21 years on: What is to be done?
In the face of a massive global capitalist crisis & aggressive domestic monopoly capital we must defend our revolution and prepare for a second, radical phase of our NDR it is no secret that we are confronting a very challenging period in our democratic revolution. Twenty-one years after our historic 1994 democratic breakthrough, crisis levels of racialised poverty, unemployment and inequality persist. So what is to be done?
In the first place, it is important to understand the global and regional factors that are impacting upon our domestic challenges. These are rarely acknowledged by opposition forces or by the political commentariat in much of our local media. It is not a question of seeking “external” factors to excuse our own national weaknesses and failures. However, unless we locate our own struggles within a global, continental and regional context, any local efforts will inevitably fail.
The ongoing global structural capitalist crisis has deepened the reproduction of inequality on a world scale. Financialisation, a key feature of the current stage of imperialism, a stage described by Samir Amin as “imperialism of generalised monopolies”, is resulting in huge flows of imperialist rent literally being sucked out of so-called “developing” countries on an unprecedented scale. Debt enslavement has extended even to the immediate doorstep of the advanced capitalist economies – as with the current show-down between the people of Greece and German bankers and the political elite of the EU.
The expansion of the capitalist agrarian revolution into Africa, led by imperialist land grabs, is resulting in massive dispossession of peasant communities. This, in turn, is producing rapid urbanisation without employment, and sprawling slums across our continent. Rural dispossession coupled with ecological crises and civil wars (typically instigated by imperialist interventions), have given rise to intranational, and international migratory flows on a scale never before seen in human history.
Last year alone, some 1-billion people crossed national boundaries, the majority desperate economic refugees, many of them “illegals”. Millions of these economic refugees, perhaps some 3-million from Zimbabwe alone, have poured into South Africa over the past decade. These and many other “external” factors have greatly impacted upon the transformational prospects of our post-apartheid South Africa.
They underline the critical importance of an internationalist, antiimperialist solidarity, and of advancing a progressive African agenda that includes the defence of democratic national sovereignty, the protection and ecologically sustainable use of our continent’s immense natural resources, and a balanced regionaland continental-wide programme of co-operative economic development. In short, a broad national democratic perspective is valid for our entire region and continent. But that national democratic perspective must increasingly acquire an anti-imperialist and anti-monopoly capital character, otherwise it is doomed to failure.
But there are also internal South African factors – both “objective” and “subjective” – that have compromised the advance of our own national democratic revolution. These factors have weakened our capacity to respond to our domestic challenges. It is important to understand the dialectical relationship between what we are referring to as “objective” and “subjective” national factors.
“Objective” factors are not some immovable reality within which as a liberation movement we have to move pragmatically, ducking and diving, while practising politics purely as “the art of the possible”. This can only result, as Marx once observed, in an aspirant revolution simply “adapting itself to the relations of bourgeois society”. At the same time, we should not exaggerate the room for revolutionary advances in any particular conjuncture – unrealistic “great leaps forward”, populist adventurism in many other societies have led to major defeats of progressive forces. But, as Cde Joe Slovo, following Lenin, once argued – “untimely action is better than untimely inaction”.
Over the past 21 years since our major 1994 democratic breakthrough, the principal error from the side of the liberation movement has not been left adventurism, but a major exaggeration of the “objective” constraints. This has resulted in a significant demobilisation of our subjective capacity to drive the necessary radical transformation of our society. What is more, reality is not static, subjective weaknesses from the side of progressive forces will inevitably result in the consolidation of unfavourable “objective” realities.
As the SACP’s discussion document Going to the Root – A Second Radical Phase of the NDR argues, the 1994 democratic breakthrough should have been used as a bridgehead to embark immediately on a radical transformation agenda. At that point, South African monopoly capital, the major strategic antagonist against the advance, deepening and defence of an ongoing national democratic revolution in our country, was relatively off-balance.
It had taken the risky but necessary step (from its profit-maximising strategic perspective) of supporting a negotiated transition to a one-person, one-vote democratic dispensation. This was not remotely out of any commitment to majority rule, or with a view to participating in a shared patriotic effort at post-apartheid reconstruction and development.
The last decade of apartheid white-minority rule had resulted in a deepening crisis of profitability for monopoly capital. Economic, financial and oil sanctions played a part in the crisis of profitability. So did the apartheid regime’s defensive measures – tough exchange controls and increasing fiscal expenditure on supporting military destabilisation in our region and security repression within South Africa.
For South African monopoly capital, a negotiated transition (to what it hoped would be a low-intensity democracy) was seen as a risk, but a necessary risk. The strategic agenda was to use a “universally acceptable” democratic constitution as cover to rapidly take the on-ramp to globalisation – to run away from democracy. From the perspective of monopoly capital this was, of course, a calculated risk.
Having sheltered behind and benefited from a century of colonial and white minority regimes, South African monopoly capital took the risk of being able to penetrate, influence and divert a new (and still largely unknown to it) political elite. The intention included compromising and diluting the executive capacity of a new democratic state from being able to drive forward any popular electoral mandate.
Partly as a result of South African monopoly capital’s own significant power and resources (backed by imperialist power and numerous ideological think-tanks) and partly as a result of subjective weaknesses on the part of our liberation movement, the strategic agenda of monopoly capital has made considerable head-way since 1994. There has been a huge drain of surplus out of our country as a result of capital flight – some of it completely illegal, some of it through dual listings, transfer pricing, the shift of nominal headquarters to tax havens, and much more. All of this was unwittingly aided and abetted by unwise relaxation of exchange controls and general runaway liberalisation by the ANC-led government in the mid and late 1990s.
Within South Africa, monopoly capital aggressively restructured production – shifting investments out of productive manufacturing and mining and into speculative and non-productive sectors like financial services and shopping malls. Mergers and acquisitions increasingly exposed key sectors of the economy, like agriculture, to the whims of foreign speculative investors.
This “radical” but neoliberal restructuring of our productive economy was accompanied by the equally aggressive restructuring and fragmentation of the working class through casualisation, informalisation, labour brokering and widespread retrenchments. These measures actively undercut the progressive statutory advances won by the working class after 1994. The percentage of workers unionised in the private sector actually dropped from 35,6% in 1997 to 24,4% in 2013. In short, post-1994 a “radical” restructuring of our economy and society was driven, not by progressive forces, but by neo-liberal monopoly capital. Progressive forces were confronted with a new, and in many respects, an increasingly unfavourable “objective” reality.
Of course, this monopoly capital-led offensive has not gone unchallenged. The progressive trade union movement, the ANC-led alliance and government, popular forces in general, and certainly the SACP have waged offensive and defensive battles against this strategic agenda. But the subjective capacity to advance an alternative agenda has been compromised by many subjective weaknesses as well.
In the period of the “1996 class project”, the ANC organisationally was considerably demobilised – and turned largely into an electoral machine, itself increasingly controlled by gate-keepers. The ideological coherence of the ANC has been weakened, with internal factionalism having little to do with principled strategic issues and more and more related to moneyed contests for positions of power, battles over deployment, and electoral lists.
The degeneration of internal movement politics into a “game of thrones” has also impacted in varying degrees on the ANC’s alliance partners – the SACP, Cosatu and Sanco. Monopoly capital has succeeded in inserting its DNA into much of the progressive trade union movement via union investment arms with their linkage into worker retirement funds. Progressive trade unions have also, to some extent, become victims of labour’s own institutional advances, with the inherent dangers of creeping bureaucratisation and a neglect of factory floor organisation and work-place mandating.
A critical part of monopoly capital’s agenda has been to hollow out the transformational capacity of the new democratic state. This has had several dimensions – the corporate capture of key public institutions (Media 24’s effective gobbling up of the public broadcaster is the most egregious example); the corruption of critical strategic nodes of the state; and the playing off of one part of the state (the judiciary, for instance) against the executive to blunt any executive attempt to implement its democratic mandate.
The most recent example is the curious decision of the Competition Appeal Court to reverse the fine of R534-million imposed by the Competition Tribunal on a Sasol subsidiary, Sasol Chemical Industries (SCI). The Competition Tribunal had found that SCI had used its dominant market position to impose over-pricing, ranging up to a whopping 41% mark-up, on local manufacturers for propylene and polypropylene – the raw materials for, among other things, household plastic goods like buckets, basins, brooms and water tanks.
The Competition Appeal Court has just announced that it has overturned this finding on the bizarre grounds that account should not be taken of the fact that SCI’s feedstock was exceptionally cheap because it was a by-product of Sasol’s unique coal-to-oil process! The Appeal Court argued that we should pretend that SCI was operating in a “normal” competitive market without the advantage that it actually enjoys of feeding off its parent company’s by-products.
So how do we turn things around? How do we build the subjective capacity to advance the radical transformation of our society? These are questions that are addressed and debated in several of the contributions in this edition of The African Communist, and they are questions that will need to be taken forward at the SACP’s critical Special National Congress in early July.
Suffice to say that re-building the subjective capacity to advance, deepen and defend our revolution will need to be pursued across at least three major dimensions:
Unifying the working class, and particularly re-building Cosatu, with an emphasis on internal democracy, worker control, and service to members at the shop-floor level.
Mobilising popular activism and capacity, especially at the local level. Our political formations, and particularly ANC branches and regional structures, are increasingly sliding into the narrow politics of politicians, the “game of thrones” syndrome. Where popular activism occurs, it is now frequently beyond and outside of our formations – either as “protest” politics, or as grass-roots developmental work, spear-headed by faith-based formations, volunteer groups, etc. many of whom remain ANC supporters but increasingly alienated from formal organisational structures.
Building and defending democratic national sovereignty – which means, amongst other things, transforming the state to ensure that it operates with strategic discipline and has the capacity to implement a democratic mandate in the face of the corrosive, anti-patriotic power of monopoly capital and a wide array of antimajoritarian forces in our society.
These tasks are, of course, inter-related and inter-dependent. Without a unified working class, without popular activism (what the Latin Americans call “popular protagonism”) the chances of consolidating an effective, developmental state are minimal. On the other hand, an anti-state, regime change agenda, with which some on the pseudo-left (like the leadership clique in Numsa or those in the EFF) are flirting, simply plays directly into the hands of a neo-liberal anti-majoritarianism.
Notice how the DA, Wayne Duvenhage (with a background in the car-hire business), the FW De Klerk Foundation and the Numsa/ EFF axis all converge on the same two repetitive fixations – Nkandla and e-tolls. There is much to be critical about government’s handling of both Nkandla and e-tolls. But what about Sasol? What about Media 24? What about Cash Paymaster, that US-corporate mashonisa siphoning billions of rands out of the pockets of South African pensioners and grant beneficiaries? What about Mark Shuttleworth shipping out R2,5-billion in private wealth to an overseas tax haven and still having the gall to appeal against a modest 10% deduction?
In the face of this massive siphoning out of our country’s resources, we need a strong, patriotic and democratic state – in all its dimensions, legislatures, the executive, and even the judiciary. Which is why the SACP has saluted the Constitutional Court decision to overturn the Appeal Court judgment that wanted the Reserve Bank to pay back R250-million to Shuttleworth. Private wealth accumulation on this obscene scale cannot be allowed to trump national public interest.
Let us build working class unity. Let us reconnect with and inspire local popular capacity and activism. Let us consolidate a democratic state that is both willing and capable of defending national sovereignty. These are the necessary conditions for a much needed radical second phase of our national democratic revolution.
This article first appeared in the African Communist 2nd Quarter 2015