Radical Agendas #1: South Africa - ROAPE
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Radical Agendas #1: South Africa

Radical Agendas #1: South Africa

By John Saul

The set of essays initially entitled “South Africa: What Next?” that is accessible here over a number of weeks consists of five essays that, together with my introduction posted below, focus on various areas of political creativity currently being acted upon by various peoples, groups and fledgling movements in South Africa. It is complementary to an earlier set of essays on the wider southern Africa region entitled “Southern Africa – the liberation struggle continues” the title of which is self-explanatory and that included case-studies, by various writers, of Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa itself. This was a series first edited for the AfricaFiles “At Issue Ezine”, and then had been reproduced in ROAPE in March, 2011 as vol. 38, #127.

As was true of this former series, the present brace of articles also began life as a monthly “At Issue Ezine” for AfricaFiles, a website of Africa-related e-materials maintained, until very recently, by the AfricaFiles collective (of which I was, for some years, a member) and sited in Toronto. I am grateful to AfricaFiles’ for its permission to now make these materials available for an even wider circulation through the new on-line iteration of ROAPE, an initiative that I and my fellow authors are proud to be a part of. As I have said in my introduction to another recent ROAPE e-feature (my extended interview by David MacDonald to appear here in a few weeks) , “I have, with one brief hiccough, been an editor of one sort or another of ROAPE since the very beginning. I also think ROAPE has stuck pretty successfully to its mission as a radical voice in African Studies and I’m proud to have been a part of it over all these years, including as an active participant in this new venture that seeks to keep ROAPE even more on top of events and ever-present in the fight for humane and equitable outcomes both on the continent and more widely.”

As for the present series of articles itself: after my further introduction to the theme (#1 – below), the following four essays elucidate, consecutively, the novel roles that various organizations, in both urban and rural, are seeking to play in order to lend new, more effective, voice to the concerns of South African civil society (#2), to help focus the reawakening demands linked to issues of feminist concern (#3) and of working-class assertion (#4), and to represent the range of effective environmentally-cognizant assertions that are increasingly visible (#5); this series then concludes with an overview of the whole broad range of resistances and pressure for redress (including the recent dramatic actions by the country’s students) that now mark out South Africa as an ever-more contested political landscape (#6). It is true that the ANC is still an active political presence in South Africa and that the work of building a viable, coherent, and effectively counter-hegemonic alternative to both the ANC’s faltering (but still very real) hold on power and to the complacent enactment of global capital’s on-going recolonization of the country is still very much a “work in progress.” But, as the essays included in this series attest, the signs of a “next liberation struggle” in South Africa are increasingly visible, while also speaking promisingly of the possibility of a brighter future for the vast mass of South Africa’s still-poor and still-disempowered. In that country, then, the struggle really does continue.

A Next Liberation Struggle in South Africa? The Prospects

A “next liberation struggle” in South Africa? To evoke such a prospect and such a goal is to imply that the liberation struggle that culminated in 1994 and saw the emergence of a formally democratic South Africa and a population apparently liberated from oppression and, prospectively, from penury, has not been, in its essentials, so very liberatory after all.

Realities

For it is difficult to so interpret what “liberation” has actually produced – or to see such a result as having been accidental. After all – and as examined at length elsewhere (Saul and Bond, 2014) – the chosen path of the new elite (clustered, in particular, around the ANC and the SACP) has been one of extensive collaboration both with global capital and with local, chiefly white, capitalist elites. This, no doubt, helped ease the transition past the rocks of structured white racism and right-wing backlash, but it represented a substantial compromise with the existing structures of racial capitalism.

Although not every author in this symposium agrees with each of his/her fellow authors on every detail of such an analysis, all do ask a similar and entirely pertinent question: just where is the energy for action to modify, or even to radically change, what can only be seen as an anti-climactic outcome – by means of some kind of renewed liberation struggle in South Africa – to come from? True, perhaps, such a revived struggle for a more genuine liberation may be difficult to imagine. Yet it is well to remind ourselves of how very close South Africa came “last time” (during the struggle that did overthrow apartheid itself) to building a social movement that would transform South Africa even more profoundly.

After all, it was not primarily any “liberation movement” (the ANC, for example) that brought down apartheid. Rather it was in significant measure a popular movement that produced “from below” the initial stirrings of revolt in the Durban strikes of the early seventies and the Soweto resistance of the mid-seventies.

And this, in turn, continued to fire a rebellious populace, acting through COSATU, the UDF and a wide variety of organizations on the ground that ultimately convinced capitalists and canny old-guard politicians a settlement was necessary – one best achieved by abandoning apartheid the better to rescue South Africa’s future for capitalism!

A key player in this compromise was the African National Congress, of course (Saul and Bond, 2014). For it was the ANC, a would-be vanguard liberation movement, that, in the early 1990s, coopted COSATU into its ruling coalition and worked assertively to wind-down the UDF and the active popular movement for change that had emerged during the apartheid years. And it did so while sealing a deal with capital that produced the total adherence of the “new South Africa” to capital’s global logic. What, in fact, had happened was a recolonization of South Africa by global capital – and the complete absorption of the ANC brass into the circle of post-apartheid power and privilege (Lissani et al, 2012).

The result? It was only very slowly that the illusion of meaningful victory showed just how thin and threadbare it was. Of course, a struggle-weary populace can perhaps be forgiven for seeing a considerable victory to lie in the overthrow of so humiliating and degrading a socio-political system as apartheid. Nonetheless, it was not long before this populace began to register the sharp contrast that had come to exist between the smug comfort of capital and its African/ANC front-men in positions of formal power on the one hand, and the broader populace’s own continuing poverty and subordination on the other.

In sum, there were very tangible signs that things weren’t quite working out as the ANC had promised they would and that the socio-economic and political morass into which global and local capital and their firm ally, the ANC brass, had led the the South African liberation struggle had become painfully raw…and increasingly unacceptable (see Neville Alexander, 2002; Dawson and Sinwell, 2012).

Resistances

To be sure, the South African population had been relatively passive in allowing such a recolonization to occur during the false dawn of hope offered by the “transition” that the “defeat” of apartheid permitted. Yet it is also true that the ANC’s shell-game of “achieved liberation,” at first so convincing, did not, as time went on, work quite so well in silencing the revived protests of the country’s poor and (still) oppressed. Recall the old saying: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” In this kind of context, it is not surprising that resistance in South Africa to ANC hegemony began to grow.

Perhaps most dramatic in this regard have been two graphic expressions of such distemper. One was the Marikana Massacre of 2012, at which state forces blatantly shot and killed 35-40 striking miners at Lonmin’s platinum mine. This was said by some to be as stark a wake-up call to the true meaning of the ANC’s post-apartheid rule as had been the Sharpeville Massacre (in 1960) and the Soweto Uprising (in 1976) – these twin events having themselves been so revelatory of the true meaning of apartheid itself in their time.

Second has been the marked eruption, over a number of years, of what Peter Alexander once referred to as “the rebellion of the poor,” referring to the dramatic protests – South Africa would soon become the leader on the world’s table of countries marked by such protests – by the dwellers, both rural and urban, in those very slums whose continuing existence has come to underscore the vast and deepening disparities alluded to above (Peter Alexander, 2014).

Indeed, it is in this latter wave of “community resistance from below” (as Dale McKinley [McKinley, 1997] titles our second essay here) that one sees South Africa’s vast precariat in action, with McKinley’s account charting the emergence, character and political role of community organisations/social movements and their struggle against established power during the years of South Africa’s ostensible democratic transition (see also Saul, 2014a).

In addition, and while registering (as had Alexander) a quantitative intensification of such community-initiated protests, McKinley considers the ongoing and future potential of the mounting of such a radical new politics by the precariat, asking whether this kind of resistance from below can and will continue to grow and also interact effectively with whatever emerging and novel struggles South Africa’s labour movement might also produce (as discussed by Eddie Webster in essay # 4, below). A very new South African history is in the making, if so. It is no wonder, as well, that one presumptive counter-hegemonic alternative to the ANC’s own project, the Democratic Left Front/DLF, consistently speaks of its potential radical base as lying, quite specifically, in “the working class and the poor”! Both precariat and proletariat, in sum: is this not the key?

Another potential source of dramatic protest to be emphasized is explored in the third essay of this collection, that by Shireen Hassim on the possible (and necessary) rebirth of the women’s movement. Of course, as chronicled most effectively by Hassim herself the women’s movement constituted an extremely important force in radicalizing the whole process of removing the apartheid system and also in constructing a new state apparently much more sensitive to gender concerns (Hassim, 2006).

Indeed, women seemed to be among the chief winners in the coming of a new South African democracy; a struggle seemed joined, some thought, to overcome gender inequalities in economic position and social status. Thus, over the past twenty years the number of women in parliament has actually reached parity, quotas for women have been implemented in all government policies. In addition, poor women have become the major beneficiaries of social grants and women’s participation in formal politics has been virtually “normalised.” And yet, Hassim now argues this “victory” actually merits a close second look; it is apparent, she says, that it is only a very thin form of democracy that has been implemented. One in which mere representation has replaced the original and powerful feminist demands for a more real and genuine participation.

Looking beneath the gloss of the “good story” conventionally told in this regard Hassim considers the nature and extent of persisting gender inequalities in economic position, in political efficacy and in social status. Even more crucially, she asks how important women’s initiatives, women’s organizations and women’s issues may yet be to any future building of a new political movement for a new South Africa.

But what of “the working class” per se, once so crucial a component of the overall resistance movement against apartheid but now fragmented, notably by splits between more established and organized workers on the one hand, and the vast array of “casuals,” “part-time”, “semi-employed,” and unorganized workers that have come to define so much of South Africa on the other? Here, in the fourth essay in this series, one of South Africa’s most-cited writers on the experiences of the country’s workers, Eddie Webster, again surveys the issue of “working class politics” but now on a quite different terrain than that which was once defined by the struggle for national liberation and by the transition to democracy (cf. Webster, 1985; Adler and Webster, 2000).

Indeed, in the post-apartheid context of the ANC’s apparently unqualified acceptance of the primacy of capital’s power and programme, and in the wake of such a startling event as the Marikana Massacre, Webster focuses quite specifically on the existing challenges that South Africa’s largest trade union, NUMSA, feels it necessary to confront. Drawing on surveys he has undertaken since 1991 Webster carefully analyzes NUMSA’s shifting position on politics: from a qualified support for the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party to growing disillusionment with this Alliance.

Such a trajectory in turn culminated, Webster underscores, in a special congress decision in December 2013 that mandated the NUMSA leadership to forge ahead with the formation of a United Front and Movement for Socialism in order to advance working class struggles and to reach out to a broader constituency.  Webster then examines the implications of the different options now facing NUMSA and the possible directions that a novel working class politics might ultimately take in South Africa.

Clearly, as Jacklyn Cock argues (in our fifth essay here, as elsewhere [Cock, 2007]), prospects for a “new liberation struggle” in South Africa depend in part on a convincing vision of an alternative social order. And under present South African conditions, she suggests, the transformative vision of a just transition to a sustainable low carbon economy can provide the embryo of a new (and necessary) eco-socialist order. Moreover, this in turn would have to involve the collective, democratic control of production for social needs, rather than profit; the mass roll out of socially owned renewable energy that could mean decentralized energy with much greater potential for community control; the localisation of food production in the shift from carbon-intensive industrial agriculture to food sovereignty; and the sharing of resources in more collective social forms.

Nor, emphasizes Cock, are these unrealistic goals. After all, the anti-capitalist nature of such an alternative is related to the growing recognition that the fundamental cause of South Africa’s deepening environmental crisis – one that is having devastating impacts on the working class and the precariat alike – is the expansionist logic of capitalism. And, as she carefully recounts, this recognition is promoting, in turn, new forms of organisation and new alliances between labour, community and environmental activists – a solidarity that embodies the promise of a new kind of socialism that is at once ethical, ecological and democratic.

A counter-hegemony?

Precariat, proletariat, women and environmental activists: can all these and more potential centres of organization, of protest, and of progressive demand now begin to add up to something quite new and potentially counter-hegemonic  to what is being proffered by the ANC state and by recycled and reconstituted racial capitalism. Vishwas Satgar, author (Williams and Satgar, 2013) and Democratic Left Front activist in South Africa, explores, in a sixth essay, the situation as traced above – with South Africa now standing, in his phrase, somewhere between “crisis and renewal.” Moreover, this is in fact, he argues, a situation that could now permit a freshly mobilized mass constituency to find a promising, effective and sustainable political form.

Consider this, Satgar says. The resistance to neoliberalisation has already engendered numerous promising left-responses in South Africa: an impressive trade union-led street politics, the sustained building of social movements and multiple community-based protests. There has also been much lobbying by local NGOs and popular organizations as well as a new and militant expression of independent trade unionism – with anti-neoliberal resistance outside of the ANC-led Alliance coming to the fore in the first decade of the new millennium of the 2000s, deepened by the Marikana Massacre, the “NUMSA moment” and the further unravelling of the ANC’s national liberation project itself.

Satgar’s article then further maps the terrain of left politics in post-apartheid South Africa in order to clarify orientations, trajectories and limits. Anchoring this survey is a particular focus on the Democratic Left Front/DLF) to which initiative he is himself very close – with various contenders for a similar role ranging from Julius Malema’s rather populist and demagogic Economic Freedom Fighters to the new United Front South Africa – he identifies space for progressive social forces and those on the left to find convergence around a platform of alternative grass roots solidarity and a new anti-capitalist imaginary. His article thus provides a critical analysis of left politics in general and a specific assessment of one attempt at left renewal as forged within the Democratic Left Front, while evaluating more generally the challenges and prospects for any emergent and potentially counter-hegemonic left alternative in post-apartheid South Africa.

                      *        *        *

South Africa, for all its size and economic weight, may actually have gained a somewhat exaggerated reputation in the eyes of the rest of its continent and of the world: the positive role of the ANC, even in the liberation of South Africa, overstated and the benign role of Mandela, especially after apartheid, rather misconstrued (Saul, 2014b). For people in the region another face was soon apparent, however: South Africa as an entrepot for the sub-imperial penetration of the sub-continent by corporations that used SA as a spring-board for depredations further north (Saunders, 2008). And also as an often unwelcoming snake-pit of violence and xenophobia directed against in-coming migrant-workers from the region and beyond (Mozambicans as target providing a good case in point) – such enormities owing much to the ANC’s “lack of visionary leadership,” in Ozias Tungwarara’s potent phrase (Tungwarara, 2015, Essa, 2015).

In short, a “liberated” but untransformed South Africa has done little to help to free the continent as a whole; moreover, if the situation decays further it may actually do a great deal of damage (as Mugabe has already done in Zimbabwe, for example). Small wonder that Africa as a whole has sensed that it has a significant stake in what the forces we itemize in this set of essays can do to reclaim South Africa for a more progressive outcome. For such an outcome in South Africa, then, the struggle continues.

John S. Saul has been a liberation support/anti apartheid activist since the 1960s, most prominently with the Toronto Committee for the Liberation of Portugal’s African Colonies/Southern Africa (TCLPAC/TCLSAC). He has also taught at York University, the University of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), the University of Eduardo Mondlane (Mozambique) and the University of Witwatersrand (South Africa). He is the author/editor of more than twenty books on southern Africa and development issues.

References

Adler, Glenn and Eddie Webster, eds. (2000), Trade Unions and Democratization in South Africa (London and New York: MacMillan Press abd st. Martin’s Press).

Alexander, Neville (2002), An Ordinary Country: Issues in the Transition from Apartheid to Democracy in South Africa(Pietermaritzburg, S. A.: University of Natal Press.

Alexander, Peter et. al. (2014), Marikana: A View from the Mountain and a Case to Answer (Auckland Park, S. A.: Jacana, 2012).

Cock, Jackyn (2007), The War Against Ourselves: Nature, Power and Justice (Johannesburg: Wits University Press).

Dawson, Marcelle C. and Luc Sinwell, eds. (2012), Contesting Transformation: Popular Resistance in Twenty-First-Century South Africa (London: Pluto Press).

Essa, Azad (2015), “Is South Africa taking xenophopia seriously,” Aljazeera, April 30, 2015).

Hassim, Shireen (2006), Women’s Organizations and Democracy in South Africa: Contesting Authority (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press).

Lissani, Arianna and Jon Soske, Natasha Erlank, Noor Nieftagodien and Omar Badsha, eds. (2012), One Hundred Years of the ANC: Debating Liberation Histories Today (Johannesburg: Wits University Press).

McKinley, Dale (1997), The ANC and the Liberation Struggle” A Critical Political Biography (London: Pluto Press).

Miller, Darlene, O. Olayede, and R. Saunders, eds. (2008), “Special Issue: South Africa in Africa – African perceptions, African realities,” African Sociological Review, 12, 1.

Saul, John S. and Patrick Bond (2014), South Africa – The Present as History: From Mrs. Ples to Mandela and Marikana (Woodbridge, Suffolk and Johannesburg: James Currey and Jacana).

Saul, John S. (2014), A Flawed Freedom: Rethinking Southern African Liberation (London, Toronto and Cape Town, S. A.: Pluto, Between the Lines, UCT/Juta).

Saul, John S.(2014a), “The New Terms of Resistance: Proletriat, Precariat and the Present African Prospect,” in Saul, 2014.

Saul, John S. (2014b), “Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s Flawed Freedom,” in Saul, 2014.

Saunders, Richard (2008), At Issue EZINE, Vol 8: South Africa in Africa (AfricaFiles web-site); see also Miller, Darlene et. al., eds. (2008).

Tungwarara, Ozias (2015), “Xenophobia in South Africa: lack of visionary leadership,” at Open Society in Southern Africa (http://www.osisa.org/), April 15, 2015.

Williams, Michelle and Vishwas Satgar, eds. (2014), Marxism in the 21st Century: Crisis, Critique & Struggle (Johannesburg” Wits University Press).

Webster, Edward (1985), Cast in a Racial Mould: labour process and trade unionism in the foundries (Johannesburg: Ravan Press).

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