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Legassick, Martin  (2004) Impoverishment and Democracy in our Country . Movements for Socialism. : -.

Professor of History at the
University of the Western Cape, South Africa.

Working people struggled for democracy in our country in order to achieve a decent life. Hence ending poverty is a major goal of this government. "The tide is turning" said Thabo Mbeki of the economy in his state of the nation address to parliament this year. But the facts suggest otherwise: under the ANC government, THE POOR HAVE GOT POORER!

South Africa is not merely the most unequal society in the world (along with Brazil and Guatemala), but inequality is increasing. Poverty can no longer be explained as simply the legacy of apartheid. The five-yearly survey of income and spending done by state agency Statistics South Africa, released last November, found that the average income of Africans (corrected for inflation) had decreased from R32,000 to R26,000 between 1995 one year after the ANC government was elected -- and 2000. The average income for whites, on the other hand, had increased over the same period from R137,000 to R158, 000.

What this means for the poor is spelled out in a recent survey of conditions in Khayelitsha and Greater Nyanga carried out by the Program for Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape. This found that half of all households had a monthly income of less than R167 per household member, and the bottom third had a monthly income of R39 per person! This is starvation-level poverty.

Government policies, favouring business over workers, have contributed to this impoverishment. In the second quarter of last year, for the first time since 1981, before tax operating profits accounted for a larger share of gross domestic product (46%) than labour (45%). (And 1981 was an exceptional year, in which the gold price rose to $800 an ounce, producing windfall profits!) This is before tax but it is notorious that the ANC government has also reduced tax on business to much lower levels than in the past. The working class majority in our country is being squeezed and impoverished as the result of ANC policies.

The GEAR policy with its liberalization of trade has resulted in the slashing of formal sector employment by 1 million jobs since the ANC government came in. Over the past twelve years one in every 5 jobs have been lost. The PLAAS survey discovered that the main breadwinner in 32% of households had lost his/her job at some point during the previous year, and that 31% had suffered the permanent loss of a full-time job during the last five years. This is a major cause of impoverishment.

Thabo Mbeki announced the raising of the age-limit for child poverty grants from 7 to 14 but the ANC has refused to implement the proposal of the Taylor Commission for a universal basic income grant (BIG) of R100 a month. (I would prefer to see it at R250 a month). Yet the PLAAS survey calculated that implementing the R100 BIG would reduce the percentage of households below the poverty line by 17,%, more than tripling the income of the bottom third of households. Thus the ANC government is turning its back on measures which could begin to alleviate poverty.

The government claims that the 'social wage' has increased because of reforms in housing, supply of electricity, water and so on. But monetary impoverishment undercuts these reforms. People cannot afford to pay bonds or rentals on their housing, or for electricity or water. It is no accident that in community after community around the country movements are arising against cutoffs of water and electricity and evictions from homes. The Anti-Eviction Campaign in the Western Cape is one such grouping. These movements are a consequence of the impoverishment caused by the ANC government.

Lionel 'Rusty' Bernstein was an ANC/CP activist for some fifty years, and one of the drafters of the Congress Alliance's Freedom Charter in 1955. Shortly before his recent death he wrote to a Canadian antiapartheid activist who had published an article on his disappointment with the ANC government. Rusty complained about the distortion of the aims of the ANC which took place in exile, manifested in a 'drive to power' among its leaders which "undermined the ANC's adherence to the path of mass resistance as the way to liberation, and substituted instead a reliance on manipulation of the levers of administrative power" and which "paved the way to a steady decline of a mass-membership ANC as an organizer of the people, and turned it into a career opening to public sector employment and the administrative 'gravy train'. It has reduced the tripartite ANC-COSATU-CP Alliance from the centrifugal force of national political mobilization to an electoral pact between parties who are constantly constrained to subordinate their constituents' fundamental interests to the overriding purpose of holding on to administrative power. It has impoverished the soil in which ideas leaning towards socialist solutions once flourished, and allowed the weed of 'free market' ideology to take hold."

Many people other than Rusty are likewise becoming disillusioned with the ANC. Towards the end of last year, an ANC organized rally in Khayelitsha to be addressed by Vice-president Jacob Zuma had to be canceled because no one whatsoever turned up! The recent anti-war marches in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban etc. called by Thabo Mbeki were a great success but the organized presence on them under the ANC banner was dismal. While this situation can change as election time approaches, there is nevertheless, in this situation of deepening inequality, a political vacuum in the country to the left of the ANC. The situation cries out for COSATU and the SACP to split from the Alliance and build a mass workers' party with a democratic socialist programme for all the poor and oppressed. The movements that have arisen, and which are linking themselves together in the Social Movement Indaba as well as the AIDS-active Treatment Action Campaign could be vital components of such a party. Such a party could rapidly win majority support in the urban areas and, with policies attractive to rural dwellers, in the ANC's countryside bastions as well. It could win support also from middle class people.

The constitution introduced under the ANC government is one of the most democratic in the world. But what would be the response of the ANC to a serious challenge to its present virtually one-party hegemony in the country? The responses to the social movements in the communities are not encouraging in this respect. Despite mass peaceful protests and sit-ins at their offices by the anti-eviction campaign, the banks and the Western Cape government have basically refused to negotiate. Local councilors and leaders of SANCO (which has a shareholding in one of the major home-loan companies) refuse to listen to complainants in Khayelitsha. Instead of being treated as a legitimate voice of protest, the anti-eviction campaign in Khayelitsha is treated as a matter for the police.

The PLAAS survey found that the second-highest cause of adult death in Khayelitsha (29%) and Greater Nyanga (26%) was the crime of assault. Yet time and again, instead of fighting these real crimes, masses of police in Casspirs (armoured personnel carriers), buses, and cars are deployed in Khayelitsha to harass and victimize leaders and members of the anti-eviction campaign. ANC councilors cannot hold a meeting without a police presence to prop up their 'authority'. The situation is becoming like Mugabe's victimization of the MDC in miniature. It is ominous for the future of democracy in our country.

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