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Analysis

Is South Africa heading for Apocalypse? Political crisis, pressure cooker.

24 March 2021, In Defence of Marxism
Is South Africa heading for Apocalypse? Political crisis, pressure cooker.

The process of industrialisation of the country after the Second World War created an industrial working class in addition to the mining industry. The working class consists of different layers. Some layers are more advanced than others, some are more backward. In a revolutionary situation, the more-backward layers can suddenly become the most advanced layers, and vice versa. There is a certain layer of advanced workers, which have traditionally led all the major battles in South Africa for the past 50 years. These are typically industrial workers. Whenever these layers move, they have always been able to mobilise the rest of the working class. The battles of the 1980s and 1990s were led by this layer, and since 1994 most of the important battles were led by them.

Between 2004 and 2013, there was a massive upsurge in the class struggle as the working class fought back against the attacks of the ruling class. They were fighting against cuts in utilities like water and electricity, against privatisation, wage moderation, etc. The advanced workers could see that all the promises of the “democratic transition” of a better life were going out of the window. Workers moved to the political field and the industrial field and back again.

This upsurge in the class struggle had major political consequences. The crisis and fragmentation of the ANC along class lines is as a result of this. A huge chunk of the advanced workers have moved out of the ANC. The party is losing urban support and becoming more and more a party with its base in the rural provinces. Two-thirds of people are living in cities and this is expected to rise to 70 percent by 2035. It is therefore clear that the ANC has a major crisis on its hands. The May 2019 election results show that a majority of South Africans did not participate in the election. The ANC, despite being by far the biggest party, governs the country with the active support of just 28 percent of the electorate.

The recent implosion of the Democratic Alliance is also a result of the general political crisis. Over the past 10 years, there was an almost perfect crisis in the ANC, but despite this, the DA is moving backwards and could even split and fragment long before the crisis in the ANC reaches it zenith. This shows the weakness of the bourgeoisie. The crisis of the system is also a crisis of the capitalist class, which is left with no stable party to manage its rule.

The EFF is the fastest-growing party. But again, despite the overall crisis, it is not growing and developing as fast as it could have. In a situation such as South Africa over the past few years, a small party could have grown very fast into a big party provided it had the correct approach and connected with the advanced guard of the workers. However, it still has not been able to penetrate the decisive layers of the working class. This is to do with it’s demagogic tone, which alienates the working class. Meanwhile, the party has been moving to the left and increasingly diluting its programme. When the EFF broke out of the ANC, this was a shift to the left, however since then the party leadership has been swinging to the right. The party is becoming more and more just another party in parliament, resorting to parliamentary intrigue and manoeuvres. At a local level, the party has been making deals with reactionary parties such as the DA, only to opportunistically switch to the ANC when things change. At the same time, the party has been increasingly leaning on black nationalism, arguing for a capitalism run by black South Africans. But this offers no solution to any of the problems of the South African masses.

Over the last period, there has been a receding of the movement of the working class. To put it more correctly, the advanced guard of the working class has pulled back from the stormy period of intense struggle. A certain level of tiredness has set in. At the same time, the workers are desperately holding on in an economy which is wreaking havoc on living standards. They are receiving the blows with the hope that the storm will subside soon. In the absence of a real revolutionary leadership, this is only natural. The ANC and SACP, which are the traditional organisations of the working class historically, were in government carrying out the attacks of the bosses. Other organisations such as NUMSA failed to provide a revolutionary alternative, despite being in a prime position to do so. The same goes for the EFF.

With the receding of the floodtide of class struggle from 2013 onwards, we have seen other layers go onto battle. There was the marvellous Fees Must Fall movement of the students, which revealed the revolutionary mood amongst the youth. It won some important concessions, however these have since been undermined and the burden to pay for them placed on the shoulders of other layers of the working class. The main problem was that the movement did not connect with the general working-class movement – although the student movement did make some contact with workers from the struggle against outsourcing. Thus, the struggle remained a purely student movement, isolating itself from the general struggle against South African capitalism.

Students are an important auxiliary force to the workers. But students are not workers. The limitations of a purely student struggle could be seen at the height of the Fees Must Fall movement, where, despite all the talk of “total shutdowns”, nothing really was shut down other than the university campuses. The economy still functioned normally. The banks operated, the mines worked unhindered, the factories ran and the supermarkets were open. Only the working class could have shut down the economy and threatened the bosses where it really hurts – their profits.

In the absence of a major push over the last the years from the advanced workers, other elements have come to the fore, like the upsurge in community protests of the urban poor and other more-backward elements like taxi drivers. The crisis has also driven the middle class into a frenzy. Unlike most African countries, South Africa does not have a large small business sector and small traders. The crisis has decimated these elements. This is the basis for the upsurge in xenophobic attacks against other African traders. These small traders are driven to insanity by a crisis they do not understand and see small traders of other countries as the problem. In these conditions, and with the high rate of unemployment, they have been joined by lumpen and other reactionary elements. On previous occasions, the advanced workers have always been able to stop these attacks. But with the ebb in the movement, the problem has been more pronounced. Meanwhile, parts of the ruling class have begun to lean on these layers by whipping up nationalist and tribal hysteria to cut across the class struggle.
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