Anti-Capitalist Struggles in the ‘New’ South Africa

Peter Hudis

A decade and a half after the end of apartheid, South Africa remains caught in an assortment of contradictions — foremost of which is the growing friction between the government of Thabo Mbeki and the rise of new freedom struggles. Most striking about those struggles is how seriously many take the ideas of liberation – Editors

A decade and a half after the end of apartheid, South Africa remains caught in an assortment of contradictions–foremost of which is growing friction between the government of Thabo Mbeki and the rise of new freedom struggles, especially in the impoverished townships (where seven million live). These and other struggles are posing the issue that is on the mind of humanity today–is there an alternative to capitalism?

An indication of the political battles likely to intensify in coming months showed itself on March 8, when Zwelinzima Vavi, leader of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), indicated that it might not endorse the African National Congress (ANC) in the 2009 general elections unless it delivers “concrete results” to workers. Despite Vavi’s criticism of the ANC, neither he nor COSATU is trying to break up its “tripartite alliance” with the ANC and South African Communist Party (SACP), which has ruled the country since 1994. Vavi is instead trying to defuse what he calls “massive anger” from workers by pressuring the ANC to “identify individuals who should be part of the new ANC leadership”–such as Jacob Zuma, former ANC deputy president.

COSATU and the SACP have embraced Zuma as a “left alternative” to Mbeki’s pro-business policies, even though Zuma is a conservative who has engaged in shady business deals and recently stood trial for raping a woman. Though Zuma was acquitted of the rape charge, his effort to turn the woman he assaulted into a villain instead of the victim marked one of the most shameful episodes in post-apartheid South Africa. Yet COSATU and SACP leaders, entranced by being at the center of state power for 12 years, view support for Zuma as a way to maintain their hold on the ANC while mildly distancing themselves from some of its increasingly unpopular policies.

The extent of mass unrest in South Africa today was reflected just days before Vavi’s speech, when hundreds of residents of Khutsong township, not far from Johannesburg, barricaded streets with burning tires and fought police over efforts to incorporate it into North West province. Protests have raged in Khutsong for a year over the re-incorporation plan, as residents see it is a ploy by the government to undermine the delivery of water, electricity, and housing. The struggles in Khutsong are part of a growing movement in townships around the country, where living conditions have barely improved, if at all, since 1994.


The continent that has experienced the most mass upheaval in recent years is Latin America, as seen by events in Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, and Venezuela. At the same time, many questions facing the movements in Latin America are being grappled with by activists in South Africa–such as whether or not to seize state power; the relation between spontaneity, consciousness, and organization; and the dialectic of class, race, and gender. In some respects the movements in South Africa are posing these questions even more sharply, since the pitfalls of tying mass self-activity to the exigencies of “popular” regimes is nowhere more evident than in South Africa itself.

South Africa had the richest mass movement on earth in the 1970s and 1980s. In the mid-1980s it was on the verge of mass insurrection. Yet unlike the opposition movements of the time in East Europe and the West, its struggles did not move away from Marxism. The movement’s depth, along with the impact of an economic crisis spurred by the collapse of commodity prices and the isolation of the regime, convinced South Africa’s rulers by 1990 that it had no choice but to strike a bargain with part of the opposition.

The negotiations of 1991-94 that brought the “tripartite alliance” of the ANC, COSATU, and SACP to power led to an agreement that the white rulers will transfer political power into the hands of the Black majority while keeping its economic power and privileges intact. It led to one of the most rapid demobilizations of a mass movement in history, as former activists went over to the politics of accommodation. The period 1994-99 was summed up in a phrase often heard today–“La Lutta Discontinua” (“The struggle stops”).

The end of apartheid marked a victory in ending formal racial discrimination, creating a parliamentary democracy with one of the most progressive constitutions on earth, and allowing some Blacks to enter the political and even economic mainstream. These gains explain why the ANC still enjoys overwhelming electoral support from the Black populace. However that does not change the fact that Mandela and then Mbeki committed South Africa to the “Washington Consensus” of neo-liberal economic restructuring, IMF-imposed structural adjustment programs, and all the economic and social disasters that come with it.


Unemployment in South Africa now stands at 42%. Much of the populace has never had a job. The gap between rich and poor has never been greater. There are 1.7 million more in poverty today than in 1994, and South Africa now has the most unequal income differentiation of any country on earth. The white minority is making out like bandits while a small but increasingly dominant Black bourgeoisie rakes in billions under the slogan (as Zuma put it), “I didn’t spend all those years fighting apartheid in order to remain poor.”

South Africa’s economy grew 4% last year, but employment growth was 1%–barely enough to provide jobs for new entrants to the work force, let alone put a dent in those already unemployed. In 2006, 140,000 jobs were terminated in the transport, mining, and electricity industries.

Since 1996 the economy has been led by the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) program. It mandates export-led growth, low wage increases, and limited government spending on health, education, and sanitation. GEAR was written by a team of economists, only one of whom was a Black South African, and was adopted with no input from the populace. It marked the shift of the ANC from a post-liberation movement to an enforcer of “free market” restructuring. As a result, annual wage increases have decreased steadily since 1996, while labor productivity has gone up from 3.2% to 6.3% (“Shifting Currents in South Africa,” Centre for Civil Society, Durban, 2006).

The notion that there is no alternative to embracing the logic of capital has thwarted even the basic goals of the anti-apartheid struggle. Trevor Ngwane writes, “The new South Africa has failed to overcome the geography of apartheid…The Black working class is to be found in the old apartheid ghettos while whites live in their suburbs. Some Black middle class people have moved into the suburbs leaving their working class folk behind. New ghettos have emerged in the form of informal settlements…The post-apartheid racial and class reconfiguration of space seems to have made matters worse not better” (THE ACCUMULATION OF CAPITAL IN SOUTH AFRICA, edited by Patrick Bond, p. 184).

Meanwhile, South Africa’s neo-liberal regime–which is expanding its economic, political and military power in parts of Africa to the point that a major debate in South Africa is whether to label it an “imperialist” or “sub-imperialist” power–is given a left cover by the SACP, which controls 73 of the ANC’s 279 seats in parliament. The government finds itself in the odd position of considering itself Bush’s best friend in Africa at the same time as claiming adherence to “a left progressive tradition” rooted in workers’ struggles.


Although the “great reconciliation” of 1994 led to an enormous demobilization of mass activity, this did not spell the end of mass struggles. New social movements began to arise in 1999. They are largely rooted in township struggles that oppose the commodification of water, electricity and land, and mobilize against housing evictions, the lack of social services, and environmental devastation.

These include the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, which arose out of struggles against electricity cutoffs and protests against prepaid water meters and evictions. The Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign was formed by residents of communities opposing forced evictions for nonpayment of services. The Ethekweni Social Forum also fights water and electricity cutoff and opposes efforts to evict people from shack settlements in preparation for the 2010 World Cup.

The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance has protested pollution from Island View Storage, the largest chemical shortage facility in Africa–home to Shell Chemicals and others. It has also protested oil spills in Durban harbor and explosions at oil refineries within walking distance of poor communities. Earthlife Africa is opposing the construction of a Pebble Bed Modular Reactor by Eskom, at Koeberg. It opposes making South Africa a testing ground for new nuclear technology.

The Treatment Action Campaign is an HIV/AIDS group that calls for anti-retrovirals to be made available by the public health service–which the government has dragged its feet on for years because of its absurd claim that HIV does not cause AIDS. It has earned the hostility of the government by taking it to court for failing to set out an adequate program to dispense anti-retrovirals.

Movements have also emerged against land evictions. South Africa produces 90% of the world’s platinum. Mining companies have taken over land in Bushveld Mineral Complex, which stretches from North West Province across Limpopo to Mpumalanga. Two of the world’s largest mining companies–Anglo Platinum and Impala Platinum–have driven tens of thousands off the land, herding them into hastily built townships with no water or electricity. The companies plan to relocate an additional 10,000 in Mapela.

Efforts to form new kinds of unions based on casual and temporary workers have also emerged, such as Sikhula Sonke (We Grow Together). It is “a social movement labor union.” It was started in the Western Cape by women employed as seasonal farm laborers in response to the failure of traditional unions to deal with casual workers (permanent workers consist of 92% of COSATU’s membership). Sikhula Sonke deals not only with workplace issues but also opposes evictions, fights for access to HIV/AIDS drugs, and calls for an end to school fees. Like many of the new social movements, it targets not just conditions in the workplace but also the spaces of intersection between work and everyday life.

A key group is the Anti-Privatization Forum, formed in 2000 in Johannesburg by activists in the Municipal Workers’ Union and the National Union of Health and Allied Workers Union. A debate has occurred in it over where to orientate itself to the spontaneous uprising in townships such as Khutsong or to COSATU’s unions. One activist in it argues, “Unlike the 1970s and 1980s, the neo-liberal restructuring of the workplace has led to the weakening of employed and organized workers…the technological changes and the restructuring of the workplace have led to an increase in the number of casuals and subcontracted work…COSATU trade unions have not been able to respond creatively to this neo-liberal attack on workers” (THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES, August 2006).

A crucial organization in the townships is Abahlali BaseMjondolo, the largest movement of the poor in South Africa. It works for shack dwellers and other poor people, like street traders. It grew out of a protest at the Kennedy Road settlement in Durban in 2005, when land long promised for housing was turned over to build a brick factory. Last year it organized a boycott of elections for local councilors on the grounds that “there is a difference between ‘party politics’ and ‘people’s politics’ and while party politics is often about the politics of ambition and control, people’s politics can be about creating democracy where people live” (YZWI LABAMPOFU, December 2006).

Its president, S’bu Zikonde, stated: “We know that our country is rich and we know exactly what makes it rich. We know that we were once regarded as short minded and now we insist that we will think and speak and act for ourselves. We are poor in life but not in mind. Let the time of respect for the lives and experience and intelligence of the poor begin.”


What is most striking about the struggles in South Africa is how seriously many take ideas of liberation. Marx, Luxemburg, Lenin, Biko and Fanon are not distant figures. Their IDEAS are seen as integral to grasping and transforming the present situation. This was evident at a conference on “State, Party, and Popular Power” that I participated in from March 1-3 in Capetown, sponsored by the International Labor Resource and Information Group and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. It was attended by 200 and brought together township dwellers, social movement activists, and intellectuals from various left tendencies.

It was striking to see that Rosa Luxemburg is avidly read by many activists and intellectuals in South Africa. Many see that her ideas speak directly to questions being debated in the streets and universities–such as the limits of bourgeois parliamentarism; the relation between reform and revolution; the dialectic of spontaneity, consciousness and organization; and the need for socialist democracy in revolutionary transformation.

This level of discourse is tied to the fact that South Africa, unlike much of the Third World, has a developed bourgeois democracy. As a result, the Marxist Left does not feel the need to work alongside bourgeois democrats to secure basic democratic rights. This enables the critique of capitalism–and the ideas of MARX–to come to the fore. Marxism may be in crisis, but it isn’t dead in South Africa. Many realize that no movement can make meaningful progress outside of a Marxian theoretical framework.

This was reflected in Capetown in debates over whether or not to “seize” state power. Some said, “We have to take the power of the state away from capital.” Others said the idea of “seizing” state power should be dispensed with, since it has led to one betrayal after another. An activist said, “too often the state becomes the terminus of the struggle instead of what we are fighting for.” Many applauded the idea of SMASHING state power and returning to Marx’s concept (from his CRITIQUE OF THE GOTHA PROGRAM) of “converting the state from an organ superimposed on society into one completely subordinated to it.”

There was also discussion of how Luxemburg’s concept of socialist democracy AFTER a social revolution differs from the SACP’s defense of parliamentary democracy as a cover for supporting a neo-liberal capitalist agenda. Molefi Ndlovu stated, “Yes, we got democracy after 1994, but neo-liberalism is not simply a result of the rise of a new Black bourgeoisie. Instead, it is a modification of a globalized capitalist project. The ‘democratic’ state is the manager of this capitalist formation and is inseparable from it.”

There was also much discussion of women. Shereen Essof spoke of Raya Dunayevskaya’s study of Luxemburg as “both revolutionary and feminist” in light of tensions in the Left between gender issues and socialist transformation. Another women said, “we have suffered from the lack of a comprehensive theory that explains how struggles play out in terms of the connection between race, class and gender. We in the anti-Stalinist Left have also been weighted down by a two-stage theory–the idea that women’s emancipation comes after or is secondary to the class struggle.”

It was refreshing to attend a conference where theory was neither dismissed nor treated as an academic enclave. This is due to the legacy of freedom struggles in South Africa, especially of Biko and the Black consciousness movement, which posed ideas and consciousness as a force of revolution. As one activist noted, “The entire social imagination of the oppressed” must be elucidated in the effort to transform society.

This is a crucial insight, so long as it is coupled with recognition that theory must also reach to PHILOSOPHY–to the philosophy of absolute negativity that defined Marx’s transformation of Hegel’s revolution in philosophy into a philosophy of revolution. Needed today is a philosophy that not only reflects the creative mind of the oppressed but which spells out for our day MARX’S concept of a totally new, human society that transcends capitalism. We cannot do without the creative mind of Marx, his DISTINCTIVE concept of socialism, infused as it was by the dialectic of absolute negativity as new beginning. There can be no better way to solidarize with the ongoing South African struggles than to develop this anew for our day.

Originally appeared in News & Letters, April-May 2007


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