||Free South Africa turns 10 years old on 11 May 2004, the anniversary of the inauguration of Nelson Mandela. Yet looking back, it is abundantly clear that the society suffered the replacement of racial apartheid with what can be accurately considered to be class apartheid: systemic underdevelopment and segregation of the oppressed majority, through structured economic, political, environmental, legal, medical and cultural practices largely organised or codified by Pretoria politicians and bureaucrats. Patriarchy and racism remained largely intact in many areas of daily life, even if a small elite of women and black people were incorporated into state management and the accumulation of capital. Although slightly more expansive fiscal policies were adopted after 2000, Pretoria’s neoliberal orientation has never been in doubt. There are many areas where evidence of class apartheid is irrefutable, not only locally but in South Africa’s relations to its neighbors and the wider world. But where there is oppression, so too does resistance inexorably emerge.
What happened, and how did the revolution so celebrated from 1976 through the early 1990s become so easily distorted into caricature, once formal state power was transferred in 1994? To answer requires backtracking to the point at which South African capitalism entered an economic crisis in the 1970s, subsequent to which white elites finally agreed to share power so as to facilitate a new round of capital accumulation and dampen the class and community struggles that were making life unprofitable and uncomfortable. Fortunately for them, during the early 1990s, a small corps of oppositional politicians emerged to hijack the country’s mass popular movements -- the African National Congress (ANC), the Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu), many of the NGOs, civic associations, women’s and student/youth groups, and even church-based liberation organisations -- so as to gain formal access to power, even if that meant implementing policies and projects from 1994-99 that were hostile to the majority. With a few telling (and somewhat partial) exceptions where social struggles arose around AIDS treatment and municipal water, those policies did not materially change from 1999-2004, in spite of their ongoing failure to deliver the goods.
None can deny that the ANC government’s neoliberal philosophy conformed to a ‘corporatist’ (i.e., elite-pacting) practice which demobilised and disillusioned the base, as witnessed in both decreasing electoral turnouts and the decay of the mass organisations’ branch structures, at the same time that the objective socio-economic conditions of the majority worsened considerably. These are indisputable realities of the immediate post-apartheid era. There have been only a few hackneyed efforts in print to defend the post-apartheid record, mainly by labeling critics ‘ultraleft’ or making extravagant claims about delivery successes, although some scholars have claimed that more nuance is needed. These defensive postures are considered below, following a summary of key socio-economic trends.
By and large, I think the independent left’s analysis stands up well. To be sure, no overarching theory has yet emerged from the literature dealing with class apartheid. But these studies are nevertheless quite consistent, based as they are largely upon class analysis. They take seriously the process of capitalist ‘uneven development’, and fearlessly criticise the ‘commodification of everything’ that is so explicit within the neoliberal project. Gender, racial/ethnic, environmental and cultural critiques often closely parallel and complement the writings of the independent left, especially in rare cases where authors like Neville Alexander brilliantly interrelate their analyses of political economy and culture/society.
Meanwhile, most centrist commentators praise the ANC government. Notwithstanding reservations about AIDS, Zimbabwe, crime and an allegedly inflexible labour market, they cheer Mbeki and his colleagues for managing the economy conservatively, avoiding populist temptations, and assuring that organised labour is co-opted into some (not all) policy processes and theatrical-style ‘stakeholder summits’.
Of course, it is impossible for even sycophants to completely disguise the harsh reality of South Africa’s post-apartheid decline. On the one hand, the contradictions are so severe that the following confession emerged from the government’s Ten-Year Review: ‘The advances made in the First Decade by far supersede the weaknesses. Yet, if all indicators were to continue along the same trajectory, especially in respect of the dynamic of economic inclusion and exclusion, we could soon reach a point where the negatives start to overwhelm the positives.’ The big question is whether ‘soon’ is in the future, or whether from the outset of liberation, economic exclusion – class apartheid – decisively attacked the living standards of poor and working-class South Africans.
On the other hand, though, in the heated pre-election weeks of 2004, the ANC – especially ministers like Alec Erwin who should have known better – went overboard with self-congratulatory rhetoric, and were joined by an intellectual/professional strata whose arguments require unpacking. The contradictions are most extreme in sites of struggle such as privatisation and HIV/AIDS. The government’s ‘globalisation’ excuse falls apart in light of the profoundly status quo strategies deployed within Pretoria’s own international reform programme. Finally, the terrain of domestic progressive politics remains fraught with contradiction: the capacities of a future party-political opposition from the left will depend largely upon the way the progressive social movements handle both their own decommodification and deglobalisation strategies, as well as relations with pro-government elements of civil society.