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Publication Details

Reference
Bond, Patrick (2004) After the South African Election: Rhetorics and Realities . Centre for Civil Society : -.

Summary
Now that the dust is settling on the South African national election results - with no surprises whatsoever from the April 14 vote - the society can more seriously contemplate how ten years of neoliberal policies can be reversed.

The outcome, after all, appears tediously similar to 1999. The ruling African National Congress ANC) won roughly 70%, as anticipated, and president Thabo Mbeki's Machiavellian divide-and-conquer of the two white-dominated opposition parties reduced their combined vote markedly, from 20% to around 15%. At closer to 6%, the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party will need a white partner to help it continue ruling the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Parties whose critique of ANC rule was mainly from the left did badly: the United Democratic Movement and Pan Africanist Congress have each barely maintained a parliamentary presense; the black-consciousness Azanian Peoples Organisation and its breakaway Socialist Party of Azania do not seem to have even attained parliamentary standing.

Progressive political organizations which decided not to run their own candidates for election exhibited weakness and inconsistency. Many thousands of Johannesburg township activists consciously 'spoiled' their ballots in protest, while the Landless People's Movement (LPM)called for a simple boycott, in anticipation that the apathy factor would rise substantially. Early returns suggest that turnout was substantially lower than 1994 and 1999, but at more than 75% of registered voters, the LPM cannot claim victory for the boycott strategy.

What the landless activists can do, however, is honour the arrests of more than 60 members in the ghetto of Thembelihle, near Soweto, on election day. As the movement's press statement explained, 'The people have been arrested in terms of the Electoral Code of Conduct and the 1993 Prohibition of Illegal Gatherings Act. The charges are related to illegal gatherings on the day of elections. The LPM regards the charges as spurious. The LPM members were not permitted to gather even though they were prepared to observe regulations allowing only protests held at least 200m from any polling station. They were arrested as they disembarked from their transport, and so no gathering or meeting even took place.'

Judging by this sort of repressive - indeed, paranoid - security and the falling living standards experienced by the majority of black South Africans, the government should be subject to the kinds of insurgent protests witnessed recently in Latin America. Denying these harsh realities, the ANC took to doctoring simple statistics during the campaign.

Consider the doubling of formal unemployment from 16% in 1994 to 32% in 2002. When one adds millions of people who have given up any hope of finding a job, the jobless rate rises to 43%.

Yet as the election neared, ANC politicians like trade and industry minister Alec Erwin insisted that two million new jobs were created since 1994, based on an official Labour Force Survey. That survey defines 'employment' as including 'beg[ging] money or food in public' and 'catch[ing] any fish, prawns, shells, wild animals or other food for sale or family food.' Asked about this measure two months ago, the main trade union official, Zwelinzima Vavi, said simply, 'It is absurd to record such labour as jobs.' Nevertheless, last week Vavi's chief economist defended the statistics by way of justifying labour's endorsement of the ANC as the only party with, supposedly, 'the workers' interests at heart.'

In reality, the ten-year liberation celebrations to be held around the day of Mbeki's re-inauguration, April 27, will be much more boisterous in the mansions and corporate headquarters of Johannesburg. 'The government is utterly seduced by big business, and cannot see beyond its immediate interests,' remarked the neoliberal editor of Business Day newspaper, Peter Bruce, last June.

It is here that the core concession made by the ANC during the early 1990s transition deal is apparent, namely in the desire by white businesses to escape the economic stagnation and declining profits born of a classical capitalist crisis, in the context of a sanctions-induced laager, and amplified by the 1970s-80s rise of black militancy in workplaces and communities.

The deal represented simply this: black nationalists got the state, while white people and corporations could remove their capital from the country, and simultaneously remain domiciled in South Africa with, thanks to economic liberalisation, still more privileges. Trade, credit, cultural and sports sanctions ended; exchange controls were lifted; luxury imports flooded in; white people's incomes rose by 15% during the late 1990s; taxes were cut dramatically; and the corporate pre-tax profit share soared during the late 1990s, back to 1960s-era levels associated with apartheid's heyday.

Hence inequality soared during ANC rule, state statistics show. Black 'African' South Africans suffered an income crash of 19% from 1995-2000, with every indication of further degeneration in subsequent years. The ANC rebuttal is that when state spending is accounted for, the inequality lessens. Yet notwithstanding deeper poverty, the state raised water and electricity prices, to the point that by 2002 they consumed 30% of the income of those households earning less than $70 per month. An estimated 10 million people had their water cut off, according to two national government surveys, and 10 million were also victims of electricity disconnections (see http://www.queensu.ca/msp for the ongoing numbers controversy).

The debate over whether state services have been provided to low-income black customers in a sustainable manner - or instead are priced too high because of privatisation pressures -- was finally joined by Mbeki last week.

As reported in Sunday's City Press newspaper mainly read by blacks), 'After meeting pensioners like 92-year-old Mamelodi resident Johanna Mashigoane, whose electricity had been cut off as she could not afford to pay for it, and unemployed Macassar resident Zelna Hendricks, who had received an eviction letter from the council after failing to pay rates, Mbeki could not hide his outrage. Local government policy towards the poor, he declared, would have to change after the elections and central government would need to allocate more money to municipalities to deal with this problem.'

Although municipal policy on disconnections and evictions is in fact a national policy with World Bank fingerprints, approved by the Cabinet on several occasions, Mbeki's raised consciousness is a step forward to reality. The week before, his chief communications officer took a step backwards when he wrote insensitively in the Sunday Times (mainly read by whites) in defense of disconnections: '10 million people connected to water which cannot by any stretch of the imagination be compared with the few households occasionally cut off.'

The question is whether such zigzagging is merely a product of election rhetoric, or instead reflects the permanent contradictions between big-business advocates of essentially neoliberal development policies, and well-moblised activists. South Africa hosts some of the world's most militant social movements, who demand the decommodification of water, electricity, anti-retroviral medicines and healthcare, education, and even a Basic Income Grant.

Defenders of the elite transition deal may claim that leftward pressure on the ANC also emanates from the Constitution's celebrated socio-economic rights clauses. But the 1996 document appears a bit tattered these days, partly because the judges are too frightened to take a stand against the state's neoliberal policies, and partly because of an incident on March 21 at the opening of the Court's beautiful new building in central Johannesburg at the site of the old Fort Prison next to Hillbrow.

The tale is worth recounting. Johannesburg community activists in the Anti-Privatisation Forum called a march to protest the installation of pre-paid water meters in Soweto by the French company Suez, which is running the city's outsourced water company. City officials banned the march on absurd grounds (traffic disturbances - on a Sunday?). The police arrested 51 activists, some simply because they were wearing red shirts, and blocked travel of APF buses into Johannesburg. Neither the judges nor Mbeki - who attended the opening ceremony - uttered a word in the protesters' defense, so even first-generation civil/political rights now appear merely contingent.

That incident aside, the country's highest court has heard three major cases on socio-economic rights: one led to the death of a man denied kidney paralysis treatment because the judges deemed it too expensive; the next helped the Treatment Action Campaign acquire AIDS medicines for pregnant women because the judges agreed the state was needlessly killing tens of thousands of infants each year; and another allegedly enforced the right to emergency municipal services - but checking back on the successful plaintiff, Irene Grootboom, in her Cape Town ghetto, the Sunday Times found her community as destitute as in September 2000, at the time of her case.

To be sure, the status of women like Grootboom includes some improvements since 1994, especially in reproductive rights, albeit with extremely uneven access. But contemporary South Africa retains apartheid's patriarchal modes of surplus extraction, thanks to both residual sex discrimination and the migrant rural-urban) labour system, which is still subsidised by women stuck in the former bantustan homelands.

Structured superexploitation of women is accompanied by an apparent increase in domestic violence associated with rising male unemployment. Mbeki was quoted by the SA Press Association on March 22, the day after Human Rights Day: 'He said if ever his sister was to arrive home and tell him that she was in love with African Christian Democratic Party leader Kenneth Meshoe, he would have to beat her.' A spokesperson said the president was only joking.

Women are also the main caregivers in the home, and bear the highest burden associated with degraded health. Public-sector services continue declining due to underfunding and competition from private providers. Infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, diarrhea, cholera, malaria and AIDS are rife, all far more prevalent than during apartheid. Most South Africans with HIV still have little prospect of receiving antiretroviral drugs to extend their lives. Only last week - in time for the election -- did the medicines finally begin to make their way to hospitals and a few clinics.

During his five years as president, Mbeki has taken various obstinate stands against the poor and the sick. He has also stood down human rights activists and arms-control groups opposed to his $6 billion purchase of sophisticated weaponry from European corporations. The widespread influence-peddling scandals associated with the arms deal threatened deputy president Jacob Zuma last year, after he allegedly solicited a bribe in a manner the justice minister deemed 'prima facie corruption', and it forced the resignation of several leading ANC politicians and officials caught in plots.

On the environmental front, the country's ecosystem as today in worse condition, in many crucial respects -- e.g., water and soil resources mismanagement, contributions to global warming, fisheries, industrial toxics, genetic modification -- than during apartheid. And because a World Bank-style neoliberal land reform policy was adopted just after liberation, less than 3% of arable land was redistributed, as against a 1994-99 target of 30%.

The systematically repressive side of Mbeki's regime was unveiled to the world during the August 2002 protests against the UN's World Summit on Sustainable Development. Leading anti-privatisation activists in the black townships of Johannesburg and Cape Town are repeatedly harassed and detained by police -- mainly illegally (resulting in high-profile acquittals) - for resisting evictions and disconnections. Treatment Action Campaign members were savagely beaten in early 2003 during a non-violent civil disobedience campaign to acquire medicines.

In short, the record upon which the ANC campaigned was one of low-intensity democracy in which the ruling party regularly wins elections because US-style corporatist trade unions remain aligned to the ruling party, their leaders unwilling to risk establishing a broad-based progressive movement to fight neoliberalism from outside.

But the transition from racial to class apartheid will not go unpunished forever. In another ten years, or before, a much more optimistic report will surely be feasible.

Bond's new book, out this month from University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, is Talk Left, Walk Right: South Africa's Frustrated Global Reforms.

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