South African working class challenges W$$D

FRFI 169 October / November 2002

When heads of state from all around the world arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa, on 31 August for the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), they were met by two marches. The first, ‘red’ march was arguably the biggest in post-apartheid South Africa: 10km-long and 25,000-strong. The demonstrators called for the shut down of the WSSD and denounced the heads of governments as enemies of the people. The second, smaller march was led by the African National Congress (ANC), the party in power, and its Tripartite Alliance partners, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). Trevor Ngwane reports.

The clash between the two marches on the same day and on the same route was an unambiguous contest between the anti-ANC left in South Africa and the ANC government. Victory went to the red march. These events crystallised the issues for the masses and exposed the ANC government’s class collaborationist role in world politics.

The red marchers characterised the WSSD as ‘a meeting of hypocrites, of the rich and powerful’ who could not solve world poverty because they are part of the problem. The multinational corporations only want profits and cannot provide ‘water for all’ or indeed any kind of ‘sustainable development’. When they take over public services they destroy jobs and increase prices thus robbing the poor of access. The main division between the two demonstrations was the question of the left’s attitude to the ANC government. The red marchers defined the ANC as part of the class enemy because it is driving the capitalist agenda in South Africa, implementing anti-worker policies such as privatisation. Those who marched with the ANC marched on the grounds of historical loyalties and they believed that Thabo Mbeki, South African ANC president, is opposed to what he calls ‘global apartheid’ and that working within capitalist parameters can advance the cause of the poor.

Both marches started in Alexandra and ended in Sandton. Alexandra is a black working class township, an apartheid creation still characterised by overcrowding, poverty, squalor and a lack of basic services. Sandton is the richest suburb in Africa, home of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and many big company headquarters. The marches highlighted the contrast between these two worlds; one rich, the other poor, one for the bosses, the other for workers.

The red march was organised by the Social Movements Indaba (SMI), a special anti-WSSD coalition which argued that the world’s working class would get nothing from the summit. At the last minute the Landless Peoples’ Movement (LPM) joined the SMI and the banner of the march was changed to the Social Movements United. Central to the SMI was the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF), a campaign uniting struggles against electricity and water cut-offs, evictions, forced removals of squatter communities, retrenchments and other capitalist attacks on the South African urban working class associated with privatisation. The LPM represented rural communities fighting against farm evictions and for land in a country where less than 2% of the land has been redistributed to black families since the ANC government took over in 1994. Also in the SMI were the Palestinian Solidarity Committee, Jubilee South Africa and numerous marchers representing movements such as the Zimbabwe Coalition Against Debt, Lesotho Dam Survivors, ATTAC, La Vie Campesina. This ‘A31’ march represented the coming of age of the ‘new’ anti-capitalist movements in South Africa and claimed a direct link to Seattle and Genoa.

President Mbeki is increasingly being paraded in international platforms by the imperialists as spokesperson for the world’s poor and an African statesman who can solve problems within the framework of capitalist, neo-liberal economic orthodoxy. Mbeki is needed to ward off the challenge posed by the anti-capitalist movement and to sidestep the legitimacy crisis of institutions like the World Bank, IMF, WTO and, in this instance, the United Nations (UN).

Africa is facing big problems. The continent has zero prospects of developing along capitalist lines after centuries of exploitation and abuse. For example, it receives only 1% of the world’s foreign direct investment. Through his G8 and UN-endorsed New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), a neo-liberal development plan, Mbeki is seeking to restore confidence in capitalism. A close reading of NEPAD reveals that, at best, South African big capital and its local and international allies will be the only beneficiaries. Having the WSSD in South Africa was an elaborate public relations exercise by the world’s ruling class: ‘we held the summit in Africa, we care’. The WSSD was meant to be Mbeki’s finest hour on the international stage, a reward for his usefulness to capitalism.

The success of the red march mobilisation revealed Mbeki’s lack of support at home. The ANC was aware of this so it tried to stop the anti-WSSD march. The application for the march was turned down and the government suggested that only a strictly-controlled march on a pre-determined route in Sandton would be allowed. No one must march from Alexandra because that is where the working class that Mbeki betrays lives. The Minister of Police and chairperson of the South African Communist Party Charles Nqakula appeared on national TV banging his fist on the table saying the police would clamp down on those who posed a security risk to international guests and heads of state. Everyone wondered why the marchers were banned from Alexandra but were allowed into Sandton where the VIPs were staying.

The SMI coalition insisted that it would march from Alexandra to Sandton. This public stalemate was broken on 24 August when an SMI candlelit march led by high profile anti-capitalist activists such as Vandana Shiva, Maude Barlow and Oskar Olivera was violently attacked by police throwing stun grenades, injuring at least three international visitors.

The attack on this peaceful march caused a stir. It exposed Mbeki’s authoritarian instincts and public opinion made the government’s stance untenable. Having failed to ban the march, the ANC government turned to duplicity. It announced another march from Alexandra to Sandton on the same day and billed its march as the ‘unity march’. The ANC, COSATU, SACP, South African Council of Churches and South African Non-Governmental Coalition (SANGOCO) were going to march under the banner of the WSSD Civil Society Secretariat, a clever move to lure the NGOs. They called on everyone to join their march and even sent envoys to the SMI. But the SMI comrades refused on the grounds that they could not march with people who are part of the problem, namely, the ANC government. All this was widely reported so that when 31 August dawned, the stage was set for a public contest between the new anti-capitalist, anti-ANC, anti-NEPAD and anti-WSSD social movements and the ANC-led ‘anti-establishment’ establishment.

Everyone had to choose: do you march with the anti-capitalists or with the pro-capitalists? There was no fence for anyone to sit on. Could you be anti-imperialist but pro-ANC? The SMI comrades were given a platform to explain their position to millions of people. They stood firm despite vicious public attacks and intimidation, including visits to leading comrades by the South African National Intelligence Agency. Ultimately it was the ANC side that could not take the pressure. At the last minute SANGOCO publicly withdrew from the ANC’s march because of its bullying tactics.

The 25,000-strong march was a public humiliation for Mbeki and his neo-liberal sponsors. His counter march was called a ‘resounding flop’ by a Sunday newspaper. During the march many Alexandra residents joined in or cheered the anti-ANC marchers. A lasting impression of the march was the colour red. Many of the marchers wore the APF or the LPM red T-shirts, carried red flags and wore red. The march showed that the new anti-capitalist movements have arrived, are connecting with the problems facing the working class and that they will not be tamed, confused or co-opted. The march drew the line between the capitalists and the workers, between profits and people.

Millions saw the red march on TV and in the newspapers. Millions are asking questions. However, organised labour and the student sector were not part of the march. This is a serious challenge for the marchers who now need to win over the millions of workers and youth who were not on the march. The marchers still need to gather enough power to be able to impose their will on the bosses. But there is no doubt that history was made on 31 August, the day working class Alexandra marched to bourgeois Sandton and exposed the class collaborationist agenda of the ANC government.


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