South Africa in crisis: splits at the top, stirrings from below

3 June 2016
Tom Bramble

South Africa is increasingly racked by social and political tensions that are tearing at the 1994 political settlement between Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) and the capitalist class. This settlement introduced parliamentary democracy while sidelining working class demands for economic emancipation.

At the heart of the growing tensions lies an economic crisis that is becoming ever more severe. The crisis is producing both splits at the top within the ANC government and the capitalists and stirrings from below among the working class and students. There is no certainty that these tensions will be resolved in favour of the working class, but the long term erosion of the political hegemony of the ANC, a process that is now speeding up, is enhancing the prospects for such an advance.

Economic slump

The economic crisis has lengthy roots, which include the decimation of the manufacturing sector under the impact of two decades of neoliberal economic policies and the looting by big corporations that have diverted vast sums of money to offshore tax havens. The economy remains highly dependent on the “minerals-energy complex” dominated by a few big apartheid-era conglomerates, with a small expansion of “Black economic empowerment” enterprises. Investment has been concentrated in just a few sectors, leaving infrastructure severely run down – or totally lacking.

The long term developmental stagnation has, however, become more profound since the global financial crisis of 2008-09 and the subsequent bust in commodity prices. Annual growth rates have fallen from more than 5 percent in 2005-07, to just 0.6 percent in the last quarter of 2015. Another problem is the steep drop in the country’s terms of trade.

Two of the core sectors of the economy – mining and manufacturing – are in deep strife. Coal production is down by 16 percent, iron ore by 21 percent and platinum by 24 percent in the first quarter of this year. Production of basic iron and steel, metal products and machinery and equipment is down 7 percent in the first quarter, as is output of motor vehicles and parts. Some of the country’s flagship companies, such as Highveld Steel and Scaw Metals, are due for closure or savage rationalisation.

Electricity generation and consumption are dropping; gold and foreign exchange reserves are in decline. Only the halving in the value of the rand is preventing the collapse of export earnings. However, the falling rand is pushing up the price of imported raw materials, machinery and equipment on which the capitalists depend. On top of these problems, the country is suffering a serious drought, which is hitting agricultural production hard.

Splits at the top

The economic crisis is exacerbating divisions within the ANC and more broadly within the ruling class. The faction led by president Jacob Zuma and that represented by finance minister Pravin Gordhan are in an intense struggle.

Zuma, president since 2009 (and deputy president for much of the preceding decade), represents those sections of the Black bourgeoisie that feel marginalised by the fact that, although they now rule over most of the state machinery, they have not taken over the commanding heights of the private sector, which remain for the most part in white and Indian hands. In these circumstances, their most immediate route to self-enrichment is by plundering the state and engaging in grotesque acts of corruption in the name of “transformation”.

The 200 million rand used by Zuma to rebuild his rural estate in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) is the most spectacular example of this faction’s kleptocratic tendencies – but corruption is embedded at every level of government, involving provincial leaders, mayors, councillors, departmental chiefs and “Black empowerment” capitalists (the so-called tenderpreneurs). Kickbacks, blow-outs in construction costs for projects that are delivered in poor shape years late and the appointment of retired politicians to plum positions in companies with government contracts are par for the course.

The president is supported by the majority of ANC branches, the majority of the national executive, most of the party’s national parliamentary caucus and all the party’s ancillary bodies such as the Women’s League, Youth League and SANCO (the civic organisation). Where Zuma’s faction has met with obstruction within the party, as it has in KZN and Gauteng, it has crushed its opponents or forced them to recant. Party membership is now falling rapidly after years of growth, leaving the shrunken party dominated by a harder core of Zuma supporters.

Finance minister Gordhan represents those capitalists who have traditionally dominated South African business, domestic and foreign, including the minerals, energy and finance companies that are at the heart of the economy. This group, which we might call the “Treasury faction”, was happy to coexist with the Zuma faction for many years. While the economy was growing, both factions could enrich themselves by both licit and illicit means. The problem for the big capitalists, however, is that profitability is now sinking and, with it, so too is the space for peaceful coexistence with Zuma.

The Zuma faction has now become more of a threat to the Treasury faction because its looting of public funds and its neglect of the country’s creaking infrastructure, with water and electricity supplies increasingly vulnerable, are threatening the ability of big business to maintain profitable operations in the deepening economic crisis. Further, the corruption of the Zuma faction is undermining the credibility of the government and therefore its ability to press ahead with its neoliberal economic program – the National Development Plan – to which both factions are committed.

In December, conflict between these two factions hit the headlines as they came to blows over who was to control the Treasury. Gordhan had been finance minister from 2009 to 2014, when he was replaced by another business favourite, Nhlanhla Nene. In December, Zuma sacked Nene, replacing him with loyalist Des van Rooyen.

Big business, angry that Zuma was attempting to seize its main power base in the government, quickly mobilised, holding emergency meetings with senior cabinet members and ANC leaders. The rand was driven down, and hysterical headlines were penned about pending financial collapse. Credit ratings agencies threatened to act. Within four days, Zuma was forced to back down, sacking van Rooyen and replacing him with Gordhan. The Treasury faction had emerged victorious.

But while big business could ensure its man occupied the top spot in the Ministry of Finance, it is hamstrung by the fact that it cannot push Zuma out of office and replace him with its favoured candidate, deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, without provoking a big split in the ANC.

The capitalists have depended on the ANC ever since the late 1980s, when they struck a deal with the party to oversee the transition to majority rule while leaving their wealth untouched. The ANC has been the only viable instrument to run South African capitalism since 1994: the old Nationalist Party was never going to succeed in suppressing the working class, and to this day, its successor, the Democratic Alliance, whose political program best expresses that of big business, is still viewed as unsupportable by a large number of Blacks.

The capitalists have on occasion attempted to promote splits from the ANC, but these have gone nowhere. And so they are stuck with Zuma for the time being – they want him weakened but without forcing the collapse of the ANC. This ensures that the political crisis at the top drags on.

Impact on the working class

If the economic crisis is creating deep tensions within the ruling class, it is hitting the working class much harder. There is acute unemployment that is getting worse by the week. Nine million South Africans are now unemployed, up by half a million in just the first quarter of this year alone. If those who have stopped looking for work are included, unemployment is well over one in three.

Wages for those in low- or semi-skilled jobs are being forced down as big companies and public sector enterprises outsource their workforces to labour hire companies. Hunger is becoming more widespread. Housing is increasingly unaffordable. One in five households in South Africa’s wealthiest province, Gauteng, live in “informal settlements”, i.e. corrugated iron shacks with no sanitation. The public housing stock is totally inadequate for the average African household, with three generations living under the one roof. Social infrastructure is in an appalling state. One half of all public schools still rely wholly or partially on pit toilets.

Poverty wears a Black face. Household incomes for white families are six times those of Black. Some Black workers have advanced in professional positions and in the public sector, but they are overwhelmingly confined to low- and semi-skilled blue collar jobs in which they are vulnerable to mass retrenchments and outsourcing.

On top of all these factors, the drought is driving up food prices, the falling rand is increasing the cost of many everyday goods, and rising interest rates are worsening the financial burden carried by increasingly indebted households.

Stirrings from below

The popular legitimacy of the ANC is now coming under increasing pressure as a result of its failure to bring about the liberation for which the working class fought so hard. A falling share of the vote at national elections since 2004 and increasing rates of electoral abstention have resulted in the ANC’s vote, as a share of the voting age population, falling from 54 percent in 1994 to just 35 percent in 2014.

The mass protests and occupations – involving tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of students across the country, mobilising against fee increases of 10 percent or more – represented the awakening of the students after two decades of passivity on most campuses.

In the coming municipal elections in August, it is widely anticipated that the ANC share of the vote will drop below 50 percent in the big urban centres of Johannesburg, Tshwane (Pretoria), Ekurhuleni (East Rand) and Port Elizabeth, forcing the party into a coalition for the first time. In Cape Town, moreover, the grip of the Democratic Alliance is secure. More and more, the ANC is relying on rural areas for support. Long term, this is a big problem for the party because migration to the cities is reducing the rural share of the population.

Voting numbers are one indication of the weakening hegemony of the ANC. Just as important are the massacre by police of 34 striking mineworkers at the Marikana platinum mine in August 2012 and the developments that followed.

It is not that no-one had been killed at a protest or strike before Marikana. Many thousands of people have been murdered in extrajudicial killings by South African police since 1994. But the sheer number of deaths in a single incident – the worst massacre since the early 1990s – and the fact that its perpetrators were a police force under the control of the people’s supposed liberators made Marikana qualitatively different.

What added to the damage to the ANC was the fact that senior ANC office holder Cyril Ramaphosa played a critical role in organising the massacre. At the time, he was a member of the board of Lonmin, which owned the mine.

Finally, unlike many previous episodes of police violence against strikes, the repression did not end the workers’ struggle. Members of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU)-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) at Marikana and other big platinum mines tore up their union cards in disgust at the collusion of their leadership in the massacre and flooded into the ranks of a rival union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which championed their cause.

The Marikana massacre was the catalyst for a big shake-up within the trade unions. The metalworkers’ union, NUMSA, the largest and most militant union in the country, was the only COSATU affiliate to stand by the platinum miners. In December 2013, NUMSA passed a resolution to sit out the coming national election rather than mobilise to get the vote out for the ANC. It also voted to support the establishment of a united front to cohere the scattered but numerous community protests that rage across the country, and to take steps to launch a new workers’ party. The South African Communist Party (SACP) launched a savage counter-attack within COSATU, and in November 2014, NUMSA was expelled from the federation.

But NUMSA was not alone. COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi was suspended from his position in 2013 for his increasing criticisms of the ANC and SACP and then sacked in March 2015 after speaking out against NUMSA’s expulsion.

The industrial struggle continued to rage. Beginning in January 2014, platinum miners across the industry waged a five-month strike, the country’s longest, and in July, 220,000 metalworkers struck for four weeks.

Negotiations over the formation of a new union federation came to fruition on 30 April this year, when 1,500 union delegates, representing 50 unions with 1 million members, including NUMSA and AMCU, agreed to launch a new federation within 12 months on a common platform of militancy, political independence, worker control and “a socialist orientation”. The new federation will directly rival COSATU for the allegiance of millions of union members and non-union workers alike.

Marikana also formed the backdrop for the emergence of a new electoral threat to the ANC. In August 2013, former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema launched the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Malema, who had been expelled from the party in April 2012, had supported the Marikana strikers and become a strident critic of his former patron Zuma. The EFF, with its demands for nationalisation of the land and a fair deal for the working class, very quickly attracted mass support, recording more than 1 million votes across the country, or 6 percent of the electorate, at the 2014 national election, yielding the party 25 MPs. EFF support was particularly high among young Blacks in the townships and on the university campuses.

The EFF used its parliamentary presence to disrupt proceedings and demand that the president pay back the public funds used for extensions on his Nkandla residence. The new party established branches across the country. In its campaign for August’s municipal elections, it has drawn big crowds. Attendance at its manifesto launch in April far exceeded the number who showed up at the ANC’s. The EFF is expected to increase substantially its share of the vote, much of which will be drawn from former ANC supporters.

The third crack in the ANC’s hegemony over South African politics came with mass campus protests last year.

Student groups had been working for some years with outsourced campus workers – cleaners, grounds staff, maintenance workers etc. – to try to force the universities to employ the workers in house. And students at some historically Black universities, where conditions are much worse than at the elite campuses, had been fighting running battles with university administrations for a long time.

But last year was a first for both nationally coordinated mobilisations across all sectors and widespread breakthroughs on in-sourcing and student fees.

The mass protests and occupations – involving tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of students across the country, mobilising against fee increases of 10 percent or more – represented the awakening of the students after two decades of passivity on most campuses. On several campuses, the audacity of the students and their conscious efforts to engage with the campus workers encouraged outsourced workers to strike alongside the student protests.

The university authorities and education minister, the SACP’s Blade Nzimande, were left floundering as students marched on administration offices and government and ANC buildings across the country. Fearing that the “born-free” generation of young Black students was escaping the clutches of the ANC, Zuma agreed to a fees freeze for 2016 on the 10th day of mass protests. And within two or three weeks, some campus administrations had agreed to in-source their workforces.

Although there was certainly a gap between the demands and outcomes – the university administrations have done their best to drag out discussions on the actual content of the in-sourcing agreements, and fees were only frozen, not cut – mass action was seen by students and workers alike to have forced important concessions.

Struggles ahead

None of this means that the struggle for liberation in South Africa, for the realisation of the dreams that drove the struggle in the 1970s and 1980s, is going to be straightforward from here.

The ruling class will escalate its offensive against students and workers in an attempt to get them to pay for the economic crisis. With the budget under pressure, the government will be looking at ways to cut, not raise, higher education funding.

There are also weaknesses and retreats within the resistance. It is unclear at present how effective the proposed new union federation will be in bringing workers together in joint struggle against the attacks. And, with employment in manufacturing down by 100,000 in just the first quarter of this year, NUMSA is losing members across the country.

The united front formations in Cape Town and Johannesburg are in a weak state, and there is no movement yet on the new workers’ party. The NUMSA leadership has its own bureaucratic ambitions and still holds to the notion that at least a section of the capitalists and the working class can join hands to pursue a “national democratic revolution” in South Africa, something that will only ensure the continued subordination of the workers to the bosses.

On the campuses, university administrations are expelling and banning student activists while flooding the campuses with private security contractors.

The Economic Freedom Fighters is not capable of giving a serious lead to working class struggles despite its claim to be a Marxist-Leninist party. It is better understood as a populist and reformist party that aims to use its electoral support to squeeze reforms from the capitalist class.

The stakes in South Africa are very high. It is not just that tens of millions are still desperately poor and have seen few improvements since the fall of apartheid. The danger lies in the fact that in the absence of a mass left wing alternative rooted in the working class, the frustration of the working class, the informal traders, the students and the unemployed may be taken out on scapegoats, as has happened with regular episodes of xenophobic violence in the townships and attacks by township residents on shack dwellers.

Sections of the government are not averse to stoking tribal loyalties to divide opposition: the government has already strengthened the powers of various conservative traditional leaders in the rural areas in return for their support for the president.

And even if the anger and frustrations do not boil over into chauvinism or tribalism, they may be channelled into the dead end of conservative religious evangelism, which has grown noticeably in the townships in recent years.

But while there are certainly dangers ahead, the dominant dynamic is toward the loosening of the chokehold that has been placed around the neck of the South African working class by the ANC, COSATU and SACP. As workers and worker organisations begin to work out the new political terrain that is emerging, the possibility for real breakthroughs is heightened.

Whether that potential is realised will depend on the presence of left wing forces in the workplaces and on the campuses that are capable of using class struggle methods to win the demands of fellow workers and students.

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