After apartheid

Capital backs Mandela

In the first of three articles following his recent stay in South Africa Peter Manson analyses the process of capitalist consolidation following the transition from apartheid

Earlier this week an African National Congress delegation, headed by Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC chief negotiator during the transformation from apartheid, arrived in Belfast.

The delegation is part of a concerted drive by the British state, backed by Sinn Fein, to win a ‘yes’ vote in the May 22 referenda on the British-Irish Agreement. An SF spokesperson said that the ANC team would “bring a lot of experience of their own peace and negotiating process” to Ireland.

There is however far more than a superficial similarity between the South African and Irish peace processes. Both aim to establish a new social stability, based on the majority consent of all sections, in order to allow the more efficient operation of international capital. And both provide excellent opportunities for former leaders of the liberation struggle to carve out positions for themselves in respectable bourgeois politics and lucrative business openings.

Nobody could epitomise this more than Ramaphosa himself. Previously a leading ‘anti-capitalist’ figure in Cosatu, the main trade union centre, and formerly general secretary of the militant National Union of Mineworkers as well as of the ANC, he jumped ship two years ago. Today he is a multi-millionaire who heads the Johnnic industrial empire and New Africa Investments, the “emblem of black empowerment” (Weekly Mail and Guardian January 24 1997).

At the celebration dinner marking Anglo American’s launch of Johnnic, Anglo boss Michael Spicer congratulated Ramaphosa with the words, “I think we can call you Chairman Cyril now, rather than Comrade Cyril.” “Thank you, comrade Spicer,” replied Ramaphosa. In the name of “people’s capitalism” Johnnic sold 2.7 million shares to individuals in the “historically disadvantaged communities” - ie, to middle class blacks.

Clearly ‘black empowerment’ has nothing whatsoever to do with alleviating the plight of the impoverished South African millions. It is the accepted establishment euphemism for the self-enrichment of a tiny minority, for ensuring that continued capitalist exploitation can be safely fronted by black faces. ANC involvement in such arrangements reaches right to the top of the government and is considered perfectly splendid by the bourgeoisie. For example Zanele Mbeki, wife of president-in-waiting Thabo Mbeki, has an interest in a consortium which bid for Aventura, a government-owned company facing privatisation. She owns the Women’s Development Business, which trades as the Women’s Development Bank. A government spokesperson denied that there was any conflict of interest, as the position was known from the beginning and Mbeki was not directly involved in the bidding process herself.

The total value of the 52 known ‘black empowerment’ transactions during 1997 was 8.3 billion rand (£1 billion), according to chartered accountants Ernst and Young. As in the case of Johnnic, the acquiring ‘black’ companies are frequently set up by existing white businesses. Another example is that of Alexander Forbes, the financial services company, which has just launched a black-owned negotiated benefits firm, NBC Consultants and Actuaries. It will be responsible for handling funds worth R25 billion (£3 billion). Graeme Kerrigan, joint managing director of Forbes, explained that his company had effectively sold 71% ownership of its own negotiated benefits division in exchange for “guaranteed profits” in the new joint venture. “This is not just for socio-economic reasons,” he said, “but also because of cold-hearted capitalist reasons.”

That is why ‘black empowerment’ is actively encouraged by sections of the business establishment. Recently Jan le Roux of the PA Group estate agents berated those companies who were slow to take up measures of ‘affirmative action’. They were “missing out on a golden opportunity and could pay dearly for it,” he said.

Another capitalist tactic employed as part of the same process is to appoint former or even existing trade union leaders onto their boards. A recent remarkable example of this is the case of James Motlatsi, the president of the National Union of Mineworkers, who has just been appointed an executive director of Anglogold, a subsidiary of Anglo American, the world’s biggest gold producer and a major employer of NUM members.

“We will be misrepresented outside by quite a number of workers that the trade union has been coopted by management and that the interests of workers have been sold out,” said Motlatsi. I could not have phrased it better myself. Bob Godsell, the chief executive officer of Anglogold, claimed that the appointment did not mean that “any lines of contrast between ourselves and the union movement have become blurred”. Rather it was an excellent example of class collaboration, in that “both we and the union ... are entirely dependent for our future survival on the weal or woe of our industry”.

Not only have trade union leaders been elevated to the boards of existing companies; but ‘business unionism’ has itself become a significant force. Cosatu has set up the Kopana ka Matla Investment Company, while a number of its affiliates have followed suit. Several unions have substantial holdings in South Africa’s largest private health company, Netcare, and some have even set up capitalist firms which employ their own members. Many union companies are clients of Alexander Forbes’ ‘black empowerment’ offshoot, NBC.

Writing in the South African Labour Bulletin, Robert Mashego, the Gauteng chair of the rail and harbour workers’ union, Sarhwu, informed readers that the union had transformed itself from a militant into a “business-minded organisation”. He admitted that “the idea of union investment companies” was still new to workers. But, he added, it was “futile singing slogans about the working class taking control of the means of production without doing anything about it in practice”.

Mashego’s words admirably sum up the present character of the South African working class movement. Under the leadership of the South African Communist Party the Cosatu unions played a major role in the revolutionary upsurge which defeated apartheid. The language of class struggle dominated the union movement in the 1980s. But there was no theory beneath the militant Marxist phrases, no matter how sincerely they were voiced. So it is hardly surprising, with the SACP moving rightward at a rate of knots and former revolutionary leaders now heading the capitalist state, that prominent trade unionists seek to explain away their blatant class collaboration in pseudo-Marxist terms.

Some union leaders have expressed reservations about this wholehearted embrace of capitalism. Mbuyiselo Ngwenda, the general secretary of the metalworkers union, Numsa, has questioned Cosatu’s orientation: “It carries the potential to weaken the whole question of union principles and goals in the long term.” He went on: “Increasingly union investment companies are being seen to shape the behaviour of many unions and unionists, instead of vice versa.”

He asked: “Do we say, for instance, we are opposed to privatisation at a political level, but when it comes to acquisition of deals we just take whatever comes?” Comrade Ngwenda’s doubts have not however prevented his union from forming its own investment company.

Cosatu’s speedy adaptation in practice to capitalism - by deed, if not completely by word - has played no small part in keeping it firmly allied to the ANC government. Nelson Mandela’s administration has quietly put its 1994 reconstruction and development programme (RDP) on the back burner. The RDP promised one million new houses by the year 2000; 10 years’ free, compulsory education; quality healthcare for all; and two million extra jobs in 10 years. However, under pressure from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, this was soon superseded by the wondrously misnamed ‘growth, employment and redistribution programme’ (Gear).

Based on the overriding demand to limit government borrowing to three percent of the gross domestic product, Gear necessitates slashing public spending, axing thousands of jobs through state sector redundancies (retrenchments), the introduction of compulsory arbitration in industrial disputes, and extensive privatisations. Over the last two years the government has succeeded in cutting 138,000 state jobs, and has just embarked on a programme of easing out 43,000 teachers and other educational workers. According to the government, the civil service itself still employs 55,000 “surplus” staff.

Gear has led to that anachronism from the apartheid era, the National Party, presenting itself as attacking the ANC from the left. It complained bitterly of “the serious shortage of textbooks and stationery in most provinces” and called for a halt to the retrenchment of teachers.

While Cosatu - allegedly an equal alliance partner alongside the ANC and the SACP - was not consulted over the adoption of Gear, it has done no more than bleat its opposition, while thousands of its members lose their jobs. The SACP too has raised extremely muted criticisms, even though one of its leading members, Alec Erwin, a government minister, has spoken out in its favour. Cosatu general secretary Sam Shilowa said: “We must take pride in the government. We must show it where things go wrong. But even if things do not go well with the ANC, it is still our government.”

This notion was reinforced by Thabo Mbeki himself at a recent Cosatu recruitment rally in Johannesburg. He called on all workers to join Cosatu and, with nauseating hypocrisy, to “come together to fight retrenchments and unemployment”. Referring to the ANC-alliance emblem, he reminded his audience that Cosatu was the shield, while the ANC was the spear. He rather contemptuously dubbed the SACP “the small spear”.

Even when union tops lead defensive strikes arising directly from government policy, they claim to see no contradiction between industrial opposition and political support. For example the government has just reneged on a three-year pay deal in the public sector, and three unions have threatened strike action. Thulas Nxesi, the general secretary of Sadtu, the teachers’ union, said: “This has nothing to do with the ANC, the SACP or the alliance; it is a matter between employer and employees.” SACP members hold prominent positions in the leadership of most unions of course, as well as in the ANC government.

Finance minister Trevor Manuel described his dealings with the union leaders in an interview with the South African Sunday Times last month. “The relationship with Cosatu is warm and cordial,” he said.

“On some policy issues we have not been able to agree. So it comes as no surprise that the person I am having discussions with leads a march against me a few days later. Sometimes we even tacitly agree but are unable to articulate that we do - for example, on the need to have an affordable retrenchment bill. But I cannot expect a union leader to get up and publicly support retrenchment - their commitment is to their members” (March 22).

This statement demonstrates not so much the ANC disdain for the Cosatu tops as its absolute contempt for the working class itself.

While to date the government has been able to keep Cosatu on board, its support from the bourgeois establishment increases by the day. Although the question of “the sustainability of its alliance with the trade unions” (Cape Argus April 4) gives rise to some concern, business commentators in general express their confidence. For example, Hendrik du Toit of Investec Asset Management told his audience at a recent business seminar that their investments were safe in the run-up to the 1999 election. “Quite clearly the next election is a one-horse race, and the horse is deputy president Thabo Mbeki.”

According to the Argus, du Toit expressed satisfaction that “black economic and political empowerment has consolidated and there is far less uncertainty in South Africa than before. The main problems facing the ANC government, du Toit says, are that it is caught between the hammer of international financial markets and the anvil of the poverty of its constituents.” Rather, it seems to me, the government has firmly grasped the hammer itself.

Johann Rupert, whose family company controls around 85% of the South African cigarette market, also had kind words for the ANC. “The central government has been really exemplary in cutting expenditure,” he said. “They are fiscally far more prudent than their predecessors ... and take note of our concerns” (quoted in Revolutionary Socialist, paper of the South African International Socialist Movement, June-July 1997).

More recently the same sentiments were expressed by the director of the World Bank’s human development department, Peter Fallon. “Confidence is a very difficult thing to measure,” he stated, “but one crucial component is the pursuance of social stability in South Africa. Fortunately great progress has been made towards that end since the present government came to power in 1994. We certainly do not want to see escalating fiscal deficits, and I am pleased to say that the government has done a great job on this” (Cape Times April 7).

It is true that Mandela has been ticked off by some for not being sufficiently stringent in cutting the budget deficit as a result of his “willingness to cosy up to the far left, especially Cosatu, to perk up his political support” (Wall Street Journal), but by and large bourgeois commentators nearer home have been much more aware of the careful path Mandela has had to tread in order at least to neutralise the revolutionary aspirations of the working class masses.

Yunnis Carrin, an ANC/SACP provincial MP in KwaZulu Natal, expressed this contradiction in this way: “We need to define a clear economic policy that will suit both the rich and the poor” - an outrageous statement for a self-proclaimed ‘communist’.

Anyone who has passed through the sprawling Khayelitsha township, as I did earlier this month, will know what Carrin is referring to when he talks of “the poor”. Just outside Cape Town, Khayelitsha is growing daily, as every centimetre of space is taken up by the 300,000 residents who inhabit shacks of wood, tin or cardboard. To imagine that these people have any common economic interest whatsoever with “the rich” - the big business fat cats whose major concern is to ensure that these same masses can be controlled - is to defy reason.

But a call for class against class - let alone a Marxist analysis - is the last thing you would expect now from the SACP.

Next week I will look at its role in attempting to retain the masses’ support for the ANC capitalist government.