Jacob Zuma has resigned as president of South Africa. The immediate reason was his corruption scandals, but the underlying reasons tell a tale that workers around the world should consider. It is a tale of how a mass workers struggle lost its way and lost control over its own leaders, who then used their positions for their own personal enrichment.
The African National Congress, (ANC) which Zuma headed, had come to power in 1994 at the crest of one of the most powerful and heroic workers’ struggles that the world has seen since the end of WW II. At the time, the ANC’s “Freedom Charter” called for redistribution of the land and nationalization of “the mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry.” But the Soviet Union had just collapsed and was beginning to return to capitalism. Nationalization and state planning did not work, or so it seemed. (The reality was that bureaucratic state planning didn’t work in the modern, high tech world.)
Having given up on socialism, there was only one alternative: Attract foreign capital. But international capital only only enters if it sees a chance to pluck some ripe fruits, if and only if there is political stability and potential profits. South Africa was potentially ripe for the plucking — if the workers movement could be tamed.
Buying off the leadership
So they set about doing that, starting with taming the unions. An important step was to buy off the union leadership, and a major target was the head of the all-important union for South Africa’s all-important industry – mining. That would be the National Union of Miners’ president, Cyril Ramaphosa. He became chairperson of MTN corporation and was also given a seat on the board of the mining company Lonmin. He parlayed his position into becoming one of South Africa’s richest men. He also became a top official of the ANC and is now slated to take Zuma’s place as South Africa’s president.
Ramaphosa’s rise symbolizes the rise of a black bourgeoisie (capitalist class) in South Africa. Whereas black South Africans compose about 86% of the population, they were only 8% of company executives in 1996. By 2015 that figure had risen to 41%.
Economic growth and poverty
The end of apartheid did benefit the black working class also. The “Economist” explains, “As the economy grew from 1994 to around 2009, GDP per person increased considerably, as did employment. As a result, living standards jumped. From 2001 to 2015, the share of the population living in LSM 1-3 (the three bottom tiers of a ten-point scale of living standards) shrank from almost 40% to 10%. Since 1996 the number of people living in proper houses has more than doubled; the numbers with access to lavatories and electricity have grown by even more.” But considering the pitifully few numbers living in proper houses or with access to basic facilities in the first place, a doubling of those numbers doesn’t mean a whole lot.
Massive poverty and inequality remain. The same Economist article reports that income inequality in South Africa is the worst in the world, as measured by the “Gini coefficient”. As impoverished worker, Bonbani Godfrey Ndaba said, “the rich get richer; the poor get nothing. There are just empty promises.”
A signal event was the Marikana mining massacre of 2012. There, miners were fed up with the NUM leadership’s lying in bed with management. They joined a new union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) and went on strike. On August 16, a peaceful march of the striking miners was kettled by the police who then attacked with assault rifles, murdering 34 and wounding at least 78. In the process, miners hiding behind rocks were hunted down and shot in cold blood.
“Balance” between workers and capital
The day before the massacre, Ramaphosa had called the strike a “dastardly criminal action” and had called for police action against the strikers. Now, this same man, this same capitalist, is about to become the next president. But it’s not just Ramaphosa. He’s just the personification of the system as a whole. As the Guardian newspaper writes, “As president, Ramaphosa will have to balance the need to reassure foreign investors and local businesses against the intense popular demand for dramatic measures to address South Africa’s deep problems.”
This, in a nutshell, is the contradiction that faces the world’s working class under capitalism. To have jobs, they need to “reassure foreign investors and local businesses.” But they can only do that by accepting low wages and allowing capital to invest more or less free of environmental restrictions. The more we have, the less we have.
The only solution is to take the capital out of their hands and put it to the uses that we want it put to. That also means bringing down the governments owned by capital and building new ones, owned and controlled by the working class.