Home | About Us | News Feeds RSS | Subscribe | Support Us | User Login | Search

Southern Africa Report Archive

Patrick Bond gives heartfelt reflections on the contradictions that continue to stalk efforts to craft a progressive post-apartheid future for South Africa.

Patrick Bond

Confronting the ANC's Thatcherism
Patrick Bond


Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 11, No 4, July 1996
Page 25
"Debate"

CONFRONTING THE ANC'S THATCHERISM

BY PATRICK BOND

Patrick Bond is completing books on South Africa and Zimbabwe for publication later this year.

As "globalisation" - which amounts mainly to the near total command of the international economy by financial- and merchant-based capital - forces a world-wide progressive rethink of the nature of political parties, their relation to social movements, and the nature of government power, significant fractures are opening within and around South Africa's Mass Democratic Movement over what concessions should be made to the twin evils of neo-liberalism and statism. It boils down to the problem of whether - as a senior SA Communist Party parliamentarian expressed it at an economic policy seminar late last year - progressives in government are now merely managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie.

The problem became acute at the time this issue of Southern Africa Report was going to press, as the SACP attempted to extricate itself from an embarrassing predicament. Having endorsed the government's conservative economic strategy, SACP intellectual Jeremy Cronin tried to explain that this was "not just running cover for the ANC and government," but rather a chance to debate a long-awaited policy.

The Growth, Employment and Redistribution document launched by Trevor Manuel in mid-June quickly earned the newly- installed Finance Minister the nickname "Trevor Thatcher" from the Mail & Guardian newspaper. Trade and Industry Minister Alec Erwin, a former socialist "syndicalist" (and current SACP member) who had served as Cosatu's main strategist during the 1980s, was even more involved in the details, as supervisor of the overwhelmingly orthodox team that specified the economic model.

Capitulation to capital

What the hell, then, was the SACP doing on the sidelines offering a ringing endorsement? Denying that arms were twisted by Erwin and other ministers, Cronin told the Mail & Guardian , "Wisdom informed us that a certain degree of support is important." And, added the formal SACP statement, there would be a chance to take forward "discussion, elaboration and debate" because "questions of detail and implementation require ongoing scrutiny."

Such questions of detail and implementation may or may not include calculations of the length of time before "IMF riots" break out over South Africa's home-grown structural adjustment. In May, the International Institute of Finance in Washington, DC projected that foreign money now parked in South Africa (where real interest rates are at least triple those of advanced capitalist countries) could expect only eight months of safety. "The three-year perspective is terrible and the five- year perspective is impossible." Yet no one on the left is talking of a pre-revolutionary situation, given that South Africa's progressive forces (and their petty bourgeois leaderships) tend to buckle, at key moments, to pressure to blindly back the ANC's ruling crew, and, in the process, police their constituents.

This is not unique to South Africa, for as international financial analyst Simon Nocera told the Wall Street Journal in May, "The only guys who have the credibility to implement tough fiscal and monetary policy are the left." In South Africa, some fractions of the left - now serving in government - have gone further right than anyone would have dared predict, leaving theiR ex-comrades in labour and social movements bewildered.

Hence the South African National Civic Organisation appears paralysed by misgivings over "land invasions" by the land-starved urban homeless, and willingly endorses fruitless Operation Masakhane efforts to make township residents pay for substandard services that they cannot even afford. (To be fair, progressives in Sanco wring hands about this behind the scenes, and on the optimistic side, the loose federation of civics is also back to mass action against financial institutions, regularly lambasting the incompetent housing ministry for its bank-centred, developer-driven policy.)

And there is certainly broader resistance to neo-lib state policy - reflected in disgust over the economic plan within Cosatu and amongst a younger generation within the SACP, for instance - and this now extends across nearly the entire spectrum of social movements. Nearly every progressive social force - urban communities, the rural landless, arts and culture activists, community health workers, disabled people, environmentalists (until Pallo Jordan took over the ministry) and progressive trade unionists - are intensely pissed off with their counterpart government department, whether because of sabotage-minded old guard technocrats, slick plans by yuppie policy wonks or piteous ministerial leadership.

But how to translate bitter disappointment into a more general critique and a breakthrough strategy? Can developmental statism, "people-driven" approaches and traditional socialist conceptions of challenging capitalist state power coexist? Not easily, it seems.

Looking backward to the future

Are there hints to be found in the vibrant legacy of past social struggle? At least one fairly popular attempt at reconciliation emerged from the civil society debates of the early 1990s, and may be worth reviewing. Crudely compressing the logical circularity, the argument proceeds as follows:

a) mass social and labour movements are crucial transformative forces in society because - notwithstanding their many flaws - they most authentically reflect the aspirations of their working-class, poor and otherwise oppressed constituents;

b) the movements' social demands have originated through years of concrete struggle against racism, capitalism and patriarchy, and following from the residual power of these oppressive forces, the fulfilment of long-sought demands requires the firm hand of a progressive, democratic state;

c) such a state must be "strong but slim" so that resources can be captured and redistributed on the one hand, but on the other hand these resources must be carefully channelled through a new breed of accountable "comrade" civil servants to accountable comrades at the civil society base in order that (probably inevitable) bureaucratisation and petty-bourgeoisification do not wash away radical organic initiatives; and

d) in ensuring the durability of a), b) and c), there is an urgent need to intensify broader social struggles and demands for redistributive policies, while recognising that given the balance of forces the state will not offer a basis for socialist transformation in the near future, and that instead only strengthened, class-conscious, non-racial, non-sexist social and labour movements - and their organisational component parts - can take forward an agenda of true social change.

Within this position there has always been a healthy debate about whether and when to launch or to strengthen a left political party that will more forcefully complement social and labour movements, with many leading comrades anticipating growing ideological coordination from the SACP (but others having doubts about its apologetic tendencies).

The broad strategic agenda has also given rise to the question of production of socialist ideology. Some suggest that contesting the politics of "development" in this way offers a basis for reviving socialist momentum via a neo-"dual power" process, encapsulating decommodified, destratified experiments in grassroots development. But these are still too few and far between in South Africa to offer any real guide.

In practice, no matter who or how many proponents there are of working "in and against the state" (as it was termed once in Britain) and in progressive organs of civil society, this orientation regularly conflicts with South Africa's never-ending eruption of eclectic progressive activity.

Such activity often amounts either to narrow, corporatist deal-making under present conditions of widespread political confusion, or to an "anarchic" kind of self-activity of the masses that in turn runs the risk of isolation and even repression. The former is characterised by technocrat takeovers; having been party to a fair number of such transactions I can testify to their debilitating effect on movement integrity and also to their unworkability in practice ("deals that don't make any sense," we came to call this line of work).

Self-help against capital and the state?

At the other extreme, actually-existing self-activity of the masses is generally characterised by a proud populist belief in the ability of people to sort out problems for themselves, by hostility to technocratic solutions, and by a healthy suspicion about the motivations of state managers and the development industry. In this category fit the wave of courageous (though occasionally patronage-related) land invasions, which due to their success, high visibility and threat to the rule of property have - at the behest largely of the bourgeois press - rapidly brought "queue-jumping squatters" into the category of New South African "other" (recently occupied mainly by "illegal immigrants" from Southern Africa), as if there existed coherent "queues."

But this kind of local militancy offers mixed blessings for the left. On the one hand, self-help rhetoric undergirds, for instance, the extremely impressive National Homeless People's Federation (and their particularly tough technocrats in the People's Dialogue NGO). On the other hand, the self-help approach also warms the heart of capital and its intelligentsia, by challenging the rule of property in only the most distant way and by diverting attention from traditional movement demands that the state increase its commitment to solving social problems.

The self-help rhetoric and activism has not prevented the Homeless People's Federation from raising R 9 million from the government for their housing savings fund (by pressuring the late Minister Joe Slovo and his successor). But to illustrate the danger, the group was also glowingly praised in June by a conservative columnist of the ultra-bourgeois Sunday Independent; any time neo-liberals feel the urge to cut back state housing commitments, they can dredge up the example of the Federation's R 8,000 self-constructed homes and members' apparent willingness to live on cheap land (where resistance from neighbouring landowners is also lower) far from commerce or industry.

At the international scale, this kind of conflict is becoming quite important, as avaricious international "aid" agencies - whose aims are mainly to pave the way for their home countries' transnational corporations and hence to lower the global social wage in large part through shrinking Third World states and demolishing their already inadequate social policies - turn to the miraculous delivery capacity of NGOs and even community-based organisations.

What's a self-respecting NGO activist to do? Having won symbolic battles for reform of, for example, even the World Bank - most Bank missions now pay fairly close attention to local "participation" (as well as to good governance, transparency, gender sensitivity, environmental awareness, all disfigured of course by neo-liberal costing principles) - the petty bourgeoisie who populate NGOs (yours truly included) face the danger of inordinately swelled heads regarding the stature of "people-driven development."

Localising global struggle

The question of wealth/income distribution is ultimately one of our most helpful reality checks. And it is here that hundreds of years of human experience shows that "advocacy" around the distribution of a social surplus must ultimately take precedence over the establishment of utopian community experiments in self-rule - though new relations of production/reproduction must always be forged simultaneously.

But we face the harsh reality in so many places across the world of a quarter-century of defeat on the left; perhaps a longish cyclical downturn, perhaps more enduring. Even mildly leftist governments are hard to find, advocacy struggles and campaigning are at an unprecedented low point, revolutionary movements are thoroughly defeated, working-class organisations are divided and confused, true self-government is nearly non-existent, anti-development struggles are purely defensive, and socialist, feminist, democratic and other liberating ideologies are waning.

Although there are not many optimistic examples in South Africa, the potential - in strong working-class organisation - remains to provide a modicum of countervailing power. This will probably entail some attempts at elaborating the strategic framework outlined above, particularly in light of arguments emerging elsewhere (such as Chiapas) about radicalising civil society.

In the more important sphere of daily practice, South African leftists continue searching for the difficult combination of "militant particularism" (in the words of the late British Marxist Raymond Williams) and social struggles against the status quo - also involving alternative means of living, producing, consuming, etc, that include (but are not limited to) spontaneous self-activity - as well as ongoing advocacy on behalf of constituencies' just stake of the larger social surplus.

If this allows activists to rediscover and celebrate their 1980s and early 1990s philosophical roots, while thinking globally and acting locally, it should not be too long before the rash of myopic, technocratic plans to reform the World Bank and promote environmentally-friendly international Keynesianism give way to more instinctual forms of resistance.

Globalising local struggle

For it is probably the case - as scholars like Giovanni Arrighi, Terrence Hopkins and Immanuel Wallerstein have argued - that the most serious challenge to globalisation will occur when "popular movements join forces across borders (and continents) to have their respective state officials abrogate those relations of the interstate system through which the pressure is conveyed."

The hundreds of urban IMF riots against neo-liberalism in the 1980s plus the anti-free trade actions in Chiapas, anti-GATT demonstrations in India and the anti-privatization campaign in Haiti show that massive popular uprisings against globalization are an ongoing feature of political and economic change.

In South Africa, the capacity of democratic social forces to think globally and act locally - and in doing so to locate the vulnerabilities of the international system and develop political strategies accordingly - was conclusively demonstrated by the successful 1980s anti-apartheid sanctions campaign. That capacity did not die; it has been continually enhanced - even if at a low level of activity - by ongoing solidarity labour actions with trade unions in Europe and North America.

In addition to holding firm against World Bank loans, and all that they represent - and there have been no loans (only brutal policy advice) after two years of ANC rule - there are many other opportunities for South African progressives to take the world stage and reflect upon how the anti-apartheid struggles once endorsed by the international community are entirely consistent with a new attack on globalisation.

The mass organisations of civil society will play a leading role in this. Opposition to globalisation should increasingly emerge from small farmers, civics or primary health clinics which oppose the market-oriented, "cost-recovery"-based land, housing, and health policies that the Bank is already promoting heavily in South Africa.

If Southern Africans and North Americans with experience fighting neo-liberalism are to continue joining hands, it may occur through finding new common targets - now that Pretoria is ostensibly in friendly hands - at the global scale. Hence, to return to an easy example, the merits of actually shutting down (via defunding) the Bretton Woods Institutions now heavily outweigh reformist arguments, and if northern taxpayers take this up via toughening up the "50 Years Is Enough" campaign (for example, at the October meetings of the Bank and IMF in Washington, DC), they will find increasing numbers of southern activists, increasingly conscientised by innumerable local struggles against Bank/Fund policies and projects, cheering them on.

A small piece of advocacy remains the contribution to the broader analysis made by progressive intellectuals. With SAR continuing to provide a crucial forum, we owe it to our comrades to debate these issues damn hard.

==============================

SIDEBAR:
"GROWTH, EMPLOYMENT AND REDISTRIBUTION"

What's in it for the masses? If the proposed macroeconomic reforms are adopted, government guilefully promises that results will include a one percent decline in the interest rate and a much stronger currency by year-end. There are even predictions of 126,000 new jobs in 1996. By the year 2000, the strategy aims for a six percent annual growth rate and 400,000 job created.

But the reforms chosen to reach these targets overwhelmingly benefit big capital in the short term. Responding graciously, the South African Chamber of Business termed the strategy "a major step in the right direction" and the South African Foundation (a newly-reconstituted collection of the fifty largest firms) lauded the "creative and decisive response which speaks of courage and conviction."

Financial institutions now have permission to double the money they can export from South Africa. There are new tax holidays for manufacturers who increase their investments. Privatisation is squarely on the agenda. Deficit spending - which traditionally boosts employment and services for low-income people - will be cut back dramatically.

Wages decline

In contrast, government predicts that workers in the private sector will see their wages decline by 0.5% (after inflation) this year. Government even recommends "a less onerous wage schedule for young trainees," which unions may view as the beginning of the controversial "two-tier labour market" recommended by the South African Foundation. And there is little to celebrate in the strategy regarding community development. Many old-style policies - pit latrines instead of toilets (instead of houses), high mast lighting instead of electricity, communal taps instead of access to water on each plot - are hidden within the strategy. Worse, government's hostility to desperately- needed cross-subsidies for recurrent costs - paying for water, sanitation and electricity - appears to be growing.

Other pillars of what was once considered a broader National Growth and Development Strategy - such as social development,infrastructure and human resource development - have been reduced to molehills in the new strategy. Ambitious targets regarding redistribution of income have been forgotten.

Yet South Africa has already had three years of "jobless growth." Grand programmes to build houses have been hijacked by hostile banks and hesitant construction firms. Land reform and restitution is proceeding at a snail's pace. Even the best intentions - free primary health care for all, redistribution of educational resources, women's reproductive rights, youth recreation, attention to the needs of disabled people - are being foiled by lack of facilities in the townships and countryside.

Social movements are fully aware of these policy mistakes and implementation disasters. Hence even if the technical assumptions in the strategy turn out to be correct (which many on both the left and right of the economics profession seriously doubt), political ownership of government's strategy appears skin-deep. Yet unfortunately, even after ANC leaders condemned an earlier version of the macroeconomic strategy as "Thatcherite," the Democratic Movement and other organic grassroots forces - as represented in the RDP Council, for instance - were not consulted about an alternative strategy.

"In the present climate of instability," warns the new document, "a fiscal expansion would precipitate a balance of payments crisis." But government's strategy does not even consider means of taxing imported luxury goods consumed by South Africa's elites, as the Reconstruction and Development Programme had insisted.

This may be because most of the 16 economists who devised the strategy are from institutions such as the Finance Ministry, Development Bank of Southern Africa, World Bank, Reserve Bank and Stellenbosch Bureau of Economic Research. Their free-market ideologies have proven ineffectual or downright oppressive, here and across the Third World.

Yet having won the battle over the strategy, there are still problems for conservative forces in government and business. Because as workers and community residents - and women and disabled people, who are barely mentioned in the strategy - learn more about government's emerging policies, they will wonder what is in it for them. And they will think about the bargaining power they will have under the strategy's proposed National Social Agreement, and how they might increase this power.

After all, business has shown that it can cajole, threaten and simply go on "investment strike." Even after the lifting of exchange controls - meant to soothe foreign and local investors - capital flight can intensify and the rand can crash, ironically leading business leaders to call for still further liberalisation. Government can pursue what are widely recognised by big business as "sound economic policies" yet foreign direct investment nevertheless stays home, leaving only "hot money" to erratically flood in and out of South Africa.

In short, none of government's pleading to capital seems to do much good. The day the strategy was unveiled, the rand lost five cents against the US dollar.

- 30 -

Printable Version

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer(s) and not do necessarily reflect the views of the AfricaFiles' editors and network members. They are included in our material as a reflection of a diversity of views and a variety of issues. Material written specifically for AfricaFiles may be edited for length, clarity or inaccuracies.

     top of page