By Dale McKinley
Remembering the past
Amongst the most studied and celebrated aspects of the anti-apartheid struggle during the 1980s in South Africa was the breadth and impact of community resistance (Ballard et al 2006; Buhlungu 2010).
The origins of that resistance came during the late 1970s and early 1980s when the working class, broadly conceived, was hit with a double blow. Emerging clusters of neoliberal capitalism privileged the opening up of global markets, increasing capital mobility and reorganising states to guarantee and catalyze ‘free market principles’ (Harvey 2005), while pushing for a flexible, insecure and informal labour regime (Chun 2009).
Simultaneously, a large number of unions had become increasingly opposed to what they saw as the subordination of worker interests and struggles to the macro-national liberation politics of the ANC and its alliance partner, the SACP. (Pillay 1996) These unions wanted to forge politically independent labour organizations allied to the broader working class of communities, informal workers and students that practiced workers’ control and participatory democracy (Baskin 1991).
This eventually resulted in the formation of the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU). Linking the strengthening of internal union (especially shop-floor) structures and democracy to the struggles against state repression on a more general societal level FOSATU reached out to communities and their unemployed and casual worker constituencies (Barchiesi 2006).
On the community front, there was the launch of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983. This brought together a wide range of community and other anti-apartheid civil society organizations, many of whom were aligned to the ANC. Key to these developments, were the worsening material conditions of the black majority and their increasingly radical resistance to the devastating socio-economic impact of the apartheid-capitalist system (Naidoo 2010). After the formation of COSATU in 1985, the terrain for a genuine people’s alliance that contained an equally genuine alternative to apartheid-capitalist oppression was fertile.
Negotiations and mobilization
Meanwhile, in the midst of widespread community and labour movement struggles during the late 1980s, behind-the-scenes negotiations between the ANC and the apartheid state were well-advanced. Negotiatory politics began to fast displace whatever ground working class struggles were attempting to occupy, in the process creating the conditions for top-down, centralized “power and decision-making” (Pillay 1996).
“…in the midst of widespread community and labour movement struggles during the late 1980s, behind-the-scenes negotiations between the ANC and the apartheid state were well-advanced.”
By the early 1990s, the strategic locus of resistance and people’s power shifted even further onto a ‘negotiations’ terrain. COSATU became involved in a parallel negotiating process, devoting much of its energies to institutionalizing bargaining agreements between unions, employers and the state. (McKinley 1997) Similarly, a range of community organizations entered into negotiations with local white councils about the provision of public services. With the core leadership and organizations of what had constituted the UDF now absorbed into the ANC itself, the remaining community organizations, after holding talks with the ANC, formed a new umbrella body called the South African National Civic Organisation (SANCO), which unofficially became the fourth member of the ANC Alliance (Zuern 2004).
Combined, these shifts resulted in the effective curtailment of anti-capitalist mass struggle by the broad working class. Ordinary workers and community members often had little say in key political and policy decisions which became dominated by the perceived necessity of seeking common ground with capital and the apartheid state for some kind of social contract to restructure an ailing South African macro-economy.
The post-apartheid ‘dividend’
With the transition to democracy and the ANC’s capturing of state power after 1994, a range of new political, socio-economic and organizational constellations of power thus came to the fore. This occurred alongside the rapid adoption by the ANC of a neoliberal macro-economic policy framework that profoundly reshaped not only the political economy of South Africa but the more specific struggles of poor and working class communities (Marais, 1998).
For the poor and working class, the impacts were devastating. Massive job losses were visited upon those who had been fortunate enough to be employed, this ‘experience’ being accompanied by attendant social and economic damage to already poor and vulnerable families and communities. The ANC-managed state also implemented “basic needs” policies that turned many basic services into market commodities, facilitated by a drastic decrease in national government grants/subsidies to municipalities and support for the development of financial instruments for privatized delivery (McDonald, 2000).
“For the poor and working class, the impacts were devastating. Massive job losses were visited upon those who had been fortunate enough to be employed, this ‘experience’ being accompanied by attendant social and economic damage…”
In turn, this laid the foundations for an enabling environment of patronage, corruption and factional politics as well as a huge escalation in the costs of basic services and a concomitant increase in the use of cost-recovery mechanisms such as water and electricity cut-offs. By the turn of the century, millions more poor South Africans had also experienced cut-offs and evictions as the result of the neo-liberal orgy. (McDonald and Smith, 2002) Further, the state’s capitalist-friendly land policies, which ensured that apartheid land ownership patterns remained virtually intact, has meant that South Africa’s long-suffering rural population continue to taste the bitter fruits of labour exploitation and landlessness.
It was within this transitional context that a range of new community organizations and social movements surfaced. (Ballard et al, 2006; Naidoo and Veriava, 2003) In almost all cases, they emerged in the very spaces opened up as a result of the failure of the tactical approaches and strategic visions of the main traditional forces of the left (for example, COSATU and the SACP) and ‘civic’ structures like SANCO to offer any meaningful response to the changing conditions (McKinley and Naidoo, 2004).
This ‘perfect storm’ of neoliberalism thus brought together all those inhabiting an extended and flexible ‘community’ of work and life the organizational form of which replaced the formal workplace as the epicentre of social solidarity. In response, there were some serious efforts from sections within the labour movement in the late 1990s and early 2000s, mostly from municipal workers, to forge collective solidarities and struggles. Despite this, the dominant politics and practices of the labour movement in the context of the changing composition of the broad working class and the enforced boundaries of corporatism under neoliberalism, has largely undermined the possibilities of any practical unity.
The ‘new’ social movements and community organizations have also been subject to a consistent state campaign of rhetorical vitriol and physical assaults. (McKinley and Veriava, 2010) Crucially, the various leaderships of the SACP, COSATU and other ANC “civil society” allies have most often given tacit support to the state’s repressive actions and have consistently failed to seriously engage with, politically support, or provide material solidarity to their struggles.
Catalysing division and conflict
While these community organizations and social movements do not represent some kind of homogeneous entity, and while there have been (and continue to be) substantive organizational differences and political and ideological debates within their ranks, they have become inextricably bound together by the levelling content and common forms of the neoliberal onslaught, both nationally and, to a lesser extent, internationally.
And yet, besides the highly fractured social and productive relations within poor communities, there is the additional challenge of engaging and overcoming a rising social conservatism among the ranks of the broad working class, driven by the growth of (right-wing) Christian evangelical churches and culturally reinforced patriarchy, as well as intensified ethnic and national chauvinism.
Much of this social conservatism (McKinley, 2010) has come to the political and social surface since the rise of the current South African president, Jacob Zuma, whose thinly disguised misogyny, homophobia, and open embrace of patriarchal ‘traditional values’ and religion have provided a trickle-down, socially backward ‘role model’ to the ANC’s and the left’s core constituency – the broad working class. Further reinforcement has come from the ANC-led state’s consistent championing of a narrow nationalism that has framed and encouraged xenophobia as evidenced in the eruption of xenophobic violence in 2008 and again in early 2015.
All of this has evinced a double ‘movement’ over the last several years in respect of poor communities and their struggles. On one hand, an escalating hyper-commoditized daily existence has produced a situation in which the vast majority of those residing in poor communities are engaged in a desperate struggle for social relevancy and location. The result has been an intensification of social division, stratification and dysfunction, now more than ever driven by increased competition for limited social benefits, services and productive opportunities.
“Much of this social conservatism has come to rise with the current South African president, Jacob Zuma, whose thinly disguised misogyny, homophobia, and open embrace of patriarchal ‘traditional values’ and religion have provided a trickle-down, socially backward ‘role model’ to the broad working class.”
In a Manichean twist, scarce waged labour has become the hoped-for light at the end of the tunnel, the main “prize” for social inclusion and stability as against the dark and desolate recesses of utter social marginalization. Access to state-serviced and controlled social grants, which are even then most often subject to considerations of political patronage and party electoral support now represent a barely inclusivist second ‘prize’.
Simultaneously, there have been growing levels of tension and conflict that have been manifested in various forms of local, community protests and violence, most often involving the state’s police forces as well as local politicians and elites. (Alexander, 2010; von Holdt, 2013) According to one, multi-year, academic study the number of community protests increased by almost 150% from the period 2005-2008 to the period from 2009-2012 when they averaged 309 per year (Runciman, 2013).
The combined waves of protest and violence have also involved union members, mostly those occupying the lowest paying jobs in the mining sector striking over wages and working conditions. This was the case at the Marikana mine in August 2012 when 10 miners were killed in intra-union violence, followed by the massacre of 35 striking miners by police, with another 70 injured. (Alexander et al., 2012) There have also been scores of community protesters shot dead by police forces over the last several years (The Sowetan, 24 January 2014).
Cumulatively, this cocktail of constructed dysfunction, division and conflict has made the possibilities of forging common, national level political and socio-economic struggles of communities for radical change hugely difficult. Likewise, it has also vitiated much of the earlier transitional potential of meaningful anti-capitalist labour-community alliances.
New spaces, new possibilities
The good news, however, is that there are new spaces opening up. The most crucial of these spaces have been engendered by the on-going fracturing of the ANC-Alliance over the last few years which has seen a slow-but-sure loosening of the ANC’s political and ideological hegemony. This process has been catalyzed by the horrific events at Marikana. During the subsequent post-massacre strike by platinum miners, the longest in South African history, practical and solidaristic links between workers, community organizations and independent left activists were forged. This heralded possibilities both for more sustained and campaigning alliances between labour and community and an effective and principled ‘United Front’ of community, labour and independent left forces and struggles.
For, whether it be in South Africa or elsewhere, the very basis, historically, for the maintenance of a sustainable political alliance between unions and (ostensibly progressive) political parties that have hold of state power is the parallel maintenance of both a politically malleable union leadership and expanding benefits for a meaningful threshold of unionised workers. On both counts, the alliance of the ANC, COSATU and the SACP is looking increasingly precarious.
“The good news, however, is that there are new spaces opening up. The most crucial of these spaces have been engendered by the on-going fracturing of the ANC-Alliance over the last few years”
Now not only is the ANC itself riven with factional battles and drowning in a sea of corruption but the last two years have also seen the formation of a new political rival (ostensibly to the ANC’s left) in the form of the breakaway Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) as well as the expulsion from COSATU of the largest union in the country, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA). Further, COSATU and many of its affiliates have become virtually paralyzed by leadership and factional battles, these catalyzed by ever growing exposés of massive financial mismanagement and fraud (McKinley, 2014).
What is also happening is that the wage and working condition gains of all but the most highly paid unionized workers are being seriously eroded by the combined effects of the state’s neoliberal policies and the displacement of the current crisis of capitalism onto workers. In respect of the ‘other’ part of the broad working class (i.e. poor communities), the impacts are being felt even more acutely.
This is where the incipient moves by NUMSA, supported by many community organizations and other civil society formations across the country, to forge an independent and anti-capitalist ‘United Front’ of the broad working class comes into the picture. For many community organizations, workers, social movements and other left activists who have been waging various struggles over the past decade and who are not part of the long-standing ANC-SACP-COSATU alliance, the significance of NUMSA’s break is that it comes with a commitment to…lead in the establishment of a new United Front [UF] that will coordinate struggles in the workplace and in communities, in a way similar to the UDF of the 1980s. The task of this front will be to fight for the implementation of the Freedom Charter and be an organizational weapon against neoliberal policies such as the NDP [National Development Plan] (NUMSA, 2013).
Such initiatives could indicate that “the nearly 10-year revolt of the poor may be complemented by an industrial partner” (Gentle 2014) and see a rejuvenation of labour-community alliances centred on basic public services. (Ashman and Pons-Vignon 2014). Additionally, NUMSA has said that it will embark on a process to organize workers across value chains, including in the highly divided and volatile mining sector (NUMSA 2014), a move that could also herald the beginnings of organizational support for informal and casualized workers who, it is estimated, now constitute the majority of those employed in South Africa (ILO, 2015).
Since the beginning of 2014, NUMSA has held a range of meetings and conferences with an array of community organizations, NGOs and independent left forces. This has led to the launch of several provincial and local structures of the ‘United Front’ and campaigns against, for example, the ANC government’s introduction of a youth wage subsidy and its neoliberal budget. Several joint protests have taken place across the country and have often been extended to other struggles initiated by community organizations and social movements.
NUMSA’s moves to build such a ‘United Front’ remain embryonic at this stage, of course, and it must still translate stated intent into practical action when it comes to active involvement in community struggles and organizations as well as in making common cause with informal/casualized workers. Nonetheless, what NUMSA has done is to open wide the door of new possibilities not just for labour-community alliances for public services but for a broad working class-led movement to mount a serious organizational and political challenge to the ANC (alongside its so-called ‘left’ alliance partners) as well as to the state in its present form.
The key challenge now for both community organisations and the labour movement in South Africa is to occupy the new spaces that have opened and to do so independently from any political party. In order for that to begin to happen though, there must first be recognition by unions and community organizations that they are part of the same struggle: in other words, the laying of a foundation for a unity in resistance of the broad working class in opposition to neoliberal capitalism and all its associated practical impacts.
In doing so, a base can be constructed on which a parallel joint programme of basic grassroots organizing and activism can then be pursued. Such a programme needs to be grounded in a basic set of demands that speaks directly to the real living conditions and daily struggles of both poor communities and organized workers. And it must also linked to a coming together to change the face of the public sector as a means not only to deliver public services but to do so in a way that deepens and expands their democratic character and content. (Ronnie, 2013; Wainwright, 2013) In this way, the idea of a meaningful ‘United Front’ that also encompasses social forces beyond its broad working class core can begin to be translated into practice.
“a base can be constructed on which a parallel joint programme of basic grassroots organizing and activism can then be pursued. Such a programme needs to be grounded in a basic set of demands that speaks directly to the real living conditions and daily struggles of both poor communities and organized workers.”
Above all, for community and worker resistance to invent the future of anti-capitalist struggle in South Africa is going to require patient political and organizational work and activism informed by a democratic spirit of humility and openness. There is no space here for vanguardist, paramount leadership, no room for the presumption of collective “working class” consciousness and no place for the defensive and divisive promotion of narrow organizational identities and terrain.
While a longer-term goal of broad working class struggle might well be to replace capitalism with an alternative system, it is only by engaging in the kind of practical, here-and-now struggle for real changes in the lives of the public, both human and institutional, that the possibilities for more radical change can be brought into being.
Dale T. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer based in Johannesburg. He is a long-time political activist and has been involved in social movement, community and liberation struggles for over three decades. He is the author of four books and has written widely on various aspects of South African and international political, social and economic issues and struggles.
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