South Africa’s Left Critiques

Doesn’t the South African government’s enormous popularity prove the success of the post-apartheid democratic state? In the April 2004 general elections, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) won roughly 70 per cent of the vote, as anticipated, and Mbeki’s brilliant machiavellian divide-and-conquer of the white-dominated opposition parties reduced their combined vote, with Tony Leon’s Democratic Alliance taking 13 per cent. The old apartheid governing elite, in the shape of the renamed “New” National Party, won more than 20 per cent of the vote in South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, and 7 per cent in 1999, but could manage just 2 per cent in 2004, before folding themselves entirely into the ANC four months later.
What do left critics have to say, then? Progressive forces that did not field candidates for election also experienced the effects of the ANC juggernaut. The Landless People’s Movement, for example, called for a vote boycott and saw the arrest of more than fifty of its members in the ghetto of Thembelihle, near Soweto, on election day (two suffered torture). Judging by this sort of repressive—indeed, paranoid—security and by the falling living standards experienced by the majority of black South Africans since 1994, Pretoria should be subject to the kind of insurgent protests witnessed recently in Bolivia and Argentina.
To rebut their radical critics, ANC leaders took to doctoring simple statistics during the campaign. Some illustrations demonstrate why the government can make inspiring claims of delivery, but retain market-oriented policies. It is no secret that Mbeki’s home-grown structural adjustment policy, co-authored by the World Bank in 1996, codified the pro-corporate economic philosophy inherited from apartheid. The result was the doubling of the formal unemployment rate from 16 per cent in 1994 to 32 per cent in 2002. When one considers in addition the millions of people who have given up any hope of finding a job, the rate rises to 43 per cent. Both the public and private sectors have shed more than 10 per cent of formal-sector jobs since liberation in 1994.
Yet, as the election neared, ANC politicians like Trade and Industry Minister Alec Erwin began insisting that two million new jobs had been created since 1994. His source was an official Labour Force Survey that defines “employment” as including “beg[ging] money or food in public” and “catch[ing] any fish, prawns, shells, wild animals or other food for sale or family food”. Asked about this definition, the main trade union official Zwelinzima Vavi said simply: “It is absurd to record such labour as jobs.”
In addition, ANC election propaganda bragged of having created “a level of macroeconomic stability not seen in the country for 40 years”. In reality, there were three currency crashes over a period of a few weeks in February–March 1996, June–July 1998 and December 2001, ranging from 30 per cent to 50 per cent each, as the rand fell to R13.8 to the US dollar. Each crash led to massive interest rate increases that sapped growth and rewarded spe- culators. These moments of macro- economic instability were as dramatic as any in the previous two centuries, including the September 1985financial panic that split big business from the apartheid regime and paved the way for ANC rule.
Thus, in July 2004, even the Economist Corporate Network conceded that the rand had recovered its strength to above R6.00 to the US dollar because “portfolio managers are putting their money into countries with high returns, and S[outh] A[frica] was among the highest. Portfolio investments accounted for a massive 24% of SA’s gross domestic product, and 65% of the rand’s trading took place offshore.”
At that point, according to the Economist, South Africa’s ranking among all twenty-five emerging markets told the secret of “stability”: South Africa “leads” in currency strength (1/25), and lowest inflation (3/25). Yet it lags in GDP growth (25/25); foreign exchange reserves (25/25); industrial production (21/25); and current account (20/25). As financial consultant Michael Power summarised South Africa’s position: “our real interest rates, cost of capital and unemployment is among the highest; our foreign direct investment inflow is among the lowest.”
It is here that the core concession made by the ANC in the transition deal of the early 1990’s is apparent: accommodating the desire of white businesses to escape the economic stagnation and declining profits born of a classical organic capitalist crisis, in the context of a sanctions-induced laager, and amplified by the rise in the 1970’s-1980’s of black militancy in workplaces and communities. The deal represented simply this: black nationalists got the state, while, thanks to economic liberalisation, white people and corporations could remove the bulk of their capital from the country and yet remain domiciled in South Africa with even more privileges. Trade, credit, cultural and sports sanctions ended; exchange controls were largely lifted; luxury imports flooded in; taxes were cut dramatically; and during the late 1990’s white people’s incomes rose by 15 per cent and the corporate pretax
profit share soared back to the levels of the 1960’s, associated with apartheid’s heyday.
Poverty and Authoritarianism
Hence inequality has spiralled during ANC rule, as even state statistics show. Black South Africans suffered an income crash of 19 per cent from 1995 to 2000, with every indication of further degeneration in subsequent years. The ANC rebuttal is that when state spending is accounted for, the divergence is reversed. Yet notwithstanding deepening poverty, the state raised water and electricity prices, to the point that, by 2002, they consumed 30 per cent of the income of households earning less than $70 per month. An estimated ten million people had their water cut off, according to two national government surveys, and ten million were also victims of electricity disconnections, a shocking record in view of the ANC’s 2000 local government election promises of “free basic services” including water and sanitation, electricity and other municipal functions.
Defenders of the elite transition deal may claim that leftward pressure on the ANC emanates from the South African Constitution’s celebrated socio-economic rights clauses. But the 1996 Constitution appears a bit tattered, partly because the judges are too frightened to take a stand against the state’s neo-liberal policies, and partly because of an incident on 21 March 2004, Human Rights Day (anniversary of the infamous 1960 Sharpeville Massacre). Just
before the opening of the Constitutional Court’s beautiful new building in central Johannesburg at the site of the old Fort Prison, where Nelson Mandela had been incarcerated, community activists in the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF) called a march to protest against the installation of pre-paid water meters in Soweto by the French company Suez, which is running the city’s outsourced water company. City officials banned the peaceful protest on absurd grounds (traffic disturbances—on a Sunday). The police arrested fifty-two activists and bystanders, some simply because they were wearing red shirts, and blocked travel of APF buses into Johannesburg. Neither the judges nor Mbeki—who attended the opening ceremony—uttered a word in the protesters’ defence, so even civil and political rights now appear merely contingent.
That incident aside, the country’s highest court has heard three major cases on socioeconomic rights: one led to the death of a man denied kidney dialysis treatment because the judges deemed it too expensive; the next helped the Treatment Action Campaign acquire AIDS medicines for pregnant women because the judges agreed the state, in failing to supply these itself, was needlessly killing tens of thousands of infants each year; and another allegedly enforced the right to emergency municipal services. But in this last instance, checking back on the successful plaintiff, Irene Grootboom, in her Cape Town ghetto, the South African Sunday Times found her community as destitute in March 2004 as in September 2000, when her case was heard.
To be sure, the status of women like Grootboom has seen some improvement since the arrival of democracy, especially in reproductive rights, albeit with extremely uneven access. But contempo- rary South Africa retains apartheid’s patriarchal modes of surplus extraction, thanks both to residual sexual discrimination (women’s pay relative to men’s shrank from 78 per cent to 66 per cent during the late 1990s) and the rural– urban migrant labour system, which is still subsidised by women stuck in the former “Bantustan” homelands. Structured superexploitation of women is accompanied by an apparent increase in domestic violence associated with rising male unemployment. In widely condemned remarks at an electoral rally on 22 March 2004, just after Human Rights Day, Mbeki said that if ever his sister was to arrive home and tell him she was in love with African Christian Democratic Party leader Kenneth Meshoe, he would have to beat her. A spokesperson said the president was only joking.
The AIDS Crisis
Women are also the main caregivers in the home, and bear the highest burden associated with degraded health. Public sector services continue to decline because of under-funding and competition from private providers. Infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, cholera, malaria and AIDS are rife; indeed, they are all far more prevalent than during apartheid, and life expectancy has decreased by a decade. Most South Africans with HIV still have little prospect of receiving anti-retroviral drugs. The medicines finally began to make their way to hospitals and a few clinics only in time for the election, even then haltingly and subject to repeated reversals.
During his five years as president, Mbeki has taken various obstinate stands against the poor and the sick. Still, it is unfair to attribute the massive, unnecessary loss of life associated with refusing five million HIV positive South Africans access to AIDS medicines solely to his notorious “denialist” posture. Early death for millions of South Africans must also be blamed upon structural forces, including pressure on Pretoria by transnational pharmaceutical corporations still adamant about the sanctity of their patents, and by financiers who insist on Pretoria maintaining a budget deficit/GDP ratio of below 3 per cent.
Another adverse factor is employer reaction to the AIDS epidemic, with cost– benefit analyses demonstrating that keeping most of the country’s five million HIV positive people alive through patented medicines would cost more than the people are “worth”. In October 2001, Anglo- American Corporation, the vast Johannesburg/London mining conglomerate, announced that it would provide anti-retroviral drugs to its 14,000 senior staff as part of their medical insurance, but not to the lowest-paid 88 per cent of its 160,000 workers. Brian Brink, the corporation’s senior vice-president for medical operations, said the provision of drug treatment for lower-income employees was too expensive— “the cost will be greater than the saving”. In an 11 October 2001 press release, South Africa’s National Union of Mine Workers called the policy “inherently racist and discriminatory, with beneficiaries of the scheme being, in the main, white workers and the black elite. The foot soldiers who generate wealth in the bowels of the earth are excluded”.
Thankfully, however, merciless tendencies associated with the dynamics of global capitalism can sometimes be reversed, as South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign and international allies —Act Up, Médecins sans Frontières and even Oxfam—showed by forcing countries to reject monopoly patents for multinational pharmaceutical companies on life-giving anti-retroviral drugs, and by driving the price down to affordable levels through generic medicines.
The Spectre of Zanufication
Mbeki has also stood down human rights activists and arms-control groups opposed to his $6 billion purchase of sophisticated weaponry from European corporations. The widespread influence-peddling scandals associated with the arms deal threatened Deputy President Jacob Zuma last year after he allegedly solicited a bribe in a manner the justice minister deemed “prima facie corruption”. They also forced the resignation of several leading ANC politicians and officials.
On the environmental front, the country’s ecosystem is today in worse condition in many crucial respects—e.g., water and soil resources, global warming, fisheries, industrial toxins, genetically modified crops—than during apartheid. For example, in spite of water scarcity, major dam projects are generating destructive environmental consequences downriver, and the extremely high costs of water transfer deter consumption by poor people. The location of natural surface and groundwater remains skewed towards white farmers owing to land dispossession under apartheid. Because a World Bank–authored, neo-liberal land reform policy was adopted just after 1994, less than 3 per cent of arable land was redistributed, as against a 1994–9 ANC government target of 30 per cent.
The systematically repressive side of Mbeki’s regime was unveiled to the world during the August 2002 protests against the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD). There was an attempt to ban the Alexandra–Sandton mass march, and police used stun-grenades to disrupt an earlier candle-lit march near the University of Witwatersrand. Leading anti-privatisation activists in the black townships of Johannesburg and Cape Town are repeatedly harassed and detained by police for resisting evictions and utility disconnections. The mainly illegal detentions often result in high-profile acquittals. Treatment Action Campaign members were savagely beaten in early 2003 during a non-violent civil disobedience campaign to acquire medicines.
This is a tough education, but one that African progressives have learned at great cost during the post-independence period, as Frantz Fanon perhaps most eloquently demonstrated in the chapter “Pitfalls of National Consciousness” of his book, The Wretched of the Earth. South Africa’s critical social movements, which think globally and act locally and continentally, are increasingly aware of the problems associated with Pretoria’s “talk left, walk right”. A phrase derogatory of ANC culture even emerged from within the South African Communist Party (SACP): “Zanufication”, an allusion to Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union. After uttering it in an obscure interview published on the Internet, the SACP’s deputy leader Jeremy Cronin was forced to recant under high-profile pressure from the ruling party in a manner reminiscent of Soviet-style show trials, thereby proving his point.
South African Imperialism?
What of the sub-imperial part of the equation? The most important new factor in African economics is the exploitative regional role of Johannesburg business, especially in banking, breweries, construction, mining, services and tourism. Large Johannesburg corporations have benefited from the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), and in the process lubricated capital flows out of African countries. Actually, these flows then mainly proceeded to London, where the Anglo American Corporation, DeBeers, Old Mutual insurance, South African Breweries, Liberty Life insurance and other huge South African firms relisted their financial headquarters during the late 1990’s.
The quite substantial regional acquisitions by South African corporations have mainly been takeovers, not Greenfield projects. Thus, on the one hand, in spite of a high-profile mid-2002 endorsement of NEPAD by 187 individuals and firms, led by Anglo-American, BHP Billiton and the Absa banking group, there were no investments made in twenty key infrastructure projects two years later, only vocal corporate complaints that NEPAD’s emerging peer review system had insufficient teeth to discipline errant politicians. According to the chief reporter of the pro-NEPAD Business Day in mid-2004: “The private sector’s reluctance to get involved threatens to derail NEPAD’s ambitions.”
On the other hand, the prospect that Johannesburg-based corporations would be “new imperialists” was of “great concern”, according to Pretoria’s then public enterprises minister, Jeff Radebe, in early 2004: “There are strong perceptions that many South African companies working elsewhere in Africa come across as arrogant, disrespectful, aloof and careless in their attitude towards local business communities, work-seekers and even governments.” But Radebe could also have been describing his Cabinet colleague Thabo Mbeki. The Sunday Times, reporting on the July 2003 African Union meeting in Maputo, stated that Mbeki was viewed by other African leaders as “too powerful, and they privately accuse him of wanting to impose his will on others. In the corridors they call him the George Bush of Africa, leading the most powerful nation in the neighbourhood and using his financial and military muscle to further his own agenda.”
Whose Pan-Africanism?
The antidote to South African sub-imperialism may well be the recent rise of protest movements at home and across the continent against repression and neo-liberalism. Not only do the left forces nearly uniformly oppose NEPAD, they also openly call for their trade ministers to repeat the Seattle and Cancun rejections of the WTO, and for their finance ministers to default on the illegitimate foreign debt and demand reparations for slavery, colonialism and apartheid. They advocate not only kicking the World Bank and IMF out of their countries, but also international strategies for defunding and abolishing the Bretton Woods institutions. South Africa’s Jubilee movement was a catalyst of the “World Bank Bonds Boycott”, asking of its Northern allies: Is it ethical for socially conscious people to invest in the bank by buying its bonds (responsible for 80 per cent of the institution’s resources) and to receive dividends which represent the fruits of enormous suffering?
Other examples of what is being termed “deglobalisation” include successful efforts to deny the status of trade-related intellectual property rights to AIDS medicines, to keep genetically modified organisms out of several Southern African agricultural markets, and to resist French and British water privatisers and other promoters of the General Agreement on Trade in Services. To these ends, the African Trade Network and the Gender and Trade Network in Africa put intense pressure on the continent’s delegates to reject the WTO’s Cancun proposals.
On a more local level, there are inspiring examples of what might be termed “decommodification”, especially in South Africa. There, independent left movements have struggled to turn basic needs into human rights, winning important partial victories: the provision of health services, including free anti-retroviral medicines to fight AIDS; free water (fifty litres per person per day); free electricity (1 kilowatt-hour per person per day); thoroughgoing land reform; prohibition of evictions and the disconnection of services; free education; and even a “basic income grant”, as advocated by churches and trade unions. The idea is that such services should be provided to all as a human right by a genuinely democratic state, and to the degree that it is feasible, financed through cross-subsidisation by imposition of much higher prices for luxury consumption.
Because the commodification of everything is still under way across Africa, decommodification could form the basis of a unifying agenda for a broad social reform movement, if linked to the demand to “rescale” many political–economic responsibilities that are now handled by embryonic world-state institutions (including even UN agencies, presently under the influence of neo-liberal US and EU administrations). The decommod- ification principle is already an enormous threat to imperial interests, as in, for example, the denial of private corporate monopolies based on “intellectual property”; resistance to biopiracy and the exclusion of genetically modified seeds from African agricultural systems (as agreed to by state officials in Zimbabwe, Zambia and Angola, notwithstanding the droughts of the early years of this century); the renationalisation of industries and utilities (particularly when privatisation strategies systematically fail, as is happening across Africa); the recapture of indigenous people’s land (as is becoming necessary against Shell in Nigeria’s Delta region, and against the World Bank in Botswana); and the empowerment of African labour forces against multinational and local corporate exploitation.
To make any progress, delinking from the most destructive circuits of global capital will also be necessary, combining local decommodification strategies with the call to close the World Bank, IMF and WTO, and with rejection of the United Nations’ neo-liberal functions and lubrication of US imperialism. Beyond that, the challenge for Africa’s progressive forces, as ever, is to establish the difference between “reformist reforms” and reforms that advance a “nonreformist” agenda. The latter attempts to win gains that do not strengthen the internal logic of the system, but that instead empower the system’s opponents. Hence, unlike reformist reforms, non-reformist reforms do not have a co-optive character. Neither do they lessen the momentum of reformers (as do many successful reformist reforms). Rather, they increase it by opening up new terrians of struggle. The non-reformist reform strategy would include genrous social policies stressing decommo-dification, exchange controls, and more inward-oriented industrial strategies allowing democratic control of finance and ultimately of production itself. These sorts of reforms would strengthen democratic movements, directly empower producers (especially women) and, over time, open the door to the contestation of capitalism itself.
However, it is not only imperialism that stands in the way of such change; so do Pretoria’s various sub-imperial barriers and Mbeki’s destructive policies at home. Notwithstanding their occasionally leftist rhetoric, Mbeki and his colleagues are situating their country as the continent’s leading bourgeois-aspirant state, i.e., as the modern international equivalent of an oldfashioned South African Bantustan, where the co-opted elite prosper under conditions of global apartheid and untenable local class apartheid. But like racial apartheid, South Africa’s role of assisting imperialism and neo-liberalism in Africa will also pass— largely because of progressive resistance, but also because the elite strategy is demonstrably unsustainable.


​ * There are numerous books written mainly by independent leftists over the last few years that give a strong flavour of the depth and breadth of the radical critique: S. Seepe (2004), Speaking Truth to Power, Johannesburg, Vista University Press; S. Kimani, ed.(2003), The Right to Dissent: Freedom of Expression, Assembly and Demonstration in the New South Africa, Johannesburg, Freedom of Expression Institute; N. Alexander (2002), An Ordinary Country, Pietermaritzburg, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press; S. Jacobs, and R.Calland, eds. (2002), Thabo Mbeki’s World, London, Zed Books and Pietermaritzburg, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press; G. Hart (2002), Disabling Globalization, Pietermaritzburg, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press and Berkeley, University of California Press; A. Desai (2002), We are the Poors, New York, Monthly Review Press; D. McDonald, ed. (2002), Environmental Justice in South Africa, Cape Town, University of Cape Town Press; D. McDonald and J.Pape, eds. (2002), Cost Recovery and the Crisis of Service Delivery in South Africa, London, Zed and Pretoria, HSRC Publications; J. Duncan (2002), Broadcasting and the National Question, Johannesburg, Freedom of Expression Institute; T. Bell, and D.Ntsebeza (2001), Unfinished Business, Cape Town, RedWorks; S. Adams (2001), Comrade Minister, New York, Nova Science Publishers; and H. Marais (2000), South Africa Limits to Change, London, Zed Books and Cape Town, University of Cape Town Press.


Patrick BOND


Pages 6-8

Africa Review of Books / Revue Africaine des Livres

Volume 01 N° 02, Septembre 2005

Platform created by : BAKIR Ilyes & DEKHIR Abdellah Merouan


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