise in port activity has also reversed, with a 29 percent annualized fall in early 2009.

Repossessed houses increased by 52 percent in early 2009 from a year earlier, as house prices are down 11 percent with much greater falls ahead. Most minerals are 70 percent off their peak of a year ago. The stock market lost nearly 50 percent last year.

Worse is to come, because thanks to the liberalization of trade and finance, South African now has among the world's highest current account deficits and is the most risky emerging market, according to the Economist magazine a few weeks ago. The reason: vast sums of money flood out of South Africa to the new London financial headquarters of Anglo American, DeBeers, SABreweries-Miller, Old Mutual insurance, Invectec Bank, Liberty Life, and DiData, as well as to portfolio investors who have profited from historically high post-apartheid interest rates.

Protests in early June across South Africa show how angry communities are:

Thousands of Durban's famous Warwick Junction vegetable market traders and their families threatened with eviction because of a mall catalyzed by 2010 World Cup construction;

Five thousand protesters in the small town of Mashisheng, fighting municipal corruption and non-delivery of services (one of whom, Jacob Malakane, was shot dead by police);__*

Furious activists demanding houses and services in Johannesburg's Soweto and Orange Farm, Durban's Lamontville and Cape Town's Macassar Village, and the 20,000-strong Joe Slovo settlement (the latter defeated in a Constitutional Court battle last week);

Striking public sector workers--from doctors to firefighters to teachers to bus drivers to prison officials--whose pay packets are unbearably small.

IN A rare victory far away that resonated strongly here, a protest against Shell Oil in late May by the grassroots South Durban Community Environmental Alliance and NGO groundwork--part of a global solidarity mobilization--was rewarded in an out-of-court settlement for Ken Saro-Wiwa's family and other Ogonis: $15.5 million in reparations for the 1995 murder of the Nigerian pacifist poet-activist and eight of his comrades.

Although not more than a few hours' worth of Shell's record 2008 profits, the settlement nevertheless sets a principle for reparations and firms up other challenges to corporate abuse moving through U.S. courts via the Alien Tort Claims Act.

One of these is a demand by South Africa's Khulumani Support Group and Jubilee SA--including my close comrade, Dennis Brutus--that billions of apartheid-era profits/interest be repaid, a case that will be heard in New York in September. (Last Tuesday, at Washington's Busboys & Poets restaurant, the advocacy network Africa Action and "Split this Rock" poetry group celebrated the extraordinary political verse of Brutus and brilliant young Zimbabwean radical "Comrade Fatso" on the day commemorating the Soweto 1976 youth uprising.)

Back home, South Africa's class struggle has been building with such ferocity that Zuma's impressive presidential victory earned the ruling party only a day or so of honeymoon.

After propelling Zuma to power with 65 percent of the vote, workers gained a few favorable cabinet appointments. SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande and the party's leading economist, Rob Davies, are now ministers of higher education and trade/industry.

Other SACP notables are new deputy ministries are Jeremy Cronin (transport), and Yunus Carrim (local government), although Zuma dropped from his cabinet the two Mbeki-era left-leaning ministers, Pallo Jordan (communications) and Zola Skweyiya (social welfare). Surprisingly, former deputy health minister, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge--fired by Mbeki for opposing AIDS-denialist policies in 2007 and enthusiastically defended by the SACP and health activists--was left off Zuma's list.

But without a deeper cadre of leftists in the Cabinet, it is likely that continuity not change will characterize macroeconomic policy. Overall economic "planning"--a new ministerial position within the presidency--is headed by the left's bête noire, Trevor Manuel. (Tellingly, when appointed to lead the ANC Department of Economic Planning 18 years ago, he renamed it the "Department of Economic Policy.")

Economic development strategy will be championed by a new minister, Ebrahim Patel, who was the Congress of South African Trade Unions' main advocate of "corporatism" (big government, big labor and big capital working together) within the National Economic Development and Labour Council, when he led the clothing/textile workers' union. The new finance minister is former tax commissioner Pravin Gordhan, a longtime Zuma associate with a communist background but technocratic post-apartheid record.

Gordhan was a pharmacist by training, and knows the merits of the biggest policy push leftward: National Health Insurance (NHI). 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."

As Motsoaledi pointed out, thanks to privatized health insurance, "Seven million people enjoy 5 percent of the GDP to take care of their health, and a whopping 42 million will have to do with the remaining 3.5 percent 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 extreme 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, for example, 2,000 metalworkers protested at the South African Reserve Bank for a large cut in interest rates (they got 1 percent). This was notable not only because it reflects confidence to move beyond the point of production to the source of some of the troubles: "sado-monetarist" central bankers. In addition, it unveiled the arrogance of Reserve Bank governor Tito Mboweni, who simply refused to accept the metalworkers' memo of grievances.

Said National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) President Irvin Jim: "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."

NUMSA has challenged both Mboweni and his long-time neoliberal ally Manuel, who on June 11 told the World Economic Forum's Cape Town session 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."

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

Numsa had been run by a faction favorable to Mbeki until a few months ago, but now has turned the corner sharply left. As a NUMSA congress last month declared, "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 concretized in concrete programs in the current period."

Some such programs: "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 nationalization. NUMSA must lead in the creation of 'green jobs' and campaign for funding for cleaner vehicles."

As the congress resolution 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 Alliance from finding solidarity and participating in such conferences? (The last was in 1994, and only served to illustrate the two divergent paths, inside and outside the state.) One indication of residual tensions was the justifiable anger that South African trade unionists expressed towards the World Social Forum for holding its most recent international meeting in Morocco, at a time that country continues to occupy the Western Sahara.

To illustrate, there was a minor backlash against NUMSA's march on the Reserve Bank by African National Congress Secretary General Gwede Mantashe, claiming 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, because in 2004, he also led a delegation of several thousand mineworkers to the Reserve Bank, unsuccessfully demanding rate cuts.

So the left continues banging on the door to open it yet wider. The South African police measured more than 30,000 "gatherings"--15 or more people in some form of protest, for which permission is typically applied for a week ahead of time--from 2004-08. Of these, 10 percent generated "unrest."

With 58,000 incidents, researchers in China registered more recent social protests per person than South Africa during the first quarter of 2009 for the first time, but I'm not aware of any other country that has been close. And those figures will only rise while the crisis deepens.

Can South Africa again guide internationalist reactions to capitalist overreach? In fighting against apartheid through 1994, and against patents on AIDS medicines from 1999 to 2003, local activists inspired millions in solidarity and defeated mighty opponents. Beyond the miracle of a half-dozen leftist governments in Latin America, the world seems ripe for socialist renewal from below, forged from labor-community unity.

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