SA politics: The great rupture

Moeletsi Mbeki on the black working class' turn away from the ANC

Leadership in South Africa in the age of neo-colonialism

The death of Nelson Mandela has rightly been described as signalling the end of an era, the era of nationalism which had dominated South African politics for more than 100 years.

Afrikaner nationalism had died a painless death in its sleep sometime in the 1990s, about the time African nationalism seemed at last to have triumphed. But alas this triumph turned out to be short lived.

A key ambition of African nationalism besides universal suffrage, according to Mandela, was the creation of an African capitalist class. Explaining the nationalisation clause of the Freedom Charter in 1956 Mandela wrote:

"It is true that in demanding the nationalisation of the banks, the gold mines and the land the Charter strikes a fatal blow at the financial and gold-mining monopolies and farming interests that have for centuries plundered the country and condemned its people to servitude. But such a step is absolutely imperative and necessary because the realisation of the Charter is inconceivable, in fact impossible, unless and until these monopolies are first smashed up and the national wealth of the country turned over to the people. The breaking up and democratisation of these monopolies will open up fresh fields for the development of a prosperous Non-European bourgeois class. For the first time in the history of this country the Non-European bourgeoisie will have the opportunity to own in their own name and right mills and factories, and trade and private enterprise will boom and flourish as never before."

By the time Mandela died his political heirs had abandoned this central project of African nationalism and instead had replaced it with Black Economic Empowerment. BEE was not a project to create an African bourgeoisie; it was a project to create a class of black crony capitalists who would be junior partners to existing white South African companies and to Western multinational corporations operating in the country. These junior partners would use their political connections to assist established business to maintain the economic status quo inherited from the age of white domination.

A day after Mandela was buried in the green, rolling hills of the Eastern Cape where he was born and grew up, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, Numsa, announced the birth of a new era, an era where the advancement of working class interests would dominate the country's economics and politics.

In the past South Africa's the black masses had accepted that they were to be led by people who knew better than themselves - the black mission school educated classes. Not anymore. Today black workers want their own organisations. In particular they want their trade unions to establish their own political parties to lead them and to lead the country.

What had happened for the black working class to change its mind about who should lead them and the country? There is no one answer to this question. What it does reflect however is the increasing self-confidence of South Africa's working class in its ability to find its own solutions to its challenges.

During the 20 years of ANC rule the working class had looked on helplessly as the ANC government adopted policies that devastated the country's agriculture, mining and manufacturing industries resulting in drastic fall in employment in these sectors as well as in growing casualization of employees.

According to one estimate government policies adopted in 1996 resulted in 600 000 farm workers losing their jobs between 1997and 2007. Assuming each farmworker had a family of four, this meant 2,4million people were evicted from their homes on commercial farms during those 10 years. It should therefore come as no surprise that informal settlements are mushrooming in urban areas.

It was therefore a matter of time before trade unions would wake up to the reality that there was a link between the country's de-industrialisation and growing unemployment with crony capitalism, government policies that pamper big business especially finance capital and the growth of a new black middle and upper class. It was a matter of time before trade unions at the receiving end of these policies would withdraw support from the ANC.

An alternative would have been the fragmentation of the unions themselves between unionists favouring continued support for the ANC and those against. This was what happened to the National Union of Mineworkers where the less pro-ANC workers split off to form the Association of Mine & Construction Workers Union, Amcu. A similar fate later befell the Congress of South African Trade Unions, Cosatu.

Conquest and subjugation

Modern day South African society was created over centuries of violence, dispossession and subjugation by European conquerors. South Africa belongs to a group of countries that were created during the 16th and 17th centuries as a result of global maritime explorations from the Iberian Peninsula. Those explorations led to emergence of what came to be known as the New World.

The New World was made up of countries carved out of the America's by European powers of the time - Spain, Portugal, Britain, France and the Netherlands. These countries were characterised by extreme exploitation and oppression of the indigenous American populations who were literally worked to death by European conquerors in the process of their extracting precious metals. Over time the native populations were replaced with slaves imported from Africa who were used to cultivate crops - tobacco, sugar cane, cotton etc., - destined for European markets.

In Africa only two countries could be classified as New World countries. These are South Africa and Mauritius. Both countries imported slaves during the colonial period from the rest of Africa and from Asia who were exploited in the plantations established by colonising powers.

During the long drawn out process of military conquest, the aristocracy from which the leadership of the indigenous peoples came was decimated. At the end of conquest African communities were in a state of shock, they did not know to who to turn to especially as many members of their aristocracies that survived the wars of resistance to conquest started collaborating with European victors.

In this period of bewilderment two groups emerged that were sympathetic to the defeated communities. These initially were the European missionaries who had been critical of the oppressive and exploitative policies towards the indigenous peoples of the colonial government and of the colonists.

Black Nationalism

However from the middle of the 19th century a new class of African and Coloured mission school educated individuals started to emerge. By the last quarter of the 19th century this group had become sufficiently established as a propertied class to start founding African language newspapers and thus participating in the politics of the Cape and Natal Colonies. Among the former slaves Imams played a similar leadership role while passage Indians - merchants and professionals - provided similar leadership amongst Indian indentured workers.

For example by the end of the 19th century, Africans in Natal (excluding Zululand) owned 68 000 acres in freehold; 34 000 acres in quitrent i.e. long leases; while 217 000 acres of Crown lands had been sold to Africans, "under long terms of payment similar to European purchasers". In 1904 Natal had 150 missionary schools attended by 11 000 pupils. In the same year the Cape had 60 000 African pupils taught by 200 teachers.

These three groups constituted the black elite that provided leadership in the struggles against racial discrimination and racial oppression throughout the 20th century which culminated in the democratic elections in 1994 and in the democratic constitution of 1996.

In these struggles of nearly a century and a half, the black working class and the black masses in general played a supportive role. They did not set the agenda. The agenda of black nationalism was set by the black elite that inherited the leadership mantle from the defeated African aristocracy. The black working class followed.

Over the decades during the 20th century the black elite guarded its leadership position so jealously that in the 1940s it established the ANC Youth League to ensure that the leadership of the black working class did not fall into the hands of communists. This was the main argument that persuaded then ANC president Dr AB Xuma, to approve the establishment of the ANC Youth League in 1944.

In its founding documents the Youth League wrote:

"the African people in South Africa are oppressed as a group with a particular colour. They suffer national oppression in common with thousands and millions of oppressed colonial people's in other parts of the world.

"African nationalism", said the Youth League," is the dynamic national liberatory creed of the oppressed people...Africans must build a powerful liberation movement, and in order that the National movement should have inner strength and solidarity it should adopt the National liberators creed - African nationalism, and it should be led by Africans themselves."

Nelson Mandela, never one to mince words wrote:

"There are certain groups which seek to impose on our struggle cut and dried formulae, which so far from clarifying the issues only serve to obscure the fundamental issue that we are oppressed not as a class, but as a people, as a nation. Such wholesale importation of methods and tactics which might have succeeded in other countries, like Europe, where conditions are different, might harm the cause of our people's freedom, unless we are quick in building a militant mass liberation movement."

The journal of the Transvaal Youth League, African Lodestar, writing in 1950 said:

"Since the workers in the country are oppressed primarily because they are Africans and only secondarily because they are workers, it is clear that the exotic plant of Communism cannot flourish on African soil; this plant will not take kindly to the soil thus it is bound to wither and die out. If it remains it is likely to ruin the soil without any benefit to itself as it is now happening."

The initiative of establishing the ANC Youth League proved a success in that it marginalised the Communist Party which had started to make headway among the urban black masses in the 1940s especially after the Soviet Union joined the war against the Nazis in 1941. In the post Second World War national liberation struggles the communists as well as the working class played a followership role. The communists went further and became the praise singers of African nationalism for which they were permitted to be an authorised lobby.

The communists popularised the notion of the National Democratic Revolution according to which the working class should accept nationalist leadership's rapprochement with the Minerals Energy Complex, finance capital and the Western multinational corporations that dominate South Africa's stultified capitalist system. In return the black poor would get social welfare, electricity, piped water etc, and leaders of black trade unions and of the Communist Party would get high paying government jobs and maybe even shares and seats in company boards of directors.

From national liberation to class struggle

While the African nationalists were able to subdue their communist opponents, they however failed to prevail over their more powerful adversaries - the mining magnates, white workers and Afrikaner nationalists. Eventually African nationalists had to settle for a compromise that preserved intact the economic and social interests of their main adversaries in return for universal franchise and a multiparty constitutional democracy.

The much vaunted Black Economic Empowerment, BEE and Affirmative Action policies that have become the corner stone of the new thinking of the new African rulers do not modernise South Africa's old economic system, they merely add new beneficiaries - BEE tycoons, political, trade union and other civil society leaders, senior civil servants and parastatal executives.

The African bourgeoisie reached its peak towards the end of the 19th century. For most of the 20th century it has been in steady decline bartered by attacks from three fronts; the mine owners, white workers and Afrikaner nationalists. While the much weakened African elite of the 20th century retained the ideology of their more powerful 19th century predecessors, they lacked their capabilities.

The last major undertakings of the 19th century African bourgeoisie were the founding of several newspapers - Imvo Zabantsundu founded by John Tengo Jabavu in 1884; Ilanga laseNatal founded by John Dube in 1904. Other newspapers established during the same period were Koranta ea Becoana founded by Sol Plaatje and Indian Opinion founded by Mahatma Gandhi.

The second undertaking was the establishment of Fort Hare University, an initiative pioneered by Walter Rubusana, a member of the Cape parliament, in 1908. The institution which was built with contribution by Africans opened its doors in 1916.

The last most important undertaking by the 19th century African bourgeoisie was the founding in 1912 of the African National Congress. Other important black political parties established during this period were the Natal Indian Congress founded in 1894 and the African People's Organisation founded in 1904.

The African elite in the late 20th century thus entered into negotiations from a position of great weakness. As an illustration of how low the fortunes of the African elite had sunk by the second half of the 20th century, it took leading African businessman Sam Motsuenyane a decade to raise a million rands from the African community in the 1960s to 1970s to capitalise the African Bank. Not surprisingly the African elite came out of the negotiations with very little.

Its main achievement was the right to manage the state and to live off government revenues. It could not however change South Africa's economic model that is founded on the exploitation and export of the country's vast mineral resources through the harnessing of cheap black labour. All that the new regime could do was therefore to promote household consumption among the blacks through redistribution via state revenues.

This consumption revolution has been disastrous for South Africa's productive economy. Firstly it transfers resources through taxation from the production sector to government and to private household consumption thereby starving the production sector of resources to invest. As can be expected the result has been to drive up unemployment while creating the illusion of economic growth which in reality was driven by rises in commodity prices. Secondly low levels of investment inevitably led to higher levels of imports and the attendant balance of payment problems.

At a broader social and political level, growing inequality drives increasing conflict on the shop floor as well as in poor communities. The massacre of 34 miners by the police on 16th August 2012 was hardly unexpected. South Africa is therefore increasingly becoming a battleground between the ANC government and the black working class and the black poor.

Mode of consumption

After 20 years of being managed by the ANC how is South Africa's capitalist system fairing? What does its future look like? The answer to both questions is that things are not looking good for South Africa's capitalism.

Under normal circumstances capitalism is described as a mode of production. In the hands of the ANC, it can more appropriately be described as a mode of consumption. During the last two decades South Africa's productive industries have been in a nose dive. Manufacturing, probably more than any other sector of the economy, has been shrinking fast. Its production equipment is aging, and in some industries, is ancient.

Most of South Africa's cement manufacturing equipment is on average 30 years and older, not surprisingly it could not cope when it had to supply cement to construction companies to build new stadiums for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. So we imported cement from China. The same applies to our footwear industry. In 1991 we made 80 million pairs of shoes, by 2007, local production had halved and instead we imported 160 million pairs of shoes, again mostly from Asia. Even with chicken, we are unable to produce enough to meet domestic demand, so we import, from Brazil, Argentina, European Union.

The mining industry which is at the heart of the South African economy is also shrinking not because we have run out of minerals, but because our economy is consuming instead of investing. We ran out of electricity in 2008 because the ANC government which controls South Africa's generation industry was not bothered to build new power stations to meet growing demand.

Again instead of producing, we are consuming lavishly especially by the upper classes of all races. The poor have also been roped in into the consumer binge through welfare programmes in return for which they must vote for the ANC.

Increasingly, South Africa is consuming imports be they motor vehicles, milk, chicken, beef, shoes, clothes, cement, computers to name but a few products. We pay for all this by selling our minerals mostly in a raw state, to foreigners and by borrowing from our banks and also from foreigners. This is why I call the ANC's capitalism a mode of consumption rather than a mode of production.

Such a system is not sustainable as its consequences are high levels of unemployment, large scale poverty and extensive inequality. South Africa tops the world league tables on all three counts. Sooner or later debt runs away with the whole economic system and if the people do not rebel first, the system crushes. The Greeks - and Zimbabweans before them - are living through this nightmare scenario.

Modes of production

Since its establishment in 1652, South African capitalism has gone through five distinctive periods - the Dutch East India Company period; two British periods; the Afrikaner nationalist period; and now the African nationalist period. Each period was driven by its own dominant political elite to achieve those elite's economic, political and social objectives.

The Dutch East India Company's (DEIC) objective was to create a half way station that would supply its ships with fresh foods. The Dutch therefore brought new crops to South Africa especially wheat and grapes as well as new workers, the slaves, to grow the crops. They also brought several technologies such as the wheel, the horse, guns, textiles and harness that did not exist in South Africa at the time. The DEIC system which lasted until the British took over in 1795, was a production driven system par excellence. It was very cruel to its workers, the slaves, and was founded on genocide against the San and Khoi, the indigenous peoples of the Western Cape.

The British continued with the Dutch system until 1834 when they abolished slavery. From the 1830s until the 1890s the British developed an African peasant based economy in the Eastern Cape and later in Natal by introducing freehold land ownership and most importantly by promoting the use of animal drawn agricultural implements among the African peasants. This was the first British production system which promoted prosperity among African peasants through a more productive agricultural system than one which was based on indigenous hand tools especially the hoe.

With the discovery of diamonds and gold during the last quarter of the 19th century, British mining investors turned against the peasant agriculture promotion system and demanded it be dismantled to release African males from peasant agriculture to go and work in the mines. The mining magnates also demanded the dismantling of the two Boer republics and the Zulu Kingdom. The British government acceded to all these demands.  This resulted in the Anglo-Zulu and Anglo-Boer wars as well as the imposition of many taxes on African men in territories under British control in order to force African men to earn cash by working in the mines.

All these measures led to the creation of the second British production system. This has come to be known as the Minerals-Energy Complex - a massive production system that has lasted to this day. It is driven by African migrant labour; is built on the ruins of South Africa's collapsed peasant agriculture; and is still funded to a significant extent by the City of London, the United Kingdom's international financial district.

The fourth and last production system was that created by Afrikaner nationalists during the 84 years they controlled the state from 1910 to 1994.

The Afrikaner elite that controlled the Orange Free State and the Transvaal republics expropriated land from the indigenous peoples during several wars in the second half of the 19th century. However, they did not build a modern agricultural system, they were essentially pastoralists. The Afrikaner nationalists only started to build modern agricultural system after the British handed them the South African state in 1910. One of the first actions of the Louis Botha government, who was himself a land owner from Natal, was the creation of the Land Bank in 1910 to provide cheap credit to commercial farmers.

This system went on to mobilise and organize cheap black labour as well as to establish a cheap, effective and extensive transport and communication infrastructure to serve commercial farmers. In the process, other infrastructure related industries were established, such as iron and steel, fertilizers, oil from coal, and armaments. Lastly, the system developed an extensive education system to train farmers, their children and their managers in agricultural and veterinary sciences and other skills in food marketing, processing and storage.

The driving motive in all these developments was to enrich commercial farmers through enabling them to supply the growing industrial and mining towns sprouting all over South Africa in the 20th century with food especially maize as well as agricultural raw materials and to export to British and world markets, so South Africa could buy the technology it needed to grow its agriculture and other industries.

In the many analyses of South Africa's 360 years of its capitalist system, focus has rightly been on the suffering inflicted on the black population in the process of building the production capabilities of the capitalist system. Today a new story is unfolding however, the story of the dismantling of South Africa's production capacity. This time it is in the name of humanising South Africa's capitalism by transforming it from a production system into a consumption system.

As South Africa switches from a production to a consumption system, there are already signs of more suffering to be inflicted on the masses of South Africa by the new black political elite who are the primary beneficiaries of the new consumption driven model. Many signs of preparations for the coming repression are already apparent. These include:-

  • the re-militarisation of the police
  • suppression of the freedom of the mass media
  • manipulation of judicial processes and personnel
  • refusal to introduce a constituency based electoral system which could make members of parliament more accountable to the electorate.


South Africa is now entering a new phase in the long struggle to develop and consolidate democracy and to build an economy that is both sustainable and serves the needs of its entire people instead of the selfish interests of small elites as has been the case over the past 360 years.

The challenge facing South Africa and Southern Africa is to complete the partial industrialisation of Southern Africa begun by the British in the late 19th century. The new industrialisation cannot however be of the same character as that initiated by the British. That earlier industrialisation was designed to exploit South Africa's natural resources and export them as raw material to feed manufacturing industries in Britain and other developed countries.

South Africa's new industrialisation must be driven by entrepreneurs who must create downstream manufacturing industries so more jobs can be created to absorb the huge pool of unemployed people in the country.

* Moeletsi Mbeki is author of Architects of Poverty: Why African Capitalism Needs Changing.

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