South Africa: Class Struggle Explodes Once More

Since last April’s election South Africa has been engulfed in a tide of class struggle which has been the most widespread and bitter since the ANC (African National Congress) came to power 15 years ago. There have been strikes by construction workers bringing work on power stations, railways and football stadiums to a standstill; by miners bringing coal and gold production to a halt; by municipal workers, including bus drivers and garbage collectors leading to the disruption of transport and the piling up of rubbish in the townships and major cities. Telecommunications workers, doctors and even soldiers have also gone on strike. At the same time the seething discontent in the townships and squatter camps has erupted into widespread rioting, with attacks on public buildings and municipal officials who are all ANC placemen. The riots in the townships are of the kind not seen since the worst days of the apartheid regime in the 1980s.

Strikes Win Pay Increases

The massive strikes, in which hundreds of thousands of workers have taken part, and the wave of township rioting have clearly shaken the ANC regime. In the past the ANC has used the unions, with whom it is in alliance, to control class struggle by avoiding strikes or bring them to a speedy end. However, both the erosion of wages by inflation which is now 6.9% and unemployment which is now 33% have built up a reservoir of discontent which is proving difficult for the unions to control. The ANC, which unashamedly stands for the interest of the South African capitalist class, has found it difficult to adapt to a situation of more open class struggle. This has produced a crisis in the ANC itself leading to the ousting of its previous leader Mbeki in September 2008 and a subsequent split in the organisation. The new populist leadership, which emerged under Zuma, came to power promising to address workers’ grievances, unemployment and the conditions in the townships. Of course, the ANC regime is unable to carry out these promises at the same time as protecting profits and maintaining the flow of investment capital into the country. Even temporary concessions to the workers are difficult to implement in today’s situation of crisis where the economy is contracting and unemployment is rocketing. The recession is the worst since 1992 and in the first 3 months of this year the economy shrank at an annual rate of 6.4%. Although Zuma promised to create 500,000 new jobs this year, in the first 6 months of the year 475,000 jobs have been lost. The regime has reacted to the strikes with caution. In general most of the strikes have been settled with pay increases only slightly below the workers’ demands. Construction workers, miners and municipal workers, for example, got a 13% increase only 2% below their demand.

Similarly some strikes were bought off by quite generous pay offers. An illustration of this is the case of power workers who were given a 10.5% increase and a strike, which would have crippled mining production, was averted. Some strikes, such as that at the Impala platinum mine, have not been settled and are continuing as we go to press.

However, the pay rises which have been conceded are well above the official rate of inflation and represent real - albeit temporary - gains. In the future such gains will, of course, be clawed back either by inflation or by speedups or both. However, conceding to workers demands shows that, for the present, the South African capitalist class and the ANC regime have decided on a tactical retreat rather than a direct confrontation with the working class.

Township Riots Confronted By Police

When it comes to the township riots the regime has taken a more robust attitude. It has sent in its police force with armoured vehicles and riot gear and the protesters have been confronted with rubber bullets, tear gas and large scale arrests.

Conditions in the townships are, if anything, worse than they were at the end of the apartheid regime. The increase in population, coupled with the corruption and incompetence of the ANC placemen, who fill the government appointed administrative jobs, have more than cancelled out the new housing built in the last 15 years. For millions of people living in the townships there is no proper housing, no electricity, no water and no sewage. On top of this there are no jobs. Over one third of the working population is unemployed and 75% of the jobless are under 35 years old. The anger felt by the young unemployed has boiled over and municipal buildings have been burned and local officials have been attacked. In the Balfour township of Siyathemba, for example, the local ANC mayor was only able to address protesters from the safety of an armoured car which was subsequently pelted with stones.

After his attempts to calm the situation the protesters torched his second home, burning it to the ground. The fact that such an official can have a second home while millions are homeless indicates the corruption running through the entire ANC political machine. One resident of Siyathemba summed up his frustrations as follows;

“We fought the apartheid government but now we are going nowhere. There are no roads there is no water. All the jobs go to relatives of officials.” (1)

These events show the unemployed proletariat revolting against its desperate conditions once again, and, once again being confronted by the violence of the state. The issues and the reaction of the ruling class are in essence identical to what occurred under the apartheid regime.

Only instead of the forces of repression being white police firing live ammunition at the protesters the forces of repression are black police firing rubber bullets and tear gas.

The direct parallel between these events and the township riots of the 80s show precisely how the ANC government has taken over the role of the apartheid government.

Although Zuma has supported the view that the problems arise from a few corrupt officials, and has appealed for patience while he cleans out these rotten apples, and many have accepted this, these events also indicate a weakening of the ability of the ANC to confront the class struggle. The mask of defender of all black people against the wicked whites, which it has worn for so long, is finally slipping to reveal its true face; the face of defender of capitalism against all resistance of the working class.

The Real Role of African Nationalism

The coming to power of the ANC after decades of attempts to enforce racial divisions brought with it many illusions. It was argued by many on the left that apartheid was necessary for ensuring the profits of South African capitalism and its removal would somehow usher is a transition to socialism and that African Nationalism should be supported by the working class for this reason. The ANC itself, which has never even nominally opposed capitalism, argued that all the country’s problems stemmed from the antiquated racial divisions and once these were removed all would be well for everyone. 15 years of ANC rule and the present strikes and riots have revealed the absurdity of these views. In fact the key issue in SA has always been one of class and organisation of the exploitation of the working class. The racial issue has simply been used to divide the working class and weaken its struggle and the ANC was brought to power precisely to control workers’ struggles and restore profitability of SA capitalism. As we wrote in RP 9:

“The ANC was brought to power in the 1990s by the capitalist class as a whole. This was done to rescue SA capitalism from the catastrophic situation the apartheid had produced in its last 2 decades in power. Because of its populist appeal and its wide social base, the ANC was best placed to calm the social revolt, and to pacify and discipline the working class.”

It is the ANC’s boast that it has succeeded in doing these things.

Since 1994 it has increased profits, achieved economic growth of 5% or more each year and attracted billions of dollars in foreign direct investment. One only has to glance at townships like Siyathemba to understand at whose expense this has been achieved. At the same time ANC officials have used the power of the state to establish themselves as members of the bourgeois class and have made the transition from political prisoner to millionaire without the slightest concern for the condition of the workers. (2)

With the onset of the present economic crisis the ideologies which have served the ANC so well are being undermined. The recent strikes, like those of 2004, 2001 and 1999 have had no racial element to them whatsoever. The issue is simply one of class. However many workers still see the ANC as their only hope as indicated by the 66% of the vote it achieved in the April election, This is a great mistake and one which is being challenged by deeds. The root cause of the problems of the South African proletariat is the same as that of the proletariat worldwide, namely the capitalist system of production.

The SA working class fought under the banners of African Nationalism and shed its blood to install the ANC in power. This has created a reservoir of illusion which makes a break with the ANC more difficult. It is, however, necessary for the working class to break entirely with the forces of African Nationalism and its allies, namely the trade unions and SA communist party. These are political forces which stand squarely behind the capitalist system of production and its continuation. Their programmes of public spending or nationalisations of sectors of the SA economy are simply reforms to capitalism. All the dreams of reforming the system to make it serve workers’ interests are simply illusions. The working class needs to support its own interests independently of all other classes.

The struggle for its own interests needs to be oriented towards the overthrow of the capitalist system itself and the unity of workers worldwide in this cause.


(1) See video

(2) Mzi Khumalo ex Robben Island prisoner became head of JCI, a mining house and was reported in the Guardian 22 April 1999 as saying

“I have spoken to the unions at JCI and made it clear we are here to run a business. I am not for any of this brotherhood stuff.”

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