Lucien van der Walt, 2001, “Racism, Neo-Liberalism and Class Struggle in South Africa”
Bikisha Media Collective, South Africa
Article for Comunismo Libertario (Italy): published as Lucien van der Walt, June 2001, “Razzismo, neoliberismo e lotta di classe in Sudafrica,” Comunismo Libertario, no. 51, p. 8 (part 1) and November-December 2001, “Razzismo, neoliberismo e Iotta di classe in Sudafrica,” Comunismo Libertario, No. 52, p. 8 (part 2).
The South African working class is on the retreat. It is not defeated, but is falling back in the face of a major neo-liberal offensive by the democratic government elected in 1994. A vicious “home-grown Structural Adjustment Programme,” called “GEAR” or the Growth, Employment and Redistribution strategy, is in place, and it has directly contributed to a million jobs lost, to cuts in social services, and to rapidly growing class inequality.
Historically, South African capitalism developed on the basis of the national oppression of black African people, who formed a vast reservoir of cheap labour. Internal passports (pass laws), racial segregation, the widespread use of migrant labour, and the denial of basic political and union rights to black Africans provided the social infrastructure for the cheap labour system. On the mines, for example, the average real wages of black African workers remained unchanged between 1910-1970, whilst the bosses also enjoyed “industrial peace”: only one general strike by black African workers took place on the mines in this period, and that was in 1946.
Coloured and Asian workers also provided cheap labour, although they suffered less overt national oppression than the black African proletariat. White workers, militant until the 1920s, were co-opted by the racist welfare system and job reservation.
In short, the apartheid system in South Africa was the political expression of a system of “racial capitalism” based on the super-exploitation of the African working class. Capitalist relations of production were built upon relations of colonial domination, which were reinforced for the benefit of capitalism, and of a capitalist class historically derived from the local white population.
Today, the richest ten richest South African families are worth R18 billion together. Around 60,000 large commercial farmers own over 90% of all arable rural land, whilst 5 large corporations control about 80% of all shares on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. In 1991, the richest 10% of South Africans received over half of the total income in the country, whilst the poorest 40% received only 4%!
The effect was the entrenchment of deep racial divisions within the working class, and a pattern of racial inequality within the society as a whole. This can be seen even today: 47% of African households live on, or below, the poverty line, and nearly 90% of the poor are Africans.
Apartheid society was highly authoritarian and racist, characterised by coercive workplace relations, naked racial oppression, the destabilisation of neighbouring countries, widespread censorship and the suppression of left-wing political parties and movements. Anarchist periodicals, too, were routinely banned, although no real anarchist movement existed between the 1920s and the1990s.
Initially, racial capitalism was a highly successful system. South Africa remains the most industrialised country in Africa. It is responsible for about 44% of the total GDP of sub-Saharan Africa, and for 52% of the region’s manufacturing output. Within southern Africa, South Africa accounts for over 90% of economic output. Corresponding to this level of economic development, South Africa also has the largest working class in the continent: indeed, it is the only African country in which waged workers – both manual, clerical and menial- comprise the majority of the population.
Racial capitalism began to falter in the 1970s. Massive educational inequalities, and the prevalence of low wages, made it difficult for the largest industrial concerns to expand production and effectively use new technologies. The world capitalist crisis in the early 1970s also took its toll in the form of declining investment and declining demand for South African goods.
Even more importantly, the huge working class, led by black African workers, engaged in a titanic struggle between 1973-1994 that shook the apartheid system to its foundations. Between 1983-1987, the revolt assumed a semi-revolutionary character. Within the black African ghettoes ( townships) community-based organisations began to replace local state structures, setting in place street and neighbourhood committees that organised self-defence units, organised boycotts and protests, re-connected cut-off electricity and water supplies, and even built “people’s parks” for the community.
Within the factories, huge, worker-controlled unions challenged managerial power, low wages and workplace racism. Organised, in particular, in the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) from 1985, black African workers were at the forefront of breaking the resistance of the apartheid regime.
After the failure of state repression and massive military interventions, the bourgeoisie compromised with the working class, A parliamentary democracy established and inaugurated with the April 1994 elections: the first proper bourgeois-democratic elections in the country’s history.
The holding of the elections represented, on the one hand, a massive advance for the black African working class, insofar as the election signified a new political order in South Africa that outlawed national and racial oppression.
On the other hand, however, the elections were the product of a compromise between big capital and the leaders of the ANC: the price was the preservation of capitalism, a concession that the ANC – whose historic class agenda was to advance the interests of the frustrated African middle class and bourgeoisie- was only too happy to make.
What was the content of this compromise? It was the perpetuation of capitalism: a capitalism less overtly racist, but nonetheless exploitative and authoritarian in its content.
The ANC was always a pro-capitalist party. Although it attracted the support of millions of black African and Coloured workers, its historic class agenda since it’s founding in 1912 was to advance the class interests of the black African middle class and emergent bourgeoisie. The ANC sought to deracialise capitalism, and find a place in the capitalist sun for black African business, not to destroy the capitalist system. It was therefore willing to compromise with the established, mainly white, big bourgeoisie. This would allow it to transform itself from a petty bourgeois-based resistance movement to a proper bourgeois-nationalist party.
For its part, the big bourgeoisie wished to safeguard capitalism from growing social turmoil and semi-revolutionary conditions. From the mid-1980s, it had begun to make advances to the ANC in exile. Or the dominant sectors of capital, racial capitalism was less profitable than it had once been, and the growing radicalisation of the popular struggle also suggested a social revolution was imminent unless changes were put in place.
After a brief struggle within the ruling class in the early 1970s, the dominant sectors of capital turned away from the State-led model of industrialisation represented by racial capitalism. They turned, like their counterparts elsewhere, towards neo-liberalism as the strategy to resolve the crisis of profitability they faced.
The early neo-liberal policies in the 1970s and 1980s, such as cuts in spending on township development, the introduction of sales tax, and attempts to privatise State enterprises, however, only inflamed popular resistance. But the big bourgeoisie understood that a legitimate, ANC-led government could implement the neo-liberalism demanded and required by the capitalist class much more effectively than the apartheid regime.
And so, popular expectations that social and economic redistribution would follow from the election of the ANC have proved an illusion. In power, the ANC adopted a hard-line neo-liberal approach. The party had previously been sympathetic to a social-democratic programme. From the early 1990s a rapid accommodation to neo-liberalism was evident, and was consolidated in 1996 with the adoption of GEAR. This was not a “sell-out”: in the changed conditions of the post-1973 world, the ANC could only realise its historic class agenda within the framework of neo-liberalism.
GEAR’s key strategic aims are:
- The privatisation and commercialisation of state-owned companies and utilities, including electricity, water, steel, and telecommunications
- Cutbacks in social spending and in the size of the public sector workforce
- The deregulation of trade, imports, capital movements and prices
- The promotion of labour market flexibility, and the development of a layer of precarious workers
- An overall reduction in state spending and strict neo-liberal monetary policies
- Investment and job creation must be led by private business, and, in particular, foreign investors
CLASS WAR … FROM ABOVE
What this means in practice has become clear over the past five years.
It means cuts in state pensions, massive layoffs, declining public hospitals, schools and roads, a general decline in wage levels, daily electricity and water cut-offs in poor communities, and deindustrialisation under the impact of intensified global competition. GEAR promised 400, 000 new jobs a year by 2000: instead, over a million jobs were lost, and total employment has shrunk to the levels of the early 1980s. Welfare spending has fell consistently over the last five years, whilst tax on large companies has been cut such that tax on company profits now makes up less than 15% of overall government income (down from over 50% in the 1970s).
RACE AND CLASS
The immediate effect has been two-fold: one the one hand, neo-liberal policies mean that much of the racial inequality inherited from the apartheid period has not been ended; on the other hand, neo-liberal policies mean a rapid growth in class inequality.
And so, class divisions within South Africa – and within the black African population – have widened rapidly.
Class divisions have deepened dramatically amongst the historically nationally oppressed people, with a rapid growth of the black African, Coloured and Indian middle classes and bourgeoisie. Between 1975 and 1996, the income of the richest 20% of black African households grew by almost 40%, whilst the income of the poorest 40% of black African households fell by around 40%.
The white working class was increasingly impoverished, as its privileges were stripped away by the late apartheid government and the new government. The income of the poorest 40% of whites fell by 40% in the period 1975-1996.
However, the race/ class dynamic remains complex.
There has been growing cooperation between trade unions across the colour line. A good example is the recent alliance between the mainly black African union, the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU), affiliated to COSATU, and the mainly white and Coloured union, the Independent Municipal and Allied Workers’ Union (IMATU) against government plans to privatise municipal services and functions in the greater Johannesburg area.
At the same time, however, racial and national antagonisms die hard. The continued material inequalities inherited from apartheid, and widespread racist and nationalist sentiments continue to undermine working class unity. The ANC’s increasing recourse to nationalist and Africanist rhetoric – a convenient foil to distract from GEAR – also helps poison the atmosphere.
COSATU itself remains dominated by a nationalist outlook. The traditional alliance between the ANC and COSATU is strongly reinforced by racial loyalties and antagonisms, as well as by the self-interest of the union officialdom. Rather than admit the ANC’s neo-liberal posture, most COSATU unions (SAMWU is an exception) have continued to pretend that the ANC is a “revolutionary” – rather than a counter-revolutionary- movement.
By failing to understand the role of the ANC in the war on the working class, COSATU has been unable to formulate a coherent and effective response to GEAR. Instead, it as fallen back in lame appeals for the ANC to “consult” the unions on economic policy and has not struck or campaigned in the streets against government economic policy since an abortive general strike in January 1996. This is a far cry from the radical and combatitive COSATU of the 1980s
COSATU’s failure to give a lead to other sections of the working class in the fight against neo-liberalism has undermined the possibility of a countrywide, working class-based campaign against neo-liberalism.
However, there have been a number of important local struggles that clearly demonstrate the willingness of workers to fight privatisation and austerity. These have largely taken place outside of the mainstream popular organisations and unions.
A wave of new community organisations has sprung up to fight against neo-liberal attacks by local municipalities. In Chatsworth township near Durban, black African and Indian workers and their families have fought back against evictions and service cut-offs. In Soweto, the Electricity Crisis Committee has mobilised resistance to electricity cut-offs and outrageous service charges. In the Vaal, the Working Class Community Coordinating Committee has mobilised against evictions and retrenchments. In Kathorus, the Concerned Residents group has fought for access to housing.
At the University of the Witwatersrand, militant academics, students, and above all, workers in the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU) fought a courageous, but ultimately unsuccessful, six-month battle against 613 retrenchments in 2000. In Johannesburg and other cities, SAMWU and IMATU have campaigned against the privatisation of municipal services.
The most important recent development has been the unification of anti-neo-liberal campaigns in Soweto, at the University of the Witwatersrand, and in Johannesburg in the Anti-Privatisation Forum in July 2000. The new coalition – to which Bikisha Media Collective is also affiliated- has sought to link union and community struggles through joint actions and strike support; a rolling campaign will also be launched in 2001.
Bloodied, bowed, but as yet undefeated, the South African working class holds the key to social and economic transformation – to revolution – in South Africa, and, indeed, in Africa, more generally. Its victory will shake the world; its defeat will strengthen capital the world over.
But there can be no “South African road to anarchism,” no “national revolution.” Our victory is only possible on the basis of international support and international solidarity. The struggle against neo-liberalism is our struggle, and yours too: we must meet the globalisation of capital with the globalisation of labour. The conference is an important step in the necessary direction: a working class united will never be defeated.
It is towards this goal that the Bikisha Media Collective, an anarchist project based in Johannesburg, works. You may contact us at BMC, suite [address and email redundant]