Pambazuka: Movement-building, the capitalist crisis and the South African elections

Movement-building, the capitalist crisis and the South African elections

Dale T. McKinley


We are now in a world radically different from what it was a mere four months ago. The world economy is collapsing, torn apart by an economic recession. Thousands of workers are being thrown out of work; millions find themselves hungry in the midst of plenty of food; millions are homeless in the midst of houses being repossessed and standing empty. Cement and brick factories are standing idle when millions require shelter. Neoliberal capitalism has over the past thirty years inflicted untold misery onto the world’s poor whilst simultaneously making a very small minority filthy rich.

Capitalism has no right to rule society and organise production. It has no more legitimacy as a workable economic system. We have been told that humanity and capitalism is inseparable, without capitalism society cannot move forward. The apologists for the system said there was no alternative, that socialism is dead. But today we find that capitalism is at its own deathbed. However, when capitalism is faced with its own death, it somehow finds a new lease on life. Capitalism faced death during the 1920/30s during the Great Depression. The working class with its strong left or communist parties and trade unions resisted the attempts of the various ruling classes to get them to carry the burden of the depression. It took the capitalist class over two decades through the use of fascism and a Second World War to break the back of the working classes in order to set the system back on the track of recovery. But it had to offer the working class something in return and that was social democracy. Only with this class compromise could the capitalist class embark upon a 25-year period of economic growth. This economic growth broke down in the 1970s. Thirty years of neoliberalism have not solved the crisis of the 1970s. Now in 2009, capitalism is faced with another world crisis more severe than the Great Depression and the crisis of the 1970s.

One of the things the various nationalist ruling classes are going to try to do is convince us to take joint responsibility for the crisis. They are going to sell the idea that we are all in this together and that we are all responsible for the mess, and that we must all try to find solutions for it. But in reality, the way out for them is to try and get the working class and the poor to carry the cost of this crisis. We must accept greater impoverishment, greater unemployment, and greater inequalities. And in the end the gap between the poor and rich will grow ever wider. We must tell them this economic crisis is their mess. We are not going to take responsibility for it. Rather we must expose to everyone, that to take responsibility for this crisis is to accept starvation. We are faced with a choice: Organise or starve.

Over the past eight years our movements here in South Africa have been digging local trenches of resistance to the neoliberal onslaught. We have resisted evictions, water and electricity cut-offs, prepaid meters, lack of service delivery and have fought hard for decent housing, education and healthcare for all. However, this crisis is also breaking out at a time when our movements remain organisationally weak. Whilst having a lot in common we are still not united around a common platform of struggle and demand. Faced with the coming tsunami of destruction of the capitalist class we have to intensify our local struggles, build our movements and unite. As separate and isolated movements, the capitalist class will defeat us, will push us aside. But as a united force it will find in us a formidable opponent. Our local struggles and demands must be linked to the question of institutional power, real participatory democracy and core macro-economic and social policy. We must confront head-on issues such as how wealth is produced/ owned, how it is distributed and consumed. For instance, we must demand that the delivery of houses must take place through the nationalisation of the big cement and bricks factories and placed under working class control. As a defense against starvation, we must also demand that the government legislate a national unemployment living benefit for all the unemployed irrespective of work experience.

The political space is there for us to intervene. Not only can the capitalists no longer tell us there is no alternative – that neoliberalism is the answer to everything – but the ruling party is also finding itself in the midst of a crisis. It is being torn apart by internal contestation over who is entitled to the spoils of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). Those who have been excluded under the regime of Thabo Mbeki want to be first in line to BEE under the Zuma ANC and they are prepared to leave no stone unturned in their quest. Only by uniting around a common platform of demands and action can we build a movement with a national presence, one that presents to the masses an alternative pole of explanation and resistance. Our movements have a lot in common: In essence, we are anti-capitalist, anti-neoliberalism and united in our opposition to the ANC government’s core policies and rule.


The capitalist class in South Africa is clearly not certain about the credentials of the Zuma elite-in-waiting. What is also not helping matters for them, despite re-assurances from Zuma, is the insistence from the ANC’s Alliance partners, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), that things are going to have to change. And since the ANC’s Polokwane conference in 2007, the capitalists have been confronted with contradictory signals emanating from the elite-in-waiting. No ruling class can afford to have a government in place of which it is not certain that it will do everything necessary for the creation of the conditions for continued capital accumulation, especially in the midst of a systemic crisis. We can thus expect that they are going to do everything possible to ensure that the policies of the previous ANC government under Thabo Mbeki are not going to be sacrificed on the alter of the accumulation frenzy of the petty bourgeoisie marching under the banner of the Zuma elite. Enormous pressure is going to be brought to bear on the Zuma elite to maintain the course of the Mbeki ship. Any serious deviation is going to be met with outright hysteria.

On the other side, amongst significant sections of the poor and working class, there is a certain amount of euphoria that a Zuma presidency is going to usher in the long awaited better life for all. There is renewed hope that changes can come through the ANC and the institutions of bourgeois rule. This hope was ushered in with the developments at the ANC’s Polokwane Conference. Polokwane has been seen (and sold) as the culmination of years of struggle against the neoliberal project of the Mbeki administration. Sections of the poor and working class, under the auspices of organisations allied to the ANC, like COSATU and the SACP, view Polokwane as their victory, as the wrestling back of the ANC from the clutches of the ‘capitalist’ Mbeki faction.

Underscoring this renewed hope in the ruling party and the parliamentary process was the removal of Thabo Mbeki as president of the country in 2008, and the subsequent appointment of an interim ANC President, Kgalema Motlanthe. Also giving credence to this feeling is the apparent re-assertion of parliament as a body of authority insisting now on its oversight role of certain aspects of financial matters – like budgets and money bills. Critically also is the impression, marketed by the ANC, that it is now a more caring, people-orientated party – a good example being the recent ‘coming together’ of the ANC with the community and organisations of Khutsong. All of this gives the impression that things can be radically changed or are already in the process of changing.

Socialists and militants within the social movements, on the other hand, however, know that a Zuma presidency is not going to dismantle the alignment of capitalist class forces consolidated by the ANC since the early 1990s but rather further entrench them. No social movement militant should have any illusion about a Zuma presidency and his coterie of followers. We must understand that the Zuma faction does not represent an alternative class project to that of Thabo Mbeki. This is not only confirmed by the recently installed president Motlanthe who categorically stated that he is going to continue where Mbeki left off, but also borne out by eight years of struggle against the ANC government and its neoliberal policies.Complicating matters, however, is that there exists not only hope in a Zuma presidency within the ranks of the ANC’s ‘left’ allies and sections of the broader working class/poor, but also amongst the constituencies of the social movements, including the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF).

Not making things easier is the new kid on the political party block, the Congress of the People (COPE) and its key leader, Terror Lekota, the former chairperson of the ANC. COPE has introduced a new dimension into the political equation. They are projecting the image of people who respect the constitution and the rule of law. Whether this claiming of public space by former ANC members to voice political opposition to the current leadership of the ANC is going to lead to any kind of mass-based electoral support is still not clear, although it is certain that COPE will gain a degree of support, especially from the emergent black capitalist and middle classes. What we do know though is the track record of Lekota and his lieutenants as part of all the anti-working class policies of the ANC government. They were the co-drivers and implementers of GEAR (Growth, Employment and Redistribution), privatisation, trade liberalisation and so on. Their loyalty has been firmly on the side of the capitalist class.

We are faced with a significantly changed situation as compared to that prevailing at the time of the 2004 national elections. On the one hand, the social movement militants are under no illusion as to what the new ruling elite in waiting represent. But, on the other hand, broad sections of the masses, including significant constituencies of the movements, are moving in tow with the elite-in-waiting. Thrown into the mix is the fact that social movements, as in the case of 2004, are not in a position to present an alternative parliamentary option to the masses. A realistic appraisal of the state of the movements will show that they have suffered further setbacks in their strategic capacity and implantation within communities where many organisations are in a state of survival. The significant support for a Zuma presidency amongst poor communities, is but one indicator of this process.


With the 2009 national elections around the corner we are confronted with the task of developing a parliamentary tactic that corresponds best to the present conjuncture. The term parliamentary tactic is employed on the assumption that it is common cause amongst socialists that participation in bourgeois parliaments is viewed as a tactical question and not one of principle. Over the decades the international working class has built up a vast arsenal of such tactics ranging from boycott, the fielding of candidates, protest vote in the form of a spoilt ballot to a conditional vote for a party/movement.

The bottom line is that none of the political parties that are contesting these elections are worth voting for. None of the main capitalist parties contesting, like the ANC, COPE and DA (Democratic Alliance), represent the aspirations and interests of the poor and working class communities. In the 1994, 1999 and 2004 national elections, the ANC and others also released with much fanfare their electoral manifestos promising a better life for all. Instead working class communities have seen increased poverty, homelessness, dismal lack of service delivery and joblessness. In fact, over the past 14 years the ANC government has shown it has no political will to address, in a fundamental way, the interests and aspirations of the poor.

Again in 2009, the ANC and other capitalist parties are making many claims and promises. The ANC is boasting that it has created on average, half a million jobs since 2004, reducing unemployment from 31 per cent in 2003 to 23 per cent in 2007. This is sheer dishonesty. The ANC is deliberately not including the millions who have simply stopped looking for a job. Independent figures show that unemployment is around 40 per cent and that the jobs that were created are the highly exploitative, casual, lowly paid and outsourced ones and of a very short-term nature. The so-called ‘answers’ to the mass poverty and inequality in South Africa that are provided in the ANC electoral manifesto of the ruling party, are not ‘answers’ at all, precisely because there is no political commitment and/or practical will to mobilise/organise the majority of the poor and working class to confront capital (i.e. to wage class struggle) and thus radically alter both the political and socio-economic status quo.

Instead of wasting their vote and time on parties that have no intention of bringing about real fundamental changes, we are calling on communities, workers, the unemployed, youth and students not to vote on 22nd April 2009. Voting in these national elections is not the sole, or even main, act of real democratic participation. We must not be fooled by empty appeals to ‘civic duty’ and ‘responsibility’ when we know that a vote for any of the participating political parties is a vote for a continuation of what has come before.

Social and political power does not lie in voting every five years for party representatives who claim to represent the people. It lies in building strong, mass poor/working class movements and strengthening our common anti-capitalist struggles on the ground, which can make a difference both in ordinary people’s lives and in the way they relate to those with institutional and party representational power. It is such choices and actions that can be the source of real, popular and grassroots-oriented political power that is not confined/limited by the narrow, institutional boundaries of stale bourgeois democracy and that can have the potential to enforce real accountability and meaningful democratic participation.