Unfinished revolution: Post-Apartheid South Africa shows the need to take on capitalism at its roots

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It was broadcast live around the world. Hundreds of millions watched as, walking slowly along a tree-lined road, wearing a grey suit and with his fist in the air, Nelson Mandela took his first steps as a free man in 28 years. His release on 11 February 1990 was a victory, not only for black South Africans, but also for the millions of activists across the globe that had fought to end the racist Apartheid regime. The policy of Apartheid – meaning “separateness” – had enslaved the non-white majority for decades. Slightly over four years later, Mandela, the former leader of the armed struggle, was inaugurated as the first post-Apartheid president of South Africa. Sixteen years on, South Africa’s desperately poor Black population still suffers the crippling poverty and dispossession of the Apartheid decades.

The African National Congress (ANC), once an instrument of the struggle to liberate the poor against capitalist oppression, has turned into the instrument for that oppression. This was the inevitable outcome of the movement’s failure to take on capitalism itself. Of course the fight to overthrow the brutal white supremacist Afrikaner regime was a just one. But, as many commented at the time, changing the Constitution and occupying the government benches of Parliament never leads to real liberation. That requires a fundamental change in social relations, so that wealth – and the means of creating it – is distributed to those who do the work.

A pro-capitalist party.

One of the easiest political errors is to assume that the leadership of a national liberation struggle is inherently revolutionary. But the overthrow of capitalism was never part of the ANC’s program. Its platform is based on what it calls the National Democratic Revolution (NDR), and for anybody confused about what that means, here’s a passage from a 2007 “discussion paper” on the strategies and tactics of the ANC:

“A national democratic society is made up of various classes and strata. The NDR seeks to eradicate the specific relations of production that underpin the national and patriarchal oppression of the majority of South Africans. It does not eradicate capitalist relations of production in general.”

That the masses of South Africa have not benefited much, if at all, from the formal abolition of racist laws stems from this inconvenient truth, to use a popular phrase. The root cause of poverty, ill health and dispossession in the country is capitalism. In South Africa, the form of oppression was Apartheid, but its essence was, and remains, private property and the profit system. The aspiration and the rights of South Africans cannot be fulfilled while the country’s vast resources are the guaranteed property of a few wealthy whites (and even fewer Blacks), who share some crumbs with middle class technocrats and functionaries, such as the leadership of the ANC.

Going backwards.

The ANC’s neoliberal policies have had a devastating effect on the poor. On average, two-thirds of the workforce is unemployed (official figures put it at 22%), and in some of the poorer townships almost no one has a secure job. Fifty percent of the population has an income below the poverty line. Eighteen percent of the adult population is infected with HIV/AIDS. The health system has been dismantled and privatised; literacy and numeracy rates have decreased as the education system is allowed to run down. Even the power supply is failing – undercapacity means rolling blackouts, particularly in the Western Cape region, that have cost billions of Rand in lost production. Disgracefully, that last statistic is irrelevant to the millions of South Africa’s poorest, who have no access to electricity, or sewerage or even running water. Crime is often a measure of desperate poverty. The most recent statistics show that in South Africa there is one murder per 2,000 people per year. In Australia it’s one per 67,000. In the poorest settlements, the depths of misery is almost indescribable. Meanwhile 200 billion Rand ($AUD30 billion) is funneled out of the country each year to line the pockets of CEOs and shareholders in the developed countries.

The AIDS atrocity

. One of the most scandalous policies of the ANC under former president, Thabo Mbeki, was to deny the link between AIDS and HIV. For reasons that are still not clear, Mbeki gathered around him a coterie of “experts” who, despite the science, denied that HIV causes AIDS. So rabid was Mbeki that one of his contributions to the debate was first thought to be a hoax. AIDS campaigners and experts were smeared as supporters of Apartheid. Mbeki appointed a health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who believed that “herbal remedies” like beetroot and olive oil could cure the disease. Retroviral drugs were demonised as “toxins.” The result of Mbeki’s attitude was devastating. Nicoli Nattrass, of the University of Cape Town, estimates that 343,000 more AIDS deaths and 171,000 infections resulted, an outcome she refers to as “genocide by sloth.” It was not until Nelson Mandela himself intervened that Mbeki was shamed into backing down. One of the first acts of his successor was to sack the health minister, replacing her with a respected former activist who apologised for the “shame” of Mbeki’s inaction. She might have widened that shame to include the entire ANC leadership, which did nothing while many of the people it claimed to represent sickened and died needlessly.

Living in the past.

The ANC is a social democratic party that, like the Australian Labor Party (ALP), clings to the idea that the poor can advance within the capitalist economy through reforms. It’s an idea springing from the late 19th century when, particularly where there were strong unions and labor shortages, concessions could be squeezed out of big business. But it’s a program for the 19th century, not the 21st. As the Global Financial Crisis so well demonstrated, the world economy is rotten to its foundations, and big business is no longer capable of granting society-wide concessions. South Africa is proof of this. Why else would a relatively efficient and cheap healthcare system end up a wreck in such a short time? How else can the failure of Africa’s strongest economy to feed and house the majority of its people be explained?

As with so many African national liberation movements – none of which seriously challenged imperialism – the ANC is heading toward a collision course with the masses of people who once supported it and have nothing but anger at its failure. Already there have been local revolts, which have been met with Apartheid-style brutality.

One only has to look to South Africa’s neighbour, Zimbabwe, to see where the ANC’s politics could lead. Today, the ANC is a long way from the moribund ZANU-PF regime of Robert Mugabe. But the degeneration of that national liberation struggle shows what’s possible.

Beyond the ANC.

There are signs of popular discontent with the ruling party. A 2008 split in the ANC reflects this – although the splinter group, Congress of the People, seems more concerned with arguing about division of the privileges of government than the plight of the poor. The Congress of South African Trade Unions needs to show leadership in opposing the ANC. One way of doing this would be to walk out of the Triple Alliance, which has it in coalition with the government party and the South African Communist Party (SACP). The SACP is so tied to government policy that there is little point in calling on it to do anything to oppose its ANC buddies.

In the end, the solution for the working people and the poor of South Africa lies in the most advanced political activists coming together in a revolutionary party, whose aim is to overturn the economic system that underpinned Apartheid and is still responsible for starvation, death and misery in a country with so much natural wealth and such an undeveloped pool of labour.

The real revolution in South Africa remains unfinished. As the old war cry “Amandla!” (Power!) implied, the poor need to rule in their own names. It’s the only road forward.

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