The crisis in South Africa

08 October 2018

By Jeremy Dewar

MANY SCHOOLS, Labour councils and community groups will be celebrating Black History Month by re-telling the inspiring story of the anti-Apartheid struggle. And so they should. But, only to tell the story, as if the struggle for equality had ended with the dismantling of the Apartheid system, would do a disservice to those who fought it. We need also to look at the legacy of that struggle and the challenges it throws up for a new generation.

Let’s start with some uncomfortable facts. South Africa is officially the most unequal country in the world and has been for several years now. Up to 65 percent of South Africans live in poverty, with food prices rising. According to the World Bank:

“The bottom 50 percent of households account for only 8 percent of incomes, 5 percent of asset values and 4 percent of net wealth. Conversely, the top 10 percent of households account for 55 percent of household incomes, 69 percent of total household asset values and 71 percent of household net wealth”.

Unemployment stands at 27 percent, as high as 50 percent among youth. Well-paid jobs have been replaced, if at all, by precarious employment. Wages and growth are stagnant; capital flight is monstrous.

The 2018 budget raised VAT, cut social services, tightened anti-union laws and loosened restrictions on capital flight.

This adds to the misery already caused by the systematic corruption, personified by former President Jacob Zuma, the syphoning off of World Bank funds by ANC officials and crooks like the Gupta brothers and the denial of AIDS by the previous President, Thabo Mbeki, which is estimated to have caused hundreds of thousands of unnecessary premature deaths.

This year’s budget, current President Cyril Ramaphosa’s first, also introduced minimum wages ranging from R11 to R22, that is, €0.55 to €1.15 – an hour, sparking mass protests, even from the Stalinist South African Communist Party and the main Cosatu trade unions, which remain in coalition with the ruling African National Congress. The new, breakaway South African Federation of Trade Unions went further with a general strike on 25 March.

Land Question

Finally there’s the land question, one of the most burning issues during the anti-Apartheid struggle. Over a hundred years of injustice have still not been addressed since the fall of Apartheid 24 years ago.

The 1913 Natives Land Act stripped black people of land ownership awarding 87 percent of the land to white farmers. The black majority was designated just 13 percent in the overcrowded “native reserves”.

Today, the figure for white land ownership stands at 72 percent – despite land reform, that is, transfer to black ownership, being at the heart of the Freedom Charter. Only 8 percent of white land has been transferred to black ownership since 1994. It is written into the post-Apartheid constitution that land cannot be expropriated but only transferred on the basis of there being “a willing seller” and “a willing [and able] buyer”.

In short 2.2m black farmers are responsible for only 5 percent of all economic output in the agricultural sector, while 35,000 commercial farmers produce the remaining 95 percent on the best land, using the most up-to-date equipment, employing 800,000 agricultural workers, mostly black, and controlling the market. At the top, sit 1,300 enterprises, enjoying 50 percent of the income and producing for the global market.

Land seizures are common, occasionally violent, leading far right Afrikaaners to claim it’s a “genocide”.

However, figures show that it is more dangerous in the cities than rural areas, and more blacks die from violent land seizures than whites. In other words the motivation is not racial, it is economic. Meanwhile, retribution from white farmers has been extreme. In a sinister echo of the Apartheid era or that of the Jim Crow laws in the USA, a white farmer recently killed a black youth for stealing a sunflower.

While supporting the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters’ Bill to amend the constitution and allow land expropriation and redistribution, Ramaphosa’s ANC has been quick and firm in its condemnation of land seizures. Its support for reform is designed to defuse a militant movement from below: classic carrot and stick or, rather, carrot and gun.

Cyril Ramaphosa

It is impossible to understand today’s political crisis without analysing the anti-Apartheid movement and the post-Apartheid settlement. Remarkably, this can be done by looking through the lens of Cyril Ramaphosa’s own personal journey.

A student activist in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ramaphosa joined the growing youth and student movement in the townships. He also joined the ANC, which was becoming pre-eminent in the anti-Apartheid struggle with its 10-point programme, the Freedom Charter, and its “twin-track” strategy to force the regime and bosses into negotiations by making the country ungovernable. It was a classic popular front strategy, with lots of “workerist” foliage, especially necessary since there was no black bourgeoisie and scarcely any petit-bourgeoisie. In all this, the SACP aided and abetted them.

Ramaphosa founded the National Union of Mineworkers in the mid-1980s, part of the Cosatu union federation which grew from scratch to 700,000 members in 1984-85. The 300,000 miners were at its core, along with the Metal and Allied Workers’ Union (later renamed Numsa).

A huge strike wave in 1985-86 marked the explosion of the working class onto the stage of the bourgeois democratic revolution. Two great miners’ strikes: the first lasting five and a half months in 1986, broken by a vicious State of Emergency, marked the movement’s highpoint; the second, lasting three and a half weeks marked the final throes of the revolutionary movement. Both were led to defeat by Ramaphosa, the first heroically, the second ignominiously.

Ignominiously, because there was a growing strike wave, including retail workers and even domestic workers. Alongside this, MAWU and its imprisoned leader, Moses Mayekiso, were leading a movement to form a workers’ party – to hold the ANC to account certainly but, more importantly, to fight for socialist demands in the here and now and a workers’ government.

Soon after the miners’ defeat, talks opened and Ramaphosa played a key role, drafting the new constitution, with its infamous Sunset Clause that guaranteed not to encroach on the bourgeois property rights of the white bourgeoisie, later to be termed White Monopoly Capital. The Triple Alliance, and later Tripartite rule of the ANC, SACP and Cosatu was established as the means for carrying out this democratic counter-revolution, safely distanced in time from the (now demobilised) revolution itself.

After the end of Apartheid in 1994, the ANC sent Ramaphosa as an “emissary” into the business world. It has been said many times that he took the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) policy of Nelson Mandela’s inaugural ANC government rather too literally and too personally. He is currently worth at least half a billion dollars and has served on the boards of Standard Bank and the Lonmin mining company.

Very many ANC politicians, SACP leaders and Cosatu officials have been damned by their words and actions against the working class in this 24-year period, but one incident, more than any other, ensured the utter disillusionment of the working class, or at least its vanguard, from the ANC and the popular front: the Marikana massacre of 2012.

A strike for higher pay, R1,200 a month, which has since become the rallying cry for a living wage, had already led to skirmishes with the police, leaving 10 miners dead. Tensions were rising between the NUM, Ramaphosa’s old union, and a breakaway miners’ union, Amcu, which was winning over more miners with its bold and decisive leadership. Then Ramaphosa, on the board of, and with massive investments in, Lonmin, the mine owners, sent an email in August to the Minister of Police, calling the strike a “dastardly criminal act” and urging the police to take “concomitant” action.

The next day police opened fire on strikers only armed with ceremonial spears, to give them courage more than anything else, killing 34 of them. Recent evidence showed many were “executed”, shot in the back while retreating or in hiding. Ramaphosa has “apologised” (belatedly, that is, last year!) but only for the language he used.

A less well known fact, that only recently emerged, is that Ramaphosa was in charge of building 5,500 miners’ dwellings and in receipt of $100 million from the World Bank for the project. Only 2 showhouses were ever built. No one is sure where the money went. Ramaphosa deceived the miners in the cruellest way, not once, but, at least, twice.

The next four years marked an upturn in the struggle, as austerity added to the years of frustration and impoverishment caused by neoliberalism. The townships had already renewed their struggles from the early 2000s onwards, under leaders like Trevor Ngwane and Ashwin Desai. Now the unions, especially the miners, joined in. Amcu led a five month long strike in the platinum mines, achieving a deal for an R800 a month minimum wage.

But the job losses, as the mining and steel companies reeled in the international market, continued.
The star of Ramaphosa, however, continued to rise and, in December 2017, he succeeded (by 51 percent to 49 percent) Jacob Zuma as the ANC President and, as has become customary, a month later as President of the Republic of South Africa.

However, he has had to include many of his defeated opponents in the cabinet, including the rival “Generation 40” faction, led by one of Zuma’s wives, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, or NDZ. But he will surely move to extract himself and the party from the scandals of Zuma, who faces over 780 charges of corruption, and the Gupta brothers, who invented and perfected “state capture”, collectively known as Zupta.

Ramaphosa made it clear in his first budget that he will rule for White Monopoly Capital, the name given to his faction, presumably by his enemies.

The Party

That renewed period of heightened struggle had a profound effect on the working class and its organisations. The popular front was tested to breaking point.

First, the ANC expelled its youth leader Julius Malema, who had been calling for Zimbabwe-style land seizures and reforms. Malema went on to form the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) out of his loyal followers in the ANC Youth League.

They went on to win 6.35% in the last election, in 2014, and 25 MPs. Famously, on demos, at press conferences and in Parliament, the EFF wear red army-style fatigues and black berets. Their programme calls for nationalisation without compensation of the land and 60% of the mines, and for the establishment of a state investment bank: a standard left reformist programme, wrapped up in pseudo-Marxist phrases, clearly learned from the SACP, and, probably, the Chinese Communist Party.

Through intervention in the largely successful #FeesMustFall student movement, they have retained and renewed a youthful membership, able to pull crowds of up to 40,000 to their rallies.

But they are as Stalinist and authoritarian in their party structures, as in their programme. Furthermore, and to an extent inevitably, Malema also faces accusations of scandal and money laundering, unanswered from his days in the ANC.

Possibly more importantly, time will tell, was the series of events in 2013-14 leading to the expulsion of Numsa from Cosatu, ostensibly for membership-poaching, but in reality for calling for the breaking of the Triple Alliance and the forming of a workers’ political organisation.

At a Special Conference, held almost concurrently with the Cosatu Congress that expelled them, Numsa unanimously passed a declaration that it would go on to form a united front of struggle across the working class, based on the model of the United Democratic Front, the legal wing of the banned ANC, and a Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party after a workers’ summit.

Then there came a long period of hesitancy and failure to bring the resolution to fruition, which highlighted all the problems of the trade union bureaucracy. Though Marxists emphasise the importance of the unions in the formation of a workers’ party, if it is left to the officials who control the apparatus of the unions to launch the party, without the intervention of a revolutionary current within the membership, then the habits of trade union leadership; bureaucratism, firmness against dissent, caution, inflexibility, etc. do not favour success.

Evidently there have been ideological and political disagreements within the EFF, as well as over its internal regime. Amcu refused to join Numsa in forming a new federation, instead preferring to dominate the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu), a black consciousness union federation. Talks ended in farce, with the ex-Cosatu president Zwelinzima Vavi, who was expelled along with Numsa, calling on miners to leave Amcu and join Numsa.

Last year, however, things did start to move. The South African Federation of Trades Unions, Saftu, was formed with 700,000 members, 40 from Numsa. A workers’ summit was held in July 2018 with 1,000 delegates from over 450 township, student and landless workers’ organisations, as well as trade unions. And Saftu held a general strike in April against the new minimum wage levels, with reportedly 100,000 on the streets.
In his May Day address this year, Numsa’s President, Irvin Jim, concluded:

“For as long as the majority of black and African people are still living below the poverty line there is no freedom. The class struggle continues, and therefore NUMSA has no choice but to organise the working class as a class for itself and to crystalize a revolutionary socialist workers’ party whose mission and task is to fight in the interests of the working class. We must raise working class levels of consciousness in order to overthrow capitalism. A system of greed will be replaced by a socialist system that advances humanity… The SRWP will finish the work of the revolution, which was abandoned by the ANC and its alliance partners.”

In his speech, Jim called for:

These are important and supportable demands but, even if they were all implemented in full, they would not amount to “finishing the work of the revolution”, the entire state apparatus would remain intact and South Africa would remain a capitalist country. Nonetheless, faced with a determined struggle even for this programme, the South African ruling class will come under pressure from the markets, banks and imperialist institutions to attack the working class further and this could stir the resistance to greater militancy.


Jim promises that the SRWP will be launched before the end of the year. Good. Numsa and Saftu members should hold him to his word. All the objective elements for a mass revolutionary party to succeed are there in abundance: militant trade unions, like Amcu, Numsa, the postal workers; students and youth mobilised by #FeesMustFall and the EFF; mass movements in the townships, among the urban poor and landless workers.
In this situation, the key to taking the struggle forward is united action by these mass organisations in the fight to win the common demands such as R1,200 minimum wage, land to those who work on it and justice to bring the corrupt web of politicians and capitalists to trial. Revolutionaries will argue for the formation of local united front committees, drawing in the different organisations, to pressurise their leaders into calling such united action, or to mobilise it themselves if their present leaders fail.

It will be in the course of the struggle for the workers’ immediate demands, and through the organisations formed to fight for them, that South African workers can convene a democratic conference to form a new workers’ party that will take the power and really “finish the work of the Revolution”.

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