South Africa: The Socialists Speak

Brian Kelly
South Africa: The Socialists Speak25 years fter the fall of Apartheid, South Africa remains a deeply unequal society. But are things beginning to change, as cracks appear in the country’s ruling party, the ANC? Brian Kelly recently sat down with Trevor Ngwane, Simphiwe Zwane and Edwin Lfufutswane—three activists on the South African Radical Left—to get their take on politics there today.



It’s now 25 years since the fall of apartheid, the government run by the ANC is imposing austerity and South Africa is the most unequal society in the world. What is your sense of how people feel in terms of the gap between their expectations of what the end of apartheid would bring and the reality of life today?

During the struggle against apartheid, expectations were very high. At some point, there was even a belief that the new society could be socialist—maybe not what everyone would call socialist—but people thought life would cater for everyone’s needs. Indeed, when the ANC were campaigning, Mandela had his famous line, ‘Jobs for All, Houses for All, Healthcare for All’, and for some years there was a lot of hope. The main socio-economic policy adopted after the 1994 election was the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP)—it had been part of the ANC manifesto. As part of RDP, development committees were formed in every area. We had weekly, biweekly and sometimes daily meetings, talking about development in our areas. Maybe the RDP was not exactly socialist, but it was vaguely redistributive and socially democratic. Even today, all free government housing is called RDP housing.

The shift to a more neoliberal approach happened in 1996. People today are sore that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. The worst part is that there is a sense of deterioration, especially for the lower sections of the working class. Some of the poor are poorer than they were during apartheid, though of course it’s all relative. For example, after declining between 2015 to 2018, the rate of poverty has now increased again. We saw people getting slightly better off, then the austerity policies bit. People can get a free house and they are good for a year, and then they are not able to cope with the municipal rates—with the water, the electricity. Some even leave their house and go back to their shack.

How has the left tried to relate to this sense of disappointment? Has the left been able to rebuild itself on the basis of that or have there been problems?

In 1996, when the ANC came up with neoliberal policies like Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR), the historic block made up of the ANC, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP)—the Triple Alliance—was so hegemonic that even though people were complaining, the Alliance attempted to smother and contain any complaints.

An early rupture happened in 1999/2000 when the left supported the formation of ‘mini-mass’ single issue social movements—like the Anti-Privatisation Forum, the Anti-Eviction Campaign, the Treatment Action Campaign for HIV Patients (the ANC refused to give people treatment and were forced by the movement)—which thrived for around five years, until around 2004. The left’s participation in the movements declined because it did not understand them; they were not associated with organised labour because most of organised labour was contained within the Triple Alliance. The left in the movements started to make an issue of this, saying “We cannot trust COSATU, they are part of the bourgeois state”, and the division between the employed and the unemployed, the poor and those in the labour movement, grew.

And so the poor communities started to rise up—spontaneously, locally and separately. From 2004 until even today, you can find areas within towns like Pimville (in Soweto), where I live, like different zones (Zone 1, Zone 2 etc), protesting around things like electricity, water, roads, healthcare, sometimes even crime. These protests have been happening since 2004 and have been increasing in frequency, in disruption, and in violence even. The last big protest was during the national election in May. But the left has not managed to link up with them. It is difficult because although the movements are strong on the whole, they are all over the show: fragmented. They haven’t cohered.

Today there is a glimmer of hope. NUMSA, the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa—the biggest union with 330,000 members—left the Triple Alliance in 2013 after the Marikana massacre, when mine-workers were killed and injured by gunfire from state police, and following some years of growing criticism of ANC economic policy. So the left believes there is a possibility, with NUMSA and the community protests coming together, to recreate a working class movement. That’s what some people on the left are now working on.

Can you give some context to the recent election where there was an impressive showing from the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), but a quite disappointing result for the newly formed Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party (SRWP)?

The Economic Freedom Fighters have a left reformist agenda. They call themselves ‘Marxist-Leninist-Fanonist’ but in practice, they are left reformist. They are the second largest opposition party after Democratic Alliance (DA), which is centre-right. In the 2014 elections, EFF got 6% but they have now increased to 10% of the national vote—around 2 million votes. The ANC went down from 62% to 57%. The DA went down slightly too, so the EFF is the only growing party, with the exception of a small right-wing, white party. This gives hope that people are looking for a left alternative. Because it is left reformist, people are looking at it like they look at the ANC; they want it to deliver, but they don’t really trust it yet.

The SRWP was formed a month before the election by NUMSA. They left the Triple Alliance in 2014 and it took them four years to form a party. They were very slow. In any case, they didn’t do so well in the election and they made many mistakes. One of the mistakes was that they projected themselves as a vanguardist party. When you join, you go on an induction and then you are on probation for six months. But because of the proximity of the election, they had to act like a mass party, just recruiting and running people. So their whole image and strategy wasn’t cohesive. Maybe now, after the election, they will settle down and go back to the drawing board. But the problem they have created, is that they may have undermined the idea of a workers’ party.

Can you tell us, firstly, about the campaigns you’re currently involved in?

I am an activist working on the ground with the Electricity Crisis community, fighting for service delivery; I’m from Thembelihle, an informal settlement south of Johannesburg. We have won electricity and we are fighting for sewers, and obviously housing. The campaigns are happening within an informal settlement, among shack dwellers. We have won electricity, but it was a very long journey. We started to fight for it in 2002 and we only managed to win in 2016 after a long campaign of peaceful marches and protests. It was a long fight.

What is the response of local elected ANC representatives to these campaigns, since they came to power promising the things you are fighting for?

Well firstly they wanted to relocate us to a different settlement but we refused, because the Housing Act says that you cannot move people from one informal settlement to another. We told them that we want proper houses, but when we started that discussion, they brought in the issue of dolomite (houses can’t be built on top of dolomite because of the possibility of sinkholes). They told us we would not have access to services and gave as an excuse that the area is dolomited. When we resisted the move, they took us to court. We were lucky to have the help of a legal advocate who works with the movement; they approached us to take up the case and we worked with him and organised workshops to better understand the process. He also connected us to Human Settlement Rights, who organised a [geological] survey of the area which proved that it was possible to build houses in the area. We felt strong in our campaign at Thembelihle, because we had resisted and won.

Are the protests around delivery of services like electricity met with violence from the police?

Usually we would organise a mass meeting and decide on an action; for example, we will wake up at 3am and then go to block the road. Usually when we get there at 3am, the police are already there waiting for us. Usually, as soon as the police see us, they begin to fire rubber bullets at us.

Obviously we need to fight back—and we do that using stones while they use tear gas and rubber bullets—but if they let us peacefully block the road, there would be no violence. Usually we would sing the whole day through, blocking the road to get attention for our cause. It is the police who instigate the violence.

Finally: it’s 25 years since the end of apartheid. People were hopeful about what that would bring. How do people feel about the gap between their expectations and their reality today?

I don’t know what to say. It was a great disappointment. When the ANC took power, black people and whites who believed in freedom were very happy and thought things would get better, the problems with basic service delivery would be ended, and equality would come. But the opposite happened. Now we see racism is no longer the only problem—it’s not just about colour anymore. Now it’s about the poor vs the rich. We get a sense that poor black people are losing hope because the amount of people voting is down. People are still registering because being on the register can help with things like getting a job, but voting is declining.

And a good indicator of how bad it is, is that when I talk with elders they talk about the time before apartheid ended and say that there weren’t people on the streets then, that people could get work and could feed their families. Today it is worse than during apartheid. The unemployment rate is so high, crime is high, poverty rates are high. When we look at the leadership of the ANC now, they give us no hope. Every day we wake up and there is a new scandal. They are looting; there is massive corruption. We can’t have hope in them anymore.

Where are you currently based as an SRWP activist?

I’m a chairperson of a branch in Johannesburg and I was also a co-coordinator for the party during the recent elections.

25 years after the fall of apartheid, South Africa under the ANC remains the most unequal society in the world. How do black workers in particular feel about how South Africa is today, compared with their expectations at the end of apartheid?

This is a really critical question. Lots of black people are asking this question, about what we expected after apartheid and we aren’t really getting any answers. We expected an equal society where resources are shared equally. But what we see now are ‘Black Empowerment Policies’ that are based on neoliberalism and the only blacks who seem to benefit are members of the ANC. Only the black elite are benefiting.

Of course things are better in terms of racism than under the system of apartheid, but in terms of living conditions, things are worse. To take one example, if you look at the quality of housing that was provided to people during apartheid, it was decent, but under the Reform Development Programme (RDP), people are given just one room. We have a democratically elected government now, but this is what they decide. The RDP was meant to improve our lot, but look at the statistics; unemployment is up to 55%. Even during apartheid, people were expected to work and they were expected to go to school, irrespective of the system of racial separation in place during that time.

On the left internationally, many people were very inspired by the strength of black workers— through their mobilisations and strike activity—to break apartheid, but that power has not been so apparent recently. What do you think is the prospect for organised black workers, through trade unions, to shape new developments going forward?

What is fundamental here is the element of division. Once you become a worker, you no longer class yourself as a community fighter. You are a trade union fighter within your workplace and for your workplace. When there is a struggle of students, for example, it feels like it is nothing to do with you. But of course, we are the working parents of those students and we pay those fees. We need to stop only thinking in the spaces we exist. We need to recognise, in our trade unions, that our fight is not just for the those exploited at work, but for all workers, including the unemployed and people living in impoverished communities. Officials in COSATU (who remain part of the Triple Alliance, alongside the ANC) are still in the hands of the bourgeoisie, only representing workers in a narrow way within the ANC’s framework.

Since NUMSA broke from COSATU and became independent, it has been challenging exploitation and tackling minimum wages. Unions today need to take inspiration from the unions of the apartheid era and ask what was key to building workers’ power then. Because the people who have the real power to bring revolution in South Africa today are workers in the trade unions.

SRWP was launched shortly before the last election with backing from NUMSA, but most commentators would say it was a disappointing election result, and some on the right argue this shows there is no appetite for revolutionary politics in South Africa today. Can you explain the election results and speak of the space for revolutionary politics?

When SRWP was launched, we looked at what parliament means for us in terms of revolution and we, at our national congress, agreed that elections and parliament are not important for us. Revolution is important and our mandate is mobilising the masses from the ground up.

Those elections—whether we got as little as 9 votes—it didn’t really matter to us. We wanted a better vote, sure, to show that South Africans supported the idea of socialism. But even the secretary of the ANC government said to the South African people that the only threat to their party was the SRWP because we aren’t talking about the issues of parliament, but instead we are preparing ourselves as revolutionaries.

We want to expose the parliament as something that will never bring us change.

There seems to be frustration in the South African left that there is a lack of unity among those forces to the left of the ANC. Is the SRWP interested in pulling together an alliance beyond your own ranks?

The SRWP is a brand by itself. Many people in civil organisations are questioning the leadership of the SRWP because when it was set up, the shop stewards of NUMSA who formed the party said they would run for chairperson and secretary positions. For those in civil organisations who raise questions about trade union leadership, they should come to the table and we can address them together.

We cannot have yet another party of the left in the next election. We already had another party of the left during the last election—WASP—because of the divisions among comrades who oppose the idea of a ‘trade union party’ and argue that it can’t be a party of Marxists or socialism.

We are calling on all those who say such things to come on board and start a conversation about Marxism and socialism and where we might have gone wrong in that regard, and how we can move forward toward the revolution together