South Africa - 15 years after the end of apartheid, the latest mutation of the ruling coalition

Summer 2009

The general election in April this year in South Africa was the fourth multiracial election in the country's history - it is just 15 years since that historic first election, which brought to power the African National Congress led by Nelson Mandela in 1994.

This time, it was an ANC led by the controversial Jacob Zuma which was elected. And there was also a new phenomenon on the political scene, in the form of a new party, the Congress of the People (COPE).

In fact COPE is the first political party to emerge since 1994, which has set itself the aim of contesting the de facto monopoly of the African National Congress (ANC) as the representative of the black majority.

The advent of COPE and the election of Zuma are inextricably linked, of course, since they reflect the latest development in the succession crisis which was first opened when the ANC's historical leader, Nelson Mandela, left public politics in 1999.

Not that any of this changed the fact that the ANC won the election, as it has each time before, by a large majority. This year it received 65.9% of the vote. But this result, which reflects a loss of 3.8% compared to the last election in 2004, means that it no longer has the two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution. However, modest as this loss may appear, it actually conceals real losses which are far more significant.

Indeed, if it was not for the 16.5% - almost a million votes - that the ANC managed to add to its score in KwaZulu-Natal province at the expense of the ethnic Zulu party Inkatha, its national losses would have been far worse. This regional success, however, was the result of a campaign which was designed to compete with Inkatha's ethnic demagogy. Zuma, himself an ethnic Zulu, did everything he could to emphasise his roots and his attachment to ethnic traditions, while his supporters even went so far as to wear "JZ" T-shirts proclaiming Zuma as "100% Zulu Boy! Of course, a "success" won on such a basis, may well come at a high price for the ANC at some point - Africa's recent history is fraught with examples of the high cost of such ethnic demagogy.

The ANC lost a significant proportion of its vote in 7 out of 9 provinces: from 4% in Gauteng (the province of Johannesburg and the gold reef), to 10% in the Eastern Cape (the motor manufacturing heartland around Port Elizabeth), and as much as 14% in the Western Cape (around Cape Town), where the Democratic Alliance, the old party of the liberal English-speaking capitalist class gained control of the provincial institutions.

However, nothing in the results points to any demobilisation among the ANC's electorate. Indeed, while the level of abstention, at 22.7%, was significantly up on 1999 (when it was 11%) and even more so, compared to 1994, when it was reportedly virtually nil, when compared to the previous election in 2004, slightly more (around 1%) turned out to vote this time.

Leaving out the Western Cape, which is a traditional stronghold of the Democratic Alliance, it was COPE which was the main beneficiary of the ANC's losses, even though it only won 7.42% of the vote nationally, rather than the 11% predicted by opinion polls. The South African electoral system is almost a pure proportional representation system, so the gains and losses of seats in the Federal Parliament provide a relatively reliable picture of what really happened in the vote. Taking into account the 6 seats that the ANC took from Inkatha in KwaZulu-Natal, it actually lost39 seats in the remaining 8 provinces. And 30 of these seats were won by COPE, which, now constitutes the official opposition as the second largest party in 5 of the 9 provincial administrations.

The regime of the tripartite alliance

COPE, which was formed less than a year ago, has therefore managed to dent the position of the ANC. Of course, no-one can say what the future of this party will be. But the process which led to its launch is significant of the evolution of the political framework which was set up following the downfall of apartheid.

It should be recalled that, since 1994, political power has been in the hands of a coalition which brings together three closely intertwined entities - the so-called, "rainbow alliance". At the helm of this coalition is the ANC itself, the nationalist party which had succeeded in taking the lead of the opposition movement against apartheid's racist regime.

The second element in the alliance is the South African Communist Party (SACP), whose apparatus embedded itself into the ANC under apartheid, until, following its legalisation in 1990, it recreated some public structures. However, its members play an important role at every level in the ANC and, significantly, they only ever stand in elections as official ANC candidates.

The third component of the ruling coalition is the trade-union confederation COSATU, which was formed in 1985 in the thick of the working class explosion of the 1980s, bringing together some unions which were already led by SACP activists and others which predated the explosion or sprang out of it. In other words, the ruling coalition has included - and still includes - most of the country's working class organisations.

The coalition's political monopoly was further reinforced in 2004, when it even managed to swallow what then remained of the Afrikaner National Party, the party of the Afrikaner capitalist class which had been responsible for enforcing apartheid for nearly half-a-century.

As a result, leaving aside a few mostly regionally-based organisations, such as the Democratic Alliance in the Cape, Inkatha in KwaZulu-Natal and the United Democratic Movement (UDM) in the Transkei/Ciskei, the ANC-SACP-COSATU Tripartite coalition included within its ranks all the political forces which had some significance on a national scale and proclaimed itself as the voice of all social classes, regardless of skin colour.

The de facto political monopoly of this ruling coalition has provided the South African capitalist class with a freedom of manoeuvre which it has used extensively, judging from the present arrogant display of its wealth, against a backdrop of increasing poverty for the majority of the population. But, by the same token, due to this situation of monopoly, the ruling coalition itself has been the main battleground for all the significant political rivalries.

During the early years of the regime, the factional struggles which were taking place within the ruling ANC spheres remained in the background. This was partly due to the authority that Nelson Mandela had, thanks to his personal credit among the population, but also, probably, because the new regime's grandees feared the possibility of a new mobilisation of the black working class, this time to demand its due, after its long years of struggle against the apartheid regime. Nevertheless, these factional struggles did take place. On the one hand, there was the muted struggle that the SACP and COSATU machineries - or part of them - were waging, in order to avoid being marginalised by increasingly confident capitalists, who were invading the ruling circles of the regime. And, at the same time, there were the rivalries between leading ANC figures who were positioning themselves in preparation for the succession of an ageing Mandela.

The post-Mandela succession crisis

It was probably precisely because he anticipated the potential dangers resulting from such a crisis that Mandela decided to retire from public politics before the 1999 elections, in order to be able to nominate his successor himself, while he still had enough credit to impose his choice on the rival factions.

At the time, the best placed among the potential candidates, appeared to be Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. Both belonged to the same generation of leaders shaped by the ANC's "historic" machinery. Both had been involved in negotiating the "peaceful transition" to a multi-racial regime, including with the National Party's apartheid government and the big mining monopolies, at the end of the 1980s. Both had been chosen by Mandela to take part in his first government. And both are said to have been convinced by Mandela himself to resign beforehand from the SACP. In any case, by 1994, Mbeki and Zuma were rival aspiring heirs to Mandela.

There was a difference between the two men's careers, though. After spending his formative years in relative comfort, being moulded in a British university, Mbeki represented the ANC in foreign diplomatic circles during most of the difficult "struggle" years, but always in exile. By contrast, Zuma was a product of the ANC military machinery, whose only "university" had been Robben Island, where he spent 10 years in prison. Despite this difference, or maybe because of it, Mandela chose Mbeki as his deputy, while Zuma was sent to negotiate a peace deal with Inkatha in his Zulu homeland - certainly an important mission, but one which sidelined Zuma temporarily and gave his rival a free ride. So when the day came for Mandela to formally choose his successor, he nominated Mbeki (who became president after the 1999 election) while Zuma's consolation prize was to be made Mbeki's deputy.

Mandela's authority had allowed him to impose his decisions on the two rivals and their factions. But it could not bring their rivalry to an end. By 2005, the "peaceful coexistence" between the two factions was collapsing. Mbeki, who was weakened by the increasing unpopularity of his policies, decided to go onto the offensive against his only potential serious rival - Zuma. Conveniently at this time, a corruption scandal, related to a huge purchase of fighter jets for the South African Air Force, broke out into the open. Zuma came under suspicion of having taken bribes, but in the end it was his personal advisor, Shabir Shaik, who was found guilty and he was sent to jail. Mbeki himself must have known about the dubious circumstances surrounding such a huge deal, and probably many others. Nevertheless, he used this scandal as a pretext to sack his rival.

Less than 2 years later, at the 2007 ANC conference at Polokwane, Zuma had his revenge. Mbeki was ousted as party leader.

Of course, to a large extent Mbeki had done the job of discrediting himself without anyone's help. His pro-business policies had led to growing inequalities and high unemployment and poverty - not to mention the collapse of vital public services. Workers had watched as a growing black bourgeoisie, closely connected to the ruling spheres, was getting wealthier, thanks to so-called black empowerment, flaunting their wealth in the faces of the poor. Moreover, Mbeki had caused outrage by his criminal "denialist" stance on HIV-Aids - this, in a country were 18 to 20% of the population is infected and threatened with a horrible early death as a result!

At Polokwane, Mbeki was booed and then voted out of his position as leader of the party, to be replaced by Jacob Zuma. Mbeki's faction also lost its positions on the party executive. Zuma's faction had triumphed, thanks to the support of the SACP and COSATU, which were both keen to distance themselves from Mbeki's discredited image and to drive home the point that their forces had to be taken into account.

However, it took another nine months for the factional rivalries finally to unravel. And when they did, it was with a great deal of dramatic irony, because Mbeki ended up being swept away by his own desire to see the back of his old rival Zuma!

The National Prosecuting Authority was all the while still attempting to make corruption charges stick to Zuma, and Mbeki got too impatient and tried to "help it along" by phone tapping. But Mbeki was found out. And having been exposed by a judge for what amounted to evidence tampering, Mbeki then had no choice but to resign from the presidency as well, on 22 September 2008, thereby leaving the way free to Jacob Zuma.

COPE and its "back to basics" policy

Nevertheless, Mbeki's resignati on did not bring the factional warfare in the ANC to an end. After his resignation, 11 of his ministers followed suit in solidarity, including his Defence minister, Mosiuoa "Terror" Lekota (who owed his nickname to his reputation on the football pitch!). So too, did a number of ANC provincial strong men, such as Mbhazima Shilowa, an ex-COSATU general secretary who had been first minister of Gauteng, the most populous of the country's provinces and the most important in economic terms.

It was Lekota who, on November 1st 2008, announced the launch of a new party which intended to contest the April 2009 elections. This announcement was followed by a reception in a posh hotel in Sandton, the wealthy satellite town of Johannesburg. The name of COPE - Congress of the People - was finally chosen as a reference to the 1955 Conference held under that name, where the ANC's programme, the "Freedom Charter", was formally adopted.

While the new party was being established, members of Mbeki's faction were leaving the ANC to join it, including high-powered figures such as Willie Madisha, another former COSATU general-secretary who had been forced out of his post for having voted against Zuma at Polokwane. COPE also attracted more dubious characters, such as Alan Boesak who was to stand as COPE candidate for Western Cape premier - a clergyman and former prominent anti-apartheid figure, who had spent 3 years in jail after being convicted of fraud back in 1999.

However Mbeki himself, the "raison d'etre" for the new formation, declined to join, reiterating instead his loyalty to the ANC of Nelson Mandela - not to Zuma's, of course. By the same token, this enabled COPE to attract those who were just as hostile to Zuma's antics, as they were dissatisfied with Mbeki's record. All due emphasis was given, for instance, to the rallying of well-known left leaning figures, such as Moses Mayekiso, ex-Alexandra Action Committee founder and Civic leader under apartheid, who is also a founder and former leader of COSATU's largest affiliate, the Metalworkers' union NUMSA.

As to COPE's policies, these took some time to establish, but once finalised were rather hard to distinguish from those of the ANC. In fact, COPE tried to present itself as the "real", "back to basics" ANC - but, above all, as an ANC which had rid itself of any remaining trace of "Marxism" - that is, of the SACP's influence - as Lekota himself was at great pains to emphasise.

By distancing itself from "communism" - and, by the same token, from the working class - COPE was obviously trying to appeal to the petty and big bourgeoisies. And it was undoubtedly with the same purpose in mind that COPE chose the reverend Mvume Dandala, a leader of the Methodist Church of South Africa, as its presidential candidate.

Finally, in March this year, various figures associated with COPE announced the launch of a new trade union federation - from the top down. A 300-strong delegate meeting was held in Pretoria, presided over by Willie Madisha, by nominated as COPE's candidate for Limpopo province. Some left-wing figures provided their support too, like Mayekiso in his role as "co-ordinator" of this meeting. During its course, Madisha, proclaimed that "the need for an independent labour movement has become a necessity because a politically aligned union federation fails to address the needs of workers." owever, Madisha's insistence that the new federation had no links with COPE was hardly credible. In its attempt to offer the image of a "real ANC", COPE was obviously trying to equip itself with a trade-union machinery which would counter the weight of COSATU. But it was also trying to make political capital out of the frustration of so many trade-union activists who were fed up with seeing their leaders condoning the ANC's anti-working class policies, again and again.

However, the interests of the working class and poor were clearly not uppermost in the minds of nationalist dignitaries who, in the pursuit of their factional interests, finally crossed the Rubicon by leaving the ANC and forming COPE.

Their proclaimed aim to go back to the ANC's "fundamentals" was only a thin veil to cover their determination to distance themselves, once and for all, from whatever was left of the period of social struggles which had finally forced the apartheid regime onto its knees.

For, it should be recalled, that if the ANC's nationalist leaders, despite their deep-rooted anti-communist prejudices (Mandela himself being a case in point), formed an alliance with the SACP and workers' unions, it was not out of choice, but out of necessity. At first, this orientation was mainly a means for the ANC machinery to benefit from the not insignificant advantages resulting from the USSR's material support. Subsequently, its main purpose was to subordinate the power of the wave of working class militancy to the ambitions of the aspiring black bourgeoisie - as well as to the interests of imperialism.

After 15 years of a regime which has done everything it could to serve the interests of the capitalist class, thanks to the backing of the SACP and COSATU, and against the backdrop of a situation of crisis which weakens the working class, a significant number of ANC nationalist leaders may have reached conclusion that what was a necessity 15 years ago, is no longer applicable today. It is this position which the COPE leaders expressed by taking the pursuit of their factional interests to the point of seceding from the ANC and they are now clearly banking on the fact that this position is widely shared within the ANC leading spheres. From this point of view, COPE's strategy is indeed a return to nationalist "basics" of the old ANC - that is to a policy which is overtly designed to promote the interests of the exploiters at the expense of the exploited.

A "South African Mugabe"?

Zuma's ascension to the presidency has been met with mixed reactions by western commentators. Some portrayed his administration as a sort of South African version of Robert Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe, and, in any case, as an intrinsically corrupt regime which could only be "bad for business".

In fact, the question marks over Zuma's character are not only there because of allegations he had been involved in a corrupt arms deal. As most people will know, he also made the headlines in 2006, when he was put to trial for rape. And although he was finally acquitted by the courts, many will remember the contempt he displayed for his victim during the proceedings (accusing her of having "provoked" him, as so many rapists do!), as well as his rather shocking revelation that he had taken a shower afterwards to prevent himself from getting HIV!

Repulsive as such behaviour may be, however, Zuma is certainly keen to appear as having a jovial, good-natured personality, and is fond of telling the media about his humble beginnings in a poor Zulu family, in today's Kwazulu-Natal, and how he learnt to read and write, by asking children who went to the local school to teach him what they learnt. His political career began in the early 1960s, when he first joined the ANC and then the SACP. By 1963, at the age of 21, he joined the ANC military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). That same year, however, he was arrested, convicted for conspiracy and sent to Robben Island for 10 years. Soon after his release, he was sent to Mozambique where MK had training camps. He was quick to climb the ranks, becoming the ANC's number two in Mozambique and joining MK's military command as well as the SACP leadership.

When Zuma was forced to leave Mozambique in 1987, he became head of MK's Intelligence Department - known as the "grindstone" or "iMbokodo". This followed a period in which the ANC had been confronted with a series of mutinies within its own troops in Angola. So the task assigned to "iMbokodo" - and Zuma - was to restore order in the ranks and get rid of all opposition, by whatever means were necessary. MK volunteers, whose only crime was to have expressed political differences, or simply to have challenged an order of their hierarchy, had been jailed in prison-camps, such as the notorious Quatro camp in Angola, were many were brutalised, tortured or even liquidated. A few survivors or heir families have since brought cases to the "Truth and Reconciliation Commission", set up for the benefit of the victims of apartheid. But, to date, none of the perpetrators has been summoned to testify in front of the Commission, let alone Zuma himself.

It is inconceivable that Zuma was not shaped by these two decades spent enforcing ruthless discipline among young MK exiles, by repressing all forms of opposition, and he certainly miust have developed the skills of a "competent and efficient" prison warden, if not a torturer. Nevertheless, contrary to the fears expressed by many commentators, Zuma as state president has already proved to be an advocate of "political continuity" who is responsible towards the interests of big business - a politician who, in particular, shows no intention of infringing on the ownership rights of the rich white farmers, as Mugabe did in Zimbabwe.

Indeed, Zuma's first government includes a number of Mbeki's former ministers. One of these is, for instance, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, the ex-leader of the New National Party until its demise in 2005, and now an ANC member, who has been reappointed as Minister of Tourism. Likewise, Zuma's choice of Piet Mulder as deputy minister for Agriculture and Fisheries is clearly a gesture of appeasement towards the rich white farmers who might have feared a possible wave of land occupation (which, after all, would only be legitimate!). Indeed, this Mulder is the leader of the "Freedom Front Plus", a small far-right group which believes in an Afrikaner homeland and has already began to build it up around the small rural town of Orania, in Northern Cape province.

As to the much repeated claim that Zuma's regime is corrupt, it is something of a joke. Not because his regime is not corrupt, but because corruption has been a feature of all previous South African governments. True, unlike in so many poor countries in sub-Saharian Africa, South Africa's police and functionaries are not in the habit of racketeering the population in order to make for the state's failure to pay them regular, adequate salaries. Due to the relative affluence of South Africa's economy and society, corruption operates on a different level - in the world of businessmen who, thanks to their links with the regime, have been able to loot the state coffers and the country's resources, through all kinds of legal and illegal means, thereby piling up colossal fortunes at a record speed. The list of the famous "black diamonds" - post-apartheid's "nouveaux riches" - looks like a Who's Who for the leading cadres of the ruling coalition in the early 1990s! And how would they have managed to get rich so fast, if it were not for the privileges and favours granted to them by the ruling politicians, whether it be under the cover of "Black Empowerment" - a policy officially aimed at promoting "black entrepreneurship" - or through the privatisation drive which allowed the systematic plunder of the large state-owned services and the state-owned productive sector inherited from the apartheid regime.

Given the links between the ruling politicians and these "nouveaux riches" and the extraordinary wealth accumulated by the latter, who can believe that this looting has taken place without the politicians taking their cut in some shape or form? Corruption scandals have been regular occurrences at provincial level, too. But for every one corruption scandal which has been made public, such as the one case of central government corruption in which Zuma was caught with his hands in the till, how many others have never been revealed, at the top as well as at every other level of the state machinery?

This corruption, which became systematic from the late 1990s, has come at an exorbitant cost for the population. It never saw the so badly needed social infrastructure which it had been promised by the regime. Nor was the rise of unemployment stopped, or at least slowed down, as it should have been, had the resources of the vast state-owned industrial sector been used to create new jobs. Moreover, the labouring population has been the main victim of the increasing degradation of all public services. But as far as "business" was concerned, this kind of corruption proved extremely profitable, both for South African capitalists and for their big imperialist partners. So, why should it be otherwise with Zuma at the helm?

Zuma, an "instrument of communism"?

Just as ridiculous are the so-called "concerns" expressed by some commentators over possible changes in the regime's social policy which, according to them, might result from Zuma's alleged "dependence" on the SACP and COSATU, which supported him against Mbeki. As if Zuma's debt towards the SACP and COSATU - assuming Zuma even thinks that he has such a debt - was in any way likely to result in measures in favour of the working class!

In fact, some commentators have already found comfort against these "concerns", like the Financial Times columnist who wrote, in May: "Since his decisive election victory last month, President Zuma's appointments have been watched closely. Would he reward his supporters inside the African National Congress, in particular the trade union movement and the Communist party? Or would he try to live down his populist reputation and dispel the murk surrounding it? The answer so far, while far from definitive, is promising.Indeed, in this respect too, the composition of Zuma's government is more telling than any reasoning. Of course, it does include some representatives of the SACP and COSATU, including the SACP's general secretary, Blade Nzimande - although he is confined to the relatively "riskless" position of Higher Education minister. But then, every one of the regime's government since 1994, has included representatives from both organisations, without this affecting its policies in the slightest way. The most that can be said is that, from Zuma's point of view, it may be more expedient to keep someone like Nzimande in government, tied by governmental solidarity, than to leave him outside of government, with a far greater freedom of expression and action. In fact, the only "special privilege" that the SACP and COSATU ministers are likely to enjoy in Zuma's government, is to be hostages of the regime, but certainly not influential actors!

By contrast, the presence of Trevor Manuel in this government is most significant. For, after being Industry minister in the first post-apartheid government, Manuel has held the post of Finance minister in every subsequent government from 1996 onwards. True, this time round, Manuel has been appointed "Minister in the Presidency". But his brief includes running the newly-formed National Planning Commission, which will have overall responsibility for the economy, meaning that Manuel has now even more economic leverage than he had under Mbeki. Despite the fact that Manuel had been among the Mbeki loyalists who resigned (briefly) from government in support of Mbeki, he refrained from joining COPE and has now seamlessly passed over to Zuma's side - proof that Zuma is not resentful, at least not against those who can help him to defend the interests of the ruling class.

Indeed, it was Manuel who, particularly under Mbeki, was responsible for implementing many of the unpopular, pro-privatisation, pro-market and anti-working class policies under the auspices of a co-called "progressive programme" called GEAR ("Growth, Employment and Redistribution")!

Manuel introduced GEAR in 1996 as a series of 5-year plans which were meant to increase annual economic growth to 6% by 2000, bring down inflation, create jobs and redistribute wealth to the poor. The economy as a whole certainly grew - at least by an average of 6%. But that was all. Economic experts even invented a new phrase in order to give this phenomenon an appearance of legitimacy: they called it "jobless growth". But this apparently innocuous phrase only concealed colossal cynicism: not only did the economic growth under GEAR failed to produce new jobs, but it actually destroyed large numbers of them, so much so, that in 2004, after 8 years under GEAR, unemployment reached an official "high" of over 40%! Meanwhile, of course, the rich had become richer, and the poor, a huge lot poorer.

Today, with the preparations for the Soccer World Cup in 2010, there were meant to be thousands more jobs in the economy. But the number of unemployed is scarcely less, at 30%-35% - officially. And now the disguising of unemployment has become official too, since the jobless count includes neither the large so-called "informal sector" of poor surviving off petty street jobs, nor the growing section of the working class which is casually employed, on a part-time basis. This probably means that the number of people in real jobs - that is, covered by the relative protection of the labour legislation - is ever-dwindling and certainly not even 50% of the labour force.

The rise of unemployment is seen as such a threat that this is now reflected in workers' demands. For instance, in a recent strike threat made by the National Union of Mineworkers on behalf of their construction members, working on the 2010 Football World Cup stadia, it insisted on a 15% wage rise (against the 7% offered by the employers, with inflation running at 8.4%), on the grounds that workers would not find any work once the stadium was complete.

The disastrous living conditions of the working class are reflected daily in the papers. Earlier this year, for instance, 85 "illegal miners" were killed as a result of a gas leak underground in an abandoned gold mine near Welkom in the Free State. These illegal miners, who often come from Lesotho and are usually ex-legal miners (victims of the 50,000 mining job cuts since last year alone), are organised by local businessmen who have connections with foreign gold smugglers. They may have to live underground for three months at a time, or even more, to avoid being caught and they spend this time blasting away to find bits of gold in disused mining shafts, thereby risking life and limb. But then these miners are familiar with this kind of danger: haven't the South African "legal" miners an even higher rate of mortality than in China? Such is the reality of "South Africa's" "growth economy"

This situation has not prevented commentators from hailing what they describe as Manuel's and Mbeki's "economic success". Thus, Allistair Sparks, a journalist known for taking rather courageous positions against the misdeeds of the state (he used to be editor of the liberal Rand Daily Mail), mourned Mbeki's political demise in the 6th May issue of Business Day in the following terms: "President Mbeki achieved some remarkable successes. He gave this new country 36 successive quarters of sustained growth for the first time in our history; he built up a multiracial middle class about four times the size of the predominantly white middle class we had in 1994; and he established a significant welfare system that provides a quarter of all South African households with their biggest single source of income."However, there is something obscene in such adulation of Mbeki's "successes", given the abject poverty and homelessness which generally prevail amongst a very large section of the population. The very fact that 12 million people - one quarter of the population - now relies totally on welfare grants for their income, is boasted about as an "achievement" - when surely this is a serious indictment of its policies, at least from the point of the view of the population's interests? Not to mention the almost 20% infected with HIV, the majority of whom still await effective drug treatment, thanks to Mbeki's Aids denial stance.

Zuma's "New Deal"

Trevor Manuel, during the debate on Zuma's "State of the Nation" speech on 5 June stressed that the issue of jobs "is uppermost on the ANC list of priorities"(suddenly now, after 3 years of "jobless growth"!). But he immediately went on to add "there's a realism that explains that, while the objective remains the creation of the maximum number of decent jobs, in order to get there and to ensure there is food on the table of more households, there will have to be a short-term emphasis on sustainable livelihoods"!

And just what does he mean by this convoluted phrase? Manuel then added: "There is no promise of immediate industrial or service sector jobs" In fact, what the government is promising is an Expanded Public Works Programme - now that, according to its claim, its "initial target of 1m jobs was already achieved" Yes, casual jobs paid at a rate equivalent to social welfare payments - perhaps enough to provide food, but no more, and certainly not a roof for those who have not got one!

An example of these public works programmes is the project called "Working for Water". It is meant to offer 20,000 short-term jobs per year to the unemployed, together with some training. It involves clearing water ways, lakes and swamps, of invading vegetation, using labour intensive methods (hands and machetes). As to the training allegedly provided, which is supposed to entail 2 days of training for each month of work, one wonders in what way it will help the trainees to get a regular job afterwards.

Such are the non-jobs that Zuma is promising today, 500,000 of those by the end of the current year and 4 million during the 5-year period 2010-14.

Of course, public works organised by the state could be a possible response to the drastic joblessness, but only provided that the jobs come with a guaranteed living income for participating workers, on a regular basis, regardless of the time-gaps between jobs. By the same token, such public works could also be a means to resolve the catastrophic degradation of public infrastructure and, in particular, to respond to another crisis, in housing.

Because, according to figures published in May, there is a shortage of 2.6 million houses. Huge as this figure may seem, however, it does not take into account the growing population of squatters who live in the many shanty towns - that is, until bulldozers move in to flatten their shacks, while the police fires at protesters with rubber bullets - incidents for which there are no official statistics.

Yet nowhere does the new government mention any plan to speed up the construction of new housing, let alone to provide homes to the poorest who do not have access to any official waiting list and would not be able to afford to buy a home, even if they are lucky enough to find one available. In fact, the government's intentions seem to be to stick to the annual quota defined under Mbeki - 260,000 new homes to be built for sale every year, which is an derisory drop in an ocean of poverty.

Zuma has made Tokyo Sexwale, his housing minister. Sexwale, who was Gauteng premier until 1998, went on to become a billionaire thanks to a business empire built around diamonds and oil. Which makes Zuma's decision to rename Sexwale's position as "Minister of Human Settlements" even more cynical. This semantic "reform" appears even more hypocritical when one bears in mind that, last year, Sexwale was involved in a confrontation between a real estate developer and hundreds of families whose homes were threatened with destruction by the developer's plan to build a huge commercial complex. And, guess what? In this confrontation, Sexwale found himself, all too predictably, on the side of the real estate developer, who was in business with one of his own companies. In any case, after his ministerial appointment, Sexwale wasted no time in convening a meeting at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, his familiar hunting ground, to call on private businesses, banks and insurance companies to become partners in addressing the housing backlog - no doubt under some form of "public-private partnerships", which will certainly benefit private investors, but will not provide a roof to squatters!

In fact, it just such partnerships which are envisaged by Trevor Manuel when it comes to building hospitals under the ANC's proposed National Health Insurance. South Africans should take note of the British experience, and be warned! Yet, free access to decent medical care for all is something which is much overdue in South Africa. Not just because of the HIV pandemic, but because this country has some of the worst health indices in the whole of Africa - which is pretty disgraceful, given that it also has the largest and wealthiest economy in Africa!

Talking of public works to fix the infrastructure, it was only last year too, that it began to show very severe cracks - having been almost totally neglected for two decades. Suddenly electricity shutdowns which had already been hitting domestic households started to hit mines and industries. These power cuts have been slightly alleviated since, with power being imported from the also electricity-starved neighbouring states, while the regime tried to justify an enormous hike in electricity prices of between 34% and 53% to make consumers pay for the investment that it failed to make over the past decade!

A government at war with the working class?

The economic crisis has severely shaken South Africa's economy. After all these years of "jobless growth", GDP has now shrunk by 6% over the past year, mining production by 33% and manufacturing production by 20%.

Zuma made no great mystery of how he plans to tackle this situation. Prior to the election he already explained that the worldwide "economic meltdown" would restrict his room for manoeuvre, damping down expectations. "Everything we do is according to the means available, I'm sure everyone understands that."Since the election, Manuel has made more statements along the same lines. After the announcement of the 6.4% contraction in GDP, he warned that it was "more important than ever that we work in partnership on a common programme to respond to this crisis. That partnership cuts across all that divides us - race, class, gender, geography and political party lines."Then, on 11 June, at the World Economic Forum on Africa, Manuel hammered out his point, when he accused bosses of being cowards in front of the unions and the unions of exacerbating the crisis by staging "too many strikes" to push for social change. After such a provocative statement, neither the SACP nor COSATU could afford to keep quiet. Both stated how "outraged" they were. The SACP's statement went on to say: "It seems as if Minister Manuel has forgotten that we are no longer under the rule of the '1996 Class Project' which he so diligently served as Finance Minister. The working class has suffered immensely from the neoliberal policies he pursued under the previous regime. (...) For Minister Manuel and others to try and use the post-Polokwane alliance relations to try and silence working class organisation and mobilisation is not acceptable. The working class is not for sale at the whims of capitalist sentiments to try to please imperialism and it will stand its ground." They asked Manuel to apologise...

Such "radical" language should not be taken at face value, though. It is not unusual for the SACP and COSATU leaderships to "talk tough", in their relationships with the ANC leadership. Significantly, though, the SACP's statements mentions "Minister Manuel and others, but does not mention Zuma himself. In fact, that sort of "militant" talk is merely part of the on-going rhetorical guerilla warfare that both organisations have to wage as a face-saving exercise for the benefit of the rank-and-file, whenever the ANC leaders disclose a bit too obviously what they intend to get their allies to swallow - in particular, attacks against the working class and poor. But this rhetorical guerilla warfare has never prevented the allies from remaining in their ministerial seats, while the government was implementing policies that they had so vocally condemned.

In the best case scenario, the SACP and COSATU will remember such humiliating provocations if and when they again find themselves able to weigh on the outcome of the factional struggles taking place in the top spheres of the ANC - as they did by supporting Zuma against Mbeki. But even if they do, it is one thing to be able to draw the name of a new president out of the hat, but quite another to pull out of the hat a policy which would make their situation more comfortable in relation to their rank-and-file.

Anyway, in the absence of an immediate and serious threat from the working class, the South African capitalists are far too greedy to tolerate policies which would put constraints on their profiteering. And, despite their rivalries, all the ANC factions share the same determination to serve the interests of these capitalists, regardless of the possible reluctance of a few among their allies in the ruling coalition.

However, today, after the recent election and the departure of a large section of the anti-Zuma faction to form COPE, the SACP and COSATU no longer have the possibility of trying to take advantage of the ANC's factional rivalries.

Indeed all that is left to the SACP and COSATU is de facto to end up condoning the ANC's regime attacks against the poor, thereby demoralising and disarming their working class base even more. But, by the same token, they are undermining their own positions within the regime. The more their support dwindles among the working class, the more their "usefulness" to the ANC leadership will shrink and the less the nationalist leaders will be willing to leave them a space in the leading spheres of the state. But the SACP has no other political perspective than to try to remain in office as an adjunct to the ANC.

In fact after Manuel's statements, Zuma's regime appears more and more as a regime which is preparing to go on the offensive against the working class - a regime which is determined to make the working class pay dearly for the present crisis. Against such a regime, the collective intervention of the working class will be decisive for the future. There is no shortage of strikes today, mainly over wages, involving many different parts of the working class, albeit one section at a time and mostly on a local level. What remains to be seen is whether the workers' militancy, which seems to have remained intact despite the crisis, will help them to find a way towards large-scale mobilisation, as the generation of the 1980s did in the fight against the apartheid bosses. Because only such a large-scale mobilisation would allow the working class to make itself feared again by the imperialist companies, the politicians and the "nouveaux riches" who, over the past 15 years, have hijacked the victory that the working class had won by bringing the apartheid regime to its knees.