Five years after it first came to power, in April 1994, Mandela's African National Congress was returned to office on June 2nd this year. And judging from its score, it seemed to be riding a wave of considerable popularity. Not only did it increase its share of the vote from 62 to 66%, but none of its fifteen rivals in the election to the national assembly managed to reach the 10% mark.
The parties which were associated in one way or another with the past political institutions of apartheid are now reduced to their real electoral base. Despite an attempt at refurbishing its image, the old ruling party of apartheid, which now calls itself the "New" National Party, won less than 7% of the vote, losing two-thirds of the votes it got in the previous election. And its right-wing rival, the white supremacist Freedom Front, did not even reach 1%. The Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, which enjoyed a degree of unofficial recognition under apartheid, lost 2% on its 1994 score and is now down to 8.6%. In fact only the Democratic party, which used to represent the legal liberal opposition to the National party in the apartheid days, increased its share of the vote by stealing some of the National Party's traditional themes. But even then it only reached a meagre 9.5%. Moreover, these four parties got most of their votes in one or two of the country's nine provinces, so that they cannot even be considered as nationwide parties.
In other words, there is no longer any real political challenge to the ANC's rule from the political parties left over from the apartheid days. But nor is there any challenge from the parties which emerged out of the legalisation of anti-apartheid organisations in the early 1990s nor from those which were formed since. Probably the ANC's only serious potential rival would be the South African Communist Party (SACP), with its significant influence in the working class through the trade union machineries. However, the SACP does not exist as an independent party but rather as a component of the ANC's so-called "broad church". So that the fate of the SACP is tied to that of the ANC and, far from being a rival, the SACP is on the contrary a significant factor in the ANC's domination of the political scene.
On the other hand, looking beyond the raw figures, the electoral victory of the ANC is less impressive than it would seem. And certainly, the days of popular enthusiasm which marked the unbanning of the ANC in 1990 and its first election victory in 1994, are now a thing of the past.
It is significant for instance that, in the run-up to this election, there were a whole series of strikes and marches by municipal and other public sector workers against the government's austerity measures, indicating a measure of discontent against the ANC. But even the election process itself exposed a number of flaws and fractures in the regime's credit. According to official figures, over four million potential voters did not register - some because they simply did not bother, others because of a complicated, bureaucratic registration procedure. Even the official Electoral Commission had to admit that registration was particularly low among potential first time voters in the poorest townships. But unofficial sources claimed that the number of disenfranchised potential voters could have been as high as six million. All told, in any case, the turnout in this election was 3.5 million less than in 1994, a drop of nearly 20%. And the ANC's actually score fell by 1.6 million votes, or 15%.
There is no doubt, therefore, that a significant section of the South African poor voted with their feet, either by abstaining or by failing to register. But why should it be otherwise?
For the vast majority of the poor who expected the end of apartheid to mean also the end of the poverty which had been imposed on them for so long, or at least a significant improvement of their conditions, the situation has become worse rather than better.
On the other hand, of course, the ANC's widespread credit among the African majority is still rooted in its past role in the struggle against apartheid. But even this link is growing weaker. Over the years, more and more prestigious ANC figures from yesterday's struggles have slipped into the Mercedes, suits and ties of prosperous businessmen. And they have been seen turning the screw on the poor masses whose support allowed them to climb up the social ladder so fast.
So far, Mandela's presence at the helm of the regime has helped to maintain the illusion that the ANC remained the voice of the poor that it had claimed to be in the past. But now Mandela is leaving and his successor, Thabo Mbeki, is nowhere close to having Mandela's prestige, as the icon of the anti-apartheid struggle. Mbeki was not involved in the tough decades of underground struggle. While so many obscure anti-apartheid activists were facing jail and, in many cases death, Mbeki was enjoying quiet studies at Sussex university in Britain. Then, thanks to the support of the SACP's main leaders, who had been close to his father Gowan, Mbeki climbed swiftly up the ANC hierarchy in exile to become its top diplomatic "expert", before resigning his membership of the SACP as soon as the ANC was unbanned. If Mandela was seen by people as a symbol of the martyrdom of the black poor masses under apartheid, Mbeki has all the features of a pro-western opportunist - and it is this image which reflects much more closely the policies carried out by the regime over the past five years.
For imperialism, a successful transition
It is not for nothing that governments across the western world congratulated Mbeki and the ANC for their success in this election. For imperialism, the ANC's unchallenged domination of South African politics and its successful mutation from an illegal nationalist party riding a wave of uprisings among the poor masses, into a "responsible" ruling party, respectful of the interests of capital, both South African and western, is a major achievement. In fact, the leaders of imperialism are really congratulating the ANC for having completed the transition from apartheid without ever allowing the South African poor masses to put capitalist interests at risk.
Indeed the outcome of this transition process was not guaranteed. Both for the South African bourgeoisie and for imperialism in general, there was always the risk that the dismantling of apartheid might encourage the poor to take the struggle further, by putting into question the rule of capital itself.
On the other hand apartheid had proved unworkable. With the enormous growth of the black industrial working class and its urbanisation, the complex web of racist institutions and laws which were meant to imprison the black majority of the population in a few destitute homelands had virtually collapsed. It only survived, and with it the privileges of the white 11% of the population, thanks to an increasingly repressive machinery. But while this machinery was able to contain social explosions from the 1960s onwards, it proved unable to prevent them from recurring, each one gathering more strength than the previous one.
By the early 1980s, the situation had come to the point where, as a result of a massive wave of strikes, imperialist multinationals began to withdraw from the country. The momentum of this wave of militancy was such that imperialist leaders began to fear for the political stability of the whole of Southern Africa. Beyond South Africa, huge sources of profits were at risk for western multinationals - in Namibia, Angola, Mozambique, Botswana, etc.. It was at this point that Washington moved to put pressure on the regime of apartheid to seek a political settlement involving the leading nationalist force, the ANC. In fact US imperialism was not alone in choosing that road. Some of South Africa's richest companies, led by the giant mining group Anglo-American, had come to the same conclusion and initiated the first political discussions with the ANC as early as 1985.
If one is to take this date of 1985 as the starting point of the process, it took nine years for the legal institutions of apartheid to be formally abolished, with the first multiracial election in April 1994. It is not the purpose of this forum to go through the many crises which took place during these nine years. Let us just point out a few aspects of this period.
The lengthy public negotiations which began after the unbanning of the ANC in 1990 were only the tip of the iceberg in the power struggle between the old political forces of the apartheid regime and the new legalised parties. But in this power struggle, the decisive factor was always the balance of forces in the black townships. It was the ability of the ANC to keep the black poor mobilised under its control which allowed Mandela to take the driving seat in the final settlement. On the other hand, at every stage in this power struggle, Mandela and the ANC were always careful to avoid doing anything that might have encouraged direct action, even when the townships came under direct attack from the apartheid police or its stooges. At the same time, the ANC leadership went out its way to ensure that the militant energy of the black working class and township poor remained strictly focused on bringing apartheid to an end and nothing else. Thanks to the SACP's considerable influence in the union machineries, the few voices that argued that the time had come for the poor masses to defend their class interests were effectively silenced.
The government which emerged out of the final settlement and the April 1994 election was dominated by the ANC, but it was labelled "Government of National Unity" and gave the former ruling National Party much more space than it actually represented in the country. In 1996, once the risk of a far-right backlash no longer existed, the National Party chose to withdra from the government, in the hope of gaining a dominant position among the section of the middle-class which was hostile to the ANC. But despite this major dent to the "national unity" strategy, Mandela kept on board the Inkatha Freedom Party leader, chief Buthelezi, in a key cabinet position. All along, in other words, Mandela demonstrated that he was prepared to go out of his way to preserve political stability, even at the expense of the narrow interests of his own party.
From this point of view, in the eyes of the South African and international bourgeoisies, the ANC has undoubtedly successfully passed the test of time. It has now established itself as a "normal" bourgeois party.
How this "responsible" transition, from a capitalist point of view, has been reflected in South African society, particularly from the point of view of the working class and the poor masses, is what we want to discuss now.
The state machinery, fresh out of the apartheid days
Today, South Africa has a black president and an overwhelming majority of black politicians in its national and regional assemblies. The public face of political power, therefore, bears very little resemblance to what it used to be under apartheid. But what about the unelected state machinery which, behind the scenes, holds the reality of political power, as in any bourgeois democracy?
Friedrich Engels used to describe the state as a «gang of armed men» whose role it is to defend the interests of the ruling class against the exploited. The regime which came to power under Mandela in 1994 was neither conceived in a social revolution nor did it propose to change the class relations in South Africa. It was merely a compromise between the nationalists of the ANC and the political forces which had managed the affairs of the South African white bourgeoisie for decades, on the basis of a common determination to maintain capitalist rule in the country. And a large part of this compromise dealt with the way in which future threats of social explosion from the townships would be tackled to preserve capitalist profit.
So the «gang of armed men» which had enforced apartheid had to remain in place for the foreseeable future, to defend the same social interests against the same poor masses, but this time in the name of the ANC's "New" South Africa.
Of course the responsible ministers were chosen from the ANC's own ranks - being ex-guerilla leaders like Joe Modise and SACP leading figures like Ronnie Kasrils and Sidney Mufamadi. The South African Defence Force was awarded an additional initial in its acronym, to become the SANDF, or South African National Defence Force. And the ANC's former armed wing, UmKhonto we Sizwe, as well as the smaller Azanian Peoples' Liberation Army were meant to be integrated into the "new" army. But this fell apart almost instantly as the former guerilla soldiers were soon defecting en masse having found themselves confronted with lousy barrack conditions, racist white officers and none of the bonus payments they had been promised. On the other hand the security forces of five former black homelands were duly integrated into the army, bringing with them a record of brutality and corruption which was not any better than the racist record of the SADF.
At the very top of the army there was little change. White Afrikaner General George Meiring remained head of the SANDF right up until 1998, when a bizarre plot to assassinate Mandela was allegedly uncovered, which pointed a finger at Meiring's deputy, the highest ranking black officer, Siphiwe Nyanda. This plot turned out to be a fabrication by military intelligence and Meiring was forced to resign, allowing Nyanda to step into the army's top position at last - no less than four years after Mandela's arrival in power! However, the general situation in the top spheres of the SANDF remains still much the same. Figures released earlier this year showed that out of 150 army generals, only 44 are black.
This imbalance shows the dominant role still played by the cadres of the old apartheid state at the top of the army. The irony of the situation is that the generals of the apartheid days are now working hand in hand with the former targets of their death squads. So, for instance, the former head of the South African equivalent of the British SAS, General Andre Bestbier, now holds the post of director of joint operation planning, the third highest ranking post in the SANDF. At a slightly lower level is the army's chief of communications, Major General Lungile Pepani, a former commander in UmKhonto we Sizwe. Yet, not so long ago, in the early 90s, right in the middle of the negotiations, Bestbier was in charge of "dirty tricks" operations aimed at destabilising Angola. At the same time, Pepani was also in Angola, running a training camp, which was attacked by Bestbier's commandos. But today's social stakes are more important than yesterday's antagonisms in the fight for political power - the two men are now united by a common commitment to defend the social organisation of capitalism against any potential threat from the poor masses, black or white for that matter.
The South African Police may have added the word "Service" to its title. But the white policemen, including most of the dirty tricks department of the apartheid regime, who occupied all the senior positions, stayed where they were. As for living up to its new name, the majority of the township poor have certainly not been "served" by this police force - rather they have more and more been forced to take policing of their townships and shanty towns into their own hands by forming vigilante squads to protect themselves. And no doubt at times they found themselves confronted with crooks engaged in the car theft racket for instance, who they had more often seen in police uniforms. Many black workers who have taken strike action have faced arrest by these "servants of the people". Not to mention those petty thieves, especially if they happen to be illegal immigrants, who have not even had to go through the process of arrest, court and jail, but have been given the short-cut of a beating to death.
As for the rest of the state machinery - a rather large one, inherited from forty-six years of protected employment for whites under apartheid, this has hardly been reformed. And not surprisingly. When Mandela took over, one of the conditions he agreed to was the so-called "sunset clause" which guaranteed public service jobs for five years and granted generous severance packages. This clause provided senior civil servants with a respite long enough for them to use their positions in order to prepare a profitable conversion to the private sector. However, the end of this five-year term means that the government has now a double justification to proceed with its plan to cut 50,000 lower-rank jobs: on the one hand the need to cut state expenditure unduly swelled by "greedy", "parasitic" civil servants (the ANC's demagogy is often very similar to that of British ministers) and, on the other hand, the need to "Africanise" the civil service. The odds however are, that this will hardly affect the top spheres of the civil service. It is not for nothing, for instance, if, still today, the diplomatic service remains largely staffed by the apartheid era personnel.
The "Truth and Reconciliation" charade
Dressing up the old state of apartheid into a "lenient", "multiracial" state, with just a few changes at the top, was not a straightforward operation, however. Tens of thousands of black people had accounts to settle with apartheid, its police, soldiers and torturers. For them, despite Mandela's ecumenical calls for "forgiveness", his 1994 victory meant that the time had come for justice if not revenge. The memories of children and youth maimed and tortured under apartheid were too vivid. Too many wives, husbands, daughters and sons had disappeared after being abducted by the apartheid thugs for the cries of revenge of their relatives to be covered easily.
The setting up of the "Truth and Reconciliation Commission", in 1996, under Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a man close to Mandela but who appeared to stand above party divisions, was the regime's reply to this popular pressure. But it was primarily a gigantic cover-up operation designed to grant systematic amnesty, not just to the willing accessories of the atrocities committed under apartheid but also to those who had masterminded and carried out these atrocities. Above all, it was designed to protect the state machinery and the capitalist class against any future investigations into the part they had played under apartheid.
The rationale behind this Commission was disarmingly crude in its jesuitic twists. As a policy, it said, apartheid had no social content whatsoever. It was merely a desperate attempt by the leadership of the National Party to cling to power. Therefore the crimes committed as a result of this policy, that is under instruction from the National Party regime, were purely "political", just as were the terrorist attacks carried out by the anti-apartheid forces, and should therefore be granted amnesty. Only crimes resulting from individual acts of racism aimed at defending individual interests, should be taken to criminal court.
The only requirement for the perpetrators to be granted amnesty was to tell the full story in front of the Commission and give the names of their associates. To pre-empt being named, anyone who had been engaged in apartheid crimes was invited to come forward voluntarily, and apply for amnesty. But if someone was named as an accomplice or connected in some way to a case, he would be legally obliged to appear in front of the commission.
At the same time, the victims of apartheid could apply for compensation but this was limited given that this whole exercise was primarily intended to be a moral one.
This resulted in two years of high-profile harrowing hearings and reports in the media, in which a large number of plaintiffs and a much smaller number of amnesty applicants exposed publicly the horrors of the apartheid days. For the victims of apartheid this was a revenge of sorts. At last their grievances were being aired publicly and with official approval.
But in a number of instances, the findings of the Commission exposed what it was really up to - like the case of Steve Biko's death. Due to Biko's popularity as a leading figure at the time of 1976 uprisings in Soweto and elsewhere, the demand for a full investigation of his murder, while he was in jail in 1977, was on many people's minds. There were demonstrations demanding justice for Steve Biko and the Commission, for once, was forced to find a way out of its own brief in order not to grant amnesty to the murderers - for fear of sparking off a major scandal. So, in order to make the four cops who tortured Steve Biko to death face a court trial, the Commission had to find that they had not been "politically motivated". But in order to avoid having to prosecute the security hierarchy over the tortures inflicted on Steve Biko, the Commission decided that his death while he was being interrogated was "unintentional"!
Another couple of cases are worth mentioning to illustrate the Commission's role. Like that of former president P.W. Botha who refused to testify in person. When ordered to do so, Botha appealed and won the right to testify in writing only, thereby avoiding any public cross-questioning by the Commission, which might have forced him to incriminate himself.
Then there was the case of the massacre of 13 people, including seven children, in the home of SACP activist Victor Ntuli by Inkatha gunmen, in 1987. As it turned out, the Inkatha death squad had been trained and equipped in a camp set up by the South African army in Namibia. This was part of a covert terrorist operation set up under the direct authority of the minister of defence, General Magnus Malan, against ANC-controlled townships. The army and secret service officers involved claimed that they had only been carrying out orders from Malan. They were all granted amnesty. However Malan and some of his top men refused to testify in front of the Commission and so were charged and brought to trial through the courts. But the prosecution somehow managed to bring no evidence against them - not even the testimony of the many witnesses who had testified against Malan during the Commission's hearings. Malan and 14 others walked free, with Malan telling the press that it was a «triumph for the truth»!
This charade of "justice" also worked in favour of the ANC itself. Its leadership was able to clear itself of most of the accusations of torturing young guerilla recruits in its Quatro prison camp, in Angola. Although the final Commission report - submitted to Mandela in October 1998 - contained the evidence against ANC figures, including defence minister Ronnie Kasrils, Mandela had some of these details deleted from the multi-volume report before its delayed public release in April 1999. Because an appeal was launched against the government's censorship of the report, Mbeki himself had to appear in court. And in the end, this censorship was partly allowed on appeal. Said Mbeki: «National unity and reconciliation in our country cannot be based on the denunciation of important parts of our struggle as gross violations of human rights.» If this was really Mbeki's preoccupation, why then was another lengthy passage implicating F.W. de Klerk in the bombings of the headquarters of the trade-union confederation, COSATU, and that of the National Council of Churches in 1987 also deleted? Obviously, for ANC statesmen, violations of human rights just cannot be perpetrated by the heads of the state machinery, whoever they may be.
The unshaken rule of big business
One recommendation of the "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" had particular significance. It accused all companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange of bearing some responsibility for apartheid and having made considerable profits out of it. It recommended, therefore, that these companies should be obliged to make a one-off payment of 1% of their market value towards compensation for victims of apartheid - which would have added up to more than £1bn! Of course, neither Mandela nor Mbeki took any notice of this.
The fact is that the companies that dominate the economy today are still exactly the same old ones which dominated the economy and prospered under apartheid. The South African economy is among the most monopolised in the world. Just five large groups control 80% of the value of the shares listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. These are, in descending order of size: the Anglo-American mining conglomerate; the insurance, metal and mining group Sanlam; the tobacco and media group Rembrandt-Richemont; and the two insurance groups Old Mutual and Liberty Life.
It is worth saying a bit more about Anglo-American since it is by very far the largest player in South Africa. Although its core business is the South African mining industry, Anglo-American is a worldwide empire which includes 600 companies spanning over all continents. It is also among the world's 20 richest companies. Nevertheless it is still controlled by just one family - the Oppenheimers - through their control of the diamond firm De Beers, which also controls a large part of the world's diamond trade thanks to its Central Selling Organisation's cartel.
The influence of Anglo-American on the fate of South Africa can be gauged from two examples. Under apartheid, it was Anglo-American who took the initiative to open discussions with the ANC, back in 1985, with the aim of bringing the regime of apartheid to an end through a negotiated settlement. At the time, the directors of Anglo-American did not even bother to conceal their approach to the ANC, despite the fact that under South African law, this amounted to high-treason - showing that they were in a position to dictate to the apartheid government in the political field just as much as they were able to bypass its strict financial controls when they needed to.
Neither has the end of apartheid reduced the political influence of Anglo-American, as was shown by an incident which took place earlier this month. De Beers, Anglo-American's diamond partner, controls diamond prices by maintaining stocks in London and limiting sales across the world. Three months ago, the South African government's newly-appointed diamond evaluator decided to tax De Beers on its diamond exports on the basis of their real market prices - which, apparently, had not been the practice before. In retaliation De Beers froze its diamond exports from South Africa, arguing that such an evaluation did not take into account the cost of maintaining its London stockpile. Why the South African state should pay these costs is anybody's guess. But after a 3-month stand-off, the government gave in and agreed to grant De Beers what amounts to a tax rebate. As if De Beers' huge assets in South Africa did not provide the ANC with enough means of putting a lot more pressure on this company!
The ANC's servility to capital
This last example illustrates the servility of the ANC towards big business. But this servility has more far-reaching and even catastrophic consequences.
One of the plagues which is crippling the South African economy, swelling the ranks of its enormous army of unemployed and reducing the government's ability to deliver on its social programmes - even if this was its priority, which is certainly not the case - is the lack of funds and investment.
Yet, from 1996 the ANC began to remove controls on capital flows out of the country. As a result, in each of the following years an average £5bn left the country to be "invested" overseas - that is the equivalent of the value of all mineral exports for 1998 or one-fifth of the country's total external debt!
At the same time, the large South African conglomerates jumped on the opportunity to develop their operations overseas. In 1997, Sanlam's metal and mining subsidiary, Billiton, moved its financial centre to the City of London. Anglo-American did the same this year. Rembrandt is already established in Switzerland and Luxemburg, while Old Mutual and Liberty Life are about to follow suit. After years of relative isolation due to the tight financial controls imposed by the apartheid regime, the old apartheid bourgeoisie is now fully re-integrated into the world market and South Africa is to become increasingly just a backyard for its operations. The five giants of the South African economy are showing without any ambiguity that their plans are to use the profits they make in South Africa to play on the merry-go-round of "global finance" as they say. The fall-out for the South African economy can only be negative, and the ANC knows this very well.
The logic of the ANC's nationalist stance should have been to force South African business to make at least some investment in South Africa to guarantee the development of the country's economy. But, as it turned out, the ANC's servility to South African capital was stronger than its concern for what it called "national interest". Far from reading the riot act to these companies which show openly their intention to bleed the South African economy for their own benefit, the ANC government has chosen to go along with their plans, using the fallacious argument that the issue was not to take control of existing capital but to attract new capital from abroad. So, instead of throwing a spanner in the works of the profit-making machineries of Anglo-American and other companies, the ANC decided that South Africa had to become involved in the worldwide beauty contest for foreign investment.
But has this foreign investment materialised? In fact, of 65 investments of over £10m announced between 1994 and 1997, only 17 were aimed at developing new facilities. The rest were merely purchases of existing assets - some of which were re-investments after the disinvestment wave of the late eighties. In most cases these purchases were immediately followed by restructuring and job cuts to maximise profits. This trend has been even more pronounced in 1998, when out of the total value of foreign investment announced, only 10% will result in new production.
In fact, the bulk of capital which has been attracted to South Africa over the past few years has been in the financial sphere, for the purpose of taking opportunity of the planned deregulation of services in this sector - insurance, pension funds, banking, brokerage and of course, a panoply of consultancies. These do not create jobs for the poor and may in fact expedite their removal through adding impetus to restructuring and privatisation.
So what solutions are proposed to cope with the fact that the number of real jobs has been cut by half-a-million since 1994? This is how the Financial Times summarised big business' view in a recent survey: «Employers (...) are urging the government to relax some of the recently adopted labour laws (..) Another plan involves the establishment by big business of a £100,000 fund to (...) promote job creation in the buoyant tourism sector. It is in hotels and game reserves, rather than in the old gold mines and car factories that most of South Africa's badly needed jobs are likely to be found.»
So, while ANC ministers are boasting about the prosperity that foreign investment is supposed to bring eventually to South Africa, casual jobs in the tourist industry are the only "future" that international business has in store for the millions of unemployed in the country. Meanwhile, shareholders of the "big five" - Anglo-American and the like - have every reason to be satisfied with Mandela's and Mbeki's loyalty to their interests.
Mbeki's "African Renaissance"
In April 1996, Thabo Mbeki declared that the "African Renaissance" was upon us. This much quoted speech along with his "I am an Africanist" address was given to endorse the new South African constitution which had just been adopted. However, the content of this speech was hardly earthshaking. «Africa has and is readying itself for growth and development, fuelled by her own efforts and the profitable and safe injection of international private capital», he told US investors. The "Africanist" reference was probably an attempt by Mbeki at making up for his image as a western-orientated diplomat and lack of nationalist credentials. But leaving this aside, there was one significant point in his speech - the implicit call for international capital to help develop a black bourgeoisie in South Africa.
Of course, over the past five years, a number of black-controlled investment consortia have emerged. This has been partly thanks to the ANC's policy of so-called "black empowerment". Bidders for government or public sector contracts who could claim some form of black involvement, either among their shareholders or their managers, were given priority treatment.
So most large companies made some cosmetic changes. They brought in black people as outside directors or even onto their boards in order to be in a better position to tender for government business. However even this gesture has had minimal impact. One survey published last year by Cape Town University found that whites still filled 87.4% of management jobs and Africans just 6.2% - in a country where whites make up less than 11% of the population!
Anglo-American went a bit further than most by selling stakes to black businessmen in two of its large subsidiaries: 30% in the gold and coal mining company JCI and 35% in Johnnic, a holding company with interests spanning from South African Breweries to the Times Media publishing group (which is similar to the group based on The Economist here). In both cases, however, Anglo-American made sure that it retained most of the capital, while leaving the actual management of the companies to their new black shareholders. By doing so, Anglo-American got the best of both worlds - they could regain control at any time while earning the profits which were to be expected from the government's support for black businesses.
In fact such deals were the only way for black business to develop. Since the economy was not expanding, the only space for black entrepreneurship was in the financial sphere, by taking over control of existing assets. Alas, black businessmen were desperately short of cash. Of course, a tiny black bourgeoisie already existed before the end of apartheid, but it was much too weak to provide the funds required.
The lack of access to capital for aspiring black businessmen meant that their deals had to be based on debt. So the new black shareholders were issued with a special kind of non-earning shares which could be transformed into normal shares over time, but only provided dividends and share prices increased at a minimum rate. And with the recent turmoil on the financial markets, specially after the rand lost 40% of its value against the dollar in May last year, many black empowerment companies found themselves dis-empowered, if not broke. Thus, for instance, even the share price of a big player like Johnnic has been halved since black shareholders acquired their stakes in it.
As a result the balance sheet of the "black empowerment" drive to promote the development of a black bourgeoisie is hardly a success. According to an assessment published in January this year, 16.3% of the market capitalization of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange was «under black control or black influence» - which is still nothing compared to the power of the "big five". Not to mention the fact that Johnnic, for instance, is included in that total despite being controlled in reality by Anglo-American.
Hence Mbeki's "Black Renaissance" appeal to the imperialist powers to help fund the development of a black bourgeoisie in South Africa. For the time being, the least that can be said is that it has not been very successful either. Now that political stability seems to have been restored in South Africa, why should western companies bother with long-term political preoccupations, such as helping to build up a black bourgeoisie in order to shield the country from the risk of future social explosion? If they are to make any investment at all, it will be driven by the profits they expect to make, not by the benefits this would have for South Africa's aspiring capitalists, let alone for the population as a whole.
Union funds turned into venture capital
In the meantime, the main source of finance for the new black bourgeoisie has been the pennies saved by the country's 3.2 million union members - in the various pension and provident funds set up and managed by the unions. These funds represent a considerable amount of money with an estimated total of £60bn.
The first £150m used to buy Johnnic, for instance, was lent to the buyers by these union funds. But since then, many unions have gone several steps further by setting up their own investment companies, rather than just lending the funds under their custody.
COSATU itself got involved in March 1996, by setting up Kopano Ke Matla ("Unity is Strength"), an investment company whose headquarters are located in the building of the British finance company De Loitte and Touche, in the plush Johannesburg suburb of Midrand. Two years later, Kopano Ke Matla bought a 50% stake in Prosperity Insurance before announcing the setting up of Prosperity Bank, which will operate only through automatic tills and cash points - a sort of South African version of the British TUC's Unity Bank.
Many other unions have been setting up their own independent investment companies. Some even began several years before, with the original purpose of raising funds to provide additional benefits for their members. For example the textile union SACTWU set up an investment company in 1993, with the intention of developing a capital base of £10m through so-called commercial opportunities, and using the profits to provide education grants to children of union members. To date SACTWU's investment companies have accumulated tens of millions of pounds. They control companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. Yet, so far, only £500,000 has been put at the disposal of some 2,500 children.
John Copelyn, the former general secretary of SACTWU who took over the running of the union's businesses, and became a very rich man as a result, justified this commercialisation in the following way: «Black empowerment opportunities afford South African workers the chance to take advantage of the transformation of South African capitalism. To the extent that they do not seize this moment on the grounds that it is still capitalism and that it makes no difference whether the rich are black or white, they will make that apathetic outlook a reality. Workers will simply be in the same position as they were before the window of opportunity came and long after it has gone.(...) Black empowerment can mean the opportunity for the working class to get ownership of billions of rand in independently-owned investment companies. They can develop enormous capacity to independently provide for social and welfare needs of workers. These needs can be transformed into institutions that are the natural beneficiaries of the companies we are building.» Although, adds Copelyn, these institutions «may not in the end be owned by the trade union movement but will function alongside them in providing different forms of support to working class people.»
Nowhere does it even occur to Copelyn to discuss the accountability of these so-called investment companies to the union membership. Yet, the history of the last few years shows the corruptive effect of the trade-unions' involvement in business.
The most prominent case is probably that of Cyril Ramaphosa. A former general secretary of the National Union of Miners who led two major miners' strikes in the 1980s which played a significant part in shaking the apartheid system, Ramaphosa became general secretary of COSATU, before becoming ANC general secretary. Then, in 1996, he was asked by Mandela to run the new National Empowerment Consortium to mastermind the purchase of the 35% stake in Johnnic, with the help of union funds.
Soon, Ramaphosa found himself sitting on all sorts of company boards and explaining: «This is a new era for all of us, what with unions going into business in their own right. One of the things that has also given me comfort in going into business is the fact that my own union, the NUM, is in business and in the Johnnic deal we are negotiating, it is playing a leading role...() So I have no misgivings about getting into this new terrain as I will be working with comrades and we will be accountable to certain principles. And let's not kid ourselves, in the process, of course, you make money. But at the same time we will also be saying, our unions must also be able to make money. The NUM now is going to be swimming in millions soon.»
By May 1997, the South African paper Mail & Guardian commented on Ramaphosa's growing enthusiasm for capitalism: «Walk into the bank and there is Cyril Ramaphosa, beaming out of a life-size cardboard cut-out, exhorting the poor and disadvantaged to share his new-found interest in beer, food, property and newspapers. 'Participate in Johnnic's Ikageng Share Scheme now!', says the man with the big smile. The scheme makes available 2.7m shares, at reduced rates, to black South Africans as part of the drive by Ramaphosa's National Empowerment Consortium (NEC) 'to get people from historically disadvantaged communities to become meaningfully involved in the economy.'» And the paper added that at May-day rallies around the country, thousands of pamphlets had been distributed urging the working class not to stay away from work but to buy Ramaphosa's shares.
That Ramaphosa had been making money was obvious - by then, he was already a millionaire. But whether NUM members were "swimming in millions" as Ramaphosa had predicted was another question entirely. In fact, the activities of Ramaphosa and his business associates had already acquired some rather dubious aspects. A few months earlier, in a report about one of the big companies in which Ramaphosa played a prominent role, Nail, the same Mail & Guardian had warned: «The company has a seven-layered pyramid structure that ultimately invests ownership with a company called Corporate Africa that has just four shareholders: Ntato Motlana, Dikganang Moseneke, Cyril Ramaphosa and Jonty Sandler. A recent newspaper article estimates that these four men, who have effective control over the black empowerment giant are together worth a staggering £15m.»
Of the four men thus implicitly accused of lining their pockets under the cover of black empowerment, Ramaphosa, as previously noted, was a former general secretary of COSATU and the ANC, Motlana was Mandela's private physician and a prosperous Soweto businessman in the apartheid days and Moseneke was the former leader of the ANC's traditional nationalist rival, the Pan African Congress. Obviously political leverage had a lot to do with their dominant position in Nail.
That being said, although the most prominent, Ramaphosa is by no means an isolated instance of a trade union leader using the leverage of his influence in the union machinery to climb up the business ladder and make himself a cosy fortune. For instance, in addition to the former leader of the textile union mentioned earlier, John Copelyn, there is also the case of Marcel Golding, a former assistant-general secretary of the miners' union who sits today on the boards of financial holdings and television companies, not to mention the particular case of Jamese Motlasi, who has been appointed as a non-executive director of Anglo-American while still general secretary of the miners' union.
Through a bitter and sad twist of history, a small layer of unscrupulous leaders are using the hard battles fought in the past by many thousands of workers against the apartheid state as a springboard for their ambitions.
Putting profit into GEAR
Since 1996, the framework for the ANC government's policy in favour of the capitalists has been the so-called "Growth, Employment and Redistribution" strategy, or GEAR, which has been implemented ever since by ANC finance minister Trevor Manuel.
The substance of GEAR can be summarised by this comment made last year by the British business paper, the Financial Times: «With GEAR, Manuel nailed his colours to the mast of Washington consensus economics. Despite the subtle language - for instance avoiding the use of the word privatisation.» In the language of the Financial Times, of course, this is an extremely flattering comment for Trevor Manuel. But what the so-called «Washington consensus economics» really means, is acceptance of the diktats of imperialism which are commonly imposed on Third World countries by its international economic arms, such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank or the World Trade Organisation.
Of course, the publicised aim of GEAR was that by the year 2000 economic growth would have risen to 6% a year and 400,000 jobs would have been created. Well and good, but what of the methods which were supposed to achieve this aim? These included large-scale privatisation of state assets (described as "restructuring"), the opening up of the domestic market to the outside world by removing exchange controls and trade barriers, the deregulation of the capital and labour markets, various tax incentives for private investors and the cutting of public expenditure.
Since GEAR was only meant to be a framework, it did not spell out the actual content of the measures which were to be implemented. But its real aims, as they emerged, no longer left any space for doubt. GEAR was intended to channel more state funds into the pockets of private businesses while facilitating foreign investment which, it was hoped, would provide additional income for the South African bourgeoisie and middle classes. Despite all the gloss surrounding its launch, there were no specific measures outlined to create jobs. This was left primarily to "market forces" and economic growth, since cutting state expenditure could only result in job cuts not job creation.
As to redistribution, that too was part of the gloss. But the kind of "redistribution" that the ANC had in mind was soon illustrated, when company tax was cut from 48 to 35%. By the beginning of this year, the Johannesburg newspaper The Sowetan estimated that the share of taxes paid by companies was a mere 15% while individuals paid 42% of the total through income tax and 30% through VAT. However, shareholders did not have to pay a penny on dividends earned. If this was "redistribution", it was clearly redistribution in favour of the rich, not the poor!
To all intents and purpose GEAR was an orthodox Thatcherite - or Blairite for that matter - programme. But it takes some cynicism to impose such policies in the context of South Africa. If the impact of privatisation and deregulation in the rich countries has been to marginalise the poor, precipitate a series of crises in public services while allowing a handful of private companies and franchisees to make billions, what can such policies deliver for the already poor vast majority of the population in a place like South Africa? What if not yet more severe deprivation?
When GEAR was introduced in 1996, Mandela insisted that this did not put into question the social reforms promised by the ANC to the poor in the run-up to the 1994 election. GEAR, said ANC ministers, was about something quite different, something mysteriously called "macro-economics", whereas social reforms were by then so much entrenched in government policy that they no longer even needed a specific ministry for their implemtation. So, the ministry of social reforms was disbanded and Jay Naidoo, the former COSATU general secretary who had been in charge of it since 1994, was moved to Post and Telecommunications, to prepare for the privatisation of Telkom, the South African state monopoly. The whole thing smacked of total hypocrisy.
So what happened in the end to the ANC's social reforms? In 1994, the ANC had pledged to build one million houses in five years, bring drinkable water and electricity to many more and provide free primary health care for under-fives and pregnant women and free education for the first ten years for all. It was also meant to organise the redistribution of 30% of good farming land.
The right to free education until the age of 10 was indeed written into the constitution and there were many reports about the clashes caused by the ANC's attempts to enforce this policy by getting schools which had been white-only previously to become multi-racial schools. However, there were certainly not enough such schools to take care of all black youth. What has really been done about this is difficult to gauge. However, the conditions in existing schools are not hard to imagine judging by the numerous protests staged by teachers over non-payment of wages, for instance.
The same goes for primary health care. According to official figures, 5 million more have now access to it than in 1994 - which is very far from achieving the target. But at the other end of the scale, there is impending catatrophe. Recruitment in hospitals has been frozen for many months so that, for instance, the four main hospitals in Johannesburg have just issued a warning that they would no longer be able to save hundreds of babies born with reversible conditions.
Land redistribution is at a virtual standstill. Only 2500 square miles have been transferred to landless people, or at least to those who could afford it, through share equity schemes backed up by government grants. And of 63,000 applications made over the past five years for the return of land stolen during the apartheid era, only 34 had been processed by February this year!
As to the most important part of the ANC's original pledges, that concerning housing, water and electricity, the results may sound more positive. According to official figures, 3m people more now have drinkable water; 2.2m households have been connected to the electricity grid and 700,000 houses have been built or are under construction.
But behind these statistics, is the stark reality. First, there is what remains to be done: today, 20% of the population are still without clean, running water, 37% are without electricity and 25% are living in shanties and squats, while the backlog in the house building programme is now 3m. But even what has been achieved is far from what it sounds like, due to budget cuts over the past five years.
Instead of the original plan of building adequate brick and mortar homes for all, the building programme was scaled down considerably, so that only starter homes of one room were built. These did not come for free and only those with a regular income can afford to buy them. Then it is up to the "successful owners" to enlarge the house according to the needs of their families, and if they are poor enough, they might get a small government grant for that.
Co-operative building could have provided a solution for many poor areas, by reducing building costs. But the civics organisations who tried going down that road found the banks unwilling to provide loans for such projects. Of course, these projects were not popular with building contractors since a lot of the work was done by the future inhabitants. So they were not popular with ministers either.
Those who are allegedly targeted to benefit from these housing programmes just cannot afford it, just as 30% of those households who are now connected to the electricity grid just cannot afford to pay the bills. In Alexandra township, one of the oldest in Gauteng, 60% of the population is unemployed. A real brick and mortar house as opposed to a tin shanty has become a luxury few can afford. In fact it is glaringly obvious to anyone that it is only by providing free housing and services to the jobless poor that the social backlog in housing can even start to be addressed. But this is not and never has been on the agenda.
Other "downsizing" of social programmes occurred even in essential health risk areas. Instead of sewage systems being dug, it was decided that only pit latrines would be provided, and that electricity and water could in most cases only be laid on through communal supply points. Individual households would have to organise and pay for their own connections - if they could.
South African PFIs
So GEAR has indeed reduced, if not cancelled, the social reforms promised by the ANC. But has it even achieved its proclaimed aims?
In terms of growth, not only has the 6% target not been met, but there has been hardly any economic growth at all. Last year's financial crisis has only made matters worse. And since public investment and job creation were dependent on achieving these growth targets, these are not even on the horizon.
"State asset restructuring", i.e. privatisation in plain English, was meant to open a whole range of new "opportunities" according to ANC politicians. So far it has not been too successful, not through lack of trying but because there have not been many interested takers.
Franchises on radio stations have been sold off as well as 30% of the national telecom monopoly. A 75% stake in Aventura, a state-owned holiday chain, has been sold to a consortium in which COSATU is a major partner - which is rather ironical from a union confederation who has made a stand against privatisation in principle! The parcels distribution service, PX, Apron Services for baggage and the Blue Train company have been sold off. But the preparation for the sale of 49% of South African Airways has already taken more than three years without apparent result. And that is about it.
But there is another kind of privatisation which is well underway and is already taking its toll, worsening rather than improving the lives of the poorest. At local level, municipal services, like water and sanitation, gas distribution, computer services, buses, electricity distribution, etc.. are being put out to tender. Predictably, the fingers in these pies are old acquaintances.
Biwater, the British company is about to sign a deal to provide water and sanitation management to the town of Nelspruit in Mpumalanga. What is ironical again about this deal is that Biwater has teamed up with Sanco holdings, the investment company of the South African National Civics Organisation. And head of Sanco holdings is none other than the former metalworkers' union leader and current ANC and SACP figurehead, Moses Mayekiso, once the darling of the British left. And confronting this bid are the members of the municipal workers' union, who are fighting to defend their jobs and conditions.
The French water company Lyonnaise des Eaux, well-known in Britain for having taken over two regional water companies, has already secured a handful of water delivery contracts with municipalities in Kwazulu-Natal and the Eastern and Western Cape in partnership with the South African Group Five. There are eight potential similar deals in the pipeline in Johannesburg. And of course there is no reason why this privatisation process should be different in South Africa from what it is here. In other words it has opened huge possibilities for backhanders and all sorts of corruption on the one hand and is threatening a huge number of jobs on the other. To quote the Constitutional development Minister, for a sense of deja vu: «such contracts [are] part of the public-private partnership that lies at the heart of the Municipal Infrastructure Investment Framework, which the government hopes will put service delivery back on track.»
"Back on track" for some and not for others, though. In fact in the case of a small town in Kwazulu-Natal, called Newcastle, it meant reinventing apartheid. Here, First National Bank was invited to work out the contracting of municipal services. Two plans were worked out, one for the previous white local authority and another one for the previous black authority. And surprise, surprise, the white suburb would have fleet of trucks to clear its rubbish but the black one would have to rely on subcontractors using their own means.
In fact what these public-private partnerships are doing is to price most of the poor out of services completely, while putting their breadwinners either out of work or on lower wages and worse conditions, just as has happened here. Only when the starting point is poverty, less means starvation.
The poor majority five years on
Just before the June election this year, hosts of reporters were roving the poor townships to interview prospective voters amongst the shanty-dwellers about their voting intentions. And in fact most of them got the same answer. Typical was a woman who lives in Alexandra township on the edge of Johannesburg. Alex is a township with a long history of struggle - and one of the first during the eighties to set up its own communal civic organisation to self-govern the township and defy the government. This woman was living in a shack with eight other people, covering herself with cardboard boxes against the cold, for lack of blankets. But she said she would vote ANC again. «They promised us houses and jobs last time,» she said, «This time they have to deliver».
Some may be more bitter. But what is evident is that they do not see any other perspective. A recent documentary on British television tracked down a family who had been living in a squatter camp just before the 1994 election. It found them in Thembisa, north-east of Johannesburg, in another squatter camp which has mushroomed adjacent to the more regular barrack-like brick box houses of the township. The mother of the family still lived in hope that her brick house would one day materialise. While the camera crew was there, a distress call came from a shack nearby from the mother of a fourteen year old boy who had tried to hang himself. His older brother had succeeded in doing just that only a few days before. When this child was asked why he wanted to die, he said there had been no future for his brother and there was none for him. Apparently suicides amongst black youth, a totally new phenomenon, have been growing alarmingly.
With 2-3m homeless, the squatter camps which used to be regularly bulldozed during the apartheid years are now ubiquitous. Because rural unemployment is so high (1.4m were employed on farms in 1994 and today this figure is down to less than half that number), people have streamed in to the towns looking for work. Now some South African towns are becoming smaller versions of Bombay and Calcutta, surrounded by shanty towns: they are no longer shielded from internal migration by apartheid legislation and the poverty that used to be hidden away out of sight is now in full view.
With general unemployment at 38%, more than half of South Africans live in households where the total income is less than £30 a month. Of the poor, 95% are black Africans, 4% are so-called coloured or mixed race (these definitions seem to persist despite the end of official apartheid) and 1% are Indian or white. Most of the 11% white population however still enjoys average living standards comparable to those of Canada or New Zealand. Their average income is £10,300 per year, compared to the average black household income which is £230 per year. South Africa has developed one of the largest gaps between rich and poor in the world. And while more black people reached the ranks of the country's richest 20% between 1990 and 1995 increasing from 2% to 6%, the percentage of black people in the poorest 20% increased from 34% to 38%.
The positive discrimination legislation which gives black people or women applicants preference for jobs may upset a few whites, but with the scale of unemployment as it is such policies amount to little more than a publicity stunt. When there are so few jobs going, how can this legislation help the millions who need one? For the privileged, there is always the possibility of going abroad. In fact probably quite a lot of whites have emigrated, though the actual figures are a well-kept secret. But even those who stay are not affected by the positive discrimination policy, at least those of them who can afford to pay the fees to go into higher education, which most black youth cannot.
In the past, despite the affluence of its white minority, South Africa had always been a Third World country. And it still is today. Apartheid concealed the poverty of the overwhelming majority - at least for those who chose not to look too closely. Its fall has brought this poverty to the fore. Today, the old inequalities are perpetuated, this time not by a racist system but by the class system which the ANC is so keen to defend. The poorest are being pushed further into poverty while the better-offs have some chances to improve their lot and the richest are certain to become richer than ever.
This is why the gory reports which appear regularly in the British media about the level of criminality in South Africa only betray the abysmal stupidity of their authors.
South Africa was always a violent society because it was always poverty-stricken. But the virtual on-going civil war imposed on the black population by the apartheid regime, caused even deeper wounds in society. These wounds could have healed had the prospect of a future which is worth building, been opened up with the fall of apartheid. Instead, after only a few years, the poor masses are faced with the same enslavement to poverty, the same nightmare, if not worse, but this time without even the hope of eventually finding a way out. Which society would resist such terrible blows? And how can one fail to understand that this may lead to despair and blind violence?
The working class fights on
Despite the rise of unemployment, the working class has not been afraid to make itself heard over the past years. The constant refrain from both business and government that the strength of the unions is frightening away potential investors has not deterred them either. In fact the South African working class still has one of the highest union densities in the world, with 3.2m union members out of a working population of 7.7m. And though COSATU leaders are working with the government machinery at all sorts of levels and former leaders have gone into business, which can only disorientate the membership on the ground, the battles over wages and conditions continue.
The figures speak for themselves. While in 1996, 1.7m days were "lost" through strike action, 650,000 were lost the following year and last year 2.3m. The worsening of the economic situation therefore does not seem to have dampened militancy.
To give just a few examples. In July last year, the government backed down in a confrontation with 10,000 post office and 13,000 Telkom workers over wages. Later the same month 10,000 chemical workers went on indefinite strike also over wages. On 1st August they were joined by 40,000 workers belonging to the other chemical workers' union. By the end of August, despite injunctions and arrests, most of these workers had won part of their demands, including an 8-10% wage increase when their demand was 10.5%.
On the 9 August, NUMSA, the metalworkers' union, called a strike at Samcor which builds cars under contract for Ford, and at other car plants, involving 21,000 workers, over wages and conditions. This lasted 11 days before the companies gave in - partly in return for a 3-year deal. But NUMSA workers were soon back on strike to support an 18% wage demand for 60,000 car component workers, in the first secondary strike since such strikes were formally legalised in 1996. When 148 of these strikers were arrested for allegedly blocking a road and holding an illegal gathering, the car component workers carried on, on their own. They stuck to their guns for five weeks and won a 25% increase in the minimum wage across their industry.
There were also strikes at Edgars, the largest and richest retailer quoted on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, which decided to freeze wages, a nationwide bus strike, a truck strike, strikes and sympathy strikes across sections by diamond and platinum mineworkers, among others.
There were also many demonstrations and protests against privatisation. In September, for instance, Johannesburg municipal workers staged demonstrations to protest against the council's failure to collect service charges amounting to millions of rand from big business. The council was, as a result, freezing 400 posts in the emergency services and fire department. The municipal workers' union leader who organised the protest, Freddie Khoza, said it was clear that workers would have to look at the council's books. «We will have to dig deep looking at them», he said, accusing the council of nepotism and corruption. The union also called on the council to end casual labour, disclose information on all existing and pending contracts, train employees and hold a summit to address staff shortages and recover the millions owed by businesses.
Just from these few examples it should be clear that the organised working class remains strong and combative.
The bosses and an increasing number of ANC politicians have argued that this militancy was due to the "leniency" of the Labour Relations Act introduced in 1996. It is true that at first sight, this law seems more liberal than labour laws here, where there is no right to take secondary action, for instance. But this law, like most which grant rights to workers, is a double-edged sword.
For instance it formally allows bosses to use scabs and lock-outs but does not formally allow picketing; all strikes and lockouts are subject to a 48hr notice period; a 30-day referral period for arbitration may be voluntary but in practice it is regarded as compulsory. And probably worst of all, strikes are illegal for workers in jobs designated as essential services - including all hospital workers - which makes up one of the larger sections of the working class. The law also includes the possibility of fining unions for every striker involved and resorting to compulsory arbitration. This last provision has apparently cut down what COSATU general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, calls «unnecessary strikes». But what is obviously the case, is that this supposedly «labour friendly» legislation, to use Vavi's words again, is being used by the ANC, not as a bill of rights for workers against bosses but as a means to limit the ability of the working class to defend itself.
Towards a confrontation?
The ANC government, now reinforced further by its increased majority in the election last month, has already made it quite clear that it will not tolerate any rocking of the boat by COSATU or the SACP, its partners in the triple-alliance.
The ANC leaders have good reason to issue such a reminder. They know that their policies are creating tensions within the two organisations. This was already illustrated in the arguments over the GEAR strategy when it made some waves amongst a section of the SACP and was totally opposed by COSATU, who called for a return to a redistributive policy. At the COSATU conference in June 1998, this was reaffirmed but at the same time the confederation's central committee decided to put its weight fully behind the ANC's election campaign and to levy each member 10p to help finance it.
The SACP's leadership's report to their conference the following month proclaimed: «(...) the SACP is convinced that government's macro-economic framework policy, GEAR, is seriously flawed in certain important respects. (...) GEAR embodies, in its core fiscal and monetary policies, a neo-liberal approach that is at variance with our reconstruction and development objectives. (...) The role of the new democratic government is more and more centred upon creating an "investor friendly" climate (...)»
In fact the waves went even further, fuelling a potential split in the SACP, between so-called "young Turks" and the older guard over their role in the alliance with the ANC. This was reflected in COSATU, with many of the anti-GEAR activists putting into question COSATU's participation in the alliance with the ANC. The question of the setting up of a workers party, independent from the ANC, has therefore resurfaced again and probably will not go away.
These discussions did not escape the ear of Mandela. He demanded that the SACP and COSATU toe the line: «For as long as I lead this government, as long as I am a member of the African National Congress, I will ensure that the government continues to implement what we believe is good for the country. (...) If COSATU and the SACP leave the internal structures [of the alliance] and go public, and not only attack what we consider a fundamental policy of the organisation, but ridicule it, you must be prepared to take full responsibility for your actions. That type of behaviour makes me even more determined not to listen to you.» For good measure, a few days later, the Department of Labour director told COSATU that the government would do nothing to stop job cuts in either the private or public sector and reiterated the plan to sack 50,000 public sector workers.
The union machineries are now stuck in a contradictory situation. On the one hand, they have become increasingly dependent on the positions they have occupied since 1990. They sit in all sorts of executive and advisory state bodies together with government officials and representatives of the bosses. They have privileged access to ministers and politicians. They have built up a web of business interests which, by now, probably play a significant role in financing their day-to-day activities and certainly a vital role in guaranteeing pensions and insurance cover for their members. Breaking away from the government alliance would mean losing some or all these positions and the social weight that goes with them. It would mean, to some extent, returning to the precarious position they had until 1990, although, for the time being at least, without having to face systematic repression. But even that may change.
On the other hand, the union leaders know that once the election period is over, the ANC government is going to step up its attacks against the standards of living of the population and particularly the working class, whose resistance it will try to break. For the union leaders, staying in the triple alliance will mean going along with the anti-working class policies of the ANC and, when required, going against the spontaneous reactions of their membership. There are undoubtedly many accomplished bureaucrats in COSATU who would be prepared to go down that road without any qualms. But it is also a risky road for them. They could face a rebellion within the ranks and be unable to contain it - in which case they would be pushed out of their positions and would lose everything. After all the South African unions are much younger than the British unions. The time when they were built is not so long ago and there was, of necessity, a certain level of real democracy in those days which the membership may still remember vividly.
Which way the trade-unions will go, is of course, impossible to predict. But the South African working class cannot allow itself to rely once again on the trade union leaders' political choices. The last time the working class did that, in the 1980s, at the high point of the strike wave, it ended up in the tow of the ANC thanks to the decisive role played in COSATU by SACP activists. And because of this, the working class and the poor masses were deprived of many additional gains that could have been made at the time of the transition, when the political balance of forces was decided in the factories and the townships.
The working class has the capacity to fight off the attacks of the ANC trustees of the South African and international bourgeoisie. It has shown many times its dynamism and its ability to find within its own ranks devoted activists capable of building the organisations it needed. And compared to the days of apartheid, it is now in some respects, in a better position to fight, due to the relative political freedom it enjoys for the time being and due to the fact that class divisions have now become clearer since the fall of apartheid.
Yes, today more than ever before, the South African working class needs an independent party, a party capable of defending its class interests, in short what would be a communist workers' party. Such a party, if it existed, would challenge openly and without any concessions to the aspiring black bourgeoisie or its imperialist friends, the privileges of capital. It would, at the same time, seek to express the aspirations of the poor masses, thereby pulling their support behind the working class - a support without which no social change can be envisaged in South Africa.
Only the emergence of such a party can be decisive for the working class, in South Africa as in every other country in the world. By going on the offensive against the working class, the ANC regime may trigger an upsurge of militancy leading to large-scale battles. What we can only hope is that these battles will see the birth of the communist workers' party whose absence has been paid for so dearly by the South African working class over the past decade.