South African movement against neo-liberalism is on the move

It it ironic that thousands yesterday protested against the spending on World Cup stadiums instead of on South Africa’s poor on June 16, the anniversary of the Soweto-uprising in 1976. But since South Africa’s first truly democratic elections in 1994, the ANC government have gradually but unremittingly gone back on their own ideals and promises of socialism, nationalisation and general redistribution – even though Mandela himself had promised in 1990 that, “the nationalisation of the mines, banks and monopoly industries is the policy of the ANC, and a change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable”.

The ideals of the Freedom Charter initially spawned the compromise of the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) that contained elements of both neo-liberalism and socialism, but the RDP quickly gave way to the trickle-down economics, government spending cut-backs, and focus on macroeconomic stability of the more fully neo-liberalistic Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) plan – planned in virtual secrecy together with the IMF and the World Bank in 1996.

On the other hand, the global crisis has unveiled the flaws and unsustainability of capitalism and therefore presents progressive people in countries such as South Africa with a golden opportunity to demand change.

According to the co-editor of South African Left-wing magazine Amandla, Brian Ashley, South Africa is a prime example of the failure of capitalism and capitalism’s attempt to overcome inequality through the market. Not only has the present ANC government not instigated systemic change as promised, but in fact “Zuma has extended the ANC’s neo-liberal policies”. The reason that South Africans in general, and ANC supporters in particular, initially believed that Zuma was a credible Left-wing alternative to Mbeki, says Ashley, is that “Zuma promises all things to all people. He is a authoritarian populist”. The lack of improvement, redistribution, and change has caused great anger amongst South Africa’s poor that has resulted in a wave of strikes.

These strikes have continued during the World Cup, a prestige project that is “another manifestation of the way in which a strategy is so skewed away from the needs of basic people”, according to Ashley. “It will not provide us with any change, but as it came closer, we all put on our Bafana t-shirts and got exited. This excitement has no substance in terms of a lasting integration process. The so called nation-building is a fiction and will not have long-term effects”. He believes the World Cup will in fact increase already existing divisions, because it will increase the already strong South African exclusivism and chauvinism against the country’s immigrant population.

Ashely also believes that the World Cup could have an unintended significance, however, as it might easily cause a 1976-like crisis because of the obvious discrepancies between the lavish spending of the World Cup and the unsustainable levels of poverty in South Africa. “After the World Cup we will have a big break. The spontaneous uprising in 1976 broke the legitimacy of apartheid. A similar uprising today could have the same effect”.

What politically disgruntled South Africans need to do is learn from the past successes of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the students’ uprising in Soweto. “The significance of June 16th”, says Ashley, “is that it was the beginning of the end of the apartheid regime. The 1976 uprising marked a break, where every attempt to reform the system was too little, too late. This has lessons for South Africa today”.

But to facilitate a change for the better, the South African Left needs to organise and join hands with the “internal opposition” of the tripartite alliance, COSATU, to form a political movement that will ensure that the increasing anger is vented in the right direction, and not towards immigrants as is now often the case. “The movement have previously tended to isolate itself from COSATU because they are seen as part of the problem, part of the betrayal”, says Ashley. On the other hand, COSATU’s secretary general, Zwelinzima Vavi, is one of the few voices inside the alliance that has openly criticised Zuma, and the long-standing consensus between the ANC, SACP and COSATU thus seems to be coming to an end.

The Conference of the Democratic Left (CDL) is trying  to build a strong, UDF-like, political movement with COSATU. The CDL is “a front against neo-liberalism” that is “trying to develop an alternative, trying to link up with the Left inside the alliance, and bring together political activists” such as unionists, shack-dwellers and the members of a variety of movements. These organisations had previously been fragmented in fighting for their own localised issues, such as housing and anti-eviction, and many “expressed a strong anti-politics view”. What must be done, Ashley insists, is to “take such immediate issues of relevance to people and link them to the larger issues”, and then they will eventually come to see themselves as struggling against the same global, neo-liberal structures. This is already happening, which is why he believes that these organisations “resemble the organisations of the UDF” that had united to fight the common enemy of apartheid.

It is not yet clear whether the CDL will eventually take part in elections, although with the ANC being seen as increasingly corrupt by many and the Democratic Alliance being at least as neo-liberal as the ANC, there is certainly both space and need for an electable and credible Left-wing, pro-poor alternative.

If it chooses to do so, the policies of the CDL must include progressive programmes such as a national health insurance system; a house-building programme that will help address the unemployment crisis by training people to become electricians as masons; and investing in the educational system to be able to bring about real change. All such programmes must be inclusive, however, for them to have any lasting effect, Ashley concludes. “Any political process must be built at grass-roots level”, because “we need an impulse towards democratising every aspect of society – this is true socialism”.

Brian Ashley is the co-editor of Amandla, a South African bi-monthly magazine that covers current political, economic and social issues from a Left-wing perspective and a CDL national steering committee member. Brian gave a presentation on the current situation and developments in South Africa in connection with his participation in the celebrations of the anniversary of the Soweto-uprising in 1976 at Africa Contact’s secretariat in Copenhagen on June 16.

Links:

Conference of the Democratic Left website

Left grouping wants right to work to become law, Daily Dispatch, 20 July 2010

Conference of the Democratic Left: Unite to make another South Africa and world possible!

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