South Africa: The ANC monopoly is over

Striking NUMSA members in 2014. NUMSA is the key force in the new SRWP. (Reuters)


“We are the only ones fighting for the total destruction of capitalism.” — South Africa’s Socialist Revolutionary Worker’s Party spokesperson, Phakamile Hlubi-Majola

The May 8 National and Provincial elections in South Africa revealed deepening—potentially explosive—fault lines of class and race. The once overwhelming choice of South Africa’s working class, the African National Congress (ANC), the Party of Nelson Mandela, is ebbing. Disgust with ANC corruption and neoliberal policies reduced voter turnout to 66% of eligible voters, compared with 73% in 2014.

Even so, the national returns show the ANC garnered 57% of the vote, earning it 230 seats in the National Assembly, down from 249 in 2014.

Following the May 8 results, the National Assembly elected ANC leader Cyril Ramaposa as South Africa’s new president. Shocking to many outside of South Africa, Ramaposa’s personal wealth was estimated at $550 million in 2017, a reality that highlights the extreme contradictions of this supposedly working-class party. Ramaphosa is an ex-union militant who led the National Union of Mineworkers.

The second-place Democratic Alliance (DA) slipped from 22% in 2014 to 20% this year. It will have 84 seats in the National Assembly, down from 89. Long regarded as the party of white conservatives, the DA has tried to appeal to middle-class Blacks. As a result, the DA’s white right-wing base switched to the Freedom Front Plus (FF+), of separatist Afrikaner racists. FF+ will now have 10 seats in the National Assembly, up from four.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), founded by Julius Malema, former president of the ANC’s Youth League, won 10.79% of the vote and 44 seats, up from 6% in 2014, 19 more than it won five years ago. The EFF successfully taps into much of the anger of impoverished Blacks. “Our land and jobs now!” was the EFF slogan. EFF members dress in red, including in parliament, and use leftist rhetoric, but lack a clear perspective. The EFF has called for the “expropriation” of large, mostly white-owned, land but modified their radical demand in a deal with ANC parliamentarians. Malema was expelled from the ANC in 2011 by Ramaphosa.

The ANC assumed power in 1994 with the official fall of apartheid, and despite its “progressive” posturing pretensions, has always been a capitalist party. A centerpiece of its program is the “Freedom Charter,” a populist program that does not challenge the roots of exploitation, i.e., capitalism. The ANC is part of a tripartite coalition that includes the large COSATU union federation and the South African Communist Party (SACP).

The ANC presides over a country of 55 million, 80% non-white, in which 37% of all workers are unemployed and more than half live in poverty. One in four goes hungry every day. Merely 1% of the population owns 70% of the wealth. Spending on basic education has declined 8% since the economic crisis in 2008, which led to a nationwide student revolt. Indeed, South Africa has been called the “protest capital of the world.”

A turning point in post-apartheid South Africa was the August 2012 massacre of 34 unarmed strikers at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana. As a non-ex-ecutive director of the mining company, Lonmin, ANC top bureaucrat Cyrile Ramaphosa described the strikers to ANC cops in an e-mail as “plainly dastardly criminal and must be characterized as such … There needs to be concomitant action to address this situation” (see the award-winning documentary, “Miners Shot Down”).

That same year, the ANC’s Ramaphosa bid R20 million (US$1.5 million) for a prize buffalo.

In 2018, Ramaphosa decreed a R20 minimum wage per hour (about $1.31 per hour) for workers. In April 2018, NUMSA (the National United Metalworkers of South Africa) led a nationwide strike against Ramaphosa’s slave labor proposal (see Socialist Action, May 2018). More recently, there have been escalating blackouts as the Eskom power authority cuts electricity, enraging working-class customers. As a “solution,” the ANC is preparing privatization schemes for education, water, communications, and health care.

The SRWP: An historic development?

An exciting new force in the electoral arena is the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP), which has been stridently revolutionary in its pronouncements. The nation’s largest union, NUMSA (National United Metalworkers of South Africa), resolved in 2013 to form a new party after its expulsion from the COSATU trade-union federation for not supporting the ANC presidential candidate over the party’s role in Marikana. For some reason it did not declare its intention to actually run until only a month before election day.

Unfortunately, the SRWP received only 24,439 votes, not nearly enough for a single seat in parliament, which means that even the NUMSA membership did not vote for the party in any great numbers. It is too early to judge whether the party’s overall strategies were to blame.

The SRWP is based on the militant NUMSA, with a total membership of over 370,000. NUMSA played the leading role in founding the SAFTU union federation in 2017, which now has 800,000 members. It is the next largest trade-union coalition next to ANC partner COSATU.

Clearly, the SRWP, at least in its declarations, has rejected the endless latch-ups of middle-class “socialist” formations in recent years such as Greece’s SYRIZA party, PODEMOS of Spain, the Green parties, the Sandinistas, and Venezuela’s United Socialist Party (PSUV), etc., parties that oriented toward elections and accommodation to capitalism. Also, since the SRWP is based on South Africa’s largest trade-union, NUMSA, the party’s emergence is of world significance for the working class, in a country that is second economically on the African continent.

SRWP National Chairperson and NUMSA secretary-general Irvin Jim, puts it bluntly, “As communists we have an old view that elections are not necessarily a solution; however, they are a tactic that can be explored to test if we have the support of the working class.”

In addition, the SRWP pledges that if any SRWP ca didates win legislative seats in the upcoming election they will be subject to instant recall by the party and will not be paid more than the wage of an “average skilled worker,” principles advanced by the Bolshevik party of Lenin.

The SRWP has protested the vote totals and is not accepting the May 8 election results at face value. It gives examples of “evidence of faults and fraud” at the hands of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and concludes that it would be “impossible” for the party “to scientifically accept the accuracy of the results of these elections.” The SRWP, however, has not faulted its own approach to the masses. Where the truth lies remains to be seen.

Thus far, the SRWP has also refrained from criticizing the EFF, possibly so as to not rule out a future political block or fusion. If so, the lack of political clarity may prove costly in the end. Another possible reason for the omission is that the EFF obviously received many votes from NUMSA members but also, it has been reported, a third of the votes in the platinum mining area of Marikana.

Stalinism and the ANC

A key component of the leadership of the ANC has always been the South African Communist Party. The SACP was founded in 1921 and within a few years became politically aligned with the perspectives of the Stalinized Communist International. The Comintern was led by the USSR’s Premier Joseph Stalin, (1878-1953) and solidified after the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924 and the expulsion and later murder of revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky in 1940 on Stalin’s orders.

Stalin reigned over a conservatized Soviet bureaucracy that enjoyed material privileges. Aided by repression, the once revolutionary Bolshevik party moved to the right. After around 1935, revolution was seen by Stalinist parties as a two-part process in which support for a “democratic” capitalist government was to be a stage on the road to socialist transformation, i.e., workers power—which never arrives when led by Stalinists. But, as the Lenin-Trotsky leadership had insisted, “democratic” capitalism is not a progressive force under modern imperialism but counter-revolutionary through and through. Reliance on “democratic” capitalists, and not the revolutionary power of workers, led to bloody defeats again and again (Chile, Spain, etc.).

The Stalinist “two-stage” strategy was accepted by the SACP beginning in the 1930s and subsequently, despite the fact that party leaders took their distance from some of Stalin’s “excesses” after his death. In the 1950s, the party adopted the tactic of working within the ANC; its strategy was fully consistent with the famous “Freedom Charter.” In 1987, a SACP message to the second COSATU trade-union congress warned, “Socialism is not on the agenda.”

When Nelson Mandela, who appears to have been a Communist Party member in the 1960s, took over in 1994, large loans from Western banks were already in the pipeline conditioned on neoliberal measures, i.e., belt-tightening for workers. In 1992, Joe Slovo, an SACP leader, offered the key compromise of a “sunset clause,” to be included into the new South African constitution, which dropped all references to nationalizations. In 1996, when launching the ANC’s neoliberal “GEAR” program, the ANC’s Thabo Mbeki, later South Africa’s president, said, “Just call me a Thatcherite.”

SRWP may carry considerable political baggage of reformism, Stalinism, etc., but the revolutionary statements from its leadership should make us hopeful and ready to mobilize our solidarity in future struggles.

South Africa may have officially thrown off the chains of racist apartheid but it is now in a state of “economic apartheid,” crushing the lives of the Black majority and all other workers. As the SRWP correctly states, elections are merely a barometer of class consciousness. Only revolution can obliterate the nightmare of capitalism in South Africa.

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