When legal apartheid finally ended in 1994, South Africa’s new democracy faced one overwhelming challenge: to improve the lives of the country’s poor, or at least to maintain the hope that the future would be better. Yet with an enduring global economic recession, it can no longer be denied, not even by the eternal optimists of corporate South Africa, that the lot of the country’s poor has not sufficiently improved, despite ever increasing social grant distribution. And chances that their lives will improve, are slim. The destitute and working poor are now in an open and permanent revolt that flares up according to local conditions — they protest against a political and economic system that promised too much and delivered too little.
The so-called ‘service delivery protests’ are in fact a revolt of the poor that has intensified over the past few years and seems to be fuelled by a growing inequality and continuously rising living expenses that are eating away the little resources available to them. The hopes and aspirations of a better life after apartheid appear to be crushed by economic and social stagnation. What is apparent is that only the well-educated and well-connected, primarily most white people and the growing black (African, Indian, Coloured) professional class, are able to reach beyond the basic necessities and live the good life. While every year South Africa is subject to labour unrest when industry wages are re-negotiated, the recent violent confrontations between striking workers and police and private security operatives, can hardly be dismissed as ‘hiccups’, as the country’s president, Jacob Zuma, described them.
The brutal killing of striking miners by state security police in Marikana made it clear that the state is using repressive force to quell what are political protests over living conditions. The remilitarization of the police services initiated by the Zuma administration in 2008 bears much responsibility for a lethal state that has run out of ideas how to deal with the (violent) dissatisfaction of its citizens. Again, during the current farm protests in the Cape, reports of police brutality abound; the life of one farm protester at the hands of the police has already been claimed.
As in Marikana, business and government are insisting on adherence to and enforcement of the law — while the protesting workers have adhered to the law for 18 years of democracy without getting much in exchange. The law, apparently defined as primarily safety and security, as ‘keeping the peace’ through law enforcement, is increasingly being used as a political weapon to quell political activity from below. It becomes more and more difficult not to see this stance by government, in collusion with the biggest unions and in particular with organized business, as a war on the working poor and on dissent. Governance for the people is replaced with dismal politics in which human lives are mere pawns in a game for power and resources.
Revealing their mutual inability and unwillingness to address the basic needs of workers who are close to the breadline and fighting off ever-increasing costs of staple foods, the two major parties, the ruling African National Congress and the Democratic Alliance (they run one of the 9 provinces, the Western Cape, and a major city, Cape Town), indulge in costly politicking.
Poverty and revolt, protest and repression, violence and resistance, citizens rights and duties, governance and accountability; in short, mutual obligations that form the foundations of a modern polity have become the plaything of political point scoring.
In the Western Cape, the scene of protests by farm workers in the last few weeks, the DA and the commercial farmers’ union, Agri SA (mostly white farmers), allege orchestrated ‘third force’ intervention by the local ANC opposition while the ANC in turn recriminates about the DA’s failure to protect the workers and the break-down of good governance in the province.
The ANC (which condemned striking workers at Marikana) downplays the political significance of the strikes in the Western Cape and claims they are about labour relations rather than politics. The DA claims it is a political conspiracy but ignores that it has much to do with the particular conditions in the Western Cape. For years, farm workers have been trapped in insecure and hard labour with little pay and even less prospects for improvement. In addition, the tribal and xenophobia card is being played, blaming the unrest on foreign workers.
So both parties are part of an anti-politics machine that practices apolitical revisionism — for the DA, there is no particular historical legacy in the Cape that needs scrutiny, while for the ANC, all the protest is just about labour relations in which the breakdown of legitimate politics of representation plays no role. As Achille Mbembe observed, the ANC’s vision for the future for society is to live like the country’s white people; this seems to be understood as a life based on nothing else but ever rising consumption and a mindless entertainment lifestyle. Competition for state resources that enables the vulgar display of wealth seems to be the prime motivation to join the once proud liberation movement — as the party sinks deeper into infighting for spoils, the question remains if clear heads who call for an overdue self-renewal will prevail over political careerism and the outright looting of state and society.
In contrast to most of the mainstream (media) opinions who bemoan the lack of docility of an exploited and hungry work force, black commentators such as Phylicia Oppelt and Fred Khumalo in the Johannesburg Sunday Times (November 18, pp. 6-7) see the legacy of slavery and a paternalistic past very much alive in the current Cape labor regime and social relations, as well as continued racial segregation despite democracy and the abolition of white supremacy. White supremacy, as manifested in racism, xenophobia, and tribalism, is then still very much alive — in Gauteng’s Marikana, as well as in the Cape’s De Doorns. When a more recent report (by Human Rights Watch) — one among many (see for example here, here or here) — about the plight of farm workers was published, DA leader (and Western Cape Premier) Helen Zille did nothing more than criticize it and claimed that it does not represent reality because the sample size was allegedly too small. One can only wonder about the kind of social science research that is compliant with the DA’s political agenda.
Business leader Mamphele Ramphele (she was active in the Black Consciousness Movement in the 1970s) has pointed to the now apparent crisis of legitimacy of an elite compact between the old white elite and the new black elite at the expense of the poor — while this perspective perhaps aptly points fingers at a dismal political solution to end apartheid that left the economy untouched, it seems as if Ramphele’s own involvement with local and global multinationals, including the World Bank, blinds her to the profound lack of future perspectives within neoliberal corporate ideology and practice.
Liberal economists are correct to point out that wage increases in the agricultural sector, now very much in the offing as the state’s response to the farm workers’ strike, will even more reduce rural employment in the long term and the likelihood that workers in rural areas will have a chance to find employment. However, it is cynical that those who benefitted from slavery and apartheid wish an uncomfortable truth about the past away and admonish us that the laws of neoliberal economics are such that today’s workers should be happy that they can be exploited, as there are always those who cannot even work, and are even poorer and more desperate to take up any work, how little the pay. The same comments were made about the Marikana miners. If the solution to reducing rural poverty, in South Africa and across the globe is only sought by increasing production, as neoliberal economists allege, then little can be done to sustain a decent living for all. Rather, a paradigmatic shift is called for and the current administration’s infatuation with the developmental state or with China as a model to emulate do not show signs of new thinking. In contrast, as the proponents of an economy that is based on human needs argue, the “project of economics needs to be rescued from the economists” — the nefarious influence of neoliberalism on economics has to be replaced. Even within the Cape farm region, initiatives involving farm workers and the equitable distribution of work, profits, land and other resources, offer an alternative to current, neoliberal practices.
The farm workers’ strike reminded us that the Western Cape is very much part of this country and continent, despite constant efforts to single out the region for exceptional good governance that, however, leaves out the plight of the working poor and the continued racial discrimination so prevalent in a Cape province that sees itself as an outpost of Europe and a carefree California — a playground for the global rich and fashionable, rather than a postcolonial African region, with all its opportunities and challenges.