On Saturday October 21st, nearly 40,000 people participated in 14 marches and 5 pickets all over South Africa to protest against racist and discriminatory banking practices. The day of action, called the 'Red Saturday', was organised by the South African Communist Party as part of their Red October Campaign. This was the first time in 45 years that the SACP had organised their own nationwide marches independently of other groups. The biggest marches took place in Durban (10,000), Johannesburg (5,000), Cape Town (5,000), Pietersburg (3,000), Klerksdorp (3,000) and Nelspruit (2,000).
The campaign addressed an issue which is very important for millions of South Africans who are denied access to banking services in the black townships and in rural areas where banks simply do not open offices. Very often banks also prevent people on low wages from opening accounts. For instance, some banks demand a minimum salary of 3000 Rand to open an account, this in a country where more than 2 million workers earn less than R1500 a month, and millions more are unemployed. Banks also charge their customers for withdrawing money from ATMs and charge them even more for doing over the counter operations. Interest rates are also very high, although the rich get preferential treatment and reduced rates. Millions of South African workers and poor living in townships and rural areas are effectively red-lined by the banks which consider these areas as "high-risk" and refuse to give them loans or mortgages to buy or improve their houses.
Basically "these commercial banks are nothing other than instruments of capitalist power, of capitalist economic oligarchies" as the SACP points out.
The memorandum which was submitted to the government and the Banking Council on Red Saturday raised the following main demands: "Government must take urgent steps ... to pass adequate legislation for the building and strengthening of cooperatives ... community reinvestment by banks", "the urgent convening of a summit of the financial sector", "an immediate moratorium on redlining and the classification of black residential areas ... as high-risk or non-crditworthy", "an immediate end to racism and sexism and discrimination against the working class in general in the practices of the banks" and "the regulation of the functioning of the Credit Bureaus".
While it is clear that these are just demands the problem that the SACP leadership does not seem to grasp is that these demands on their own will not solve the problems of workers and the poor gaining access to the banking system. The fundamental issue here is surely the fact that the banks are part of the capitalist system itself and therefore the obvious slogan which should be raised together with these reforms is the nationalisation of the banks rather than the creation of cooperative banks or "people's banks". How can you "make the banks serve the people" unless you take over the control of the banks. As long as the banks are in the hands of a handful of capitalist bankers they will always discriminate against poor people. Banks do not lend money for the fun of it or in order to fulfill a social mission. They operate on the basis of making the maximum profit in the shortest space of time. This is how capitalism works. In the same way that you cannot ask a tiger to become vegetarian, you cannot force the banks to be nice to people. As all experience shows "you cannot control what you do not own".
Even cooperative banks in and of themselves cannot be a solution to the problem as long as the fundamental levers of the finance sector are still in the hands of private capitalist bankers. If the SACP leadership really wants to advance the cause of socialism it should have used this particular campaign to directly challenge the power of big banks by complementing the demands of the Red October with the slogan of the nationalisation of the banks under workers control. This would be the only real way to solve the problem of redlining and discrimination against working class people by the banks. Taking the banking sector into democratically controlled public ownership, combined with the nationalisation under workers control of the main monopolies would provide the necessary resources to deliver housing, water, electricity and jobs to the millions of South Africans who still don't access to these basic facilities. By the way, even if the banking sector were to be reformed and working class and poor people had easier access to bank accounts and credit, this would still not put money in their bank accounts or give them houses or jobs.
Therefore, the struggle for reforms is a component part of the struggle for socialism, but only if there is a clear understanding of the limits of reforms under a crisis ridden capitalist system and if this struggle is clearly linked to the struggle for socialism, that is if the emphasis is put on the key question of the ownership of the means of production distribution and exchange. Otherwise instead of a Communist programme which helps raise the level of understanding of the masses on the real cause of their problems and the solution to them, what you have is merely a socialdemocratic programme which creates the illusion that the capitalist system (in this case its banking sector) can be reformed to serve the people.