The dust still has not to settled after the stormy start to this year’s parliamentary year. The extraordinary events of 12 February and in the days which followed it, have thrown South Africa into a maelstrom of political crisis, which is at bottom a reflection of the crisis of the capitalist system.
The opening of parliament is an occasion for the president to give his annual State of the Nation Address (SONA). It is traditionally an ostentatious affair presided over by the country’s political elite. In one of the most unequal countries in the world, with devastating levels of poverty and unemployment, the masses are mocked annually with red carpet events, photo opportunities, elaborate banquets and the associated pomp and ceremony.
However, the tumultuous events at this year’s SONA (See videos) were unlike anything ever seen before. The facts of what happened at this year’s event are known to every South African. Armed security personnel rushed into parliament and violently evicted elected members of parliament of the Economic Freedom Fighters for daring to ask questions to president Zuma concerning the Nkandla scandal. In the melee which followed, a female EFF MP was seriously assaulted and allegedly had her jaw broken. The viciousness of the assault was captured by journalists and MPs in the assembly after the television feed was re-directed away from it. It was later revealed that some of those ‘’security’’ personnel, who were dressed as waiters or bartenders, were actually members of special police units who had undergone specialised training in ‘’manhandling’’ techniques prior to the event. City Press reported that as part of this ‘’training’’, pictures of members of parliament were used as target practice. This proves that this was a well calculated and deliberate attempt to provoke a confrontation which would give the presiding officers the excuse to evict the EFF members.
The violent evictions, as disturbing as they were, were only part of an extraordinary series of events of the day. The immediate cause was the Nkandla scandal in which taxpayer’s money was used to ‘’upgrade’’ the private residence of Zuma. This controversy is hanging like a storm cloud over the head of the president. This scandal has developed a logic of its own and is now a deep crisis involving the president, his administration and parliament. Since the turbulent events of 21 August 2014 in which the Economic Freedom Fighters radically campaigned in parliament that Zuma must ‘’pay back the money’’, the president has avoided returning to the National Assembly to answer questions regarding this or any other matter.
The threat by the EFF to ask the president about the Nkandla debacle at the SONA, an unprecedented scenario, sent the entire administration into panic. The securocrats implemented and oversaw the most elaborate and draconian ‘’security’’ measures in the history of this event. In the afternoon before the SONA, opposition supporters from different parties were confronted, assaulted with water cannons and even arrested in the streets around the parliamentary precinct. But in their overzealousness, the measures backfired. Two hours before the scheduled start to Zuma’s speech, journalists inside the House protested that there was a device which jammed mobile phone signals. In their haste, the securocrats did not think that the blocking of the signal would interfere with electronic devices in the chambers and that this would mean that Zuma’s speech would not be carried by large sections of the media. Therefore, it was actually they who initially disrupted Zuma’s speech and not the EFF! The signals were only restored after opposition MPs raised the matter at the start of the joint sitting of the House, to the visible embarrassment of many officials. Some witnesses saw deputy president, Ramaphosa scrambling a note and handing it over to state security minister, David Mahlobo. Whatever was written in that note had an effect because 10 minutes later the Speaker announced the cell phone signal had been restored and Zuma could begin his speech which was then interrupted by the EFF.
The first thing that has to be pointed out here is the irony which is implicit in this situation as far as the leaders of the ruling party are concerned. The ANC built its entire historical legacy on the struggle and attainment of democratic rights. But it is now clear that in the moment of crisis, some sections of the leadership are wholly prepared to throw these rights, together with the liberal constitution, out of the window. The right to assembly was curtailed in the immediate surroundings of the parliamentary precinct. The right to free speech and free reporting was undermined with the blocking of cell phone signals and armed police entering the chambers of the National Assembly and removing MPs for the dreaded crime of asking uncomfortable questions.
As Marxists we condemn any attempt to curtail elementary democratic rights in the strongest terms possible and we defend all the democratic rights which were fought for and won through the heroic sacrifices of the working class and which were so wilfully trampled upon on 12 February. We do not fight for these demands in the abstract, but with a realisation that in this society these democratic rights are the best tools which enable the working class to fight for the complete overthrow of capitalism.
If we look deeper into the nature of the reaction of different figures inside the ANC to the events, a very interesting picture emerges. In the days following the SONA, the situation escalated even further when some leaders, such as the national chairperson, Mbete (who is also the Speaker of the National Assembly), launched a full scale attack on the EFF and especially against Julius Malema. Initially, her outrageous and dehumanising comments were defended by the party via the national spokesperson. But later the picture drastically changed when ANC secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe stepped into the fray with a very conciliatory and diplomatic statement. ‘’The events that took place last week during the State of the Nation Address call on all of us to step back and reflect and ask the question, what needs to be done? Whatever our differences are, we must keep the interest of our country above everything we do’’, he said. He also condemned the jamming of cell phone signals.
After Mantashe laid down the party line, the entire posture of the ANC leadership changed. In unprecedented scenes, Mbete issued an unexpected and unprecedented public apology to Julius Malema for the derogatory name calling, which Malema promptly accepted. This little episode and the intervention by Ramaphosa in getting the signal unscrambled shows that a section of the bourgeoisie linked to the ANC leadership is very concerned about the situation. They understand on the one hand that the EFF, which openly defends a revolutionary programme, is a threat to their system. However, they also realise that they risk undermining the legitimacy of this same system - with revolutionary consequences - if they go too far in curbing formal democratic rights.
Under capitalism, the fundamental role of parliament is to manage the common affairs of the capitalists, deal with secondary issues and give the masses a pretence of ‘’democracy’’, while the actual big decisions are taken in the boardrooms of the banks and other multinational corporations. In the final analysis parliamentary bourgeois democracy serves the interests of the bourgeois. However, as we can see in the case of the EFF, parliament also provides a good opportunity to expose the rotten system, and to gain the ear of the masses.
The great merit of the EFF has been that it has exposed the true nature of liberal bourgeois democracy which is incompatible with radical policies. The rules of parliament were never designed for such policies and therefore the ANC leadership and other established political parties had no idea how to respond to the militant stance of the EFF MPs.
This is one of the reasons why the EFF has made such an immediate impact. While the established bourgeois political parties are careful to ‘’play within the rules’’ and thereby only oppose the ruling party in a superficial manner, the EFF has not been afraid to use parliament to expose the rottenness of South African capitalism and the impotence of its democracy. This also explains their surge in popularity amongst the masses, many of whom felt that they finally had a voice in parliament.
The EFF has thoroughly exposed how the ruling party uses its parliamentary majority to hide its corruption. By putting this pressure on the ANC it has practically been paralysed and put in a position of being unable to use its 60 percent majority to steamroll the opposition as it did in the past. Here we have a party of 6 percent which has shown total disdain for the established bourgeois rules and conventions and has been able to shake up the system and is continuing to set the public discourse. The Nkandla scandal is a case in point.
But having done so, the question is, what next? How does the EFF move forward from here? Parliamentary struggle is important because it gives the party a very public platform. But as important as it is, it is only one arena of struggle. What is striking about the South African political landscape is how well the working class is constituted into very militant trade unions. A successful struggle against capitalism is unthinkable without the central role of the unions. After the SONA events many union leaders have come out against the EFF. Unfortunately, this suggests that the EFF have not carried out the necessary patient work of winning over the ranks of the trade unions with a revolutionary programme linked with the overthrow of the system. This now needs to be top priority for the Fighters.
Also, the working masses are not only looking to parliament for a solution to their daily plight. They are actively participating in mass protest movements from the grassroots level up. These protests have engulfed the country over the last decade. The levels of so-called ‘’service delivery protests’’ have never been higher. It is true that EFF leaders have given support to some of these protests. But what is needed is a full-scale campaign to connect all these struggles on a national level. This is an undertaking which the party committed itself to at its first national congress. What is now needed is action! In particular it is important seek to align this in a constructive way to the NUMSA-initiated United Front which is already heavily involved in this process.
Lastly, it is important to have a correct approach to the ranks of the ANC and the Tripartite Alliance. In spite of the undoubted progress of the EFF, it is in and around the ANC and Alliance that the bulk of the potential revolutionary masses are still organised. There are numerous examples across the country where many of the big struggles are actually led by ANC and Alliance members. It is therefore one thing to criticise the bankrupt leadership, but the ranks are a different matter altogether. If the EFF does not have a friendly attitude to these ranks and clearly differentiates between them and the leaders of the ANC, this will only serve to set up unnecessary barriers. What is needed is to fight for the daily demands of the masses and link them together in a revolutionary programme which aims to abolish capitalism.
A crisis of the entire system
The SONA events of 2015 confirm that the crisis of capitalism now also manifests itself as a crisis of the political system. In South Africa over the last two decades, the bourgeois have been able to rule on the basis of parliamentary democracy. This was ultimately achieved through the revolutionary struggle of the working class against the Apartheid regime. During and after the democratic transition, the ruling class, together with the ANC tops, were able to stabilize the situation on the basis of a relative upswing in the economy, which initially allowed them to give some concessions, alleviating some of the most intolerable pressures on the working class. But this upswing was brought to a crashing halt after the 2008 crisis. And with the return of the crisis came the return of the rip-roaring class struggle of the last decade which has made South Africa the ‘’protest capital of the world’’. Ultimately, this is what is behind the volatile political situation.
The political crisis manifests itself also in the bourgeois state institutions. Very few are not affected. Parliament is in crisis, as we have seen. There are almost daily revelations of serious and deep seated problems in institutions like the National Prosecuting Authority, the revenue service, the Special Investigative unit, the police, the intelligence services, the priority crime investigative unit (also known as the Hawks), and many more. Contrary to president Zuma’s assertion, the institutions are not very strong. They are in crisis, which explains the turbulent political situation.
In the last analysis, the turbulence on the political front is a manifestation of the crisis of capitalism. The attainment of bourgeois democratic rights was a by-product of the revolutionary struggles of the working class. Under the threat of being overthrown, the bourgeoisie conceded significant democratic rights to the working class majority. But they kept ownership and control of the means of production, thereby ensuring they remain the ruling class of society. In the process they also co-opted a small number of blacks into their ranks who are now doing their bidding on the political front. However significant the attainment of democratic rights were, this did not lessen the continued domination and rule of the bourgeois class. Today, however, when the democratic institutions are being used to highlight the plight of the masses and the decay of the rulers, the ruling class does not think twice about taking away the most fundamental democratic rights.
In South Africa today, 26 million people out of a population of 52 million live in extreme poverty. Two men, Johann Rupert and Nicky Oppenheimer own more wealth than the bottom 26 million. The Gini Coefficient which measures inequality stands at 0.77 which is amongst the highest in the world. This means that income inequality is today wider than what it was under apartheid. In actual material terms, South Africa does not ‘’belong to all who live in it’’ as the constitution famously claims. The land, the banks, industry, mines and other monopoly industries belong to the Ruperts, Wieses, Oppenheimers, Bekkers, Glasenbergs, Ackermans, Ramaphosas and Motsepes. The unemployment rate has been hovering around the 25 percent mark for the last decade. Real youth unemployment stands at more than 60 percent. Many people are homeless.
What we are confronted with here is an organic crisis of capitalism. These are all devastating indictments against the capitalist system and the ruling elite and it shows the real state of the nation. Confronted with these facts, it is therefore not surprising that that the political situation is so volatile.
Six years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, global capitalism is in its biggest ever crisis. This has affected every region on Earth. Now further storm clouds are gathering on the horizon. Today Greece is in the midst a profound crisis. This is also true of Nigeria, Venezuela, Pakistan and Egypt. The global situation has deeply impacted on South Africa which is already suffering from an acute crisis. But there is a revolutionary way out. The monopolies and the main productive resources must be taken into state ownership under workers’ control and management. Only this will ensure that the basic needs of the masses are met.
On 12 February, the revolutionary South African proletariat were observing the events in parliament in record numbers. Ratings for the SONA went through the roof. The working class were watching, listening, observing and were drawing lessons. The objective conditions have never been more favourable to build a genuine Marxist current which will grow with the revolution and point the way forward to the genuine liberation of the masses, namely the socialist transformation of society. Genuine majority rule will be achieved only on the basis of a revolution led by the working class, armed with a conscious revolutionary socialist programme and the attainment of a democratic workers’ state.