By Joel Bolnick and Ted Baumann
Since well before 1994, the élite of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress has comprised two broad factions: True Believers and Entrepreneurs.
The True Believers — mainly educated technocrats — adhere to the Leninist doctrine that capitalism can be used to strengthen the state, which can then be used to engineer revolutionary change. The Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, just want to get rich and thereby eventually to displace South Africa’s white capitalists. This means that neither faction has an incentive to end white domination of capital — instead, the want to use it for their own ends.
The two factions are united by African nationalism, which holds that any advancement by black Africans is progress, even if it’s within the distorted capitalist framework inherited from apartheid. True Believers might want ultimately to get rid of capitalism, but in the meantime having black faces in the boardrooms and society pages serves their purposes. In any case, their race-based consciousness dictates that black capitalists will automatically be more progressive than whites, so black workers will win too.
True Believers and Entrepreneurs also share the assumption that the ANC’s historical legacy, as the party of liberation and Mandela, can survive long enough in the popular consciousness to allow their plans to unfold, even if not much changes in real life. Indeed, past election results have given the ANC nearly 2/3 of the vote every five years.
It should not be forgotten that the recent violent anti-government protests by black and white students on South Africa’s university campuses come hard on the heels of massive shifts in South Africa’s political landscape. In addition to a populist breakaway party in parliament (the Economic Freedom Front), the ANC’s labour wing, COSATU, has suffered significant defections. NUMSA, its largest affiliate, has officially withdrawn from the so-called “tripartite alliance” of the ANC, COSATU, and the SA Communist Party (home to many True Believers). That’s a big deal.
These two processes — one middle-class and the other amongst workers — are closely related, and illuminate the fundamental weakness of South Africa’s ruling party and its project.
The student’s protest shows that the ANC’s historical legacy cannot protect it from widespread anger and resentment amongst the “born frees,” those South Africans who have grown up post-apartheid. Whereas their parents generally cling to the idea that all will eventually be well if the ANC stays in power, the youth sees the party as the corrupt vehicle for personal enrichment, technocratic domination, and the de facto protector of white capital that it has long been. That makes sense: Whilst their parents collect government welfare and pension cheques and are allowed to join the queue for free houses, the youth face 50% joblessness and a dismal future.
Notably, even “ethnic” ties, such as residual Zulu affinity for President Jacob Zuma, count for little amongst these young adults. They see no progress — quite the opposite, as the economy slows to a crawl and prices skyrocket. And they no longer buy the story that it’s all white people’s fault.
What about slum dwellers? For one thing, South African informal settlement dwellers number less than 15% of the country’s urban population — much less than other countries in Africa. Two social movements define the organized sector of the urban poor. Both have had periods of significant scale and impact, but are relatively quiescent at the moment. One of these is the Federation of the Urban Poor (FEDUP), whose practice has been defined by a pragmatism that has sought to combine confrontation and challenge with brinkmanship and negotiation. The other is Abahlali Basemjondolo, who have taken a more direct, confrontational path in a fight against inequality and injustice. Neither organization currently commands the kind of scale of support that could make a meaningful contribution to political change in the country. But this could shift in an instant.
Most activism in the informal sector has taken place spontaneously through localized service delivery protests — actions that have presaged, in many ways, the current student protests. Here too, disgruntled and alienated youth have been at the forefront. But shack dwellers, more than any other sector of South African society, are in the thrall of politicians and officials who have consistently controlled their lives through a relentless mix of patronage and institutional violence. These realities and apartheid demographics make it difficult for shack dwellers to unite and to replicate the scale that the students have achieved in recent days. Nevertheless, if and when the current wave of resistance jumps these barriers (most likely in middle-sized towns like Grahamstown or Stellenbosch) the foundations painstakingly built by both FEDUP and Abahlali may serve a much broader movement very well.
For their part, those shack dwellers who are also formal workers have learnt everything they need to know about the supposed progressivism of black African capital from the Marikana Massacre, where cops sent by a black cabinet minister murdered dozens of miners protesting poor pay by a company with prominent ANC-connected members on its board. It was the worst single instance of state violence since 1994, and it was for the benefit of black bosses who were supposed to be more progressive by virtue of their skin colour. In fact, they have behaved no differently from white bosses, because they thought they could hide behind the shield of the ANC’s legacy.
The upshot is that the ANC stands exposed. It is increasingly reliant on itself — on the mutual back-scratching and self-dealing that occurs between factions who rely on access to the state and to the continued existence of white capital to distribute riches. It cannot rely on the working class, the youth, or the millions of unemployed and uneducated people in essentially unchanged townships, with no jobs, educations or futures.
Of course the ANC completely controls the government apparatus and much of the mainstream press, so opposition will require much effort. But important forces within South Africa smell blood in the air, as do the foreign investors who have withdrawn millions from the country over the last six months, sending the Rand into a nosedive.
The ANC has recently spent a lot of time and effort cosying up to China, holding it up as a model of development. But China has no meaningful democracy and the Chinese Communist Party is struggling to contain the rising discontent produced by its own missteps. Both the missteps and the discontent are bound to escalate in coming years, and while the South African technocrats aspire to learn from the Chinese counterparts, the most meaningful exchange of knowledge and tactics may be in counter-revolution — not in development.
What may trump them both, unfortunately, is that the ANC may need to adopt more features of the Chinese model sooner than it thinks, beginning with an even more severely diluted democracy. It will probably have to, since like Mugabe to the north in Zimbabwe, this will create the conditions that will enable it to refuse to be voted out of office.