The 2009 Election Results: Reflecting the state of the class struggle in South Africa

The workers and poor of South Africa voted massively for an ANC that had been purged of its right wing. Now that the ANC is once more in office, the bourgeois – having failed to stop this – are putting enormous pressure on its leaders to steer away from any radical pro-worker policies. What is required is a struggle within the South African labour movement to anchor its organisations to genuine socialist policies.

What many consider to have been one of the most historic elections in Post-Apartheid South Africa is finally over. Over the last decade it has become clear that South African politics is still very much defined by a struggle over the issues of race and class. This election demonstrated that fact more than ever.

2009-election-results-south-africa.jpg Even before Mbeki took over the helm from Mandela both the ruling party, the African National Congress and the two main opposition parties at the time, the New National Party and the Democratic Party, pushed for a neo-liberal agenda of structural adjustment and privatization. The first casualty of this shift to the right was many of the ANC’s struggle slogans, including the Freedom Charter promise that “the wealth of the country shall belong to the people”, followed by the social democratic Reconstruction and Development Programme which was replaced by the self-imposed structural adjustment represented by the Growth with Equity and Redistribution Programme (GEAR).

Once in power Mbeki endeared himself to global capitalism by “talking left and walking right” (Patrick Bond, 2004). Mbeki’s Government carried out pro-capitalist policies while at the same time trying to create a layer of a “black bourgeoisie”. From pursuing a presence in the main global financial and economic summits and structures, to appointing an Economic Advisory Council composed of the CEOs of major global multinationals and ‘deploying’ senior ANC people not in government into the fraction of mining billionaires as part of the ANC’s black economic empowerment programme.

Mbeki further pushed the neo-liberal New Economic Partnership for Economic Development (NEPAD) onto the rest of Africa. Opening up the African hinterland to South African and global mining corporations. Mbeki immersed himself so much in ‘international affairs’ that locals soon began to joke that he was the president who most frequently visited South Africa.

Back in South Africa Mbeki began to push his neo-liberal right wing agenda onto the ANC. With his trusted lieutenants Terror Lekota, Alec Erwin, Essop Pahad, Trevor Manuel and Manto Tshabalala Msimang he turned ANC conferences into red bashing and red baiting events. Mbeki was liberally supported by the neo-liberal media in South Africa who cheered his intentions to privatise state enterprises, while aspirant black bourgeois elements licked their lips in anticipation of the tasty morsels coming their way. Of course privatisation meant job-losses through down-sizing, right-sizing and given the current political climate possibly capsizing! These policies led to tensions and divisions within the ANC and between the ANC government and leadership and the other organisations in the Tripartite Alliance, COSATU and the SACP. COSATU called a series of general strikes reflecting the anger of workers and the poor against the capitalist policies of the government they had elected. Within the SACP there was also strong criticism towards the policies of the ANC government but the ANC leadership continued to cling to the discredited two-stage theory of the revolution. This states that first there will be a “National Democratic Revolution” which will overthrow capitalism, and then, later on, once this question is solved then we can raise the question of socialism. The leadership of the SACP insisted that the “deepening of the NDR” would somehow lead to socialism. But as a matter of fact, there was nothing to deepen, since the ANC in government was pursuing openly capitalist policies. To make matters worse, SACP members were sitting in parliament as ANC MPs voting for Mbeki's policies and some were even ministers in his government carrying these policies into practice.

In trying to entrench the shift to the right the Mbeki government allegedly began a process of using the structures of the state such as the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), the judiciary, the National Prosecuting Authority and of course the Office of the President to effect a purge against left-wing elements in the Ruling Party and in Government. This took the form of compromising those opposed to Mbeki. Thus an attempt was made to taint the leader of the South African Communist Party, Blade Nzimande by alleging that he corruptly pocketed a SAR500,000 donation from a corrupt businessman meant for the SACP. It now appears that this was a sting in which the businessman was promised a reprieve from charges of corruption if he laid charges of corruption against Nzimande. Then there were the rape charges against Zuma; it is alleged that the unfortunate mentally unstable girl had close ties to the NIA and the National Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils. Finally there was the corrupt arms deal, where Zuma’s lawyer client confidentiality was abused in an Apartheid style raid that targeted both his home and the offices of his lawyers. No one in the media mentions that the architect of the Arms Deal was Mbeki. The deal emanated from his office as Deputy President. All the transactions had to be authorized by the Minister of Finance Trevor Manuel who has a reputation of being a bean counter, while the economic trade offs were the responsibility of Alec Erwin. Despite there being rumours of back-handers involving tens of millions of dollars, only Zuma was ever investigated for allegedly receiving a pay-off of a paltry half a million. The energy in which the Zuma investigation was being pursued by both the NPA and the media clearly demonstrated an agenda other than good governance. This became especially apparent when Mbeki stepped in to protect Jackie Selebi the chief of police who kept rather unsavoury company, and the Deputy President Ngcuka who allegedly took her pals and family members on a spending spree to Dubai.

Sammy Ledwaba an activist from Motlhotlo village after the local police meted out some human rights to him for resisting the expansion of an Anglo Platinum mining operation Sammy Ledwaba an activist from Motlhotlo village after the local police meted out some human rights to him for resisting the expansion of an Anglo Platinum mining operation In the mineral rich provinces the peasantry faced a land grab from mining companies, many of whom have prominent members of the ANC and key civil servants under Mbeki as shareholders. In many cases rural communities who received their land back as part of the land restitution and redistribution programmes of the Department of Land Affairs just as quickly lost their land as the Department of Minerals and Energy issued prospecting and mining licenses to mining companies in bed with senior politicians and civil servants. Anglo Platinum proudly boasts of providing training in “human rights” for the police in platinum rich Limpopo province. To the right is a picture of the face of Sammy Ledwaba an activist from Motlhotlo village after the local police meted out some ‘human rights’ to him for resisting the expansion of an Anglo Platinum mining operation that means the relocation of his house, tilling fields and grazing land.

Given the huge boom in mineral commodity prices one would expect communities living in the vicinity of mines and in particular mineworkers to have experienced some improvement in their lot in terms of housing and wages. Yet many mineworkers find themselves in squatter camps; the Orwellian sanitized name used by government and the media is “informal settlements”. These squatter camps are cesspools of substance abuse, sexually transmitted disease, TB and HIV/AIDS. Thabo Mbeki’s denialist attitude further alienated the working class and the poor.

Given this rightwing shift and the prolonged pressure being brought to bear on the working class and the poorest of the poor during Mbeki’s tenure it is not surprising that the rank and file members of the ANC lost patience with the leadership of the organisation under Mbeki. The day of reckoning for the Mbeki clique came at the ANCs Polokwane Conference in December 2007. The resounding defeat of the Mbeki clique at Polokwane and his subsequent recall as president led to the resignation of his entire cabinet. The same clique then formed the Congress of the People (COPE) to great pomp and ceremony in the media and opposition parties who hoped that this ‘split’ would irreparably harm the ANC and the tripartite alliance and destroy the ruling party’s ability to run an effective election campaign. It was hoped that the left-wing populists would be taught a lesson in the 2009 election. After all, Mbeki had received nearly 40% of the votes at the Polokwane conference. By splitting the ANC the ruling class hoped to destroy its electoral domination and maybe form a new coalition government between the newly formed COPE and the DA, or at the very least form a strong opposition which would neutralise any danger of a leftward moving ANC government.

COPE ran a campaign which claimed that they were the true custodians of the Freedom Charter (the definitive script of the liberation struggle); that they were the voice of middle class reason, and that their members were above corruption. This despite the fact that COPE’s president Terror Lekota was Minister of Defence during much of the arms acquisition that became the arms scandal. Lekota was also caught out in 2003 for not declaring business interests to parliament.

Given these publicly known skeletons in Lekota’s cupboard and his reportedly abrasive, dictatorial personality, COPE wisely decided not to make him their presidential candidate for the 2009 elections. Instead they appointed the Reverend Mvume Dandlala, a priest eager to exchange the pulpit for the pillbox. Dandala found another priest in COPE, the Reverend Allan Boesak who spent time in jail for corruption. There are persistent rumours of divisions and leadership struggles in COPE. Apart from Lekota’s ego it is a party of “Chiefs” with very few “Indians”. COPE is funded by amongst others Mbeki loyalist and billionaire Sakkie Macozoma.

Instead of splitting the ANC vote, Cope split the middle class and fundamentalist Christian vote, and while the party fared poorly nationally it has become the official opposition party in four provinces taking support away from parties such as the United Christian Democratic Party (UCDP), the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Democratic Alliance (DA) in those provinces with very small white populations. However, Nationally COPE only managed to garner 7.43% of the vote. They failed to get any support from the working class and the poor, reconfirming the defeat of their leadership in the ANC nationally. The workers and the poor, once again, turned out massively to vote for the ANC, but this time an ANC that they saw as representing a change of policies, a shift to the left. As a matter of fact, even though the percentage of the vote for the ANC was slightly down, the actual number of votes went up (despite the split) to 11.6 million (as compared to 10.8 million in 2004 and 10.6 million in 1999, though still short of the historic 12.2 million of 1994).

Bringing us back to the hysterical anti-ANC white vote. The Democratic Alliance (DA) is celebrating a victory on the grounds that they managed to obtain 16.66% of the national vote. They are further celebrating the failure of the ANC to get a two thirds majority, a central tenet of their oppositionist election campaign built around white fears of black government and of the possibility of communist influence on that government. The DA failed to present the populace with an alternative vision to that of the ANC, and most voters will remember their posters which read “Stop Zuma!” and “Prevent an ANC two-thirds majority!” Today Afrikaans newspaper banners proclaimed, “South Africa stopped ANC two-thirds majority!” The ANC won 65.9% of the vote, just less than one percent of a two thirds majority. Given these statistics it would be more accurate to say that South Africans rejected neo-liberalism and religious fundamentalism of all sorts.

The DA did win slightly more than 50% of the vote in the Western Cape Province confirming the combined and uneven nature of issues of race and class in South Africa. The Western Cape is acting like a magnet for white South Africans, a Great Trek in reverse so to speak to the colonial days prior to 1834 when whites started penetrating the interior of South Africa beyond the Ghariep (Orange) river for the first time. Coloured voters in the Western Cape associate with the white population there and the area is still feeling the impact of the old Group Areas Act which made the province a ‘coloured preferential area’ as far as work opportunities and residential status was concerned. Many from the coloured community feel threatened by the increasing numbers of blacks seeking employment there and fear that an ANC provincial government would give preferential treatment to blacks as far as jobs, housing and services are concerned. Apart from the Western cape the ANC won all other provinces resoundingly.

The white electorate are told by opposition parties including the DA in just about every election that the ANC would change the constitution of the country should it win a two thirds majority. This despite the fact that the ANC has never campaigned with a manifesto that calls for any changes to the constitution. Almost all the opposition parties including the DA have campaigned around calls to change the constitution including bringing back the death penalty, criminalizing homosexuality, bringing back corporal punishment, curbing freedom of speech and expression through censorship, revoking labour rights, and changing the manner in which the president is elected. Just about the only part of the constitution that most parties to the right of the ANC do not want changed is the “Property Clause” which protects private property.

Currently the media and opposition parties are brining great pressure to bear on the ANC to exclude left-wingers from the alliance from ministerial positions and to continue with Thabo Mbeki’s neo-liberal policies.

Scarcely hours after the announcement that the ANC, with the help of its alliance partners, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, received an overwhelming mandate from the electorate, 65.9% nationally and 66.31% provincially, the voices of the capitalist class – the various investment agencies and Media – are warning the ANC not to shift policy to the left. Before the election the neo-liberal interests held a gun to the temple of the South African Electorate threatening that a two thirds majority for the ruling party would be bad for investment. Now they are hysterically trying to influence government economic policy away from the election manifesto for which the South African population voted so overwhelmingly. In other words the capitalist class wants to, yet again as with every previous election, steal victory from the working class and the poor by either scaring the leadership of the ANC with the threat of an investment strike, or through buying off that leadership. In the meantime the neo-liberal media are trying their best to demonise and ridicule the left in the ANC Alliance, on SABC one commentator went so far as to say that “there is not a single example on the planet of where communism has succeeded” (SABC3).

An editorial in the London-based Independent was very clear in its “advice” to Zuma:

“He should confirm that now by reappointing the ANC's widely respected finance minister, Trevor Manuel, who has steered the economy through 40 consecutive quarters of growth until the end of last year. He should offer a third term to the governor of its central bank, Tito Mboweni, one of the most respected economic officials in emerging markets. He should keep the former ANC Youth League leader Fikile Mbalula and the Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande, well away from any posts that might unsettle investors. And he should resist all temptation to reach for his infamous machine gun. Government is no place for the songs of opposition.” (Leading article: South Africa's new beginning)

Given that the South African media is owned and controlled by corporate capitalist interests there is very little room for alternative viewpoints reaching the public. Even the public broadcaster, the SABC, slavishly repeats the mantra of neo-liberalism warning that the ANC will not be able to realize its election manifesto once in power because “the tax base is only 6 million taxpayers strong, while 23 million people registered as voters and the total population equals 50 million” (SABC 3, 24 April 2009). What the public is not told is that every South African pays 14% VAT on any purchases, including basic foodstuffs. Education, water, health, housing have all been commodified, and in order to create “conditions conducive for investment” the government has prostrated itself before corporate interests over the last 10 years, thus corporations pay a fraction of the price that ordinary consumers pay for utilities such as water and electricity, not to speak of a variety of other incentives offered by the Department of Trade and Industry. No wonder that South Africa has one of the biggest gaps between wealth and poverty in the world.

The poor have in fact subsidized the neo-liberal project advanced under the regime of Thabo Mbeki over the last decade. Corporations have shifted the costs of their environmental impact, their social impact and even the costs of exports onto the poor. Thus mineworkers live largely in shacks without potable water and electricity in places such as Rustenburg. Communities who have historically used stream, well and borehole water stream water in Limpopo province can no longer do so as mining operations have poisoned these sources of water. The same mining corporations now purify the water and sell it as a commodity back to the same water users – the water has been turned into a commodity through first poisoning it, then purifying it and selling it as a commodity. The principle of polluter pays has been subverted into the polluter is paid!

Jacob Zuma is trying to reassure capitalist interests, but this, as we have seen in the last 15 years, can only be done by attacking the workers and the poor. This is even more the case as South Africa has entered into recession and the country has its largest budget deficit in a decade. One cannot serve two masters. If the new ANC government wants to please big business it will soon come into collision with the workers and poor which will express themselves through COSATU and the SACP.

The task of Marxists in South Africa is to reach out to the most advanced elements within these organisations and start a serious struggle to put them on a clear socialist programme, one that is based not on some “National Democratic Revolution” but firmly on socialist revolution. If one thing has been clearly demonstrated by the last 15 years of bourgeois democracy and ANC government it is that the problems faced by the masses of workers and poor in South Africa, overwhelmingly Black, not even those related to racial discrimination or access to the land, housing, education and healthcare, cannot be solved within the limits of capitalism. Only the expropriation of the means of production, “the wealth of the land” that the Freedom Charter says should belong to the people, can lay the basis for a democratic plan of production that can start to address the problems of homelessness, poverty and unemployment which millions of South Africans still suffer from.


Patrick Bond (2004) Talk Left Walk Right, South Africa’s Frustrated Global Reforms. University of KwaZul Natal Press: Pieter Maritzburg.

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