South Africa: The long march to economic freedom

On October 27 and 28, thousands of South African youth participated in the March for Economic Freedom called by the ANC Youth League. Meanwhile the Young Communist League had organised a Jobs for Youth Summit together with the youth organisations of the main parties which was addressed by representatives of Capital. Vusumuzi Martin Bhengu, a revolutionary Marxist who is a member of both the YCL and the ANCYL participated in the March and sent us this report.

“In the industrially backward countries foreign capital plays a decisive role. Hence the relative weakness of the national bourgeoisie in relation to the national proletariat. This creates special conditions of state power. The government veers between foreign and domestic capital, between the weak national bourgeoisie and the relatively powerful proletariat. This gives the government a Bonapartist character of a distinctive character. It raises itself, so to speak, above classes. Actually, it can govern either by making itself the instrument of foreign capitalism and holding the proletariat in the chains of a police dictatorship, or by manoeuvring with the proletariat and even going so far as to make concessions to it, thus gaining the possibility of a certain freedom from the foreign capitalists.” (Leon Trotsky, Nationalized industry and worker’s management, June 1938)

As I was participating in the national economic freedom march which was organized by the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL), these words by commissar Trotsky continued to echo the mood and feeling of the majority of young marchers who had braved the boiling-hot sun and an avalanche of criticism from their elder leaders, from the media and also from other youth leaders who had doubts about the agenda of the marchers. These sceptical youth leaders felt and continue to believe that the march was an act to undermine the sitting president of the country and also of the African National Congress (ANC), as if the President were a holy cow of which even the slightest criticism against, is tantamount to blasphemy.

In spite of the attacks from all corners of South Africa, we were determined to march from Johannesburg Central Business District to Pretoria (mind you, this is a 60km, about 35 miles, walk), the administrative capital of South Africa to deliver a memorandum of demands which was accepted by the newly appointed Minister of Public works, the once militant Thulas Nxesi who lead the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) during the month long public sector strike of 2007 which attracted more than 1.3 million workers. Young people travelled from as far as Western Cape (about 25 hours away from Johannesburg), Northern Cape, Eastern Cape and the rest of the provinces in South Africa. Some arrived in trains, buses, taxies and their own cars, and most arrived in the morning of Thursday and had no place to freshen up, yet we never gave up in spite of almost all odds against us.

For the majority of us ordinary members of the ANCYL who hold no position, participation in this historical march meant partaking in a campaign to push for radical economic change and equitable distribution of the country’s wealth through the nationalization of the commanding heights of the economy. Chief among our demands was the demand for the provision of basic necessities such as Jobs, Free Quality Education, Proper Housing, Sanitation, Water and Electricity for all. To a very few people up the ladder of power, it might have been a show of strength in the run up to the ANC centenary elective congress where Jacob Zuma, the current President is set to face dissent from the younger generation.

The composition of the marchers was a graphic representation of the enormous gap between the rich and the poor in South Africa. The country's Gini coefficient stands at 0.77, close to perfect inequality where 1 person possesses all income while the rest of the population has 0 income. The majority of those marching were black unemployed graduates and those who had dropped out due to financial exclusion from South African universities that have become ivory towers which serve to produce and replicate the cleavage between the haves and have-nots. The fact that the march had more or less then 25,000 people on a Thursday simply echoes the statistics released by the South African Institute of Race Relations that show 3.3 million unemployed young people, African women being the hardest affected as 63% of them are unemployed, while unemployment among Africans stands at 57% compared to 47% coloureds, 23% Indians and 21% Whites.

During the march I had a chance to meet young people who had interesting stories to share about the conditions that they live under and why they took part in this historical march. One of them was Thabo Matsogo, a brilliant young man from the outskirts of Limpopo, Julius Malema’s home province. Comrade Matsogo, as I referred to him, had obtained a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Venda six years ago and went to the “place of Gold” (Johannesburg) to look for employment, as it is commonly believed that employment is in abundance in this city, whereas it actually has a rate of 32% unemployment. Before his departure his family had to sell two of their cows so as to afford his journey to finding employment in the big city. Off he went with the promise of a better life, far from the poverty stricken village, but little did he know that he was to find scores of other unemployed people who came from as far as Somalia and Sudan in search of prosperity in the much acclaimed “city of Gold”, where roads are paved in gold and diamonds. Comrade Thabo soon became an insignificant statistic in a city with close to 4 million people.

ANC Youth League NEC members at the frontANC Youth League NEC members at the frontHe tells me of how he stayed on the streets for 3 months while he was trying to get a Security Officer’s certificate, a qualification that most university graduates have complemented their Bachelor degrees and Master’s degrees with, due to scarce job opportunities. This happens while South Africa is ranked as one of the fastest developing countries, and having 41% of the world’s gold, 73% of the Chrome, 80% of the Manganese and the 90% of the Platinum, yet an average mineworker earns R3 800 ($570) a month compared to an average salary of not less than R25,000 for those in management. Such are the statistics that sprung young people into action, not a “magical spell” by ANCYL leaders, as some would want us to believe

Comrade Matsogo, like many of us was not interested in internal party politics of the ANC, in fact he was not even a member of the ANC or ANCYL, but was brave enough to heed the clarion call into action. He was not the only person to share these sentiments. A number of people I had met had no interest in the internal power struggles for the leadership of the ANC; all they wanted was the equal distribution of the country’s wealth through the centralization of resources in the hands of the state.

Divisions within the working class?

Whilst many of us were out on the streets, another group of young people had converged at the Eskom Convention Center in Midrand, where we passed on our way to Pretoria. It must be noted that the Eskom Convention Center is situated in a luxurious “105 hectares of land populated by Zebra, Blesbok, and Springbok”. Clearly this is a dream resort for the majority of the working class, and it comes at a hefty price, yet the Jobs for Youth Summit Coalition managed to speedily organize this summit in the wake of the ANCYL economic freedom march.

The summit which was organized by the Jobs for Youth Coalition which is composed of 186 political and civil society organizations, chief among them the Young Communist League, but also included the Democratic Alliance Youth (the youth of the main party of Capital), the Congress of the People Youth Movement (which is the right-wing split from the ANC) and the Inkatha Freedom Party Youth Brigade, an organization formed along tribal lines. According to the YCL, the summit sought to “influence both government and the private sector on the programmes and policy that need to be tabled in order to realise jobs”. The summit was addressed by top government officials and Industry captains, including representatives of the Chamber of Mines, who lamented the need to sprinkle more crumbs of the cake to the workers while maintaining their ill gotten wealth.

Marchers in SandtonMarchers in SandtonOne notable factor that explains why some of us were marching while others were listening to capitalists in conference rooms, are the seemingly evident divisions over who to support at the ANC centenary congress next year and that of the South African Communist Party. Those loyal to current SACP general secretary and government minister Blade Nzimande who is a close ally of president Jacob Zuma who is desperately seeking re-election, went all out to lambast the marchers and went on further to call them opportunists who are under the cult of ANYL secretary Julius Malema.  It is ironic that those who attack the ANCYL march themselves have coined slogans such as “a defence for Nzimade is a defence for the revolution”, and by doing so have elevated Blade Nzimande to the revolution itself.

Of course, one cannot dismiss the need to constantly have review and planning sessions, political conferences to discuss program, strategy and tactics, as without revolutionary theory there can be no effective revolutionary action. But this was different. This was a summit of youth organisations from all political parties, those who represent the capitalist class and those who represent the workers and the poor, including representatives of the main capitalist groups in South Africa. How can such a discussion advance the cause of jobs for youth? The reason for the high unemployment rate is capitalism itself. We are not going to convince the representatives of Capital, in nice conferences, of the need to provide jobs, housing, electricity, water and sanitation for the workers and poor. These rights will only be won through struggle.

When the YCL had its national conference late last year, we participated and discussed our discourse and took resolutions that remained just that. Hence some of us did not even consider having another summit in less than 12 months lest we run the risk of having ceremonial summits that do little to radically alter the conditions of the poor.

We cannot run away from the fact that this Jobs for Youth summit was counterposed to the March for Economic Freedom and a desperate attempt to resuscitate the political careers of some leaders who are battling to remain relevant in the face of the turning tables by the ANCYL, which is setting the agenda on public discourse and in a more revolutionary way than the leaders of the Communist Party and the Young Communist League.

The way forward

In a message of support to the South African youth, comrade Ali Nooshini had these words to say:

“Our view is that all truly revolutionary elements must see it as their duty to participate in the march on Thursday. But this march must not be seen as an end in itself. The march should be only the beginning of a campaign to mobilize the wider working class. Branches of the YCL, ANCYL, SASCO and COSATU should also organise delegations to the factories in order to bring as many young workers as possible to the march.” (South Africa: Support the March for Economic Freedom)

Indeed, this march must not be an end in itself; activists across the country must build township/rural, regional and national committees to coordinate ongoing campaigns to undermine capital. As comrade Ali puts it:

“We must make sure that the campaign does not stop with the march alone. After the march an energetic campaign must be waged to set up Nationalisation Committees in workplaces, factories and mines for the workers to discuss and decide on how to take the movement forward. These committees should also be connected on a regional and national level.” (South Africa: Support the March for Economic Freedom)

Zeal and determination to fight until the end has been portrayed by the youth who participated and those who could not attend the march. The movement is fully formed and understands its mission; capital is slowly but surely feeling the pressure and its demise. What is needed is revolutionary leadership to coordinate and give inspiration to the movement.