Inside the Transition
An aspect of the transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa was inadvertently captured at the opening of the World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting held at the International Convention Centre in Durban, in June 2002, as the police arrived with a massive show of force and drove protesters away from the building with batons and charging horses. One of the organizers of the WEF was approached by an incredulous member of the foreign media and asked about the right to protest in the new South Africa. The organizer pulled out the program and, with a wry smile, pointed to an upcoming session entitled Taking NEPAD to the People. He said he could not understand the protests because the people have been accommodated.
The transition to democracy led by the African National Congress (ANC) was trumped by the transition to neoliberalism. The new ruling elite and the beneficiaries of the old apartheid regime had already made common cause after the ANC came to power in 1994. Now they were cementing their alliance with the corporate raiders in the advanced capitalist world.
The ongoing South African transition has wrought significant changes. The African middle and professional classes have grown considerably, while a small economic elite is furiously consolidating. Adam Habib and Vishnu Padayachee have recently commented on the impact of the ANC economic policies since 1994 on the insiders of the transition:
Conglomerate (white) business, the aspirant black bourgeoisie, and black professionals have benefitted in the short term from the imposition of neo-liberal economic policies. The conglomerates have benefitted from the tax concessions, the lowering of inflation, and the privatization programme. They have also benefitted from steady exchange control liberalization (which has permitted the outward flow of increasing amounts of South African capital abroad) and from the opening up of new export markets and some new investment opportunities, especially in Africa and Asia. The aspirant black bourgeoisie has benefitted from the privatization of public enterprises, the voluntary asset swaps from domestic white companies, and from the partnerships established with foreign investors….Black professionals have also benefited from promotions and more open employment practices as companies scramble to fulfill affirmative action quotas.1
Also central to the transition is the impact of the ANC’s macroeconomic strategy on the composition of the South African working class. A recent Reserve Bank report has shown that while wages (and productivity) for skilled workers have steadily grown, there has developed a growing gulf between the unionized and better skilled on the one hand and the masses of marginalized South Africans on the other.
Over the last decade, there has been an increase in nonstandard (temporary, casual, contract, part-time) forms of employment that heralds the ubiquity of a relatively unstable and nonunionized workforce. At present, full-time occupations employ little more than 40 percent of the economically active population; for the African population, this decreases to approximately one-third. Studies of the retail sector indicate significant wage and benefit differences between permanent and atypical workers. The hourly wages of permanent workers (90 percent of whom are union members) in the retail sector are R9.68 [one South African rand (R) equals a little less than ten cents in U.S. currency]. This compares with the average R6.68 paid to casual employees (37 percent of whom are unionized).2
Alongside widespread nonstandard employment is spiraling unemployment. In 2001, University of Cape Town economist Haroon Bhorat wrote that the job creation performance of the formal economy has been abysmal.3 This conclusion has been supported by later studies that have pointed to escalating job loss and unemployment. At the end of March 2002, Statistics SA reported that the official unemployment rate jumped three percentage points rising from 26.4 percent to 29.5 percent. At the same time, research on unemployment conducted by the Norwegian Development Agency put the unemployment figure at between 32 percent and 45 percent. This research also found that a quarter of the currently unemployed lost their last job because of retrenchment or business closure and that half the job seekers have never worked before.
According to the 1996 Census, the poorest 40 percent of the population got less than 3 percent of the national income, while the richest 10 percent enjoyed over 50 percent. The situation has worsened over the past decade for the poorest 40 percent of African households. Twenty percent of urban households have no electricity and a quarter have no running water, while 80 percent of rural households have neither. This led Minister of Social Development, Zola Skweyiya, to reflect—in a rare moment of politician straight talk after visiting a number of townships and rural areas—that socioeconomic inequalities were getting worse: The consequence is the rich are getting richer and fewer whilst the poor are increasing in number and getting even poorer. Ironically, inequality has been exacerbated by the lack of state support. Most poor South African households, more than 13.8 million people, do not qualify for any social security transfers. This means that the poor have had to rely largely on themselves for survival.
A Poverty and Inequality Report commissioned by the government in May 2000 reveals that 45 percent of self-employed workers earn less than the poverty line. Seventy-six percent of these are African. Franco Barchiesi makes the telling point that unemployment in itself is only partially accountable for working class poverty: [T]he existence of huge areas of working class poverty in the South African society…indicate(s) an enduring, structural inability of waged employment to satisfy basic necessities for life and household reproduction. Take the recent example, a group of sixty retrenched workers from the footwear industry in northern Kwa-ZuluNatal who reentered the workforce by working for an entrepreneur who pays them R1 for every shoe made. According to one of the workers, Lungile Ngubane, What you get paid depends on how many shoes you can make a day, but I would say on average I make R50 a week.4
The Neoliberal Squeeze at the Local’
The neoliberal transition has squeezed and spewed out the poor but galvanized them at the same time. The poors, as they have come to be known in the South African vernacular, have opposed the water and electricity cut-offs and evictions (consequences of the privatization of public services), and have begun making connections between their situation and that of people, first in Soweto and Tafelsig, but then also in Bolivia, South Korea, America’s prisons, Zimbabwe, and Chiapas. But they have done this without any grand ideology. They are actors on a local stage, squaring off against homegrown villains like Operation Masakhane [Let Us Build], which supposedly aims to normalize local governance and the provision of local services by convincing people with no money that they must pay for these services.5
In the most comprehensive study of the ability of people to pay for basic services, David McDonald found a serious crisis:
If for example, 18 percent of the seven million people who are reported to have been given access to water since 1994 are unable to pay their water bills no matter how hard [they] try, then 1.26 million of these new recipients are unable to afford this water and an additional 1.2 million have to choose between paying for water and buying other essentials like food. Similar percentages apply to the 3.5 million South Africans who have been given access to electricity.6
As part of the process of normalization, the government’s Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) program aims toward a fundamental shift away from the statist’ service delivery models of the past where the state subsidized and delivered municipal services (albeit in a racially-biased manner), towards a more neo-liberal’ service delivery model where the private sector (and private sector principles) dominate. In the latter model, the state acts as a service ensurer’ rather than a service provider’ and municipal services are run more like a business,’ with financial cost recovery becoming the most effective measure of performance. These developments have seen the costs of basic services escalate. This, in turn, has caused increasing cost-recovery mechanisms such as disconnections of water and electricity to occupy the attention and energy of the local state, as opposed to delivery in the first place. Between 1999 and 2000, for example, some 75,400 water cut-offs occurred in the Greater Cape Town area. In Soweto after the 1999 general election, some 20,000 houses had their electricity supplies disconnected every month. Brian Johnson, the manager of Eskom, the state-owned electricity supply company, indicated that the aim is to disconnect at least 75 per cent of Soweto residents. Since 1994, some ten million South Africans have had their water and electricity cut-off for nonpayment, while two million have been evicted from their homes for the same reason.7
Sometimes, councils like the eThekwini Unicity—the municipal government of the greater Durban area—have proposed moving people out of the already deteriorating apartheid ghettoes that serve as rental accommodation for some of the poorest of the city’s residents into a central area of poorhouses. It is presumed that once relocated their water and electricity consumption can be monitored, while the houses that they occupied for over three decades are upgraded and sold at a profit. In Cape Town, residents of Mandela Park in Khayelitsha took bonds from banks. An organization called Servcon, set up jointly by the banks and government, was designed to educate the mortgage holders on how to budget so they could meet the required payments. Escalating unemployment and the fact that the homes were structurally defective, forcing many residents to put their own resources into repairing faulty wiring and cracks in walls, resulted in many residents defaulting. The banks, with the support of both Servcon and the government, began a process of rightsizing, in which defaulters were forcibly moved to accommodations that were accurately described by the Mandela Park community as dog kennels. The cost-recovery prerequisites of neoliberalism are creating a new kind of apartheid.
Sociologist Ari Sitas, looking at the cholera epidemic in KwaZulu-Natal, which in less than ten months starting in the second half of 2000 had resulted in 176 deaths and 83,624 infected. He showed how cost-recovery cut across the government’s challenge to the apartheid state’s medical model:
The apartheid state, armed with a controlling ideology and a medical model was alarmed in the 1980s that cholera researchers were declaring the epidemic as being related to apartheid policy. For them the problem was water-borne….In its controlling paradigm the state decided to provide safer sanitation in some of the most affected areas, to stop the contagion. The new government, being a stringent critic of the old medical model, committed itself to preventative medicine but also, following a neo-liberal protocol of cost recovery, turned the taps off in the very same areas because people couldn’t pay…the latest outbreak began in the area of Ngwelezane where the Uthunlungu Council switched their access to clean water off.8
The Rise of Community Movements
As the ANC’s assault on the poor resulted in more and more evictions, disconnections, and retrenchments, a variety of new community movements began to arise. Hesitantly at first, these movements began to arise to challenge the water and electricity cut-offs, the evictions, and lack of land redistribution. These movements, based in particular communities and evincing particular, mainly defensive, demands, were not merely a natural result of poverty or marginality but a direct response to state policy.
The state’s inability or unwillingness to be a provider of public services and the guarantor of the conditions of collective consumption has been a spark for a plethora of community movements. While the movements mobilize around diverse demands like land titles, water and electricity supplies, and access to housing and health facilities, the general nature of the neoliberal emergency concentrates and aims these demands towards the state. What was starting to develop in a series of mobilizations was reminiscent of what Manuel Castells, writing on Latin America, came to call militant metropolitan dwellers.
What distinguishes these community movements from political parties, pressure groups, NGOs, and the trade unions is mass mobilization as the prime source of social sanction. The rise of community movements has seen the emergence of the family as a fighting unit, unlike union membership, which is based on the individual worker. In fact, many of those involved in community movements accept the conditions of the sweatshops and low wages without much of a fight. They attempt to top up their wages by not paying for services. They organize militantly around this issue, and the state is directly brought into the conflict. They act much like Hobsbawm’s city mob, which he describes as the movement of all classes of the urban poor for the achievement of economic or political changes by direct action—that is by riot or rebellion.9
Alongside the development of community movements and the tactic of direct action has also been the onset of quiet encroachment. This refers to:
the silent, protracted and pervasive advancement of ordinary people on those who are propertied and powerful in a quest for survival and improvement of their lives. It is characterized by quiet, largely atomized and prolonged mobilization with episodic collective action—open and fleeting struggles without clear leadership, ideology or structured organization.10
These encroachments are often given tacit encouragement by community movements or serve as a catalyst for collective organization.
These movements concentrate on fighting in their own locality and are often animated by the immediacy of the situation. When the challenge to water cut-offs or evictions does come, it is fought with intensity, and longstanding animosities are often forgotten as the struggle intensifies. In Mpumalanga, I have seen families that have lost kin in the low-intensity civil war of the 1980s and 1990s between the Inkatha Freedom Party, supported by the apartheid state, and the United Democratic Front link up with their former enemies and fight the imposition of water meters.
I have witnessed across Durban how the campaign to demand a ten rand flat rate for basic services was built. Poor people with no resources went to different areas and addressed meetings. The Chatsworth contingent was received with skepticism and then prolonged applause in the African township of Umlazi. In a bewildering couple of weeks, the most diverse groups came together. The socialist students fresh from being banned at the University of Durban-Westville were everywhere—printing pamphlets, talking to the youth, acting as protection from the goons of the ANC Youth League.
Resistance has spread across the country. In Soweto, the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC) have—through Operation Khanyisa, meaning switch-on,—stymied the impact of Eskom’s disconnection by reconnecting the electricity of residents. In Cape Town, residents of Mandela Park in the sprawling black township of Khayelitsha have put residents evicted by banks back into their houses. They have all put direct action at the heart of their activities, disconnecting the electricity of the mayor of Johannesburg’s house, occupying the offices of banks in Cape Town, and laying siege to the debt-collection building of the eThekwini Council in Durban.
But we should not romanticize the lives of the poor. Life is nasty, brutish and short. In fact, very short. Life expectancy has tumbled by some two decades. And when the community movements fail to stop the eviction of the old, they often die miserable deaths, cut off from familiar surroundings. Take the case of a pensioner, Mr. Mcondobi, who was evicted in February 2002 in perfect health from 23554 Mandela Park. The Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign reported on June 30, 2002:
He was rightsized to a dog kennel style house at 56938 Thubelitsha, and seems to have contacted pneumonia as the winter set in….Other evicted pensioners testified that the kennels to which they have been rightsized are bitterly cold, have no plastering on the inside walls, are leaking through the roof and have no bath or shower.
Or consider unemployed mother, Thulisile Manqele, who failed in her bid in the Durban High Court to turn her water on. She returned to Chatsworth, and the still-standing stream filled with fecal contamination. Cholera stalks those without water. But even the provision of taps comes with a price. You need to have a card charged with money to access the water. Public standpipes lie rusting as people without cash make their way to the river. Government functionaries and intellectuals talk about changing people’s culture towards payment. The very same words were used when the natives would not pay the Hut Tax. Anthropology is back in fashion.
The poor are not passive victims of social policy, however. The metropolitan militant who does not pay for water or electricity, who squats and occupies and tries his luck, often succeeds in snatching income from the state and protects this income in collective struggle when the state or (parastatals) attempts to reclaim it. In certain rural areas, stock theft, squatting and slow, semilegal land occupations under the guise of land-tenancy, perform the same function.
What about the organized working class? The transition to democracy was underpinned by corporatism. This involved big unions, big business, and the state. Conflict was to be institutionalized. The political had to be controlled by the ANC or its allies in the Tripartite Alliance—the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), and the South African Communist Party (SACP). The rightward shift of the ANC, however, has from time to time been challenged by the leading trade union federation, COSATU, working within the rubric of the Alliance. However, the latter’s attempts to advance its interests is so highly ritualized, domesticated within the ANC Alliance and otherwise institutionalized, that COSATU shows little inclination to act outside and against the major policy decisions of the ANC. Crucially, COSATU sees its alliance with the ANC as the bulwark against job losses by tempering the worst excesses of neoliberalism. Conflict is channeled through tripartite (business, labor, and state) corporatist structures.
Dale McKinley has likened the leadership of the SACP and COSATU to
a rabbit whose eyes are transfixed by the oncoming headlights of a fast moving vehicle, numbed by the sheer intensity of what appear to be the unshakable headlights of the liberation movement. All the while, however, the ANC leadership has proceeded apace, to further entrench (deracialised) capitalist relations of production and distribution. In the process, and with the assistance of the leadership of the SACP and COSATU, they have actively attacked any concomitant critical questioning and engagement with the substance behind such rhetoric.11
COSATU did take principled positions against Mbeki’s genocidal AIDS denial and on issues like the oppressive Swazi monarchy and the Mugabe dictatorship. But when it comes to opposition to the neoliberal nature of the transition, COSATU acts to contain and domesticate dissent. The editor of the Sunday Independent and Mbeki insider, John Battersby, commented at the time of the SACP 2002 Congress:
When the chips are down, the SACP does not represent the landless and the homeless masses anymore than the ANC or COSATU represents the unemployed masses, whatever the rhetoric might say about the poorest of the poor…the alliance represents an elite and emerging middle class.12
The recent South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) strike does, however, indicate a fertile ground for a linkup between community movements and the organized working class. Many SAMWU shop stewards, especially in the Western Cape, are integrally involved in community movements. The privatization of services means SAMWU workers face the spectre of both job losses and increases in charges for basic services, merging in their immediate identities as municipal employees and township residents. It is also significant that the strike took place against the local state, which also is the target of the community movements. The strike brought to public attention the growing gap between municipal managers and workers. In Durban, the newly appointed Municipal Manager and former ANC Member of Provincial Parliament, Mike Sutcliffe, has an annual salary package of R800,000 and a performance bonus of R500,000.13
At the same time, the local governments were refusing to take the minimum wage from R1900 to R2200 per month. If one considers the salary of a worker at R2000 a month, it would take a worker some forty years to earn what Sutcliffe would earn in a year. If one takes into consideration that the average life expectancy of a person born in South Africa has tumbled from sixty-four years in 1996 to fifty-three years in 1998, and one takes an average starting age of eighteen for a municipal worker, then the worker would not earn in a whole lifetime what Sutcliffe earns in one year!
David Slater makes the point that the territorial state, in global times, tends to rest on an increasingly fragile and precarious ground, with pressures from below often opening up fissures in its territorial control, whilst the globalisation of financial, economic and cultural power increasingly impinges on the nation-state from above.14
The state in South Africa has less vulnerability because of the ANC’s image as a liberator. This is aided by the fact that it makes grand statements around the free delivery of services.
The local state, though, is vulnerable. It is the entity that advances the water and electricity disconnections, evictions, and the loss of jobs through privatization. A majority of the councillors are elected through wards, making them both accessible to communities and open to direct attack. It is not surprising that it is at this level that the poor have challenged the neoliberal transition.
In attempting to make sense of the transition it is useful to think of the idea of politics and the political. As David Slater writes:
Politics has its own public space; it is the field of exchanges between political parties, of parliamentary and governmental affairs, of elections and representation and in general of the type of activity, practices and procedures that take place in the institutional arena of the political system. The political…can be more effectively regarded as a type of relationship that can develop in any area of the social, irrespective of whether or not it remains within the institutional enclosure of politics. The political then is the living movement, the kind of magma of conflicting wills, or antagonisms; it is mobile and ubiquitous, going beyond but also subverting the institutional settings and moorings of politics.15
These movements have created a political scandal by deliberately engaging in actions that create instability and disorder. The poors, or what others have variously called the multitude, the unwaged, slaves-in-waiting, the metropolitan militant,the mob, and the wretched of the earth, have come to constitute the most relevant post-1994 social force from the point of view of challenging the prevailing political economy. The community movements have challenged the very boundaries of what for a short while after the demise of the apartheid state was seen exclusively as politics. In the month of July 2002, for example, residents of an informal settlement in Lenasia protesting their forced removal, cheered while burning an election poster bearing Mbeki’s face; the Landless People’s Movement occupied Gauteng Premier Mbhazima Shilowa’s office amid an angry protest over land; and rent defaulters on the Cape Flats stoned a truck involved in evictions, and tried to necklace a driver.16
They have also added to the cast many new actors associated with the play of politics in South Africa. The poor are not just involved in recognition, or the discovery of the right policies, or the creation of the right administrative framework, or even the goodwill of power holders. They are challenging the very distribution of power in society and are doing so in ways that do not stick to the gradualist, corporatist, and nation-building script.
Most importantly, community movements have subverted the traditionally given of the political system—state power, political parties, formal institutions—by contesting the legitimacy and the apparently normal and natural functioning of their effects within society.17 They are a source of tremendous potential counter-power, if not counter-politics.
In 1993, a scenario planning exercise commissioned by the giant insurance company Sanlam, entitled Platform for Investment held that it is not the downtrodden, starving down and outers’—the worms that turn—who start revolutions, but people who await a better life but then suddenly find their aspirations frustrated. Most unemployed people have depressed aspirations. As Patrick Bond laconically commented, what the Platform was signaling was that the unemployed should be ignored for they do not pose a threat to the system.18
It was advice that the ANC appeared to believe. But the unemployed would not be ignored. They have built strong community movements, joining with the lower working class in challenging the very structure of the political. The irony is that these movements have fought bloody battles to hang on to the satanic ghettoes that apartheid bequeathed.
If community movements are to grow and spread and build a culture of revolutionary confrontation, they have serious challenges to confront in the immediate future. They face an ANC which, sensing the growing combativeness of the poor, has begun to try and head off challenges emanating from outside corporatist structures. For example, some parts of the ANC have started to take to the streets. The ANC Youth League marched on June 16, 2002 demanding jobs and entrepreneurial skills. In Durban, a city the ANC controls, the organization has taken to the streets calling for free water, blaming water disconnections on white conservative bureaucrats! Given the resources the ANC has and the continuing mystique of freedom fighters, their intervention in a territory over which the community movements were starting to hold exclusive sway poses a real challenge.
Alongside this, there has been increased repression. The Regulation of Public Gatherings Act of 1993 gives police and civic authorities far-reaching powers in preventing and even banning mass demonstrations. The recent arrest of National Land Committee and Landless People’s Movement members in Ermelo is a particularly graphic example of the repressive use of this act. So too is the purported banning of at least two Anti-Privatization Forum marches and the breaking up of the peaceful assembly during the World Economic Forum meeting held in Durban in June 2002. When members of the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign held a protest outside the provincial parliament on June 27, 2002, the police fired tear gas into the crowds, arrested forty-four members, and charged them with trespassing. Fifty SECC members face charges of public violence and trespassing. Eight residents from Wentworth face charges relating to a march on the local police station. These actions led Ebrahim Harvey to comment that [T]he black ruling elite has not hesitated to act against protesters with the jackboot that we are so familiar with under apartheid.19
Beyond the immediate challenges, there are serious questions facing the new movements, which strike at the heart of their longer-term project. How do they link up with the militant unions like SAMWU? How do they broaden their movement into rural areas that are either marked by an absence of basic services or, when they do arrive, are commodified in a manner putting them out of reach of the intended consumers? Why have the urban poor not linked in an organic way with the Landless People’s Movement? Is land not a basic service and is not the fight against banks and against the selling of council housing, like land invasions, a direct attack on the edifice of private property? If this is the case, why are the links not being made? What is to be their relation to the formal institutional sphere of politics? In particular, should they contest elections at least at a local level? How are connections to be made with similar struggles in Zimbabwe, in Mexico, in Argentina, in Indonesia, and with those movements directly taking on the IMF and the World Bank on the streets of Seattle and Genoa? How do the poor turn what have been defensive actions (fighting bloody battles to stay in the apartheid ghettoes) into demands that take the offensive against the neoliberal state? One of the dangers is that the very success of campaigns like Operation Khanyisa will lead to demobilization, because once people have their lights switched on, they do not see the need for the collective. It also serves the purpose of reducing anger because people now have lights and water. This is the danger of remaining localized, particularistic, and single-issue focused. The state, faced with collective resistance and exposed at a public level, simply retreats from the more militant areas and moves to areas less organized.
These questions should not detract from the challenge the community movements have made to the ANC government. They have fought off the state’s hired guns to prevent evictions and disconnections. In Cape Town, Durban, and Johannesburg, the reconnection of water and electricity by community movements has reached epidemic proportions, reappropriating basic needs and creating no-go zones of decommodification. They have put 20,000 on the streets at the World Summit on Sustainable Development. This is a struggle that already has heroes, legends, and martyrs.
- Adam Habib and Vishnu Padayachee, Economic Policy and Power relations in South Africa’s Transition to Democracy, World Development 28 (2000), 25.
- Haroon Bhorat, Explaining Employment Trends in South Africa: 19931998, New Agenda, Fourth Quarter, Cape Town, 2000: 23.
- Mail and Guardian, 28 March 2002.
- F. Barchesi, Social Citizenship, the State and the Changing Constitution of Wage Labour in Post-Apartheid South Africa, Paper presented at the 2002 Annual Congress of the South African Sociological Association, East London, June 30 to July 2, 2002, pp. 7, 8.
- See A. Desai, We Are the Poors: Community Struggles in Post-Apartheid South Africa (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002).
- D. McDonald, The Bell Tolls for Thee: Cost Recovery, Cut Offs, and the Affordability of Municipal Services in South Africa, Special Report, 2000: 9.
- D. McDonald, The Bell Tolls for Thee, D. McDonald and L. Smith, Privatizing Cape Town, Municipal Services project paper, 2002.
- A. Sitas, Love in the Time of Cholera, Paper presented at the 2002 Annual Congress of the South African Sociological Association, London, June 30July 2, 2002: 5.
- E. J. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1963), 110111.
- A. Bayet, Social Movements, Activism and Social Development in the Middle East (New York: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, 2000), 24.
- D. McKinley, The End of Innocence’: The Alliance and the Left, South African Labour Bulletin 24 (2000): 57.
- Sunday Independent, 28 July 2002.
- Sunday Tribune, 7 July 2002.
- D. Slater, Spatial Politics/Social Movements, in W. Bright and S. Harding, eds., State Building and Social Movements (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), 261.
- Ibid., 266.
- Sunday Independent, 28 July 2002.
- Slater, Spatial, 263.
- P. Bond, Elite Transition (London: Pluto Press, 2000), 64.
- E. Harvey, A Taste of the Jackboot of the New Ruling Elite, South African Labor Bulletin 26 (2001)