Writing on the wall for the South African ‘national democratic revolution’

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 229 October/November 2012

In 1994 the African National Congress (ANC) was swept to power with a massive majority in the first democratic elections in post-apartheid South Africa. For imperialism, the ‘new’ South Africa was a miracle of democratic achievement, with Nelson Mandela its first patron saint. This most velvet of velvet revolutions would, they hoped, preserve capitalist production yet at the same time slowly reform the worst features of apartheid so that the state could emerge from international pariah status. On the other hand, the tripartite alliance of the ANC, COSATU (the trade union federation) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) held out the promise that the ‘national democratic revolution’ would bring about equality and freedom for the majority without destroying the capitalist infrastructure which they believed necessary to sustain wealth creation. The ‘national democratic revolution’ was, in reality, a compromise between different classes; they promised that the capitalist system would be reformed and controlled to benefit the black majority. Eighteen years later, on 16 August this year, the fault lines of this compromise became clear: 34 striking platinum miners were shot dead by police at Marikana mine, near Rustenburg, 78 were wounded and 270 arrested.

Lonmin, the mineowners whose predecessor Lonrho played a central role in mining under apartheid,1 was characteristically quick to blame the strikers themselves for the massacre and above all the conflict between two mining unions: the COSATU-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the newer, much smaller, so-called militant, Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). Lonmin argued that a year-long ‘turf war’ over union membership had erupted into rioting, threatening the police and causing the massacre. This version of events hit the headlines across the world. Not only were the strikers portrayed as machete-waving ‘savages’, the ANC government was reviled for turning the clock back to apartheid by shooting demonstrators.

The reality is more complex. Profits in the platinum mining sector have been badly hit by the economic crisis worldwide where platinum is usually in demand both for jewellery and for catalytic converters. Mining is crucial for the South African economy, and the country holds 86% of the world’s platinum and is the fourth largest gold producer. Over more than a century mineowners, with British investors prominent amongst them, have reaped super-profits from this sector, with racism ensuring that the black mineworkers are paid low wages for working in dangerous conditions, forcing them to live in poverty and squalor. Despite the ‘national democratic revolution’ not much has changed since the end of apartheid. Over the last year there have been growing numbers of ‘wildcat’ strikes as the mineowners have turned the screw on the workforce. Strikers have been sacked en masse as workers are put under pressure to accept lower pay and worse conditions. The mineworkers no longer live in the infamous, apartheid, single sex hostels run by the bosses, but they are forced to live in shanty towns on ‘communal land’ under the control of ‘tribal’ leaders. Rents are high and the squatters are routinely denied basic sanitation and other infrastructure. Violence and intimidation are often the order of everyday life.

This is where the ANC-led alliance’s programme to reform capitalism in favour of the working class and poor has been exposed as fatally flawed. Despite the fact that the NUM has had a long history of organising in the mines, it has failed to fight for higher wages and better conditions in this highly profitable industry, or to ensure the workers and their families have the housing, education, health care and social services they need. Instead, for instance, Cyril Ramaphosa, former NUM general secretary and prominent ANC leader, joined the board of Lonmin. Where the NUM has been seen to collude with the bosses, the workers have turned to alternatives like AMCU which militantly challenge the status quo.

The government has spectacularly failed to restructure South Africa’s economy: there has been no land reform to speak of, unemployment is soaring and the majority still struggle to survive with poor housing, illiteracy and scant health services. As a result of the policies of the previous Mbeki-led government, HIV infection is the highest in the world. One feature of the ANC-led alliance’s policies has, however, achieved more results. The programme for Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) has created not just a black middle class, but a super-rich black elite, known as the ‘Breitling Brigade’,2 who rival the world’s super-rich.3

Against this background the ANC alliance is feeling embattled. It has been lambasted justifiably for the massacre of the strikers, the poor treatment of the families of the dead and the subsequent decision (now withdrawn) to charge the survivors with murder under common purpose laws. ANC President Jacob Zuma, facing re-election at the party’s December conference, moved quickly to call a judicial inquiry into the events at Marikana. But there has been a more significant political response. For the tripartite alliance, the call has gone out to close ranks. In his address to the COSATU congress on 17 September, SACP General Secretary Blade Nzimande labelled the strike leaders as ‘anarchists’ and warlords, and called critics of the ANC government – like Julius Malema, expelled former leader of the ANC Youth League, who addressed strike rallies to attack Zuma and call for the nationalisation of the mines – as opportunists and class enemies. Malema, the SACP claims, only wants nationalisation of the mines because he and his friends, with large stakes in the mining industry as beneficiaries of BEE, would like to be bailed out.

The alliance leadership hopes their call will close down discussion of what the ‘national democratic revolution’ has failed to achieve, and what would be necessary for a real change in the relations of production in South Africa in favour of the majority. Critics within the movement will be silenced, as they have been before. The Marikana miners have settled their dispute with pay rises of 11-22%. However, as we go to press, ‘wildcat’ strikers at the Kopanang gold mine, owned by Anglo-Gold Ashanti, are calling for their pay to more than double. South African Reserve Bank Governor Gill Marcus,4 a leading ANC member, has expressed ‘concern’ that the Marikana agreement could set a precedent for future wage demands in the mining sector, leading the inflation rate to rise from its current 5%. There could be more trouble ahead.

Carol Brickley

1 London and Rhodesian Mining and Land Company Ltd (Lonrho) was dubbed the ‘unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism’ by late British Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath (he would know!).

2 After the flashy watches they wear.

3 Moeletsi Mbeki of the South African Institute of International Affairs, brother of South Africa’s previous president Thabo Mbeki, interviewed at the September COSATU Congress, said: ‘Yesterday, a newspaper showed that Angela Merkel earns less money than many of our ministers and mayors in this country. So, the black elite in this country has been enriching itself at the expense of the production sector and now the chickens are coming home to roost.’

4 Gill Marcus was a member of the ANC in exile in London and of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the 1980s.


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