South Africa - After the municipal elections: has the ruling ANC finally lost it?

Winter 2021

The so-called “party of Nelson Mandela”, the ruling African National Congress, obtained its worst result ever - 46% of the vote - in the 1 November local elections.  Headlines appeared in the press: “Is the ANC finally losing its grip?”; “Are we seeing the beginning of the end of the ANC?”.  After 27 years of unquestioned domination, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the party is too degenerate, corrupt and weak to carry on in power for much longer, at least in its present form.

    The sharp decline in support for the ANC was already visible in the 2016 local elections and even in the elections - local and general - which preceded them.  For at least a decade, the government has been unable to deliver more than the most basic public services, even to some of the “old” established black working class townships, let alone the new sprawling urban shantytowns.  And in the last few years - and exacerbated by the pandemic - this failure has spread to the richer, mainly white, suburbs of cities like Johannesburg, where power outages and water cut-offs are a weekly, and sometimes even daily, occurrence.

    Of course, even relatively rich South Africa could never have withstood its inevitable relegation to “dependent poor country” status after the end of apartheid - and along with it, the end of the illusion that it was somehow on a par with the imperialist West.  That misconception was thanks only to the super-exploitation of the black working class which allowed super-profits to accumulate in the hands of a small, but very rich domestic capitalist class and of course to the multinationals which invested there.  And even if this highly combative working class won victories over domestic capitalism to help terminate white minority rule at the end of the 1980s, it could never have retained these gains without a state of permanent class war, which would have had to culminate in revolution.  Obviously this didn’t happen.  And today, as in all the countries which were called “emerging economies” (Brazil, India, Russia, China) 15 years ago, the politics of the South African ruling class have followed the social and economic degeneration post-2008, into a deep crisis.

A flaccid “leader”

The incumbent president, Cyril Ramaphosa, was elected in 2018 with the hope that he would end the endemic corruption and graft (the so-called “captured state” under former President Jacob Zuma, in hock to the rich Gupta family) which had paralysed the government.  But instead Ramaphosa was also captured.

    Formerly one of the richest men in Africa (they are all men) and a beneficiary of the black empowerment policy of successive governments, Ramaphosa was eager finally to get his hands on state power.  He succeeded, despite the damage done to his reputation by his central role in the Marikana miners’ massacre of 2012.  Many still refer to him as the “butcher of Small Koppie”, where the killing of 34 striking miners at the hands of the police took place, after Ramaphosa’s Caesar-like thumbs down.  He was at the time a non-executive director of Lonmin, the owner of the Marikana platinum mine.  His emails about the strike explicitly favoured a quick end to it, demanding “concomitant action” against the miners who he referred to as “plainly dastardly criminals”.  This should never be forgotten.

    That said, what is already forgotten, is that this same anti-worker butcher of miners in 2012, actually founded their first official union, the NUM, in 1982 and later went on to lead its first national strike in 1987, under the slogan “The Year the Mineworkers Take Control”, leading 250,000 strikers out for a 30% wage increase.  What astonishing irony.

    The strike lasted 3 weeks and was violently attacked by apartheid state forces, leading to 9 deaths, 500 injuries and over 400 arrests.  Anglo American, the main employer, refused to budge and threatened to sack everyone.  Ramaphosa promptly caved in on workers’ behalf, called off the strike and the miners returned to work defeated; 50,000 lost their jobs in the aftermath.  An apology is made that this was a young union and it did well to hold out for 3 weeks.  Maybe so. But maybe the “leader” found the arguments of Anglo rather too convincing.  Because there was nothing wrong with that initial slogan.  This was the working classes’ strongest battalion and it could have taken control.  Perhaps too, Ramaphosa learnt a lesson from these bosses on how to “kill” a strike.

    Today - and this was even before the municipal elections - the Ramaphosa regime in government is considered as totally ineffectual and indeed, still under siege by the old Zuma-mafia.  And it is only naive political commentators who think that it is just a matter of getting rid of these corrupt officials (and cabinet ministers) to allow Ramaphosa to “act”.  What exactly they think can be done is another question.  And that is the real problem facing the increasing number of poor and the ever-shrinking organised working class.

    Certainly, seeing this flaccid and complacent “leader” flying to fancy ding-dongs with international leaders, as he did this summer, and hearing him speak in their name, whether over the issue of vaccines, or cutting CO2 emissions (when hardly anyone even has the privilege of producing any), must really have stuck in peoples’ gullets.

The damning election results

So yes, today, the ANC’s electoral decline is indisputable.  The local election saw it lose control of urban centres in the most populous areas of the country.  In Johannesburg, the country’s financial and industrial “capital”, its vote fell from 49.6% in 2016, to 33.60% this November; in Tshwane (formerly known as Pretoria), it went down from 41.5% to 34.63%; and in Ekurhuleni (which includes the densely-populated East and North-East Witwatersrand) the vote decreased from 52.7% in 2016 to 38.19% in 2021.

    Worse, the ANC lost outright control of the country’s most important port, in the eThekwini “metro” (metropolitan district), also known as Durban, down from 57% in 2016 to 42.02%.  In Mangaung, where the ANC was born (and where the city of Bloemfontein is situated), the ANC’s majority fell from 57.9% in 2016 to 50.63%.  So here, exceptionally, it retained control.  In fact today it controls only two out of 8 “metros” in the whole country.

    To add insult to injury, the ANC lost the constituency of Robben Island - the prison where Nelson Mandela and many other freedom-fighting heroes of the apartheid era were incarcerated.  The island has an electorate of only 144 (!), but nevertheless, this was seen as having great symbolic significance since these voters voted for the maverick Economic Freedom Fighters - the EFF of Julius Malema (51.67% against the ANC’s 31.67%) which claims to be “Marxist-Leninist”.  Its MPs sport red berets and red overalls when in parliament.  Today its politics have as little to do with Karl Marx or Lenin as those of Boris Johnson.  In fact Malema’s brand of populism is also in decline these days.  But for many voters his mere opposition to the government - which he still expresses, is reason enough to give him their support.

    In fact overall the ANC retained a majority in only 161 municipalities out of 278, with 66 of them hung because no party emerged with a majority of the votes.

    But the most telling indicator of public opinion was the very low turnout.  On the eve of polling, this was as low as 26% in the constituencies around Johannesburg and Sandton.

    In the end, less than a third of eligible voters actually went to the polls.  But even that is not saying much: only two out of three potential voters had registered in the first place.  And then, out of the 26.2 million registered voters, only 12.3 million, less than half, actually voted.  There has never been such a poor turnout.  And while some of this abstention can be attributed to the general depressive effect of the pandemic, it was obvious that many among the electorate were deliberately withholding their votes, in disgust with the local - but also national - politicians.

    Extrapolating from this, one could conclude that the ANC was endorsed by fewer than 34% of the electorate.  Such is the disillusionment of the population.  And no wonder.

    At local, municipal level, fundamental necessities like clean water and proper sanitation are no longer provided, on top of the “routine” power outages, if indeed you are lucky enough to be connected to electricity in the first place.  Many are also now going without meals.

    Official unemployment is 34%, but youth unemployment is estimated to be as high as 70%!  This was obviously aggravated by the economic shut-downs of the pandemic, but it was already reaching these levels long before this.

The July riots

This July, four months before the elections were due, the worst riots since the apartheid era shook the country.  There was even talk of postponing the municipal elections.  However in the end, the looting and burning only lasted for 10 days even if the intensity of the violent destruction was unprecedented.

    The riots began on 9 July in KwaZulu-Natal.  They were deliberately provoked; sparked by supporters of former state president Jacob Zuma, who had been taken off to jail to serve a 15 month sentence for contempt of court in the course of his trial for corruption.  However, they rapidly spread through KwaZulu and then broke out in Gauteng 300 miles away, and then in further copycat style, in other places up and down the country.  It was as if someone had taken a match to bone-dry tinder.

    In an article entitled “This is what a failed state looks like”, Richard Poplak, a Daily Maverick reporter, described how “across Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, two massive conflagrations [...] conjoined to form a devastating wildfire.  The first was the rage manufactured by an organised criminal network that found opportunity in the incarceration of a political figurehead.  The second was the instability caused by the desperation of a people crushed in an ever-tightening economic vice.”  He continued: “Sadly, South Africa is on its knees.  Entire communities have been razed, but more significantly [...] the violence has targeted vital nodes of distribution: logistics capacity in Mooi River; local food and dry good stores throughout eThekwini; large malls and warehouse facilities along the coastline and up into Pietermaritzburg. [...] That Zuma’s State Capture project contributed to this situation is almost beside the point.  South Africans are facing a second successive winter under lockdown, where the deprivations have become unbearable.  The government’s inhumane response to the Covid-19 pandemic [referring to the inexplicable banning of alcohol and cigarette sales] has loosened something in the streets, and the pent-up response is now fanning out across the country.  The economic Brahmins insist that there was no way to pay for comprehensive social relief programmes, so even the pathetic R350 [£8 per month!] Covid-19 social relief grant was suspended.  This is an obscenely cruel austerity regimen, the result of successive self-imposed structural adjustment packages that are nearly indiscernible from the famine campaigns of the colonial era. [...] The government’s parsimony has had inevitable consequences: people are enraged.

    However, as with all spontaneous riots, whatever the spark, there was no political direction of travel, and no political directors either.  Merely angry, hungry, deprived people.

    And what of Zuma?  While there are clearly a fair number of supporters of this caricature of a leader - family and friends from around his state-funded homestead, Nkandla in KwaZulu - at 79, he is sick and aging beyond his years.  After 2 months in prison he was given “medical parole”, but on December 15th it was ruled that he should return to prison to see out his sentence.  His doctors say he is terminally ill and that a “correctional facility” could not provide the necessary medical care.  It seems that the prison authorities would rather not have him back either.  In the meantime, Zuma has released a book: “The Words of a President: Jacob Zuma Speaks” which is apparently “an account of his administration from his perspective”.  His side of the story...  One can only wonder, this time round, what his side of the story will be on the rape of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo (Khwesi) with which he was charged in 2005.  Khwesi won’t get to comment: she died in 2016, aged just 41, after a tormented life.

Contaminated water, contaminated politics

South Africans would laugh cynically if they looked at the government website where it says that the country (today!) has “Excellent roads, rail and air facilities [both domestic and international]”World-class [telecoms] infrastructure” and that “top-quality public and private healthcare is available throughout the country.

    One of the big issues in the municipal election was potholes - potholes in the roads which are so huge that they can literally break cars in half!  Railway lines have been stripped of rails and every bit of scrap metal or cable.  Even the station buildings have been vandalised and reduced to ruins.

    Ebrahim Harvey, a former political and trade union activist and writer from Soweto, wrote in an article analysing the election results that “undoubtedly, the ANC since 1994 consciously took advantage of and exploited the lengthy historical loyalty, especially of the “African” (in the racialised and divisive apartheid sense) majority.  As a result, it did little to change the deplorable conditions in black townships, even after it lost the most important municipalities in the country in 2016.

    For at least a decade, conditions - but particularly so-called service delivery in the former townships, post-apartheid - have deteriorated across the board.  These townships have remained the urban ghettos which they were under apartheid, with scarcely any improvement, while they have expanded into vast shanty-towns, spreading across the countryside, covering square mile after square mile with corrugated iron shacks, or small self-built brick, wood and mud houses interspersed with a few blocks comprising the so-called RDP, tiny and inadequate government-built houses.

    Diepsloot, a name meaning deep ditch, is a “good” example - although there is nothing good about it.  This shack city north of Johannesburg which grew up in the early 1990s is said to be “home” to 350,000 people - but in fact its population is probably double this number.  However, while its population might not bother to vote (many may not even qualify, having migrated there many years ago, from neighbouring countries) it is places like this, where the population has been organising itself for the past two decades.  And this could become one of the building blocks of a concerted working class fightback in the future.  There is good reason to think so.

    Informal workers and shack dwellers have never stopped staging “service delivery” protests over the years.  They are deprived of everything; whether it be a tap providing clean drinking water, sanitation, electricity, or paved roads.  They also lack schools, social services, clinics with basic health services, and would probably have none at all, were it not for their own efforts to help themselves, plus the aid from NGOs.  Their talents for self-organisation are great and they go back all the way to the “civics” of the 1980s when these community, worker and trade union groups sprang up in all the townships and governed themselves, while making white South Africa ungovernable.

The aggravations of Covid

The pandemic and its stringent restrictions - including the above-mentioned alcohol and cigarette ban - meant that even finding enough food to eat became impossible at times, for the poorest among the population.  And when almost three-quarters of the youth are out of work, it is no surprise that queues several miles long formed at the food kitchens which were set up in the towns.  In rural areas people actually starved; childhood malnutrition is back with a vengeance.

    Despite the relatively lower incidence of Covid infection in South Africa, even with Omicron (it is a dry and hot country), initially hospitals were totally overwhelmed.  They were already in a shockingly derelict state, even in Soweto, whose Chris Hani Hospital (formerly Baragwanath) used to be one of the country’s most prestigious teaching hospitals - though always overcrowded.  Broken windows, blocked toilets, missing doors and the absence of bed linen are a general problem everywhere.  But then the main Johannesburg hospital, the huge Charlotte Maxeke, was partly burnt down in April this year.  The initial fire report says it all: “it was not just the fire doors and the hydrant couplings [many missing because they had been stolen!] that were faulty at Charlotte Maxeke [...] [F]irefighters were not given building and floor plans [...] Smoke-detection systems, fire alarms, sprinkler systems, and the mechanisms that would have triggered the magnetic smoke doors were not in working condition.  There was also poor water flow and low pressure to the hydrants.”  So this facility was lost to the population in its hour of most need!

    But then there is this odd anachronism, exposed in all its glory by the Covid pandemic.  Research institutes in South Africa have been among the world leaders in studying the Covid virus.  It was South African scientists who, at the beginning of November, first identified and sequenced the genome of the highly infectious Omicron variant - which at the time of writing, is spreading worldwide at an accelerated rate.  The almost immediate travel restrictions imposed on the country by Britain, the US and EU, gave its president Ramaphosa opportunity to play victim and deflect blame for South Africa’s ever worsening social catastrophe, which of course, is less to do with Covid than with the virtual collapse of his government.

    The fact that South Africa still has “world class” scientific institutions capable of ground-breaking Covid research may be surprising, but it is a reflection of its past lop-sided development.  It is worth recalling that under the apartheid system which lasted over 40 years, until the end of the 1980s, the country became one of the wealthiest in Africa - thanks to its natural wealth at the expense entirely of the majority black African population and the slave-like conditions under apartheid.

The Omicron “discovery” brings back memories

South Africa’s ability to undertake “good science” and research, in this case into Covid, on a par, or nearly so, with the rich developed world, is a legacy of this racist and segregated society.  On the one hand it produced highly-educated and qualified (almost all white) academics and professionals, and on the other, one of the most brutally repressive states aimed exclusively against the black working class, ruled by a reactionary-in-the-extreme, white minority.

    As is well known, and important to remember, all this began to unravel in the mid-1970s when the revolt of the black population first began in earnest, spreading to the townships and newly-organised and unionised working class, and by the mid-1980s, threatening outright revolution.  But international capital and its protective white minority regime in South Africa were prepared for this.  Heavily invested in the economy, their representatives had been holding secret talks with the South African government and its officials since the early 1980s.  In fact, the long-imprisoned leaders of the liberation movement - the African National Congress/South African Communist Party (SACP) - had already been moved from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison in 1982, as part of a “reform” process.

    By 1985, the hard-right president PW Botha even offered to release ANC leader Nelson Mandela from jail, provided he denounced his own organisation’s policy of “violence”...  This strategy eventually bore fruit for the ruling class and big capital, when in 1990 Mandela was finally given his freedom, while agreeing to compromise with the white regime, as required.  It was then that official negotiations for a transition to black majority rule took place, instituting this rule after the first democratic elections in the country, in 1994, with Mandela as the “natural” president of the new South Africa.  But behind the facade, most of its old institutions remained intact.

    Twenty-seven years later this facade is crumbling.  South Africa may have been one of the richest sub-Saharan African countries well into the 1990s (only outdone by oil-rich Nigeria and then only because of size), but once the imperialist and domestic capitalist class could no longer rely on super-exploiting the black working class as it had under apartheid, the economy slowly slipped into the much less affluent position it would naturally have occupied.  And like all the other poor countries, its dependent economy (dependent on the rich western countries’ investment, trade, loans, etc..) has slowly declined as the demand for its exports has fallen - most recently following the 2008 financial crash, the unresolved (and un-resolvable) ongoing economic slump worldwide - and now with the added consequences of the pandemic.

    Today visitors to South Africa, especially young black tourists from the rich countries are shocked when they see how white and black separation still exists and how this class demarcation is still a demarcation dictated by colour, almost 3 decades after the supposed end of apartheid.  But this social apartheid was not only built into the past-apartheid political structure, but it is evidently what the imperialist world prefers to “support”, and indeed insists upon.  And even more so today, when forcing lower wages and worse conditions on the working class is dictated by the difficulty the capitalists are experiencing during the current double-whammy recession.

    So when it comes to the British House of Commons, or the British media, and their recent coverage of the “South African” Omicron variant one finds oneself straight back in the 1970s and the world of white Afrikaner supremacy: the time when black school children were forced to do all their studies in Afrikaans.

    It was almost comic to see a white Afrikaner GP, Dr Angelique Coetzee, being given several hours of Commons Health Select Committee time on Zoom (which kept going off) to describe how “she was the first person to identify Omicron” and to hear British MPs seriously questioning her as if she was an expert.  This was absurd for all kinds of reasons, but most of all because they chose her - a white Afrikaner general practitioner who is in private practice and by her own admission had seen only 88 patients with Covid infections.  She may be chair of the South African Medical Association (the equivalent of the BMA), a doctors’ union, but she is in no way representative of South Africa’s medical institutions nor the helpful research these establishments try to undertake.  This was really a “back to the future” moment.

    For now everything depends on the working class being able to gather itself together as the pandemic eases and rebuild its organisations in conjunction with the existing informal groups, which have carried on regardless.  But this depends even more on there being an attempt to develop new independent political perspectives which break completely with the nationalist, Stalinist and Maoist past.  Above all, the “old” activists who have not yet retired, will have to put aside their prejudices against Trotskyism and its internationalism, because these prejudices can only continue to hold them back.

21 December 2021