South African rainbow fades

Johann Rossouw

The African National Congress is losing the support of its communist and trade union allies in South Africa after 12 years in power. The growth rate there is rising impressively but economic divisions within society are deep and rapidly worsening.

SOUTH Africa’s growth rate neared 4% in 2005, for the first time since 1960. The government of President Thabo Mbeki, who took over from Nelson Mandela in 1999, is pulling out all the stops to reach 6%, the target since the historic elections of 1994. The stated aim is to eradicate poverty, which affects 30.9% of the population, and unemployment, which is officially running at 30%. But the apparent success in improving the growth rate belies serious failings in Mbeki’s policies.

The African National Congress (ANC) has fallen far short of keeping the promises it made for social justice in the new South Africa. According to the social democrat Sampie Terreblanche, doyen of local economic historians, the ANC’s economic strategy has deepened inequalities. “Society has been restructured,” he says. “Where once it was rigidly divided along racial lines, it is now split just as clearly into social classes”.

This social restructuring can be traced to 1996, when ANC policy shifted dramatically from leftist economics towards classic neoliberal philosophy. Pressure from big companies such as Anglo-American, South Africa’s most powerful conglomerate, had a hand in this change. The new policy of supply-side economics was inaugurated with the introduction of the growth, employment and redistribution programme (Gear), which called for privatisation of state-owned businesses as part of an economic strategy based on the quest for growth. With this policy, South Africa ended up as the only country on the continent that voluntarily signed up to the adjustment programmes of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, more usually imposed on poor countries as a condition for aid or loans.

The line ran contrary to traditional ANC policy, which had been based on Keynesian, demand-side economics, prioritising the fight against inequality over the need for growth. Its initial orientation reflected its social base as a popular movement, and the ideological influence of the South African Communist party (SACP). For a while the nationalisation of banks and mines was central to ANC policy. Mandela mentioned it in an early speech after being released from jail in 1990.

During the 1980s the SACP’s influence over the ANC had declined, and South Africa’s business community began secretly to court the party. The ruling National party was facing mounting international pressure. It no longer seemed capable of maintaining economic and political stability except through increased repression. According to Moeletsi Mbeki, Thabo Mbeki’s brother: “Gradually sections of domestic capital also started to withdraw their support from Afrikaner nationalism and to demand changes in industrial relations legislation. By the mid-1980s domestic capital opened discussions with exiled political parties in an effort to identify a replacement for Afrikaner nationalism”.

Neoliberal triumph

Sampie Terreblanche feels that while the ANC achieved a brilliant political victory over the National party, it did so at the cost of allowing business interests to dominate the party. The secret discussions at the end of the clandestine period had a lasting influence on its orientation. Thabo Mbeki played a decisive role in the triumph of neoliberalism within the party. Gear was adopted on his initiative, while he was vice-president under Mandela.

As vice-president, Mbeki took on a prime ministerial role, running the country while Mandela focused his energies on racial reconciliation. Mbeki, as an economics graduate, was fascinated by the changes that European social democratic parties underwent in the 1990s. British prime minister Tony Blair’s “third way” became his model. Mbeki was keen that South Africa should not repeat the mistakes that socialist governments of other African countries had made in the early years of independence. He surrounded himself with economic advisers, mostly directors of big multinational companies.

The ANC’s allies in the SACP and the powerful Cosatu trades union federation were all the more angry about the party’s change of direction because they were not consulted. This authoritarian, technocratic and centralised way of running party and country has typified Mbeki’s leadership since he was elected in 1999. During his 30 years in exile he came to depend on a close-knit circle of confidants, among them the Pahad brothers, Aziz and Essop: Aziz is now deputy foreign affairs minister, Essop has the title of minister in the presidency. Besides this cliquishness, Mbeki reacts badly to criticism. Even the internationally renowned and respected Archbishop Desmond Tutu was severely ticked off in November 2004 for a few slight criticisms.

Where Gear has delivered social tension and inequality, the policy of transformation -- keystone of Mbeki’s African nationalism -- created political tension. Mandela first referred to transformation as a goal for South Africa at the ANC’s 50th national conference in 1997. He said South Africa needed to achieve a “fundamental social transformation”, in which all the different components of the population would be represented at all levels of society. After such a long history of exploitation and discrimination, there was an urgent need for such a transformation. There is a long way to go: blacks own only 2% of shares quoted on South Africa’s stock exchange.

Yet the transformation gradually slid from being a progressive policy to being a policy entirely based on race. The ANC was becoming the party of the black bourgeoisie, rather than that of the poor and the working class. The party justified this drift by saying it was important not to allow social unrest to get out of hand among blacks disappointed that their living conditions had not improved.

The core of this policy is the Employment Equity Act of April 1999 and the broad-based Black Economic Empowerment Act (BEE) of 2003. The former applies to all categories who suffer from discrimination, especially women and the disabled. Women did benefit from the law, but it is now explicitly targeted at blacks. This has led some to accuse the government of applying  apartheid in reverse. In trying to correct past injustices, South Africa is getting further away from the non-racialism  enshrined in its constitution. Priority could have been given to other criteria separating social groups, such as class or language: South Africa has 11 languages spread across all nine regions. Instead, race has been allowed to remain the single socio-political attribute by which South Africans are defined (see South Africa: the statistics).

Clannish elitism

The main reason for political and social tension is that the BEE has become a front for clannish elitism. The ANC is determined to ensure that the establishment is run by its most loyal stalwarts. Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, an opposition  leader under apartheid who led Afrikaners into talks with the banned ANC in Dakar in 1987, described this as  constitutional co-optation”. Joel Netzhitenzhe, President Mbeki’s right-hand man and a government spokesman, announced the strategy as early as 1998: “Transformation of the state entails, first and foremost, extending control over all levers of power: the army, the police, the bureaucracy, intelligence structures, the judiciary, parastatals, and agencies such as regulatory bodies, the public broadcaster, the central bank and so on”.

Accusations of favouritism and corrupt practices are increasing. A few black oligarchs close to the government are almost always implicated in deals done under the BEE, which wants shares in big companies transferred to firms under black control. Moeletsi Mbeki believes that this behaviour, widespread in Africa, is holding back the development of a dynamic private sector south of the Sahara.

Beyond economics, Thabo Mbeki tends to invoke an Afro-nationalist position to justify all his policies. The development of this discourse helps explain his controversial stance on Aids. In the past, Mbeki has repeatedly doubted the link between HIV and Aids in his determination to present the primary causes of the pandemic as social and economic. He blocked the introduction of a specific Aids policy until 2001.

Since then, he has revised his position, but his health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, is still keen to promote healthy eating (plenty of African potatoes) rather than anti-retroviral drugs. By 2004 only 55,000 infected South Africans had access to drugs. The United Nations claims some 5.3 million South Africans, including 230,000 under-fives, are HIV-positive. The policy is a catastrophe.

Mbeki’s economic and political choices are isolating him and his circle from the ANC’s social base. Social protest has developed since 2000: groups such as the Anti-Privatisation Forum or the Soweto Crisis Committee have emerged to campaign on specific social issues, while bodies such as the Federation of Afrikaans Cultural Associations are founded on cultural identity. There were constant demonstrations against corruption and insufficient social services in 2005. A revolt began in the countryside in 2004 when thousands of people protested against a lack of basic services in small villages. This March 30,000 inhabitants of the Khutsong ghetto near Carletonville in North West Province boycotted local elections in which the ANC imposed its own candidates.

On 12 June 2005 vice-president Jacob Zuma was sacked over corruption allegations, which threw the political crisis into sharp relief. 

Some believed that Mbeki was trying to get rid of a potential rival, and saw Zuma’s removal as evidence that Mbeki’s authoritarianism had gone too far. The ousted vice-president organised big rallies all over South Africa where he capitalised on anti-Mbeki feeling within Cosatu and the SACP, and among the poor. Zuma presents himself as a leftist, making great play of his charm, although his known views and positions offer little of substance to justify his leftwards image. Zuma, who is standing for the presidency of the ANC and of the country, will answer the corruption charges in September in the Supreme Court, and threatens to call Mbeki as a witness.

Contestation within the ANC is spreading. The party’s Youth League (co-founded by Mandela in 1943) openly questions the president’s authority, as does the ANC Women’s League. In this March’s local elections, hundreds of dissidents ran against the party for the first time. The threat of a split from the SACP and Cosatu is never far away, and Mbeki is trying to dispel it by praising Singaporean and South Korean economic models, where the state has a major role.

He did a little for his allies on the left by postponing some privatisation plans, but not enough to smooth over the differences between the ANC, Cosatu and the SACP. His call for a more compassionate society, made during a speech of tribute to Mandela, did not soothe critics. They say that the government has been undermining that objective for years with its neoliberal policies.

Johann Rossouw is a philosopher and editor of ‘Die Vrye Afrikaan’ and the Afrikaans edition of Le Monde diplomatique