South African 2011 local government elections: what do they mean for the working class?

In the recent local elections in South Africa we witnessed a concerted campaign by the Democratic Alliance, backed by the media, to exploit discontent with the ANC to their own advantage. They failed to do so, as the masses instinctively see the DA as a threat to the conquests of the anti-apartheid movement. However, what is true is that the ANC leadership, pursuing policies that are limited to what can be achieved within the confines of capitalism, have failed in the recent period to solve the fundamental economic and social problems faced by working people.

“We can only go beyond superficial and often deceptive impressions by digging beneath the surface so as to understand the underlying reality.” (“Dialego”, aka as John Hoffman)

Indeed we have to “dig beneath the surface” of the recent South African local government elections, which at first glance, appear as an outcome of splendid campaigns by the political parties, but in reality they reveal a conscious working class that has no clear revolutionary leadership. Firstly let us look above the surface.

A comparison with the 2006 local government election results

The African National Congress (ANC) won the majority of seats nationwide, with 66.3% of the vote. These elections were seen as a test of the ANC, after a period with increasing discontent especially with the delivery of basic services all over South Africa. The official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA) took 14.8% of the votes nationwide, placing them in second place overall. There was a decline in ANC support and an increase in support for the DA as the ANC lost voters in every province with the exception of Kwa-Zulu Natal where it captured votes from former IFP voters. The results show a 4.3% decrease, compared to the 2006 local government elections.

While the voter turnout for this election was predicted to be higher than the previous election in 2006, in which 23.65 million people were registered to vote, the actual turnout of voters was 13.66 million people representing a 57.64% turnout, making it the highest voter turnout ever since the first municipal election in 2000. The percentage of spoilt votes was 1.89%.

It was clear to all that far from being “just” municipal elections, these elections were seen as crucial for South Africa’s political future. The DA, backed by an army of wealthy funders and in alliance with all the mass media, had embarked on a campaign to undermine the ANC and what it represents for the South African masses.

On the other side, however, thousands of activists, instinctively feeling the danger that the strengthening of the DA posed, set in motion a massive door to door campaign across the country. Thus, the overwhelming victory of the ANC was solely based on the enormous human mass that rallied around their traditional organisation of struggle.

However, a true revolutionary must look the truth straight in the eyes, no matter how painful. We must admit that there are worrying signs on the horizon. The decline in ANC support and the growth in the DA is indeed something that must be taken seriously. Especially when we consider the colossal energy that the hundreds of thousands of youth put into campaigning day and night for a period of months. It is clear that there is a deep seething dissatisfaction with the present status quo. This has been evident in the service delivery protests that also during this election process, have taken place in 40% of the 283 municipalities.

What is the DA?

The Democratic Alliance is not a party that can in any way defending the interests of working class people. Lazola Ndamase explained in a recent article:

“The DA is a remarkable organization. It has been able to live a double life: which is that of a political party for the white and rich, while at the same time presenting itself as a pro-poor non-racial organization. It has not done this alone. It has relied on the direct help of its international connections to the rest of the neo-liberal world, and its command of the entirely neo-liberal South African media. Proof of this is that not even an iota of ink has been dedicated to exposing the openly pro-capitalist policies of the Democratic Alliance by South Africa's ever energetic ‘political analysts’, let alone newspaper editors.”

It must also be noted that the DA is a member of Liberal International, an international umbrella body for Liberal organizations. It is also a member of the African Liberal Network.

In their program they write: “the simplification of our labour and tax regulations and the elimination of the skills development levy will cut the cost of doing business” And they write further “A DA government would facilitate, not direct, economic activity and would see that our fiscal and monetary policy acts not so as to control economic activity.”

The above extracts calls for the elimination of labour rights and taxes on big industries. The line is quite clear. The DA is the party of big business, not the working masses. The policies of the DA are the policies of privatisation and “liberalisation”. In other words they are policies of an all out attack against the workers and poor and of rolling back of all the concessions won by the masses since 1994. In this sense the DA is not able to deliver anything but further misery for the masses.

It is the duty of any honest revolutionary in South Africa to defend the conquests of the mass movement against the attacks of the DA.

The South African Economy

The key to understanding the decline in ANC votes though, lies not in the DA, but in the state of the country under ANC rule. It is no secret that 17 years after the ANC was swept to power major problems have not been solved. On the contrary some factors have even worsened.

South Africa today is ranked by the World Bank as a developing economy, and it is one of the only four countries in Africa to be classified under this category, and in spite of this nearly a quarter (24%) of the population is unemployed and survives on less than $1.25 a day, that is approximately R8.

South Africa has four main industrialized cities; Pretoria-Johannesburg, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Durban. Beyond these four economic bases, poverty is even more prevalent. Here 50% of the population lives below the poverty line; this is a result of unequal distribution of income which is an important pillar of the capitalist system.

To spit in the face of the working class, South Africa is ranked in the top 10 countries in the world for income inequality. The high level of overall income inequality has further increased: the country’s Gini coefficient increased by four percentage points, from 0.66 to 0.70, between 1993 and 2008.

The NDR [National Democratic Revolution] as adopted by the ANC and the tripartite alliance has to a very small degree decreased the between-race inequalities, but at the same time, we have seen an increase in social (i.e. class) polarisation that has prevented the aggregate measures from declining. Despite that, between-race inequality also remains a central issue. At any poverty line, blacks are very much poorer than coloureds, who are very much poorer than Indians, who are poorer than whites. These are the direct creations of the capitalist system. It divides the working class based on race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and tribes. It does so, in order for the oppressed class to pre-occupy itself with addressing these differences instead of uniting and fighting against the system itself.

The truth is that the demise of apartheid in 1994 left a skewed racial economic hierarchy that placed whites firmly at the top, followed by Indians, coloureds, and then blacks. Since then the African National Congress government has made Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) a policy centre-piece, but by the party's own admission it has failed to improve the lot of the vast majority of black South Africans. The BEE is only a means to create a black capitalist class, but this will not solve any of the most important problems of the vast majority of the South African people.

It is these factors, the lack of concrete improvement in the lives of the masses that has led to a layer of the masses to become, to a certain extent demoralised and to start looking for other solutions. This is a fact that must be taken seriously by all revolutionaries.

What does this mean for South African Communist Party?

However, the working masses are not just going to lie down and accept the onslaught against their living conditions. Since the fall of apartheid, we have witnessed a drastic increase in the numbers of workers who participate in public sector and private sector strikes. The South African unions representing public sector workers recurrently go on strike, demanding pay rises above inflation, which stood at 4.6% in 2010. In 2007 alone, more than a million public sector workers embarked on a strike that lasted for over 20 days.

In August and September 2010, South African unions organized a crippling four-week national strike involving 1.3 million public sector workers, demanding an 8.6% wage increase. The strike ended after the government had raised its 5.2% wage increase offer to 7.5%. The militant workers organized by COSATU indicate a readiness to strike even after union leaders have signed a deal with the employers.

At the same time we see an increase in mass protests in the townships against the lack of basic service deliveries. There’s not a week without mass demonstrations of this character. All this is a clear sign that the masses are conscious of the ongoing class struggle. It is clear that they are not willing to accept the boundaries that capitalism places on the development of their lives and that they are willing to struggle.

This leaves space for the South African Communist Party (SACP) to lead the struggles and coordinate them with the struggles waged by the militant Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). If the Communist Party organized a national campaign linking up all these struggles and giving them an organized expression it would receive a massive echo. This would lay the basis for taking the struggle to a higher level, where the party would patiently explain to the workers that these problems are symptoms of a capitalist system that is not able to take society forward and that true liberation can only be achieved by the workers taking power themselves – that is, through a socialist revolution.

“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production from forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.” (Karl Marx, Preface to A contribution to the critique of political economy, 1859)

Natural scientists use the concept of change and development in their scientific work. We Marxists also use the concept of dialectical materialism in order for us to understand all areas of reality, including developments in society. Hence, we must view developments in society as part of an interconnected whole, in which every event is connected to, and determined by everything else.

The electoral decline of the ANC is not solely based on isolated problems with service deliveries. It is based on a general dissatisfaction within all parts of society that is in turn caused by the general and organic crisis of capitalism as a whole.

What is to be done?

Recently there has been an aggressive call for nationalization of the mines. This call was made by the ANCYL. This call must be supported by all revolutionary forces. By using the colossal profits from the mines the whole of society can be raised to a new level. Poverty, unemployment, service deliveries, all these problems, can be addressed on a totally different level than now. This act would have a crushing effect on the DA, which would immediately be decimated.

The DA has not won ground because the South African masses have moved to the right, but because the masses are tired of endless nice speeches about a bright future, while their living standards are falling. What is required of the ANC is not more massive campaigns, but propaganda of the deed.

Unfortunately, the call for nationalizations was met with a rebuke by the leadership of the SACP which viewed it as a bail-out to embattled BEE owned mining companies.

“Some of these calls for nationalization are not genuine but are aimed at rescuing the BEE deals that are in debt. Other comrades in COSATU have criticized us, we don't mind and we will debate that. But, it is our stance as the SACP. Nationalization for what and for who? If you go blindly and nationalize the mines today you will actually be nationalizing debt not mines. Can you imagine government in the Credit Bureau because they nationalized debt thinking they are nationalizing mines?” (Blade Nzimande in his address to the 3rd YCLSA national elective congress).

It’s true that most BEE owned mining companies have filed for bankruptcy which was a result of poor planning, and they are now eying nationalization of the mines as their bail-out since they would be compensated for mines that they failed to manage. But that alone cannot justify opposing nationalization outright. Of course we cannot support a BEE bailout, so our proposal must be that nationalization will be without compensation and that the debt in these companies will remain with their present owners.

Nationalization of isolated industries, however, cannot solve the problems as a whole because they will be met with the full force of the capitalist state and the rest of the capitalist economy. Hence, it is the duty of the Marxists to connect this progressive call with the nationalization of the commanding heights of the economy and thus the full expropriation of the bourgeoisie.

In this epoch, South Africa could take privately owned economic sectors into public ownership without weakening the capitalist class politically. Such an option would be a state capitalist measure, where the nationalized sectors would continue running according to the profit motive = and that would ultimately become levers for the capitalist class again.

The other option is that the state could nationalize according to a socialist plan, where the working class would be in control of state power, and reorganize the economy to serve working class interests.

This is the solution to the problems that South African is faced with today. Capitalism as a system is displaying its impasse every day. To dismantle this system and replace it where the masses are in control of their own destinies is the only alternative to the present dead end.

[References: Statistics South Africa; A contribution to the critique of political economy (1859); Blade Nzimande’s address to the 3rd YCLSA national elective congress; Philosophy and class struggle, by John Hoffman (Dialego); The political economy of Revolution, by Konstantin Zaradov.]