The demobilization of the South African masses

What do we know about the potential for new kinds of social movements in South Africa?

Image credit Louis Reynolds via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

It is now widely accepted that many key state jobs in government and municipalities in South Africa are allocated, not on the basis of skills, but via patronage networks of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). This has led to a collapse of state functions and government service delivery across the country. Even historically coercive functions of the state, such as the army and police service, are now commonly viewed as dysfunctional. The “mass patronage” function of the state is also significant. Without its “welfare side”—the payment of social benefits to millions of South Africans—the ANC would not, despite all its manifest failings, be returned to power in every election.

It is also undoubtedly true that, despite all of the indignities suffered, and the worsening living conditions endured, the masses keep on voting for the ANC. Like the humble supplicants of medieval times, many of our people have been reduced to a state of modern serfdom, to impoverished supplicants to those in power. The once militant South African masses of the 1970s and 1980s have increasingly become an army of jobless beggars, desperately queueing in all weathers, on the off-chance that they might receive government’s embarrassing R350 ($25) Social Relief of Distress Grant (introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown). (According to one study, over 60 percent of South Africans are dependent on social grants after COVID-19.)

In February, there were 86,363 new applicants for this grant, over and above the 10 million or so already registered for it. But as I write this, it appears that the changeover to a new government financial year may cause a delay in even these trifling payments. Because senior bureaucrats in the relevant departments failed to do their jobs properly, between six and 10 million of the poorest of the poor may have to wait an extra month to be paid out. People on the verge of starvation and absolute destitution cannot be assisted by this government with an amount significantly less than what many government officials happily spend on a bottle of whiskey. Worse still, is that even the miserly R350 grant may soon be cut as tighter fiscal austerity measures will probably result from the current economic crisis, on top of ongoing government incompetence, widespread corruption, and fraud.

One might expect significant protest and resistance to rocketing unemployment and social degradation in light of cuts that are already being imposed. And indeed, some traditionalists on the left have hopes that we may be arriving at some sort of political turning point; that the relative passivity of the masses is coming to an end. They argue that this might indeed be the moment to encourage traditional forms of left wing or socialist organization. But either located in the academy or NGOs, most leftish activists of the previous era now have only limited contact with the poor and likely have insufficient basis for making such judgments. A new layer of younger activists is only now emerging, but is also largely distant from the working class.

So, what do we know about the potential for new kinds of social movements?

It is clear that the country is already in a state of upheaval; social disorder will grow. Much of our understanding of this must, however, be based on personal observation and anecdote due to the general failings of the South African media. Ironically, such is the disarray in all spheres of society that not much hard data on social unrest has been readily available since about 2018. Nor are there many reliable media sources on the subject. In fact, press reports of unrest events seem to be less and less credible, let alone comprehensible, as newspapers of record cease to exist and reporters no longer visit communities or speak to those involved in the unrest. Ironically, radio traffic reports are now often the most reliable source of information on growing social upheaval. Apart from a few noteworthy examples, radical organizations and the labor movement have become increasingly inward looking and have also produced little that is coherent.

We can probably agree that, as municipalities continue to collapse across the country, township residents have regularly blocked highways and set up burning barricades to protest service delivery failures. This will likely get worse as more municipal budget cuts kick in and because public infrastructure has been stolen and destroyed on a large scale. Much of the country’s once extensive rail network has for example been pillaged and destroyed. Ironically, this largely happened under the COVID-19 lockdown when police were meant to be particularly vigilant.

Spontaneous and fragmented protest seems to be growing. But the mass organized movements of the working class and poor that bloomed in the wake of the 1973 Durban strikes and grew into the fragmented, but massive United Democratic Front in the 1980s, hardly seem to exist now. And any radical-sounding state-driven developmental project has also long since been consigned to the scrap heap. The once widely popular Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) is now forgotten and current glossy and much-hyped government plans have no popular traction whatsoever. Popular cynicism and demoralization are about all we have left.

As those of us who were around in the early 1990s soon discovered, controlled post-apartheid decolonization required the exclusion of the masses from political life. The defeat of the mass base of our nationalist movement and unions and the containment of more radical nationalists and leftists since then, were preconditions for the realization of this process. The stabilization of capitalism in post-apartheid South Africa demanded the neutralizing of grassroots aspirations towards social change. In the sphere of politics, the main priority of the ANC regime was to ensure that the urban and rural proletariat should be deprived of its own organizational and political voice—its ability to represent itself. Old militant mass structures had to be put to bed (the UDF was disbanded in the transition).

The post-apartheid ANC and its Alliance partners (the trade unions and communists) initially represented an uneasy alliance between radical and moderate nationalists. However, driven by the demoralization and disorientation of the radicals and old Communists following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, it was the moderates who were in the ascendancy. The radicals were put on the defensive. Individual radical leaders like Chris Hani, Joe Slovo, and Harry Gwala were merely tolerated during the negotiations phase of the early 1990s in order to strengthen the party’s radical nationalist credentials. Grassroots civics representatives were also humored for a while under the SANCO banner (The South African National Civic Organization). For a while, those affiliated to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (which along with the South African Communist Party, is allied to the ANC),  played a significant policy role for a while and maintained a militant posture, but grew less militant as union leaders became comfortable with their role in corporatist bodies and more radical rank and file structures were co-opted and tamed.

After 1990 it was only a matter of time before surviving radicals began to be marginalized. Chris Hani, leader of the SACP and spokesperson for the more radical elements of the Alliance, was assassinated in April 1993 during the unrest orchestrated by the old regime preceding the transition to democracy. The radical-sounding RDP, developed with the left’s assistance, was the radicals’ last hope. This was viewed as the cornerstone of government development policy, but it was soon replaced by the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) macroeconomic policy framework in 1996. Cosatu, the ANC’s trade union partner in the Alliance, slammed GEAR as neoliberal but the battle for a radical programme had clearly been lost.

Jay Naidoo, former COSATU general secretary and then RDP minister in the first postapartheid government, was shifted sideways. Most of the relatively small number of radical NGOs that had grown during the 1980s and presented some alternative policy options, lost their foreign donor funding, while many of their activists were absorbed into government or business. This period marked the demise of a more radical-sounding policy grouping in the Alliance and government.

In the post-negotiations era, the radicals lacked any organizational independence. Disorientated by the collapse of the USSR, and without organization or a distinct post-RDP political programme, they could offer no alternative to Mandela, and later Thabo Mbeki. Contained inside the increasingly moderate ANC, many remaining radical leaders were nothing more than individuals with grievances. Worse still, bereft of political direction, a good number of Alliance radicals were co-opted into the grouping around Jacob Zuma after he replaced Thabo Mbeki at the ANC’s Polokwane conference in December 2007. These erstwhile radicals, including avowedly left-wing elements in COSATU, thus merely provided “left cover” for the worst sort of parasitic and predatory ANC leadership.

This failure of militant nationalism was no accident. Militants’ involvement in the party machine was a reflection of their isolation from mass politics. In the end they felt more at home inside an increasingly conservative ANC than they did mobilizing the masses.

Formerly radical trade unions were also tamed by their inclusion in Alliance structures, via new industrial relations laws, and through corporatist bodies like the CCMA (to settle workplace disputes), Nedlac (facilitate policy inputs between government, labor, and business) and the SETAs (sectoral, vocational training initiatives). These developments helped to incorporate, privilege and corrupt leadership, while marginalizing rank and file members. Other problems included the deliberate split engineered in the old COSATU, and steeply falling membership, particularly after 2008 and crucially amongst industrial workers. As a result, many union structures disintegrated or became ineffective. Today, under very weak leadership, industrial action often takes the form of a more pre-modern, unmediated, “physical force”, characterized by incoherent or absurd demands, random violence and destruction of property. Old solidarity networks are mostly defunct. Crucially too, the working class no longer has much of a political voice in policy and negotiating forums the way it once did. Government policymakers proceed largely without challenge.

And aside from the many self-help community action networks that sprang up under lockdown to dole out food parcels and feed the poor via soup-kitchens, the poverty-stricken masses may be too disorganized and beaten down to resist. At least, so establishment political leaders must hope. Ongoing and explosive but fragmentary service delivery protests seem a far cry from the effective mass civic campaigns of old. Their current demands, if any, are mostly incoherent and they are often easily coopted by local political players and criminal warlords and riven with xenophobic divisions.

Having lost faith in mass mobilization, many on the liberal left and in NGOs have encouraged reliance on the courts in search of redress for state failure and ruling party corruption. This has only increased popular illusions in an unelected judicial elite and further weakened traditional cultures of grass-roots organization. The masses are now mostly passive spectators, while expensive lawyers interrogate politicians in endless—and mostly fruitless—public commissions.

With the masses mostly sidelined, ruling party leadership are probably much more worried about their political allies in the Congress Alliance who are becoming increasingly unruly and unpredictable. Formerly secure members of the state bureaucracy are unlikely to take lying down the looming cuts to wages, conditions, and jobs. Many of these people—the party-state “nomenklatura”—may yet turn out to be a real bastion of reaction when their relatively comfortable incomes come under attack. Cloaked in the fake-radical rhetoric of “Radical Economic Transformation”, leaders of dissident party factions such as those under the banner of the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans’ Association, are attempting to rally sections of the desperate masses to their cause.

The absence of any significant working-class Alliance component since the 2015 implosion of COSATU is crucial (in 2015, its largest affiliate the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, broke away). The class struggle has become suspended. “Politics” has become nothing more than conflict between the party elite. An amalgam of populist politicians and entrepreneurs constitutes the core of the political establishment. The continuous process of shifting alignments between contending groups of politicians indicates that the fierce battles within the ANC are devoid of any ideological significance even when couched in radical-sounding language. Branch officials and members of parliament, members of provincial legislatures and councillors, come and go as one set of alliances breaks down in favour of another.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s current ANC leadership faces a problem of unceasing factionalism. Serious political discourse and contestation have been replaced by infighting rooted in accusations of corruption and malfeasance, which are often manufactured for solely factional purposes. This is a problem for effective governance as well: the increasing blurring of boundaries between party functionaries and state bureaucrats introduces chronic instability into already dysfunctional state structures. Divisions in the party are replicated in government and state institutions destabilized and brought into disrepute. Some factions are even willing to launch sabotage campaigns targeting state infrastructure for short term factional gain. The masses are perceived only as bystanders, to be wheeled on as stage armies in factional elite battles.

As sociologist Mike Davis points out when discussing future prospects in Planet of Slums: “…the cities of the future, rather than being made out of glass and steel as envisioned by earlier generations of urbanists, are instead largely constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks, and scrap wood. Instead of cities of light soaring toward heaven, much of the twenty-first century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay.” He could be describing our own townships and squatter camps.

The left has traditionally placed its bet on the organized working class as the social force for change. But do the increasingly unemployed and poverty-stricken, slum-based masses still have a key role to play in emancipating themselves and transforming this country?

Future prospects will be determined by political processes on the ground, rather than by uncontrollable economic developments, and probably by future slum-based resistance to the system. But will it be possible to mobilize those surviving in a shifting, informal economy, behind radical causes? And will the growth of the informal sector prevent any active proletarianisation of slum dwellers in line with historical precedent? It’s hard to know whether the informal proletariat possesses “historical agency.” As Davis asks: “…are the slums volcanoes waiting to erupt? Or will ruthless, state-endorsed competition lead to increased involution and self-annihilating communal violence.”

A weak and divided left faces intense competition from a host of “alternatives” on offer: charismatic churches, xenophobic chauvinism, street gangs and local warlords, neoliberal NGOs and ethnic militias, among others.

So will a re-emergent left have anything useful to offer? The demagogues are waiting in the wings.  And as Davis grimly reminds us: it is no exaggeration to say that the future of the whole of human solidarity depends on the nature of the response of the “victims of the metropolis” to the marginality that late capitalism has attempted to assign to them.

Further Reading