The post-1994 power brokers and black liberation

Where does this leave the majority of largely poor, black and unskilled people affected by the competing interests of powerful groups?

Image: Paul Saad, 2009

On May 7th South Africans go to the polls to vote for national and provincial representatives (the majority party gets to pick the President and the Cabinet). In the lead up to the election, we’ll carry a few pieces. The series starts today, the 20th anniversary of the April 1994 elections–the country’s first democratic elections in which blacks could vote. The first instalment is by Thapelo Tselapedi.

The democratic breakthrough combined with the legacy of Apartheid has left post-1994 South Africa with a number of key powerbrokers that determines its present and political future. Chief among these are: the ruling African National Congress (ANC), purportedly representing the aspirations of the black majority; the Democratic Alliance (DA), representing white and middle class interests and the custodians (some wrongly claim) of liberal politics; mainstream NGO’s which actually represent liberal politics;  corporate South Africa; the courts; and, finally, the “Fourth Estate,” i.e. the chunk of popular, mainstream media.

The refrain that the ANC-led government is at the center of a perceived malaise in South Africa, hides the very real and (sometimes inadvertent) sinister agendas by these other players.

In simple terms, the South African government (also now associated with Marikana, evictions, police brutality, callousness towards black school children, etcetera) cannot alone be the primary class opponent against the poor. These other power-brokers also wield powerful influence and have vested interests that are not always easy for government to manage.

Let’s begin with the obvious: The ANC has no hegemony in South Africa as its politics has not permeated throughout society, but it is a powerful socio-political force that oversees an incredibly tenuous ‘nation.’ And the current contestations within the ANC and government have meant that the movement is unable to impose any sort of real social discipline on its constituency or harness those energies to effect meaningful social change.

Let me qualify this statement: be it ‘service delivery protests’ or ‘struggles for control over development,’ the ANC has thus far been unable to grapple with the opportunities presented by the political economy of South Africa. In fact, the growing partisanship that currently characterizes the party is evidence of its inability to manage or exploit these very same socio-political forces.

The ANC’s growing partisanship has sharpened all sorts of socio-economic differences and has been accompanied by an anomaly: While the center-left ANC and the centre-right Democratic Alliance are poles apart politically, there’s a convergence around economic policy between them.

This has no doubt given the DA the opportunity to swim in the same policy pool as that of the ANC and therefore to attract more black and working class voters. The emerging picture is one of differences mainly in posture and the level at which policies are pitched. Consequently, the political center (status quo) is not holding for the majority poor.

But outside the ANC, the picture is bleak too.

COSATU, the main trade union federation, is crippled by infighting partly due to its excessive attention to the organizational politics of the ANC. Hemorrhaged by nepotism and tender politics, the ANC has become unstable. And this has been costly for the already compromised COSATU. From service delivery protests to provincial and national political infighting over tenders and positions, the party has been transformed into a black hole. The fallout from Nkandla is just symptomatic of the directionless drift that has gradually been growing for a numbers of years now.

Then there’s the liberal current: the South African media, corporate South Africa, the courts and mainstream NGO’s that support the rather weak grassroots mobilization efforts around service delivery, together have become a force to be reckoned with. They wield economic power and have incredible influence over public opinion (albeit with no electoral implications), setting the tone and agenda of many debates in the public square.

For example, the media’s focus on President Jacob Zuma as the singular problem for what seems to be government’s unbridled corruption is one of the many ways in which the Fourth Estate has shaped the country’s politics, sometimes in very colonial rhetoric.

Big business continues to go unabated in their pursuits for super-profits either through labor exploitation or price hikes. Think of the mining houses and telecommunications companies, among many, as the latest industries to receive attention. So too the tyre, bread and the construction industries (essentially monopolies dating back to Apartheid) that have had their fair share of discipline from the Competition Commission.

The continued existence of these monopolies does, in part, confirm that the political economy of South Africa has not been fundamentally altered. It has been one of inclusion and not transformation. The social groupings that have sought to check-mate the political centre have done so within the confines of the status quo. The result is that while the political centre is challenged, white monopoly capital has simply remained intact.

Where does this leave the majority of largely poor, black and unskilled people affected by the competing interests of powerful groups?

The EFF, which basically represents the extremist impulses in the political sphere, vying to capture and represent the majority victims of these powerful interests, cannot, as yet, be considered to be a substantive oppositional left formation–this is because what is becoming clear is that many people intend to use the EFF as the big stick that could punish the ANC for its indiscretions. However, the presence of the EFF onto the political stage has brought back the lost debate about Black empowerment, deeper then the narrow, legalistic BEE definition. And, most importantly, the EFF has substantively pitched the transformation debate from redistribution and opening up industries to articulating a freedom no different from what Pixley ka Isaka Seme argued for in the Regeneration of Africa speech he made in April 1906. Accordingly, what is at stake now, beyond these elections, is Black liberation.

Further Reading

Lumumba lives

After his murder in 1961, Patrice Lumumba immediately became a martyr of African independence. What is Lumumba’s “political afterlives” nearly sixty years later?

Back to class

The emphasis on identity and difference act to temper the radical potential of South Africa’s youth. They need an education on class politics.