South Africa - A decade of ANC rule - nationalism's exorbitant cost for the masses

Mar/Apr 2004

The coming general election in South Africa, on 14 April, will mark the tenth anniversary of the day when the first non-racial election in the country formalised the end of 46 years under the hated regime of apartheid. It will also mark a decade of unchallenged rule by the African National Congress (ANC) in alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).

Whether this 10th anniversary will be much cause for celebration among the black working class and poor is doubtful, however. The balance sheet of this past decade has nothing to do with the aspirations to equal rights, freedom and social progress, which motivated two generations of black workers to wage a relentless fight against the apartheid regime, in which many lost their lives and many more were subjected to torture and jail.

The millions of township dwellers who, for nearly two decades, confronted the armoured vehicles of the apartheid regime bare-handed, their numbers their only weapon, expected the fall of the apartheid regime to mean the end of the system of social privilege which had marked its rule. When Nelson Mandela, the man whom the nationalist apparatuses of the anti-apartheid movement had turned into an icon of the "liberation struggle" with the help of the western media, was finally freed from jail in 1990, the masses who welcome him saluted him with clenched fists. At the time, for the South African poor, the "liberation struggle" was indistinguishable from the fight for what they called "socialism" - a society organised to cater for the needs of all, not just a tiny layer of rich, white or otherwise.

But the nationalist leaders of the anti-apartheid movement had a totally different agenda. They deliberately sacrificed on the altar of capital the energy, enthusiasm and commitment to the cause that the South African masses had shown over all these years. As soon as they were able to rise to power on the shoulders of the poor's mobilisation, Nelson Mandela and his allies proceeded to act as loyal trustees of the interests of the South African capitalist class - and by the same token, of western capital - including against the poor, just like any other bourgeois party.

Yes, the expectations of the South African working class and poor have been betrayed. Ten years on, instead of the "socialism" they had fought for, they are confronted with conditions of aggravated poverty, deeper social inequalities and the devastation caused by the HIV pandemic. The old racist apartheid may have disappeared, but it has been replaced with an even deeper social apartheid. And this time, the main political forces which, yesterday, used to inspire the fight of the masses, are siding with the representatives of the white South African capitalists, the former torturers of the township poor, behind the regime which enforces today's social apartheid.

The masses deprived of their victory

It is worth recalling here the process that led to the first non-racial election, back in April 1994.

It was the outcome of a long process which had been initiated by the spontaneous intervention of the masses - the Soweto uprising of 1976. At the time, the anti-apartheid movement was already well established, but it had been driven into exile by repression and its underground activity in South Africa was confined to small circles. Soweto was the largest black township in the Johannesburg area. Initially, it had been built to accommodate black migrant workers brought from the so-called "homelands" (the black reservations in rural areas set up after the establishment of apartheid, in 1948) to work in the many local mines. However, by 1976, the industry's need for a more skilled workforce had stabilised the population of Soweto and many other similar townships. That year, for the first time ever, the Soweto youth held the streets against the bullets of the racist police which was trying to disperse one of its protests. Soon the adults joined the youth and what had started as a mere protest turned into an outright uprising which spread like wild fire to many of the country's townships.

Predictably, due to lack of organisation, the Soweto uprising was crushed. But it left a whole generation of black youth who had realised that they could confront the superior forces of the regime and hold its ground against them. This lesson was not lost. Within four years, new fighting forces began to emerge on two fronts. In the townships themselves, on the one hand, where committees and organisations of all kinds blossomed to defend the interests of residents in their day-to-day lives - and this necessarily involved confronting the regime since every aspect of social life in the ghettos was overseen by the apartheid state. And, on the other hand, in the factories and mines, where black workers flocked into new trade-unions which were being set up by anti-apartheid activists.

As a result, the 1980s saw an explosion of militancy across South Africa. The townships became uncontrollable and the flow of profits from industry was constantly disrupted by determined strikes, forcing companies to make costly concessions. This growing social instability in South Africa became a cause of concern, both for a section of South African capital and for imperialism itself, whose leaders began to fear the possibility of the South African working class overthrowing the apartheid regime with its own instruments of struggle and setting a dangerous precedent (from the point of view of imperialism, of course) for the rest of Africa.

This was the time when sanctions against apartheid became fashionable in the West and were even endorsed by the US government. Western companies, fearing the disapproval of domestic public opinion, sold their South African subsidiaries to local businesses (as it turned out later, these sales were merely temporary arrangements) and pulled out. The aim of this posturing was not to support the struggle of the black poor, of course, but to put pressure on the National Party, which was at the helm of the apartheid regime, to sort out the situation one way or another. Meanwhile, South African capital was seeking tentatively a route to compromise by initiating negotiations with the banned ANC, through representatives of the country's richest company, the mining giant Anglo-American.

During the five-year period between 1985 and the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, all possible courses of action were investigated behind the backs of the mobilised masses. While Anglo-American and western governments talked to the ANC and vetted its candidacy as managers of the country's affairs, the National Party was stepping up repression. It even tried to use the ethnic card by playing a Zulu-based nationalist group, Inkhata, against the rest of the township poor. But when this failed to break the resilience of the masses, it was decided to try the ANC card.

The release of Nelson Mandela, in 1990, and the unbanning of the ANC and later the SACP, marked the beginning of a second period of transition. The problem for western and South African capital was to ensure that the black poor would not see the end of apartheid as a victory of their collective mobilisation, that they would not, therefore, be encouraged by it to push their advantage and go on to fight for social demands which might put capitalist profit at risk. So, for the next four years, cold water was poured on the enthusiasm of the masses. During these four years, not only did the ANC and its allies use most of their energy convincing the township poor that they would have to be patient and that the remnants of apartheid would have to be abolished first, before anything else could be envisaged. But, in addition, the whole process was presented to the masses as an inevitable joint effort between the anti-apartheid organisations and the representatives of the apartheid regime.

To all intents and purposes, the end of the apartheid regime was to be merely a revamping of the same regime by coopting representatives of the nationalist organisations into its institutions, from top to bottom.

The ANC settles into power

The government which came to power following the 1994 election, merely duly took over all of the old state paraphernalia. This included its police force and army (which were supplemented by some soldiers from the disbanded armed wings of the liberation movements, and renamed) and reserved places for the old apartheid personnel in the civil service. Mandela became president, De Klerk, the president of the National Party, took one of the two deputy president posts, while other National Party politicians were given various portfolios. So Mandela and his ANC/SACP comrades sat in government with their former oppressors and torturers.

By 1997, De Klerk had already resigned from government, leaving Mbeki - a Sussex university graduate and the ANC's chief "ambassador" in the West during the previous decade - as the only deputy to Mandela. A new constitution was adopted in line with the rules laid out in agreement with the National Party during the negotiations conducted in 1990-1994. This new constitution for a multiracial South Africa left most of the institutions of the apartheid regime intact. After all, these institutions had been designed to impose the rule of a tiny capitalist class on huge, deprived masses. And the ANC, which aspired to manage the affairs of the same class, provided it was willing to make space for black business, had no need to change anything in a state machinery whose efficiency at repressing the masses had already been tested.

The new constitution also promoted positive discrimination in racial and sexual terms, as well as what it called "black empowerment", which was supposedly meant to help break the legacy of apartheid. But for the poor, despite all the promises made back in 1994 and the good words included in the constitution, the "legacy of apartheid" was still there: for millions of them, there was no housing available, no electricity or clean water, health and education facilities were totally inadequate and there were no jobs.

So, unsurprisingly, the results of the 1999 general election indicated a degree of disillusionment in the ruling alliance. Although the ANC actually increased its score from 62 to 66% this was rather due to the absence of a credible opposition, than a greater enthusiasm for the ruling alliance - whose total votes actually fell by 15%. What is more, voter turnout - keeping in mind this was only the second time in history that the black population was being given the chance to vote - was actually less than in 1994 by nearly 20%! Although this can be blamed partly on a shambolic new voter registration scheme, it was certainly also an expression of discontent.

This discontent had already surfaced in the run-up to the 1999 election, by a whole series of strikes against the austerity measures contained in the government's 1997 Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) plan. Mandela's government had set itself the aim to attract foreign investment and was going out of its way to prove to imperialist companies its willingness to act as intermediary in helping them to extract profits from the labour of South African workers. To this end, GEAR looked very much like the "Structural Adjustment Programmes" usually imposed by the IMF on Third World countries - with the removal of basic subsidies, privatisation of state entities, large scale job cuts in the public sector and opening up of domestic markets. Except that Mandela was doing this voluntarily and without any guarantee of getting anything in return, while the working class was supposed to foot the bill.

Mbeki's formula to keep the boat steady

After the 1999 electoral victory of the ANC, Nelson Mandela stood aside and Thabo Mbeki took over the presidency to a chorus of condolences about what a hard act it was going to be to follow the supposedly benign and venerable patriarch, Mandela. But it turned out that Mbeki had no such problem.

Indeed, he proved well capable of combining populist demagogy with a ruthless policy against the poor, aimed at boosting capitalist profits.

So, for instance, Mbeki soon stirred up controversy by his deliberate public downplaying of the AIDS epidemic. Behind this demagogy, however, there was a policy aimed at keeping social state expenditure to a minimum and a slavish respect for imperialist capital. Indeed, effective tackling of the HIV pandemic - which in today's terms means drug treatment - can only be achieved in a poor country by ignoring the patents, rights and profits of these companies. But even after Mbeki's government reached an out-of-court settlement with the multinationals over local manufacture or purchase of anti-retrovirals from unpatented cheaper sources abroad, it still has not taken the initiative doing either. He is as reluctant to deprive the multinationals as he is to increase health expenditure. Instead, Mbeki made a huge issue of the intractable poverty of the population, leading to its ill-health - blamed primarily on the apartheid era - in an attempt to delay any decision over treatment of HIV patients on a significant scale.

That said, by taking over the presidency at this point, Mbeki did draw the short straw, since a second term ANC government was at least expected to begin to deliver the goods to its capitalist sponsors, both at home and abroad. And even if a certain social stability had been achieved under Mandela, an expectant population was still waiting to benefit from its post-apartheid liberation dividend. Mbeki had to find a way to please the one and fob off the other.

This required political acrobatics. So he played up to African nationalism with his "vision" of an"African Renaissance" and by launching NEPAD, the "New Partnership for Africa's Development", which he presented as a vehicle to tackle the "global apartheid" against the poor countries of Africa, but above all, as a vehicle to tighten South Africa's relationship with imperialist capital.

However, this strategy did not meet with great success in attracting foreign investment - in any case not nearly the amount that would have been required to sustain the 6% annual growth that GEAR originally promised. In fact, according to estimates published by the Financial Times, of the total flow of foreign direct investment to developing countries between 1994 and 2003, South Africa received less than 1% - a total of only $22bn in 10 years, or the equivalent of less than 2% of the country's GDP per year! And this does not take into account the flow of capital out of South Africa during the same period, particularly when some of the country's largest companies, like Anglo-American and Billiton in mining and Sanlam in insurance, moved their headquarters and stock market listings to western countries.

As for the privatisation drive, this has not been too successful either for lack of buyers. Since 1997, the only real success has been the sale of 30% of SA Telekom. The government had to take back the share in South African Airways that SwissAir had bought, due to SwissAir going bust. The privatisation programme for the railways, ports and airways (which come under the state company, Transnet) has been put off for another 18 months. However Finance Minister, Trevor Manuel, is hoping to do better with the auction of 30% of the electricity company Eskom.

This does not mean that the ANC's economic policy has been altogether unsuccessful from the point of view of the capitalist class. The large South African companies won the financial freedom that they wanted, far more than they had under the apartheid regime, which kept a tight control on the flow of capital in and out of the country. The country's stock market flourished, thereby allowing the development of a parasitic and profitable financial sector, although it has not fully recovered from the shockwave of the 1997 South East Asian financial crisis.

Last, but not least, out of Mandela's "black empowerment" and Mbeki's "African Renaissance" has emerged a thin but affluent layer of black capitalists. Some of them came straight out of the leading circles of the ANC or COSATU to take over managing positions in consortiums of unprofitable production facilities dumped by the big conglomerates, which were at first subsidised by the state and subsequently floated on the stock market once they were back in profit. Others used their positions as managers of COSATU unions' pension funds to start meteoritic careers in the finance sector. Others still, were co-opted by the boards of directors of the old white companies, who could then claim that they had "reformed" themselves.

The poor at the receiving end

One of the promises made by Mandela in 1994 had been to bring basic amenities to the township and rural poor. But rather than using the resources of the existing state companies to provide these amenities, the ANC made the choice to use these promises as a pretext to channel public funds into the coffers of private business, much in the way this is done in Britain today.

So, to allow the provision of basic services like water and electricity, many "partnership" deals with foreign as well as local companies have been signed at central, provincial and local level. And given private investors' expectations that they will make money out of these deals, it is the policy of the government at every level. to recover the cost of the supply from the consumers.

The government boasts that 70% of households now have electricity and 80% have access to clean running water. But even assuming that these figures are not pure propaganda (which they probably are), the fact is that out of the 7m who are said to have been given access to such services since 1994, at least 1.2m have no means to pay for them. This has not prevented the government from launching a cynical campaign to enforce payment, based on the assertion that this is wilful "non-payment" which is a legacy of the anti-apartheid struggles of the 1980s and has to be "rooted out" since it is no longer legitimate!

So, the state electricity company Eskom uses armed men from a private security firm (known as "red ants", because of their red overalls) to carry out disconnections for non-payment and arrears. Between 1999 and 2000, as many as 74,400 water cut-offs have been carried out in the Greater Cape Town area. Since 1994, it is estimated by anti-privatisation activists that water and electricity cut-offs for non-payment, have affected 10m people, while 2m have been evicted from their homes for the same reason. In Soweto just after the general election in 1999, Eskom was cutting off the electricity supply of 20,000 households every month!

It is this policy which has in fact resulted in a renewed "civic" revolt along the same lines as that of the 1980s, among the poor over the last few years!

For instance, in Soweto, an Operation Khanyisa (light up) was launched, by the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, to resist cut-offs. It provided "struggle electricians" who simply reconnected houses to the grid for free. By the end of 2001 the SECC won a temporary moratorium on further cut-offs, but protestors have been shot and jailed as have their counterparts in townships up and down the country from Tafelsig in Cape Town, where barricades were built and set on fire to prevent municipal officials from carrying out evictions for rent arrears, to Chatsworth near Durban, where "struggle plumbers" have been reconnecting the water supplies of hundreds of "poors" who had been cut off.

In August 2000 the worst cholera outbreak in the history of South Africa occurred in rural KwaZulu-Natal, affecting 100,000 people and causing 200 deaths. The cholera bacillus thrives in dirty water and causes severe dysentery with rapid dehydration and death if not treated. There was a direct correlation between this outbreak and the initiation, just a few months before, of a scheme involving the installation of pre-paid water meters. Hardly any of the residents could afford the registration and connection fee, but the system also kept breaking down, leaving them with no water supply for three weeks at a time. They resorted to the use of water from the river and stagnant pools. One uMhlatuze Water Board manager responsible for this catastrophe showed his disregard by saying, "These people have been without clean water for years. They are used to it. What is a couple of weeks to them?"

Last year, in October, the battle against pre-paid water meters shifted once more to Soweto, culminating in the shooting of a worker from Johannesburg Water, after a confrontation with residents. This was particularly tragic since municipal workers organised in the SAMWU trade union, had staged strikes and resistance themselves against Johannesburg council's policy of outsourcing services and the resulting job cuts.

In December 2000, just before that year's local elections, the national office of the ANC announced a new policy of "free services". These were introduced eventually in mid-2001. But what did they amount to? ANC-controlled municipalities offered 50kWh of electricity free per household and per month, while Democratic Alliance-run councils offered 20kWh - just enough to keep at most two 100W light bulbs burning 8 hours a day! But this gives nothing to the 50% of rural families who are not even connected to the electricity grid yet. As to the free water allocated - 6,000 litres per household per month - it does not take into account the high household occupancy (the poorest tend to have the largest numbers under one roof) and the fact that leaky pipes can mean a lot more than this is used by most households.

But there is a catch in all this "free" provision. Because, once this "free block" of water and electricity has been used the cost of further usage is priced at a higher tariff than before. So households can find themselves paying even more for their water than prior to the free service provision! And anyway, many households are not receiving their "free blocks" because of arrears. The Department of Provincial Affairs reported that in the last quarter of 2001 alone, 133,000 disconnections of water took place and 290,000 disconnections of electricity nationwide, when "free services" had been in place for several months.

Housing was the other area that the government promised to address 10 years ago. It should be recalled that the government undertook to build one million houses in the first five years of the new South Africa. Ten years later it boasts of 1.2m "housing units" built. But these are often one-room "starter homes" built so poorly that they immediately develop cracks and even fall down completely. And they have been built mainly in apartheid era townships or former "homelands" located far from cities and jobs. Besides, more than 3m families are still without even these shacks.

An organisation set up jointly by the banks and the government, called Servcon (!) was meant to "educate" people who took out mortgages to pay for new homes, on how to budget their repayments. The example of Khayelitsha, in the Western Cape, is typical. There, faced with joblessness and homes which were structurally defective, and which residents had to repair themselves, many households defaulted on their mortgage repayments. This led to forced evictions into accommodation described by Mandela Park residents as "dog kennels" - bare 20 square-meter single-room shacks, with just four walls and a roof, but no ceiling or insulation, which the government counts as part of the 1.2m homes it boasts of having built since 1994.

What do the homeless do then? They build their own shelters in squatter camps on city outskirts, close to work and other amenities. However the government's response has been to systematically bulldoze these shanty-towns, with as much violence as the apartheid era government. It also ruthlessly evicts squatters in existing buildings - and where eviction is resisted, armed police have not hesitated to shoot.

Today Mbeki uses the "legacy of apartheid" excuse to exhort the poor to be patient over housing and service provision. But he does promise that, having laid a "solid" foundation over the past decade (and with "the best constitution in the world") a better life for all can be attained... perhaps by 2014 - a promise pompously dressed up as "Vision 2014" for the sake of the coming election. Whether this will convince those fighting brutal evictions and electricity and water cut-offs is another question.

A catastrophe for the poor

So what is the balance sheet for the 10 years of ANC government from the point of view of South Africa's working class and poor?

The last census in 1996 showed the 40% poorest South Africans got less than 3% of the national income while the richest 10% enjoyed over 50% of it. No wonder South Africa has the dubious honour of being among the most unequal societies in the world.

After one million job cuts in the formal economy since 1994, (official figures), unemployment stands (officially) at 41% compared to 36.2% five years ago and 27.4% ten years ago. However black urban unemployment is nearly 50% (in 1995 this stood at 34%) and in the poorest rural areas 60%. In fact full-time occupations employ fewer than 40% of the "economically active" population. For the black African workers this decreases to less than one third.

There has been a sharp increase in part-time and casual work, with one third of construction workers and 25% of urban workers in other sectors employed only as casuals. Then there is the so-called "informal sector" which accounts for a third of the total jobs in the economy according to official figures - but given the difficulty in collecting such data it is likely that this figure is much higher.

An incident which occurred on the 12 February this year, illustrates people's desperation for jobs. When the uShaka Marine World, a marine life display facility aimed at tourists in Durban, advertised 300 jobs, 10,000 unemployed turned up to apply, resulting in chaos and at one point a stampede towards the gates during which 70 people were injured.

According to COSATU, joblessness and falling pay have resulted in the working class' share of national income falling by 10%, while over the same period, the share of profits in the national income increased by 17%. Officially the minimum wage is R1,900 per month (around £180), but of course most workers are not in formal jobs and, therefore, are not covered by it. Permanent full-time workers get the equivalent of 90p per hour, whereas the average paid to casual workers is 60p per hour. But, for example, some redundant footwear workers (21,000 jobs have been lost in clothing and footwear over the past year) in KwaZulu-Natal "re-entered" the labour force working for an "entrepreneur" who pays them the equivalent of 8p for every shoe made. One worker said he could make on average around £5 per week. In fact, the poorest 50% of the population is now scraping by on an average income of R140 per month (£8), gleaned from "odd jobs", benefits and support from family members. This, in a country where the cost of the most basic food is probably only around 50% less than in Britain, with many items costing the same.

In fact, available statistics showed that before 2001, 20% of all households regularly went hungry, and 23% of children under 7yrs showed stunting of their growth due to malnutrition. Life expectancy had already fallen from 64 years in 1996 to 53 years in 1998, but with the AIDs pandemic it will plummet still further.

Will they vote with their feet?

How will the disaffection amongst the working class and poor of South Africa be expressed, if at all, in the 14 April general election?

One pre-election indicator is voter registration. The government says it is well satisfied with the 20,674,926 voters who have registered out of a possible 28m. But that means that already 27% of the electorate has opted out, deliberately or not. And in KwaZulu-Natal - where the Inkatha Freedom Party supporters and the ANC have staged near civil war in the past - the registration rate is even worse with only 61% of potential voters registered.

In fact the total registration this year is only one million more than in 1994, and 1.3m more than in 1999. But given the 2.2m population growth per year, this number should have increased proportionally - if the electorate was fully engaged by the event, that is.. In fact ANC general secretary, General Kgalema Motlanthe, admitted that registration levels highlighted a problem for the ruling coalition when he stated that this was going to be the ANC's hardest fought election yet, "not against the other parties, but against voter apathy".

Nevertheless, the result of the election is seen as a foregone conclusion. For lack of any credible alternative, the ANC and its coalition allies will be returned to power, possibly with an even larger score according to some opinion polls. All the more so because, ironically, the NNP (the old National Party in new clothes) has now formed an historic "co-operative governance" arrangement with the ANC. To use the Afrikaans word for this pact with the ANC, it is known as "versoening", which translated literally would mean "kissing"...

As a result, the NNP-ANC was able to displace the Democratic Alliance (DA - today's version of the old liberal Democratic Party of the apartheid days) from the Cape Town local and provincial administration. In retaliation, the DA has allied itself with Inkhata in KwaZulu-Natal, putting into question the current delicate balance of power in the provincial parliament between the ANC and Inkhata which holds the premiership by just 51% of the ballot.

In fact Mbeki chose to launch the ANC election campaign in KwaZulu-Natal in January. But he was heckled and police used water cannon to separate his supporters and those of Inkhata. Already violent political clashes have taken place in the province, despite a peace code being signed by all parties. In early February, 7 people were hit by bullets during a political rally at Wembesi Township in Estcourt and three people were injured at a rally in Port Shepstone, south of Durban. Compared with the violence which claimed 12,000 lives in the run up to the 1994 election, this is may be relatively "peaceful", but no-one can tell what the future has in store, especially if political demagogues start pouring oil on the flames.

Over 100 parties have registered their intention to participate in the election - many of these being local township activist groups. This is a huge number, considering that in 1994 there were 19 "parties" standing and in 1999, slightly more, at 26. Although it is difficult to know what all these parties really represent on the ground, their number would indicate that a lot of people feel that by standing in the election they can defend interests which they do not entrust to the ANC.

But who can the working class and poor, betrayed by the ANC actually turn to? The ANC's partner in government, the South African Communist Party, is today so welded into its alliance with the ANC that it is impossible to see it as offering a different perspective. And, anyway, its members stand on the ANC ticket, making it impossible for voters to vote for the SACP rather than the ANC. Predictably, the SACP, just like in 1994 and 1999, has issued a public statement to confirm "that the SACP's organisational structures are ready to intensify the Party's contribution to ensuring an overwhelming ANC election victory. In particular, the SACP will target workers and the urban and rural poor." In other words it is acting as left-wing apologist in front of those most hit and most hurt by the government's ten-year regime.

The SACP also felt that it had to publicly refute reports that it had actually criticised the ANC government or implied that "ANC policies have failed"! It explained that it had only quoted the government's own ten-year review which stated that "the government's successes occur more often in areas where it has significant control and its lack of immediate success occurs most often in those areas where it may only have indirect influence".

As for the third partner in the ANC's ruling alliance, COSATU, while the unions cannot get away with an uncritical appraisal of the past ten years, there is little visible evidence today of one of COSATU's formative components of yesteryear - which used to argue for an independent workers' party. That said, its stance in this election could be interpreted as inviting the working class to vote ANC because it is the lesser of evils. For instance, one statement it has issued reads: "workers should compare the DA and NNP positions carefully with those of the ANC. Of course, all the parties promise benefits to working people and the poor, who make up the majority of voters...." It then explains how anti-worker these two parties are and ends by saying "South Africa deserves better than the DA and NNP. Voting for these parties would mean workers give up their hard-earned rights and see their services decimated by spending cuts and privatisation. Only the ANC will ensure that working people and the poor get their fair share, rather than giving handouts to the rich."

That this final sentence is a lie, is something that COSATU is fully aware of - because unlike the SACP, it has been criticising the ANC publicly all along and organising strikes against the ANC's privatisation strategy, in particular. However when push comes to shove, COSATU's leadership is unwilling to risk splitting from the ANC, because that would imply losing all the advantages of its position, not to mention thousands of cosy jobs in the government machinery, or even closing the door to the possibility of today's trade union bureaucrats becoming tomorrow's Black Empowerment tycoons - just like former COSATU general secretary and now millionaire, Cyril Ramaphosa! Besides, COSATU has suffered as a result of the high unemployment and casualisation of workers - having only 1.8m paid-up members today, compared to 3.2m in 1999 - a loss of 50% in five years. And this can only make the COSATU machinery even more dependent on its relationship with the ruling coalition. However, whether the ANC will continue forever to welcome COSATU into its government when it no longer feels any qualms about jumping into bed with the NNP, is another question.

Regaining the ground lost

Obviously, the South African working class has nothing to expect and nothing to gain from these elections. Nor can it expect anything from the ruling coalition partners.

The nationalist policy of the ANC and SACP has turned out to be no more than a vehicle for the self-advancement of the aspiring black middle-class. And because this middle-class only aspired to be co-opted by South-African capital, which was closely linked to imperialism, the nationalists have ended up seeking the recognition of imperialism and subjecting the country to its rule - something for which the poor masses have been paying an exorbitant price over the past decade.

However, the fact that the South African working class was deprived of its victory by the nationalist policy of its leaders, does not mean that it has lost the ability to overthrow the rule of capital. When it rose for the first time, back in the 1970s, few people thought that in a poor country like South Africa, the abjectly oppressed black working class would be able to find in its ranks the resources, the organisational ability and the energy to shake a modern and ultra-repressive state like the apartheid regime right down to its foundations.

Today, the South African working class still has this fundamental capacity. But in addition it has an irreplaceable political experience acquired since the 1980s, an experience which is still represented in its ranks by a whole generation of workers who participated in these events. And bitter as they may be, the hard lessons learnt from allowing themselves to be lured into placing their hopes in nationalist parties rather than in parties which stood clearly for their class interests, may well prove decisive in future struggles.

The militancy of the South African working class is not in question, even if it has been reduced over the past period by the increasing weight of unemployment.

An example of this militancy is provided today by the 8-week strike by baggage handlers in all airports which still continues at the time of writing - a strike which is likely to be a source of embarrassment during this election campaign, for the ANC but perhaps also for COSATU. This strike involves 700 workers at Equity Aviation Services, in which the British company Serco owns a 51% share, the rest being owned by the state's Transnet company. British Serco workers will not be surprised to hear that EAS bosses want to increase the working week from 40 to 45 hours and refuse to award the 8% pay increase which the workers demand. After all this time, an escalation of the strike by extending it to other sections of transport workers is planned by the strikers' union, Satawu - the first step in this direction having already been taken in the form of a one-day sympathy stoppage of Satawu railway members in Gauteng, the province surrounding Johannesburg.

In fact there has been no shortage of strikes, in particular against the privatisation drive of Mbeki's government and the resulting job cuts. The problem of the South African working class is not a lack of energy, determination or militancy, nor its reduced numbers. Because behind the workers of the formal sector, the big battalions of the main industries, are the millions of poor who are related to these workers by family links, or simply because they live in the same townships and are faced with the same attacks from the privatisers and government agencies. Just like in the 1980s, the mobilisation of the township poor together with the working class, but this time behind a clear proletarian banner held by a the working class, could begin to reverse the balance of social forces and to allow the poor masses to start regaining some of the ground lost.

To this end, the South African working class will need to forge the workers' party whose absence in the 1980s it has paid for so dearly - a party which will set itself the aim of defending the political interests of the working class and poor, including against the pseudo-radicalism of the nationalist middle-class, and which will consider its fight for the overthrow of capitalist exploitation in South Africa as an integral part of the struggle of the world working class. We can only hope that such a party will emerge before the lessons and experience of the struggles of the past two decades are forgotten.