The Current Situation in South Africa

The Current Situation in South Africa


By Stephen Faulkner

In this issue of, we introduce a feature called ‘What’s the Word’… Letters from the Class Struggle in South Africa. This column will examine the continuing unfolding of the struggle between the popular movements and the forces of transnational and domestic capital, the latter attempting to put the brakes on the demands for full social transformation.

Dear Companera and Companero,

Greetings from Another South: I have been thinking, and I know that’s dangerous. So many good friends and comrades were part of the struggle to end apartheid. So many saw the dynamic combination of international solidarity and mass grassroots action inside the country as a potent model to be replicated elsewhere. Understandably so. After rolling back whatever gains were made in the East and West, and the sickening intransigence of the neoliberals, good news from the Global South was especially welcome.

There was a period, however, in the run-up to the change in 1994, when the power and repressive might of white supremacy seemed almost insurmountable. The ugly and brutal actions of the apartheid state, compounded by the reactionary responses of world leaders like former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan and the overcautious and indifference of most of the rest of the powerful, eventually demanded a “do or die” response. Forgive me, but I do need to dip in and out of history here.

Power Is in Our Own Hands

The unstoppable bridge-building that became the United Democratic Front (UDF*) and the growth, against all the odds, of a radical, profoundly democratic and militant trade union movement, were essential parts of the internal and external struggle against apartheid. They created something around and through which genuine solidarity could be built to tangibly solidarize. It, almost miraculously, became virtually unstoppable, despite the worst excesses of repression.

The release of Comrade Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Communist Party (SACP) and other people’s organizations certainly heralded a breakthrough. Whether it was internal or external pressure that created the climate of change is still a contested area, including the efficacy or otherwise of the armed struggle. But at that time, one thing was absolutely clear: The power of organized workers inside the country was considered essential. And workers were not in any mood to enter into class compromises.

That Was Then. This is Now.

Almost 30 years after the release of Comrade Mandela, where are we today, and what has happened to all those powerful forces of change? Our friends in the former global and domestic anti-apartheid movement are entitled to ask. All those who gave everything they had to the struggle inside the country are not just entitled to ask searching questions, but to also demand answers.

Sadly, the sorry facts speak for themselves. South Africa is today one of the most unequal countries on the planet. Millions go to bed hungry every night. This is not an exaggeration. Look it up!

In our townships where the majority of our people still live, they experience breathtaking levels of unemployment and dire poverty. Just one example tells the story much better. Young people between school-leaving age and their late ‘20s experience unemployment levels of over 70% and are overwhelmingly not covered by any form of social security protection.

Companera y, companero, you do not need a doctorate in sociology to work out that in a situation like this, all the manifestations of social breakdown and dislocation present themselves. These include levels of crime, including serious drug selling and buying; an epidemic of violence against women; gratuitous violence in robberies and family disputes; on-going localized and institutionalized xenophobia; and a persistently malignant and bureaucratic denial of land and homes to the landless and homeless. Indeed, there is much more that can be added to this list. And sadly there is more, much much more.

You Cannot Eat Slogans

The response to the growing crisis on the part of what was once the most inspiring workers' movement anywhere in the world is very instructive. The great historical alliance between the ANC, the SACP and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) was supposed to ensure that government did not just listen to its social partners but that it was expected to be kept on track by them.

That was the theory. In practice, what happened is that the Alliance became, and is little more than, a conveyor belt for government policy. For decades there have been endless calls from within the trade union movement and the Communist Party for the Alliance to be a more responsive vehicle to reflect the needs and aspirations of its social partners; to be politically bold and creative. After all, South Africa is not a poor country. It has a considerable economic advantage compared to most parts of the continent, and beyond. There are millionaires aplenty, who live lifestyles that would not be out of place in Saudi Arabia or Beverly Hills.

We cannot afford to mince words at this juncture. To paraphrase an old political saying, those communists and trade unionists who went into government to change it, many of whom remain longstanding members of the Communist Party and who came from the radical trade union movement, were themselves changed by the experience of “becoming responsible members of the executive.” Those who once proclaimed the need for a socialist South Africa now talk in terms of a South Africa that is only capable of incrementally building the culture of a vague socially just system, very incrementally.

The president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, once a fearless leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, now presides over a government whose latest budget in February 2020 is seeking to slash billions of Rands (South African currency) from the public sector wage bill, devastating whatever is left of service delivery for millions of the poor. Those who went into government to oppose neoliberal policies are now the champions of an austerity program that would make even Margaret Thatcher blush given its severity and the catastrophic impact on poor communities.

Into the political mix has emerged the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) led by ex-ANC youth leader Julius Malema, who was expelled by the ANC some years ago. Malema is a skillful publicist who, for a time, appeared to offer particularly younger people and the impoverished in general, a political expression of their frustration and several ideas that resonated, including on the question of land, wealth redistribution and for an end to corruption.

Unfortunately, the cancer of corruption, so adroitly normalized in the Zuma era (when it must be remembered Ramaphosa was his longstanding deputy), has cast a shadow over some EFF leaders. Along with other factors, this has forestalled the growth of the EFF, and, thus, they did not manage the electoral breakthrough they expected at the last elections or the mass upheavals they have threatened since.

Trade Union Power Once More in the Balance

Over three years ago, tensions within the trade union movement came to a head. The divide was the extent to which workers’ organizations, especially COSATU, should or would tolerate the neoliberal prevarications of the ANC government, and whether to break from the Alliance, including whether to call for a vote for the ANC in general elections. It was argued that relationships should perhaps be revisited unless the ANC government significantly changed their pro-rich positions into people-friendly redistributive policies.

This pushback was led by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), but seven other unions gave them their support. It is worth noting that the split revolved around reviewing positions, but not a decision to break with the ANC. The outcome was predictable, and at that time, entirely in keeping with certain undemocratic practices within the movement. Sometimes it is hard for our friends outside of the country to grasp this episode, but it is central to whatever fight back can be marshalled in the future.

The majority of COSATU affiliates, comprising those who represented hundreds of thousands of workers in the public sector, voted to expel NUMSA – a leading union in the private sector – from COSATU. At a time when the working class was clearly under attack, the unwise leadership of COSATU at that time, with the active assistance of the General Secretary of the SACP (who was a minister at the time in President Zuma’s cabinet) voted to expel its largest and best-organized manufacturing union.

Working-class historians might well scratch their heads in disbelief in years to come. At the very time the working-class needed to be united and gearing up to defend its own progressive policies, it cut off one of its most powerful arms, and rendered itself incapable of mobilizing against neo-liberalism. The question is whether the movement finds itself not only weakened but in a situation beyond repair?

The decision to embrace powerlessness was bad enough, but it compounded COSATU’s developing class blindness as demonstrated in its lame response to the Marikana crisis in the mines, where 37 mineworkers were gunned down by police, and many in cold blooded view of the world. The insipid, defensive and ambiguous reaction to the shootings indicated the lengths to which senior COSATU leaders would go to maintain their place at the Alliance table, even though the table was bare, and even if it was smeared with workers’ blood.

A New Beginning ...Let’s Hope So!

Enter stage left, the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) led by Comrade Zwelinzima Vavi and a small group of others who had been expelled from their unions for exposing corruption. After an almost three-year gestation period of careful and deliberately non-sectarian interaction with those unions who left COSATU in solidarity with NUMSA, and a host of independent unions not in any federation, a new federation was born. SAFTU membership now stands at 750,000 plus. More recently, SAFTU has entered into an anti-austerity alliance (if not in formal membership) with those expelled from the NUM, who now number 250,000 strong in the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).

Numerically now on a par with COSATU, SAFTU is entrenching a new and more radical tradition. Its founding principles differentiated it from other federations by its insistence on internal democracy and accountability (workers’ control), an unambiguous internationalist and socialist orientation, and perhaps one of its most salient principles, to be thoroughly independent of any political party, while reserving the right for individuals and unions if they so agree, to join and vote for whatever political party they desire. In other words, the lessons of being in an alliance that binds workers hands were recognized from the outset as a disabling feature, and especially if the government chose to represent the interests of the rich and powerful.

To date, SAFTU has been working hard to deepen its membership, especially in those areas where workers are not organized. Only 26% of workers in the formal sector are represented by a union (i.e., 74% are not), and there are millions unemployed and in the informal sector to be reached and organized. SAFTU is working equally hard to make those vital links with working-class communities, and especially those who are at the forefront of fighting for service delivery.

The big challenge for SAFTU and its affiliates is to show that beyond mobilizing millions of workers, it can also represent and service them, give them the class confidence to wage a struggle beyond simply challenging austerity, and articulate and fight for policies that will shift the balance of class forces in favor of a socialist program for reconstruction. SAFTU is, in effect, going “back to the future” to rebuild militant and independent worker power in alliance with those millions regarded as powerless – not with existing powerful elites. Hopeful evidence is emerging that this is happening.

Back to the Future or Back to the Past?

Meanwhile, the ANC government has admitted that the economy it professes to manage is in a deep structural recession, and that the notoriously fickle ratings agencies require reassurances in order to turn matters around. As stated earlier, it is doing this via extreme austerity measures, but also by passing legislation to limit the power of unions. Stealing from Thatcher and others, the seemingly legal and class neutral devices of enforceable balloting before industrial action can take place, and a host of other measures that, if allowed to take root, will undermine worker power. 

It seems the government too, with the added support of large sections of the leadership of its Alliance partners, is also intent on dragging the working class and the poor back to a time where apartheid poverty and conditions once again define survival options. Meanwhile, the political and financial elites have no intention whatsoever of being there beside the poor. They have their own sights on something else altogether. They might get a surprise even now. 


Stephen Faulkner is a lifelong trade unionist and socialist based in Johannesburg. As a semi-retired activist, he is currently supporting DEMAWUSA, the SAFTU municipal workers affiliate. 

Caption: South African trade unionists hold a massive general strike.

Credit: SAFTU

* The UDF was a broad united front established in the 1980s.

Previous Post
The Green New Deal Can and Must Be Global
Next Post
The Mask Has Fallen from the Face of U.S. Imperialism