What kind of oppression?
Peter Manson reports on presidential rivals, changing political alliances and apartheid’s ongoing legacy
While just a couple of months ago it seemed touch and go whether president Jacob Zuma would see out his second term, now it looks as though he will indeed last until 2019, with the internal opposition inside the African National Congress now concentrating on who will replace him then.
This will effectively be decided at the ANC conference in December this year, when a new party leader - who will almost automatically become the next South African president - will be elected, and it seems to be a straight choice between the current deputy president (of both the republic and the ANC), Cyril Ramaphosa, and Zuma’s ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
Interestingly, while the South African Communist Party has so far refused to offer support to either, the SACP-led Congress of South African Trade Unions has formally endorsed Ramaphosa, while the Young Communist League has expressed a preference for him. SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande, speaking at the ANC 105th anniversary celebrations at the beginning of the month, talked about the “factions of the aspirant and emerging bourgeoisie in our broad movement, who are fighting each other for the control of power and resources”. In view of this, “Rather than simply focusing on names of those who should be elected as ANC president [and] other office-bearers … there has to be a consideration of the criteria for effective leadership.”1
It is an open secret that the SACP congress in July will decide whether the party will go it alone in the 2019 elections or, as has been the case up to now, its comrades will constitute a key element in the ANC at all levels. According to the party leadership, several options are being considered:
If the SACP takes part in elections on our own‚ would the SACP still be part of the alliance? If so‚ how would the alliance be reconfigured? If the SACP is not part of the ANC-led alliance‚ who would it ally with? How would contesting elections relate to the broader popular front the SACP seeks to create?
The SACP will engage with its alliance partners‚ as well as a range of other progressive formations‚ on these and other relevant issues in the lead-up to its 14th Congress and beyond it.2
Solly Mapaila, SACP second deputy general secretary, has said that the current relationship between the ANC, SACP and Cosatu is “outdated”, while the YCL, despite having endorsed Ramaphosa, has called on the party to contest independently in 2019.
In the meantime SACP members, including Nzimande himself, continue to serve as government ministers, claiming credit for “SACP-influenced government initiatives”, such as the 2010 ‘New Growth path’, which is claimed to have led to the creation of two million jobs (even though unemployment rose to a 13-year high of over 27%, or 5.9 million, in the quarter ending November 2016).
But not to worry. As Zuma himself said in his January 1 new year message,
We have come to a conclusion of a fruitful and productive year. We moved a step further ... in fighting poverty, inequality and unemployment, as we continued working hard together, to reverse the legacy of apartheid colonialism.3
Apparently, “The collaboration between business, labour and government to support the economy ... is one of the key achievements of last year.” In other words, the class-collaborationism which the SACP has always supported was held up by the president as the reason for this ‘success’. Zuma was not averse to referring in his speech to the “commanding heights of the economy” - but in the context of increasing the “participation of black people as owners and managers”.
And this aspired “transformation” - which aims to “reverse the legacy of apartheid colonialism”, as Zuma puts it - is in reality a substitute for attempting to lift the mass of the population, including the millions of shack-dwellers, out of poverty in any real sense.
For example, while I was in Cape Town last month, a major scandal erupted over an incident at an upmarket restaurant in the city. A black customer posted a copy of his bill on social media, showing that the words “two blacks” appeared to indicate the table where he and his partner were sitting. Apparently the restaurant had installed extra tables, which were unnumbered, and so the waiting staff had taken to identifying them by describing the customers sitting there. Unfortunately these descriptions appeared on some bills instead of the table number.
But campaigners were only too eager to dub the restaurant “racist” and the ANC Youth League threatened an occupation. This led the owners to issue a statement saying they were against any form of discrimination and had suspended the waiter responsible. They also issued copies of other bills, one of which read “Zim” (ie, a man from Zimbabwe) and another “10 whites”, but the Youth League claimed that these had been falsified after the event.
However, when it turned out that the suspended waiter himself was black, this led the Youth League to change tack. Spokesperson Unathi Tshotswana called for the waiter to be reinstated, as the management was obviously trying to ‘evade responsibility’ for its own policy. The restaurant agreed to end the suspension and promised to change its billing system, but, while the protest was called off, Tshotswana did not withdraw his ‘racism’ line. He called for “harsh legislation against people who are racist” - presumably like the owners of the restaurant - who should “be penalised and get harsh sentences”.4
Then there is the example of the black woman seen sitting in a cage in the back of an open-top van (or bakkie) being driven by a white farmer. This, among other things, led to the ANC Women’s League issuing a statement, in which it “strongly condemns the racist act of a woman caged at the back of the bakkie”.5
In reality, it is completely normal in South Africa to see such vans and small trucks being used to ferry passengers - everyone from workers being driven to a job to children on a trip to the seaside (usually those passengers are black, but not always). While, as in all advanced countries, there is a legal requirement to wear seat belts in South Africa, that does not apply to vehicles not designed to carry passengers! Sometimes you see people sitting on top of a van’s side-rail in a manner that would seriously endanger them in the event of an accident - they would be flung onto the road. At least the woman in question, who had apparently asked for a lift, was inside a cage, even though it was normally used to carry sheep!
Such allegations of ‘racism’ are dominating the press more and more. For example, the Weekend Argus recently carried an article about the “countrywide explosion of racism”, which included the “two blacks” affair, along with similar petty incidents and reports of the occasional rant by some individual on social media (December 31). Similarly, the Cape Times claimed that “Racists of all shapes and sizes came out of their shells last year, with several racial incidents on social media and in some restaurants and other establishments” (January 3).
Of course, for the vast majority of South Africans enjoying a meal at such a restaurant is completely out of the question. Millions have to be satisfied with the most basic of food. For them, the outrage of the elite is like something from another world.
Meanwhile, in a rather less plush area of Cape Town, over 30 families were evicted from their shacks on December 28. These “illegally erected” shacks were bulldozed when the occupants were away, and so the authorities claimed they were unoccupied and therefore there was no need for a court order. For some of the families it was the second time in less than a week that they had suffered such treatment - not only were their homes destroyed, but much of their furniture and other possessions were damaged.
Unlike the area where these evictions of black shack-dwellers took place, the so-called Cape Flats are home to mainly ‘coloured’ (mixed-race) people. Many of them were dumped there in the apartheid era, when they were evicted from their (usually officially constructed) homes under the terms of the 1950 Group Areas Act and subsequent legislation, which declared many areas ‘whites only’.
While the majority of these displaced people do not live in shacks, many of their estates are totally bereft of facilities. Crime is rife and, according to a recently published book, “On the Cape Flats it’s believed that there are in the region of 120,000-180,000 kids under the age of 18 who are actively part of 20 different gangs. Knives and guns are part of everyday life.”6
The authorities respond with heavy jail sentences (there are over 15,000 inmates currently serving life!) and, according to Judge Johann van der Westhuizen, following the recent official inspection of Cape Town’s Pollsmoor prison, in which he took part, “The proliferation of gang violence and the often extreme violence of officials in retaliation is the norm”.7 Earlier that week three inmates were killed, allegedly by prison officers, after a brawl broke out and scores of prisoners were injured. “Some of the officials allegedly carried Okapi knives to attack the inmates,” said the judge. In general, “overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, sickness and the emaciated appearance of detainees” was what struck him about the country’s bulging prisons.
All this makes the news, of course, but the lead stories are more and more reserved for allegations of racism like the ones mentioned above. After all, while everyone in the political establishment agrees that eradicating mass poverty can only be a ‘long-term task’ (and no-one has any idea of how to go about it in any case), surely we can overcome racism in the here and now?
Just as in Britain, black and white TV presenters exchange light-hearted jokes after reading the South African Broadcasting Corporation news bulletins, while advertisements for cars, alcohol and insurance show black and white sharing their leisure time together. But everyone knows that such integration only affects a tiny minority. While thousands of blacks have joined the elite, thanks to official ‘black economic empowerment’ schemes (whereby those with the right contacts are given a helping hand up the ladder, courtesy of target-setting in relation to ownership and management), at the bottom nothing has changed.
It is true that you can see black and white kids playing together in wealthy suburbs and holiday resorts, but for the vast majority of the population it is as though apartheid never ended. Former black and coloured areas are still black and coloured, with almost no-one of a different ethnicity to be seen, particularly in the townships.
So does South Africa still suffer from racial oppression? For example, the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters, together with SACP and Cosatu rebels, consistently refer to “white monopoly capitalism”. In reality, even though the legacy of apartheid lives on more than two decades after its abolition, what is evident in South Africa is primarily class oppression. Members of the black elite and middle class who can afford to eat out or drive their own cars are not oppressed.
The only way the apartheid legacy can be overcome is through a working class-led revolution, as part of an international movement for global power. It is good that the SACP is finally reconsidering its alliance with the ANC, but oppositionists should regard this as an opportunity to fight for working class independence and a genuine Marxist party, not some “broader popular front”.
4. Weekend Argus December 24.
5. ANCWL statement, January 19.
6. R Richards Gangsterism and economic reconciliation in South Africa Cape Town 2015, p109-10.
7. Cape Times December 30.