South Africa: Election 2024 - no stake for the working class

20 December 2023

South Africa’s general election will take place next year - the sixth since the end of apartheid.  The ruling African National Congress - the “party of Nelson Mandela” - is likely to do badly.

    Polls published at the end of November predict a vote as low as 33% - a 50% drop in its average score over the past 30 years.

    Up to now, the ANC in alliance with the South African Communist Party and the Congress of Trade Unions, has maintained its majority in power without any other political party coming close to it.  That said, it has lost votes, especially since 2014.  But today, that majority may be in question.

    The overt corruption with which the party is associated - including “state capture”, i. e. , the take-over of public contracts and positions by crooks - rising poverty and the near-collapse of vital services and infrastructure, mean that cynicism towards politicians - and indeed politics - has become generalised.

    The latest survey of 2,006 South Africans, carried out this August/September by the “Institute for Justice and Reconciliation” (a typical opinion poll sample, for what it’s worth! ), indicated that 79% of those asked, “distrust national leaders”, 75% say that “most politicians have no real will to fight corruption” and 80% “agreed that corrupt officials often get away with it”.  True, 70% “did express a willingness to vote” in the coming general election; but - make of it what you will - 47% “did not feel sufficiently qualified to participate in politics”.  The pundits tell us that this most likely means a higher than ever voter abstention in 2024.

    Actually, abstention is not a new phenomenon in South Africa, despite the fact that people fought and died for this “democratic right” during the apartheid years.  The abject nature of the “democracy” they gained has shattered many, if not most, of these illusions.

    In 2014 and in 2019, the ANC vote was already falling significantly: in 2014, still under the leadership of the alleged rapist and convicted embezzler of state funds, President Jacob Zuma, (although today he is “too ill” to remain in prison), the party still got 65. 9% of the vote with a 73. 5% turnout (to some people’s astonishment; however there were 29 registered parties on the ballot paper! ).  But by 2019, the total ANC vote was down to 57. 5% - and in local elections in November 2021, it fell to below 50% for the first time: to 47. 52%, with as few as one in 3 registered voters bothering to cast a ballot.

So how did we get here?

It is quite incredible to ordinary people that President Ramaphosa can host a lavish BRICS summit and pretend to be one of the “Big Boys” next to Russia and China, when the social and economic situation in the country is so dire.

    Out of a population of 62 million (2022 census), 18. 2 million are today living in absolute poverty - almost a third.  But 62. 6% - almost two-thirds - are living under the poverty line, set at just £45(! ) a month.

    This is why even the pathetic state social grant of R350/m (just £15! ) for the poor (introduced for “social distress” during the Covid pandemic) makes such a difference to so many - and why they remain grateful to the government for introducing it!

    With food prices almost equivalent to those in British supermarkets and inflation running at 6% (but it never went as high as it did in Britain) it is lucky that there are at least a few outlets in the townships where cheaper food can be found.  But there are no subsidised shops sponsored by the government, as there still are, for instance, in India.  Indeed it is only by sharing what little they have with others - but also by joining the many beggars at traffic junctions - that the poor survive.  And there are no jobs.  In fact they are being cut every day, especially in the mining industry, whose recovery post-pandemic is patchy and affected by the disastrous crisis in the energy supply, let alone the fall-off in demand for catalytic converters (and thus for platinum), as the car industry “goes electric”.  Overall adult unemployment (World Bank figure) is 32. 6% and youth unemployment is running at 64%!  This is why there is such a rise in armed robbery; a job with the gangsters these days - especially in the bigger cities - is sometimes the only “employment” on offer.

    The cultural and educational level is falling again, too.  In the poorest provinces – Mpumalanga and Limpopo, 11. 7% and 14. 1% respectively, of the population have had no schooling.  Over the whole population illiteracy amounts to 6. 9%, if the figure can be trusted.  The 2022 census also tells us that just under 60% have access to clean, piped water inside their homes...  however given the regular cuts in supply due to broken pipes, pumps which aren’t working, droughts and pollution, etc. , they often find their taps are dry.

Stumbling in the dark

The daily energy black-outs due to what is euphemistically called “load-shedding” have become a way of life for the population: no electricity for 6, 8, even 12 hours out of 24 and sometimes even for days on end.  These are scheduled to occur throughout most of the country, because electricity generation capacity has never kept up with demand.  Not to mention the fact that maintenance is poor, or non-existent, and cables and every other bit of equipment are regularly stolen, often with explosive and deadly results.

    This means that households and businesses must await their turn each day for their small ration of power.  Most, if they can afford it, are obliged to use diesel-operated generators or much more expensive solar panels as an alternative.

    In the past two years, the power cuts have intensified, and are estimated by the World Bank to cost the economy 6-15% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

    Sometimes, there is no water supply, including in the country’s commercial centre, Johannesburg, and moreover, its rich suburbs - the city which used to be known as “Egoli”, the “City of Gold”.  But then South Africa is no longer the world’s biggest gold-producer either; it has now fallen to 8th place in a league table led by China, Australia and Russia.

    South Africans have no postal service.  They have no public transport system.  There is a network of privately-owned taxi-minibuses run by Mafiosi who regularly conduct violent turf wars, blow up railway stations and burn (among the few remaining) public buses, to try to eliminate the competition...

    The railways have by now been systematically vandalised (cables, rails, etc. , stolen) to the point where freight no longer runs cross-country.  The roads are ground up by heavy trucks carrying metal ore (which get stuck in long traffic jams on the way to ports) and the unfilled potholes just get larger and more dangerous.  When there is no electricity, traffic lights don’t work, of course, leading to even more chaos.  As for road repairs, local municipalities are non-functional, snarled up in endless political rivalries which often-times end in murder.

    That something can or could be done to alleviate this drastic situation was shown by the (albeit superficial) face-lift during the BRICS Summit, held in Sandton in August this year.  Roads to Johannesburg’s international airport were resurfaced, and electricity switched on for the occasion.  In fact Sandton, a rich northern “suburb” of Johannesburg, is where most businesses have now established their HQs, given that the old heart of the city of Johannesburg has become derelict – but at least its solid art-deco buildings and tower-blocks are providing homes for the homeless...

The ruins of Egoli

Yes, except even in this case too, there is sorrow and madness; on 31 August 2023 a fire in an abandoned, government-owned building in Johannesburg’s Marshallstown killed 77 people – many of them migrant workers - and injured another 88.  This had been the head office of the “Non- European Affairs Department” under apartheid: the office for enforcing the “pass laws” (a “pass” being the mandatory ID document which controlled the movement of all black people).  By 2019 the empty building had been occupied by the homeless, but even then, this was being run as a moneymaking enterprise by gangsters, who partitioned it off and installed locked gates, which meant when the fire broke out, the people living there were trapped inside.

    Despite the current dereliction of this former rather well-heeled centre of commerce, Jo’burg still remains a transport terminus for taxis, buses and the few trains which still run from Park Station; and there are markets selling cheap everything.  However even this has been literally blown up: a methane gas leak in pipes under the nearby Lillian Ngoyi Street (formerly known as Bree Street) caused a huge explosion, blowing taxis and cars into the air on 19 July, luckily not killing anyone.  

    Again this points to the utter lack of any kind of maintenance of vital infrastructure - in this case with potentially lethal consequences.  Four months later the huge cavity in the road is still there.  The municipality says it may be repaired by 2025...

The Implats disaster and its context

So what about the mining industry, the supposed backbone of the economy?  Here too, the situation is deteriorating.  While the sector still makes profits for its shareholders, these profits are coming at the cost of drastic cuts in jobs and conditions.  The following statement comes from the website of the mining company called Implats: “On Monday, 27 November 2023, 86 employees were involved in a winder rope accident at Impala Rustenburg’s 11 Shaft operation.  Tragically, 13 of our colleagues lost their lives.  This accident marks the darkest day in the history of Implats”.  At the time of writing, 50 injured miners are still in hospital and 8 in intensive care.  Impala mine is one of the biggest, deepest and oldest platinum mines in the country.  Apparently, the rope snapped (the company calls it a “mechanical fault”) and the cage plunged 200m down the 1000m-deep shaft.  This is a miner’s worst nightmare.  The company’s systematic cuts in expenditure have literally translated into cuts in safety maintenance.  On 7 November, 2 weeks before this disaster, Implats bosses, who already had a redundancy scheme underway, had announced the “shedding” of workers.  They complain about a “drastic reduction in metal prices” (palladium prices fell 40% in the course of this year, but platinum prices only by 14%).

    In the last two years the revenue generated by the Platinum Group Metals sector has halved.  Partly, as mentioned above, as a result of the move to electric cars, reducing demand for catalytic converters.  The mining sector as a whole still, however, provides jobs for 500,000 workers and 200,000 work in PGMs.

    Mechanisation (at Anglo American’s Amplats operations, for example) has also caused drastic cuts in the workforce.  However since machines require a reliable power supply, this trend has been interrupted thanks to the failure of the country’s electricity generators...  Further investment in refining and processing plants, for instance, has, as a result, ground to a halt.

    Another multinational mining company, Sibanye-Stillwater (it took over the Marikana mines from Lonmin and Anglo’s labour - intensive operations), has launched a “Section 189 process” (required by South Africa’s labour laws whenever “retrenchments” are to be made).  This will cut up to 4,000 jobs at its Kroondal, Marikana and Rustenburg PGM operations.  The CEO admits that every miner has 8 to 10 dependents “so lay-offs will have a profound social and economic effect”.  But never mind, their profits have to come first.

    In fact Sibanye has also been retrenching thousands of workers in the gold sector every year, largely, however, due to the depletion of reserves.  Many gold mines have already been shut down.  But the trouble is, that given the desperation of the unemployed, old shafts have been re-opened by “illegal” miners - called “Zama-zamas” who hope to fi nd enough gold to sell on the “black market” to make up a wage.  They will sometimes spend days or weeks underground so that they can escape detection by the cops.  And their highly dangerous work has been made all the more lethal by the police (and gangsters, sometimes the very same people) who will concrete over a mine entrance or pour water down it to “flush them out”, or simply to kill them.  Some are trapped underground by rockfalls and only rescued reluctantly by the authorities.  So today, there are many dead bodies lying in the disused gold mining tunnels of the Witwatersrand and Freestate gold reefs...

Union rivalries - or protests?

Despite this bleak picture, in the last few months there have been workers’ sit-ins in several mines.  These workers have remained underground and refused to come back up unless demands are met for wage increases or unless plans for retrenchments are withdrawn.  A case in point is the Bakubung - Wesizwe Platinum mine - where 200 workers staged a strike underground for pay rises and for maternity benefits, on 9 December.  In other words, despite everything, working class struggle among the miners, at least, is certainly not dead!

    But the problem is that in the mining industry, the lethal rivalry between the government-loyal old National Union of Mineworkers and the newer union, AMCU, keeps raising its ugly head.  This has resulted in clashes led by the union officials, and in the process, miners have been killed.

    It should be recalled that current President Cyril Ramaphosa, was on the Marikana-Lonmin executive board and personally gave the thumbs up to the police in September 2012 to launch a hail of bullets against the Marikana platinum miners, protesting for higher pay - but independently from the union - killing 34 of them outright.  This was justified at the time by the NUM leadership, which was defending its turf against the AMCU “interloper”.  So there is much bad blood here.

    One of the recent sit-ins - at the Modder Gold One mine in Springs - turned into what reporters described as a “hostage situation”.  Apparently 400 workers (some in the NUM) were supposedly “held” underground by AMCU officials for 4 days and nights.  Another version contests this: the miners were merely persuaded (more or less violently) not to get up and leave the union sit-in, in a kind of forced solidarity...  in a strike against the management.  Articles in the press appeared claiming that white supervisors had been taken underground and stripped and beaten.  But none of this is verified.

    Several of the underground occupations in the platinum and gold belts have apparently also been used by union officials as a means to get the companies to recognise one union above another for negotiating purposes.  There is a lot to gain for full-time union officials, in terms of bribes and side-benefits.  So it is a corrupt business, and a sad sign of political degeneration inside the union movement.

    Corruption is a feature too, inside NUMSA, the metalworkers’ union.  Under the leadership of Irvin Jim, it played a leading and apparently progressive role among workers, especially after the Marikana massacre.  But NUMSA too, and still under Jim, has fallen apart amidst acrimonious infighting.  It should be no real surprise: the union based itself on full-time, appointed officials, with good salaries and motor cars...  And this was only possible, thanks to outside funding which came from dubious sources.

    This systematic corruption has had the effect of killing the spirit of rebellion.  That said, this rebel spirit can be rebuilt.  But it really would have to be from the “ground up” this time.  This is possible: the working class has still got enough politicised activists inside and outside its ranks to know how to do this.

After all, not an exception to the rule

So what about the prospects for the coming election, that is, South Africa’s “democracy”?  Since its first non-racial election in 1994 it has been regarded as the exception to the rule in the former colonial (“Third”) world, where multiparty democracies have never fared well - and indeed cannot fare well.  Why?  Because it was richer and thus more likely to be able to build a large enough middle class to provide a stable government.

    Unlike other former colonies South Africa had, for 50 years under “legal” apartheid, but in fact 100 years, under the whites-only regimes of its British colonial predecessors, provided super-profits for multinational corporations - but also their comprador-capitalists based in South Africa: the Oppenheimers, the De Beers, the Anton Ruperts...  and then the Motsepes...

    It had been the largest and richest economy in Sub-Saharan Africa, under, and because of its apartheid system, booming like none other in Africa during the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, with its combination of rich natural resources and super-exploitable cheap labour.

    Once apartheid was abolished after 1989 and a black majority government installed under Nelson Mandela in 1994, the imperialists and indeed the new black South African ruling class (which took over power almost seamlessly), assumed that South African capitalism would just go from strength to strength.  But it did not and could not, and for obvious reasons: the black working class was hardly going to accept that its former status as cheap semi-slave labour under “white” capitalism’s iron heel should continue for one second longer.

    That threatened to put an end to South African capital’s special conditions.  That is, until and unless it could place workers under a “non racist” iron heel again.  And that is precisely what has been attempted and, to some extent, achieved.

A crumbling BRIC candidate

Not one among the independent former colonial countries has spawned a large enough and rich enough middle class and a stable and well-enough fed working class to qualify as an equal to any of the rich (G7) bourgeois democracies of Europe and the USA.  Not India, not Brazil, not South Africa - nor even China nor Russia, but these latter for different reasons...  Today, being a member of the BRICS for South African capital, is still to be an outsider.  South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world.

    It might be richer than its African counterparts, but it has sustained this position only because a large section of the working class has been pushed back into super-exploitation.  And that means, precisely, the destruction of its previous workers’ organisations and “solid” trade unionism...  as some of the examples above, from the mines illustrate.

    Today, white people - a slightly smaller minority than before - still occupy the ranks of the upper middle class and own much of the wealth.  The black middle class - under the policy of positive discrimination known as Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) - which managed to grow in the mid-1990s to mid-2000s, is shrinking again.  But among its ranks there are those who are still flourishing by “redeploying” state funds into their own pockets...  The richest man in Africa is no longer Cyril Ramaphosa, but his brother-in-law, the billionaire mining magnate, Patrick Motsepe...

    And Ramaphosa himself is under investigation for unexplained millions found stuffed in a sofa...

The forthcoming election “tickets” to nowhere

So where does this leave the working class on the eve of the general election?  Economic decline and the fragmentation of its organisations leave it without political representation.  It has no party to vote for either.

    Of course, the electoral landscape is already adorning itself with new parties.  Luckily for them, a Constitutional Court ruling has denied the president’s proposal that no party or individual can stand without obtaining a minimum of 11,000 verifiable signatures.  So the number still remains at 1,000.

    Among the newcomers is the former CEO of the FirstRand banking group, Roger Jardine, who has resigned his job and launched a political movement called “South Africa Change Now”...  He already has a few prominent supporters (the activist and former newspaper editor Mark Heywood, former Helen Suzman Foundation head Nicole Fritz, the Progressive Health Forum’s Dr Aslam Dasoo, and former UDF leader and Thabo Mbeki speech-writer Murphy Morobe).  And he already has a policy: “We have to fi x the balance sheets of SA Inc. ! ”, as he told the Daily Maverick newspaper.  The motivation of the middle class is to dislodge the ANC, given its record in government and what is seen as its inability even to keep the lights on - otherwise known as load-shedding.

    The main historical opposition - the white liberal led Democratic Alliance - is also making a bid this time to beat the ANC by way of an agreement with 8 other parties, called the Multi-Party Charter.  Most have sitting MPs.  This Charter will thus be made up of the DA, Inkatha Freedom Party, African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), Independent South African National Civic Organisation, Freedom Front Plus, ActionSA, United Independent Movement and the Spectrum National Party, for what it is worth - and certainly is worth nothing to the working class.

    And then there are disillusioned ANC stalwarts who threaten to undermine the ANC.  Mavuso Msimang, for instance, a party official for 60 years, and Deputy President of the ANC Veterans’ League, at the beginning of December, published a damning resignation letter.  He was furious that the likes of Jacob Zuma and other corrupt “state capture” figures might be selected as ANC election candidates.  Once he was reassured this was not the case, however, he rejoined, but he couldn’t take back his resignation letter.  This contains some choice quotes, several in particular which will “appeal” to British readers, for instance: “How does it come about that raw sewage flows into the uMngeni River and into the sea, polluting eThekwini beaches ... ” and “this middle class is leaving behind people who die before ambulances can reach them, or perish in the hallways of overflowing, under-resourced public hospitals”.

    He also asks “For what earthly reason did the Gauteng Department of Health think that frail, elderly, and very vulnerable people should be sent into ill-equipped, ill-prepared and ill-funded houses under the guise of unqualified NGOs resulting in the death of some 160 people... ”

    He added that the fall in the ANC’s popularity was due to a “high tolerance threshold for venality...  and deplorable levels of service to the public”.  Maybe the poor (very poor) public has shown a high tolerance threshold for the ANC, by giving the party its votes for 30 years, but so has Msimang.

Back to the future?

Of course even if the ANC gets a low score in the election, it is likely it will still be able to form a government.  At worst it will make an agreement with another party - and there are sure to be willing takers.

    The polls show that the Democratic Alliance is currently opinion-polling at 31%.  At Number 3, is the Economic Freedom Fighters - who have 9%, and rising.  This party was founded in 2013 by Julius Malema - a former leader of the ANC Youth League.  And although it is known for its flamboyant disruption of parliamentary sittings and refusal to wear fancy clothes (choosing red overalls and pinafores and military fatigues) Malema is a true populist demagogue and just as corrupt as those whom he lampoons.  He is not averse to adopting socialist rhetoric or making appeals to black nationalism, but Malema will never be anything other than a money-motivated opportunist.  Nevertheless he and his party will probably gain out of the ANC’s losses and some commentators say that this might even lead to an ANC-EFF alliance, despite the EFF’s contemptuous anti-ANC antics on the parliamentary floor.

    All of this said, those who look, not to this election, but to the period of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when workers mobilised in the hundreds of thousands, and who speak about having to start organising “from scratch” again, are right.  Today the organisations of the working class are fragmented and degenerate and will have to be rebuilt.  But this is the case in almost every country today.  And at least in South Africa the period of intense class struggle of the 1980s is still within living memory of many activists among the population.  So perhaps the task of building the revolutionary working class political party that is needed, will not be quite as difficult as they think.  Anyway, it must be done!

19 December 2023