South Africa’s Winter of Discontent

South Africa’s Winter of Discontent

As the gap widens between rich and poor, millions of black workers are challenging African National Congress rule. How did a victory against apartheid turn into class war?


More than 1 million South African workers, from teachers to nurses to engineers, have gone on strike over the past four months. The massive demonstrations and boisterous picket lines hark back to the struggle against apartheid, but today, protesters are targeting the government of the African National Congress (ANC), the group most often credited with bringing apartheid down. Thirteen years after the fall of white rule, millions of black South African workers are challenging the ANC government’s rule. How, in a decade, could South Africa’s revolutionary victory have turned to class war?

“For most people, even government statistics show, life has gotten worse in socioeconomic respects,” said political economist Patrick Bond, director of the Centre for Civil Society in Durban. “Unemployment, cost of basics, disconnection of municipal services, degeneration of the health and education sector, and inequality” have all increased, he said. Indeed, the demands of the nearly 1 million public-sector workers who struck in June and the more than 200,000 metalworkers and engineers who struck in July pointed toward the massive, widening gulf between South Africa’s rich and poor.

While the country’s economy has expanded rapidly since the ANC took power in 1994, unemployment has nearly doubled (from 16 to 29 percent, with total joblessness around 40 percent). President Thabo Mbeki and his supporters have trumpeted the emergence of a new black middle class, but nearly 50 percent of South Africans live below the poverty line, with 34 percent subsisting on less than $2 per day and half the country’s union members earning less than $380 per month. According to the Washington-based nonprofit Economic Policy Institute, “The economic and social inequality that was inherent in the apartheid regime has continued, and even increased, since majority rule was instituted in 1994.”

In this context, it’s not surprising that the strikers’ primary demands focused on wage increases well above the country’s 7 percent inflation rate. More surprising, perhaps, is the degree to which South Africa’s working class feels alienated from the ANC. “If they do not meet our demands,” said one striking nurse, “they are the enemy.” This alienation is apparently strong on both sides; the government took a surprisingly hard line with the strikers. Despite a constitutional provision guaranteeing workers the right to strike, hundreds of healthcare workers were fired for participating in the walkout. The government claimed that a legal provision bars workers who provide “essential services,” like nursing and policing, from striking. South African law does, however, allow essential workers to sign agreements with employers that allow them to strike as long as minimal levels of service are maintained. According to Fikile Majola, general secretary of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union, the government dragged its feet on signing these minimum service agreements “because it [wanted] to undermine strike action.”

The chasm between South Africa’s workers and their government mirrors a growing divide between Mbeki’s administration and the leadership of COSATU, the country’s dominant labor federation. As a formal partner in the ANC government, COSATU has walked a tightrope over the past decade, criticizing Mbeki’s neoliberal economic policies without threatening to leave the governing alliance. The intensity of the current strike wave, however, and the rhetoric surrounding it, suggests that a split may be imminent.

After four weeks, the public sector strikers returned to work with small wage gains, barely above the rate of inflation. The metalworkers fared better, winning wage increases of 9 percent for the lowest-paid workers. Nevertheless, these gains do not appear to have placated either the workers or their union leaders.

Shortly after the metalworkers’ strike ended, thousands of South African oil and chemical workers went on strike demanding higher wages. On September 21, employers locked out 1,000 construction workers building Green Point stadium, which will host the 2010 World Cup semifinals. The workers, who were demanding increased compensation for travel to the worksite, were locked out after striking for more than a week (their second strike in a month). The 2010 World Cup will be a showcase for the new South Africa. It will be the first time the African continent has hosted the world’s most popular sporting event, and one of the Green Point supervisors has said that continued labor unrest at World Cup sites will make South Africa “the laughing stock of Africa.”

Workers are unlikely to be moved by such concerns. With transport and mine workers currently threatening to strike, more conflict is likely in the coming months and the stakes will be high. That’s because the ANC’s National Conference, which will include the election of an ANC party leader, is coming this December. On September 20 COSATU endorsed Mbeki rival and former South African Deputy President Jacob Zuma for the party’s top spot, drawing a strong rebuke from the ANC’s leadership. Mbkei has not said if he will run for re-election as ANC leader, but he has announced he’ll step down as president in 2009. Given the ANC’s dominance in South African electoral politics, whoever emerges as party leader will undoubtedly succeed Mbeki as president when his term expires.

In the meantime, observers are left to wonder how South Africa’s utopian post-apartheid moment soured so quickly. “Power corrupts” is the easy answer, and there’s a lot to support it. Since the ANC took power, its top leaders have apparently abandoned the promise of racial and economic justice. As the Wall Street Journal happily crowed about Mbeki’s tenure, “Not a word from this former Marxist about redistribution.” Patrick Bond says Mbeki and his allies have been “talking left and walking right.” To put it more bluntly, it looks like the ANC’s top leaders have sold out the rank and file.

Indeed, South Africa’s economic crisis exists to large degree by design, the predictable result of Mbeki’s decision to follow a pro-business economic model at the expense of the poor and working classes. Writing on the tenth anniversary of apartheid’s fall, Bond noted that the ANC government had cut corporate taxes dramatically (from 48 percent in 1994 to 30 percent by 1999), slashed state spending and privatized public resources from water and electricity to telecommunications and airlines. Some 10 million South Africans had their water cut off earlier this decade as a result of privatization and price hikes by the government.

But to keep the focus on the ANC alone obscures the fact that Western political and economic powers are directly implicated in South Africa’s current crisis. While Mbeki is responsible for carrying out policies that have led to massive inequality, World Bank economists in the mid-1990s helped design the ANC’s economic strategy, and the IMF granted South Africa’s post-apartheid transitional government an $850 million loan in December 1993 (five months before the ANC took power) on the condition, among others, that the government slash workers’ wages across the board. All of this happened in the context of a crippling foreign debt of more than $20 billion, which the ANC inherited from the apartheid regime–and which foreign powers refused to forgive. Today, some $11 billion of South Africa’s foreign debt stems from interest on apartheid-era loans, despite the fact, as the American Friends Service Committee notes, that apartheid was a crime against humanity. To be sure, the ANC government could have chosen a different path than that of neoliberal reform, but that doesn’t absolve Western capitalism of its culpability for South Africa’s economic turmoil.

The strikes should be viewed not as a symptom of this turmoil but rather as a healthy response. Mass actions organized to hold the government accountable to its citizens show that democracy in South Africa is alive and well in ways that should make American progressives envious. Bond noted that South Africa averages more protests per person than any country in the world (sixteen per day), and that most of these protests “are largely about problems only the left has a solution for: a return to public services, community and worker control, massive redistribution of resources in what started as the second most unequal major country in the world in 1994, and has become yet more unequal.”

South Africa’s government has largely abandoned the project of undoing apartheid’s legacy and returning political power to the people–but the people are well beyond restless. “This is our government,” said one striking teacher in Pretoria. “We have to force them to bow to our demands.” In the coming months, South Africans will see if the ANC government responds to their call, or if they must build a political alternative.

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