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Looking ahead . . .
Vol. 18 - Land Rights

Looking back . . .

Vol. 17 (July - December 2015)
A New Counter-Hegemonic Politics in South Africa: What Now? What Next?
By John Saul  The liberation struggle in South Africa, while successful in overthrowing apartheid and white minority rule, has been far less successful in sustaining an on-going process of continuing liberation and popular empowerment. This introductory article will seek further to frame such an analysis, while setting the stage for the series of articles on various dimensions of this overall pattern and the renewed resistance it is giving rise to within the country.
By Dale T. McKinley The article will first provide a brief explanation of the emergence, character and role of community organizations and social movements and their associated struggles covering the first 15 years of South Africa’s democratic transition. This will lay the foundation for a critical analysis of more recent political, ideological and organizational shifts within them. What expressions of a ‘new’ radical politics can be found in the emerging spaces and struggles within the labour movement?

A ‘Next Liberation Struggle’ in South Africa? The Prospects.
by John Saul

A “next liberation struggle” in South Africa? To evoke such a prospect and such a goal is to imply that the liberation struggle that culminated in 1994 and saw the emergence of a formally democratic South Africa and a population apparently liberated from oppression and, prospectively, from penury, has not been, in its essentials, so very liberatory after all.


For it is difficult to so interpret what “liberation” has actually produced – or to see such a result as having been accidental. After all – and as examined at length elsewhere (Saul and Bond, 2014) - the chosen path of the new elite (clustered, in particular, around the ANC and the SACP) has been one of extensive collaboration both with global capital and with local, chiefly white, capitalist elites. This, no doubt, helped ease the transition past the rocks of structured white racism and right-wing backlash, but it represented a substantial compromise with the existing structures of racial capitalism.

Although not every author in this symposium agrees with each of his/her fellow authors on every detail of such an analysis, all do ask a similar and entirely pertinent question: just where is the energy for action to modify, or even to radically change, what can only be seen as an anti-climactic outcome – by means of some kind of renewed liberation struggle in South Africa – to come from? True, perhaps, such a revived struggle for a more genuine liberation may be difficult to imagine. Yet it is well to remind ourselves of how very close South Africa came “last time” (during the struggle that did overthrow apartheid itself) to building a social movement that would transform South Africa even more profoundly.

"just where is the energy for action to modify, or even to radically change, what can only be seen as an anti-climactic outcome – by means of some kind of renewed liberation struggle in South Africa "

After all, it was not primarily any “liberation movement” (the ANC, for example) that brought down apartheid. Rather it was in significant measure a popular movement that produced “from below” the initial stirrings of revolt in the Durban strikes of the early seventies and the Soweto resistance of the mid-seventies. 

And this, in turn, continued to fire a rebellious populace, acting through COSATU, the UDF and a wide variety of organizations on the ground that ultimately convinced capitalists and canny old-guard politicians a settlement was necessary – one best achieved by abandoning apartheid the better to rescue South Africa’s future for capitalism!

A key player in this compromise was the African National Congress, of course (Saul and Bond, 2014). For it was the ANC, a would-be vanguard liberation movement, that, in the early 1990s, coopted COSATU into its ruling coalition and worked assertively to wind-down the UDF and the active popular movement for change that had emerged during the apartheid years. And it did so while sealing a deal with capital that produced the total adherence of the “new South Africa” to capital’s global logic. What, in fact, had happened was a recolonization of South Africa by global capital - and the complete absorption of the ANC brass into the circle of post-apartheid power and privilege (Lissani et al, 2012).

The result? It was only very slowly that the illusion of meaningful victory showed just how thin and threadbare it was. Of course, a struggle-weary populace can perhaps be forgiven for seeing a considerable victory to lie in the overthrow of so humiliating and degrading a socio-political system as apartheid. Nonetheless, it was not long before this populace began to register the sharp contrast that had come to exist between the smug comfort of capital and its African/ANC front-men in positions of formal power on the one hand, and the broader populace’s own continuing poverty and subordination on the other.

In sum, there were very tangible signs that things weren’t quite working out as the ANC had promised they would and that the socio-economic and political morass into which global and local capital and their firm ally, the ANC brass, had led the the South African liberation struggle had become painfully raw...and increasingly unacceptable (see Neville Alexander, 2002; Dawson and Sinwell, 2012).


To be sure, the South African population had been relatively passive in allowing such a recolonization to occur during the false dawn of hope offered by the “transition” that the “defeat” of apartheid permitted. Yet it is also true that the ANC’s shell-game of “achieved liberation,” at first so convincing, did not, as time went on, work quite so well in silencing the revived protests of the country’s poor and (still) oppressed. Recall the old saying: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” In this kind of context, it is not surprising that resistance in South Africa to ANC hegemony began to grow.

Perhaps most dramatic in this regard have been two graphic expressions of such distemper. One was the Marikana Massacre of 2012, at which state forces blatantly shot and killed 35-40 striking miners at Lonmin’s platinum mine. This was said by some to be as stark a wake-up call to the true meaning of the ANC’s post-apartheid rule as had been the Sharpeville Massacre (in 1960) and the Soweto Uprising (in 1976) - these twin events having themselves been so revelatory of the true meaning of apartheid itself in their time.

Second has been the marked eruption, over a number of years, of what Peter Alexander once referred to as “the rebellion of the poor,” referring to the dramatic protests – South Africa would soon become the leader on the world’s table of countries marked by such protests – by the dwellers, both rural and urban, in those very slums whose continuing existence has come to underscore the vast and deepening disparities alluded to above (Peter Alexander, 2014).

"the rebellion of the poor, referring to the dramatic protests by the dwellers, both rural and urban, in those very slums whose continuing existence has come to underscore the vast and deepening disparities."

Indeed, it is in this latter wave of “community resistance from below” (as Dale McKinley [McKinley, 1997] titles our second essay here) that one sees South Africa’s vast precariat in action, with McKinley’s account charting the emergence, character and political role of community organisations/social movements and their struggle against established power during the years of South Africa’s ostensible democratic transition (see also Saul, 2014a).

In addition, and while registering (as had Alexander) a quantitative intensification of such community-initiated protests, McKinley considers the ongoing and future potential of the mounting of such a radical new politics by the precariat, asking whether this kind of resistance from below can and will continue to grow and also interact effectively with whatever emerging and novel struggles South Africa’s labour movement might also produce (as discussed by Eddie Webster in essay # 4, below). A very new South African history is in the making, if so.It is no wonder, as well, that one presumptive counter-hegemonic alternative to the ANC’s own project, the Democratic Left Front/DLF, consistently speaks of its potential radical base as lying, quite specifically, in “the working class and the poor”! Both precariat and proletariat, in sum: is this not the key?

Another potential source of dramatic protest to be emphasized is explored in the third essay of this collection, that by Shireen Hassim on the possible (and necessary) rebirth of the women’s movement. Of course, as chronicled most effectively by Hassim herself the women’s movement constituted an extremely important force in radicalizing the whole process of removing the apartheid system and also in constructing a new state apparently much more sensitive to gender concerns (Hassim, 2006).

Indeed, women seemed to be among the chief winners in the coming of a new South African democracy; a struggle seemed joined, some thought, to overcome gender inequalities in economic position and social status. Thus, over the past twenty years the number of women in parliament has actually reached parity, quotas for women have been implemented in all government policies. In addition, poor women have become the major beneficiaries of social grants and women’s participation in formal politics has been virtually “normalised.” And yet, Hassim now argues this “victory” actually merits a close second look; it is apparent, she says, that it is only a very thin form of democracy that has been implemented. One in which mere representation has replaced the original and powerful feminist demands for a more real and genuine participation.

Looking beneath the gloss of the “good story” conventionally told in this regard Hassim considers the nature and extent of persisting gender inequalities in economic position, in political efficacy and in social status. Even more crucially, she asks how important women’s initiatives, women’s organizations and women’s issues may yet be to any future building of a new political movement for a new South Africa.

But what of “the working class” per se, once so crucial a component of the overall resistance movement against apartheid but now fragmented, notably by splits between more established and organized workers on the one hand, and the vast array of “casuals,” “part-time”, “semi-employed,” and unorganized workers that have come to define so much of South Africa on the other? Here, in the fourth essay in this series, one of South Africa’s most-cited writers on the experiences of the country’s workers, Eddie Webster, again surveys the issue of “working class politics” but now on a quite different terrain than that which was once defined by the struggle for national liberation and by the transition to democracy (cf. Webster, 1985; Adler and Webster, 2000).

Indeed, in the post-apartheid context of the ANC’s apparently unqualified acceptance of the primacy of capital’s power and programme, and in the wake of such a startling event as the Marikana Massacre, Webster focuses quite specifically on the existing challenges that South Africa’s largest trade union, NUMSA, feels it necessary to confront. Drawing on surveys he has undertaken since 1991 Webster carefully analyzes NUMSA’s shifting position on politics: from a qualified support for the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party to growing disillusionment with this Alliance.

Such a trajectory in turn culminated, Webster underscores, in a special congress decision in December 2013 that mandated the NUMSA leadership to forge ahead with the formation of a United Front and Movement for Socialism in order to advance working class struggles and to reach out to a broader constituency.  Webster then examines the implications of the different options now facing NUMSA and the possible directions that a novel working class politics might ultimately take in South Africa.

Clearly, as Jacklyn Cock argues (in our fifth essay here, as elsewhere [Cock, 2007]), prospects for a “new liberation struggle” in South Africa depend in part on a convincing vision of an alternative social order. And under present South African conditions, she suggests, the transformative vision of a just transition to a sustainable low carbon economy can provide the embryo of a new (and necessary) eco-socialist order. Moreover, this in turn would have to involve the collective, democratic control of production for social needs, rather than profit; the mass roll out of socially owned renewable energy that could mean decentralized energy with much greater potential for community control; the localisation of food production in the shift from carbon-intensive industrial agriculture to food sovereignty; and the sharing of resources in more collective social forms.

"...under present South African conditions, the transformative vision of a just transition to a sustainable low carbon economy can provide the embryo of a new (and necessary) eco-socialist order."

Nor, emphasizes Cock, are these unrealistic goals. After all, the anti-capitalist nature of such an alternative is related to the growing recognition that the fundamental cause of South Africa’s deepening environmental crisis - one that is having devastating impacts on the working class and the precariat alike - is the expansionist logic of capitalism. And, as she carefully recounts, this recognition is promoting, in turn, new forms of organisation and new alliances between labour, community and environmental activists – a solidarity that embodies the promise of a new kind of socialism that is at once ethical, ecological and democratic.

A counter-hegemony?

Precariat, proletariat, women and environmental activists: can all these and more potential centres of organization, of protest, and of progressive demand now begin to add up to something quite new and potentially counter-hegemonic  to what is being proffered by the ANC state and by recycled and reconstituted racial capitalism. Vishwas Satgar, author (Williams and Satgar, 2013) and Democratic Left Front activist in South Africa, explores, in a sixth essay, the situation as traced above – with South Africa now standing, in his phrase, somewhere between “crisis and renewal.” Moreover, this is in fact, he argues, a situation that could now permit a freshly mobilized mass constituency to find a promising, effective and sustainable political form.

Consider this, Satgar says. The resistance to neoliberalisation has already engendered numerous promising left-responses in South Africa: an impressive trade union-led street politics, the sustained building of social movements and multiple community-based protests. There has also been much lobbying by local NGOs and popular organizations as well as a new and militant expression of independent trade unionism – with anti-neoliberal resistance outside of the ANC-led Alliance coming to the fore in the first decade of the new millennium of the 2000s, deepened by the Marikana Massacre, the “NUMSA moment” and the further unravelling of the ANC’s national liberation project itself.

Satgar’s article then further maps the terrain of left politics in post-apartheid South Africa in order to clarify orientations, trajectories and limits. Anchoring this survey is a particular focus on the Democratic Left Front/DLF) to which initiative he is himself very close – with various contenders for a similar role ranging from Julius Malema’s rather populist and demagogic Economic Freedom Fighters to the new United Front South Africa - he identifies space for progressive social forces and those on the left to find convergence around a platform of alternative grass roots solidarity and a new anti-capitalist imaginary. His article thus provides a critical analysis of left politics in general and a specific assessment of one attempt at left renewal as forged within the Democratic Left Front, while evaluating more generally the challenges and prospects for any emergent and potentially counter-hegemonic left alternative in post-apartheid South Africa.

                      *        *        *

South Africa, for all its size and economic weight, may actually have gained a somewhat exaggerated reputation in the eyes of the rest of its continent and of the world: the positive role of the ANC, even in the liberation of South Africa, overstated and the benign role of Mandela, especially after apartheid, rather misconstrued (Saul, 2014b). For people in the region another face was soon apparent, however: South Africa as an entrepot for the sub-imperial penetration of the sub-continent by corporations that used SA as a spring-board for depredations further north (Saunders, 2008). And also as an often unwelcoming snake-pit of violence and xenophobia directed against in-coming migrant-workers from the region and beyond (Mozambicans as target providing a good case in point) - such enormities owing much to the ANC’s “lack of visionary leadership,” in Ozias Tungwarara’s potent phrase (Tungwarara, 2015, Essa, 2015).

"South Africa, for all its size and economic weight, may actually have gained a somewhat exaggerated reputation in the eyes of the rest of its continent and of the world."

In short, a “liberated” but untransformed South Africa has done little to help to free the continent as a whole; moreover, if the situation decays further it may actually do a great deal of damage (as Mugabe has already done in Zimbabwe, for example). Small wonder that Africa as a whole has sensed that it has a significant stake in what the forces we itemize in this set of essays can do to reclaim South Africa for a more progressive outcome. For such an outcome in South Africa, then, the struggle continues.

John S. Saul has been a liberation support/anti apartheid activist since the 1960s, most prominently with the Toronto Committee for the Liberation of Portugal’s African Colonies/Southern Africa (TCLPAC/TCLSAC). He has also taught at York University, the University of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), the University of Eduardo Mondlane (Mozambique) and the University of Witwatersrand (South Africa). He is the author/editor of more than twenty books on southern Africa and development issues.


Adler, Glenn and Eddie Webster, eds. (2000), Trade Unions and Democratization in South Africa (London and New York: MacMillan Press abd st. Martin’s Press).

Alexander, Neville (2002), An Ordinary Country: Issues in the Transition from Apartheid to Democracy in South Africa(Pietermaritzburg, S. A.: University of Natal Press.

Alexander, Peter et. al. (2014), Marikana: A View from the Mountain and a Case to Answer (Auckland Park, S. A.: Jacana, 2012).

Cock, Jackyn (2007), The War Against Ourselves: Nature, Power and Justice (Johannesburg: Wits University Press).

Dawson, Marcelle C. and Luc Sinwell, eds. (2012), Contesting Transformation: Popular Resistance in Twenty-First-Century South Africa (London: Pluto Press).

Essa, Azad (2015), “Is South Africa taking xenophopia seriously,” Aljazeera, April 30, 2015).

Hassim, Shireen (2006), Women’s Organizations and Democracy in South Africa: Contesting Authority (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press).

Lissani, Arianna and Jon Soske, Natasha Erlank, Noor Nieftagodien and Omar Badsha, eds. (2012), One Hundred Years of the ANC: Debating Liberation Histories Today (Johannesburg: Wits University Press).

McKinley, Dale (1997), The ANC and the Liberation Struggle” A Critical Political Biography (London: Pluto Press).

Miller, Darlene, O. Olayede, and R. Saunders, eds. (2008), “Special Issue: South Africa in Africa – African perceptions, African realities,” African Sociological Review, 12, 1.

Saul, John S. and Patrick Bond (2014), South Africa – The Present as History: From Mrs. Ples to Mandela and Marikana (Woodbridge, Suffolk and Johannesburg: James Currey and Jacana).

Saul, John S. (2014), A Flawed Freedom: Rethinking Southern African Liberation (London, Toronto and Cape Town, S. A.: Pluto, Between the Lines, UCT/Juta).

Saul, John S.(2014a), “The New Terms of Resistance: Proletriat, Precariat and the Present African Prospect,” in Saul, 2014.

Saul, John S. (2014b), “Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s Flawed Freedom,” in Saul, 2014.

Saunders, Richard (2008), At Issue EZINE, Vol 8: South Africa in Africa (AfricaFiles web-site); see also Miller, Darlene et. al., eds. (2008).

Tungwarara, Ozias (2015), “Xenophobia in South Africa: lack of visionary leadership,” at Open Society in Southern Africa (http://www.osisa.org/), April 15, 2015.

Williams, Michelle and Vishwas Satgar, eds. (2014), Marxism in the 21st Century: Crisis, Critique & Struggle (Johannesburg” Wits University Press).

Webster, Edward (1985), Cast in a Racial Mould: labour process and trade unionism in the foundries (Johannesburg: Ravan Press).

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Community resistance from below: reclaiming the past, inventing the future?
by Dale T. McKinley

Remembering the past

Amongst the most studied and celebrated aspects of the anti-apartheid struggle during the 1980s in South Africa was the breadth and impact of community resistance. (Ballard et al 2006; Buhlungu 2010)

     The origins of that resistance came during the late 1970s and early 1980s when the working class, broadly conceived, was hit with a double blow. Emerging clusters of neoliberal capitalism privileged the opening up of global markets, increasing capital mobility and reorganising states to guarantee and catalyze ‘free market principles’ (Harvey 2005), while pushing for a flexible, insecure and informal labour regime. (Chun 2009)

Simultaneously, a large number of unions had become increasingly opposed to what they saw as the subordination of worker interests and struggles to the macro-national liberation politics of the ANC and its alliance partner, the SACP. (Pillay 1996) These unions wanted to forge politically independent labour organizations allied to the broader working class of communities, informal workers and students that practiced workers’ control and participatory democracy. (Baskin 1991)

This eventually resulted in the formation of the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU). Linking the strengthening of internal union (especially shop-floor) structures and democracy to the struggles against state repression on a more general societal level FOSATU reached out to communities and their unemployed and casual worker constituencies. (Barchiesi 2006)

On the community front, there was the launch of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983, This brought together a wide range of community and other anti-apartheid civil society organizations, many of whom were aligned to the ANC. Key to these developments, were the worsening material conditions of the black majority and their increasingly radical resistance to the devastating socio-economic impact of the apartheid-capitalist system (Naidoo 2010). After the formation of COSATU in 1985, the terrain for a genuine people’s alliance that contained an equally genuine alternative to apartheid-capitalist oppression was fertile.

Negotiations and mobilization

Meanwhile, in the midst of widespread community and labour movement struggles during the late 1980s, behind-the-scenes negotiations between the ANC and the apartheid state were well-advanced. Negotiatory politics began to fast displace whatever ground working class struggles were attempting to occupy, in the process creating the conditions for top-down, centralized “power and decision-making.” (Pillay 1996)

"...in the midst of widespread community and labour movement struggles during the late 1980s, behind-the-scenes negotiations between the ANC and the apartheid state were well-advanced."

By the early 1990s, the strategic locus of resistance and people’s power shifted even further onto a ‘negotiations’ terrain. COSATU became involved in a parallel negotiating process, devoting much of its energies to institutionalizing bargaining agreements between unions, employers and the state. (McKinley 1997) Similarly, a range of community organizations entered into negotiations with local white councils about the provision of public services. With the core leadership and organizations of what had constituted the UDF now absorbed into the ANC itself, the remaining community organizations, after holding talks with the ANC, formed a new umbrella body called the South African National Civic Organisation (SANCO), which unofficially became the fourth member of the ANC Alliance. (Zuern 2004)

Combined, these shifts resulted in the effective curtailment of anti-capitalist mass struggle by the broad working class. Ordinary workers and community members often had little say in key political and policy decisions which became dominated by the perceived necessity of seeking common ground with capital and the apartheid state for some kind of social contract to restructure an ailing South African macro-economy.

The post-apartheid ‘dividend’

With the transition to democracy and the ANC’s capturing of state power after 1994, a range of new political, socio-economic and organizational constellations of power thus came to the fore. This occurred alongside the rapid adoption by the ANC of a neoliberal macro-economic policy framework that profoundly reshaped not only the political economy of South Africa but the more specific struggles of poor and working class communities. (Marais, 1998)

For the poor and working class, the impacts were devastating. Massive job losses were visited upon those who had been fortunate enough to be employed, this ‘experience’ being accompanied by attendant social and economic damage to already poor and vulnerable families and communities. The ANC-managed state also implemented “basic needs” policies that turned many basic services into market commodities, facilitated by a drastic decrease in national government grants/subsidies to municipalities and support for the development of financial instruments for privatized delivery. (McDonald, 2000)

"For the poor and working class, the impacts were devastating. Massive job losses were visited upon those who had been fortunate enough to be employed, this ‘experience’ being accompanied by attendant social and economic damage..."

In turn, this laid the foundations for an enabling environment of patronage, corruption and factional politics as well as a huge escalation in the costs of basic services and a concomitant increase in the use of cost-recovery mechanisms such as water and electricity cut-offs. By the turn of the century, millions more poor South Africans had also experienced cut-offs and evictions as the result of the neo-liberal orgy. (McDonald and Smith, 2002) Further, the state’s capitalist-friendly land policies, which ensured that apartheid land ownership patterns remained virtually intact, has meant that South Africa’s long-suffering rural population continue to taste the bitter fruits of labour exploitation and landlessness.

It was within this transitional context that a range of new community organizations and social movements surfaced. (Ballard et al, 2006; Naidoo and Veriava, 2003) In almost all cases, they emerged in the very spaces opened up as a result of the failure of the tactical approaches and strategic visions of the main traditional forces of the left (for example, COSATU and the SACP) and ‘civic’ structures like SANCO to offer any meaningful response to the changing conditions. (McKinley and Naidoo, 2004)

This ‘perfect storm’ of neoliberalism thus brought together all those inhabiting an extended and flexible ‘community’ of work and life the organizational form of which replaced the formal workplace as the epicentre of social solidarity. In response, there were some serious efforts from sections within the labour movement in the late 1990s and early 2000s, mostly from municipal workers, to forge collective solidarities and struggles. Despite this, the dominant politics and practices of the labour movement in the context of the changing composition of the broad working class and the enforced boundaries of corporatism under neoliberalism, has largely undermined the possibilities of any practical unity. 

The ‘new’ social movements and community organizations have also been subject to a consistent state campaign of rhetorical vitriol and physical assaults. (McKinley and Veriava, 2010) Crucially, the various leaderships of the SACP, COSATU and other ANC “civil society” allies have most often given tacit support to the state’s repressive actions and have consistently failed to seriously engage with, politically support, or provide material solidarity to their struggles.

Catalysing division and conflict

While these community organizations and social movements do not represent some kind of homogeneous entity, and while there have been (and continue to be) substantive organizational differences and political and ideological debates within their ranks, they have become inextricably bound together by the levelling content and common forms of the neoliberal onslaught, both nationally and, to a lesser extent, internationally.

And yet, besides the highly fractured social and productive relations within poor communities, there is the additional challenge of engaging and overcoming a rising social conservatism among the ranks of the broad working class, driven by the growth of (right-wing) Christian evangelical churches and culturally reinforced patriarchy, as well as intensified ethnic and national chauvinism.

Much of this social conservatism (McKinley, 2010) has come to the political and social surface since the rise of the current South African president, Jacob Zuma, whose thinly disguised misogyny, homophobia, and open embrace of patriarchal ‘traditional values’ and religion have provided a trickle-down, socially backward ‘role model’ to the ANC’s and the left’s core constituency – the broad working class. Further reinforcement has come from the ANC-led state’s consistent championing of a narrow nationalism that has framed and encouraged xenophobia as evidenced in the eruption of xenophobic violence in 2008 and again in early 2015.

All of this has evinced a double ‘movement’ over the last several years in respect of poor communities and their struggles. On one hand, an escalating hyper-commoditized daily existence has produced a situation in which the vast majority of those residing in poor communities are engaged in a desperate struggle for social relevancy and location. The result has been an intensification of social division, stratification and dysfunction, now more than ever driven by increased competition for limited social benefits, services and productive opportunities.

"Much of this social conservatism has come to rise with the current South African president, Jacob Zuma, whose thinly disguised misogyny, homophobia, and open embrace of patriarchal ‘traditional values’ and religion have provided a trickle-down, socially backward ‘role model’ to the broad working class."

In a Manichean twist, scarce waged labour has become the hoped-for light at the end of the tunnel, the main “prize” for social inclusion and stability as against the dark and desolate recesses of utter social marginalization. Access to state-serviced and controlled social grants, which are even then most often subject to considerations of political patronage and party electoral support now represent a barely inclusivist second ‘prize’.

Simultaneously, there have been growing levels of tension and conflict that have been manifested in various forms of local, community protests and violence, most often involving the state’s police forces as well as local politicians and elites. (Alexander, 2010; von Holdt, 2013) According to one, multi-year, academic study the number of community protests increased by almost 150% from the period 2005-2008 to the period from 2009-2012 when they averaged 309 per year. (Runciman, 2013)

The combined waves of protest and violence have also involved union members, mostly those occupying the lowest paying jobs in the mining sector striking over wages and working conditions. This was the case at the Marikana mine in August 2012 when 10 miners were killed in intra-union violence, followed by the massacre of 35 striking miners by police, with another 70 injured. (Alexander et al., 2012) There have also been scores of community protesters shot dead by police forces over the last several years. (The Sowetan, 24 January 2014)

Cumulatively, this cocktail of constructed dysfunction, division and conflict has made the possibilities of forging common, national level political and socio-economic struggles of communities for radical change hugely difficult. Likewise, it has also vitiated much of the earlier transitional potential of meaningful anti-capitalist labour-community alliances.

New spaces, new possibilities

The good news, however, is that there are new spaces opening up. The most crucial of these spaces have been engendered by the on-going fracturing of the ANC-Alliance over the last few years which has seen a slow-but-sure loosening of the ANC’s political and ideological hegemony. This process has been catalyzed by the horrific events at Marikana. During the subsequent post-massacre strike by platinum miners, the longest in South African history, practical and solidaristic links between workers, community organizations and independent left activists were forged. This heralded possibilities both for more sustained and campaigning alliances between labour and community and an effective and principled ‘United Front’ of community, labour and independent left forces and struggles.

For, whether it be in South Africa or elsewhere, the very basis, historically, for the maintenance of a sustainable political alliance between unions and (ostensibly progressive) political parties that have hold of state power is the parallel maintenance of both a politically malleable union leadership and expanding benefits for a meaningful threshold of unionised workers. On both counts, the alliance of the ANC, COSATU and the SACP is looking increasingly precarious.

"The good news, however, is that there are new spaces opening up. The most crucial of these spaces have been engendered by the on-going fracturing of the ANC-Alliance over the last few years"

Now not only is the ANC itself riven with factional battles and drowning in a sea of corruption but the last two years have also seen the formation of a new political rival (ostensibly to the ANC’s left) in the form of the breakaway Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) as well as the expulsion from COSATU of the largest union in the country, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA). Further, COSATU and many of its affiliates have become virtually paralyzed by leadership and factional battles, these catalyzed by ever growing exposés of massive financial mismanagement and fraud. (McKinley, 2014)

What is also happening is that the wage and working condition gains of all but the most highly paid unionized workers are being seriously eroded by the combined effects of the state’s neoliberal policies and the displacement of the current crisis of capitalism onto workers. In respect of the ‘other’ part of the broad working class (i.e. poor communities), the impacts are being felt even more acutely.

This is where the incipient moves by NUMSA, supported by many community organizations and other civil society formations across the country, to forge an independent and anti-capitalist ‘United Front’ of the broad working class comes into the picture. For many community organizations, workers, social movements and other left activists who have been waging various struggles over the past decade and who are not part of the long-standing ANC-SACP-COSATU alliance, the significance of NUMSA’s break is that it comes with a commitment to

…lead in the establishment of a new United Front [UF] that will coordinate struggles in the workplace and in communities, in a way similar to the UDF of the 1980s. The task of this front will be to fight for the implementation of the Freedom Charter and be an organizational weapon against neoliberal policies such as the NDP [National Development Plan]. (NUMSA, 2013)

Such initiatives could indicate that “the nearly 10-year revolt of the poor may be complemented by an industrial partner” (Gentle 2014) and see a rejuvenation of labour-community alliances centred on basic public services. (Ashman and Pons-Vignon 2014). Additionally, NUMSA has said that it will embark on a process to organize workers across value chains, including in the highly divided and volatile mining sector (NUMSA 2014), a move that could also herald the beginnings of organizational support for informal and casualized workers who, it is estimated, now constitute the majority of those employed in South Africa. (ILO, 2015)

Since the beginning of 2014, NUMSA has held a range of meetings and conferences with an array of community organizations, NGOs and independent left forces. This has led to the launch of several provincial and local structures of the ‘United Front’ and campaigns against, for example, the ANC government’s introduction of a youth wage subsidy and its neoliberal budget. Several joint protests have taken place across the country and have often been extended to other struggles initiated by community organizations and social movements.

NUMSA’s moves to build such a ‘United Front’ remain embryonic at this stage, of course, and it must still translate stated intent into practical action when it comes to active involvement in community struggles and organizations as well as in making common cause with informal/casualized workers. Nonetheless, what NUMSA has done is to open wide the door of new possibilities not just for labour-community alliances for public services but for a broad working class-led movement to mount a serious organizational and political challenge to the ANC (alongside its so-called ‘left’ alliance partners) as well as to the state in its present form.

The key challenge now for both community organisations and the labour movement in South Africa is to occupy the new spaces that have opened and to do so independently from any political party. In order for that to begin to happen though, there must first be recognition by unions and community organizations that they are part of the same struggle: in other words, the laying of a foundation for a unity in resistance of the broad working class in opposition to neoliberal capitalism and all its associated practical impacts.

In doing so, a base can be constructed on which a parallel joint programme of basic grassroots organizing and activism can then be pursued. Such a programme needs to be grounded in a basic set of demands that speaks directly to the real living conditions and daily struggles of both poor communities and organized workers. And it must also linked to a coming together to change the face of the public sector as a means not only to deliver public services but to do so in a way that deepens and expands their democratic character and content. (Ronnie, 2013; Wainwright, 2013) In this way, the idea of a meaningful ‘United Front’ that also encompasses social forces beyond its broad working class core can begin to be translated into practice.

"a base can be constructed on which a parallel joint programme of basic grassroots organizing and activism can then be pursued. Such a programme needs to be grounded in a basic set of demands that speaks directly to the real living conditions and daily struggles of both poor communities and organized workers."

Above all, for community and worker resistance to invent the future of anti-capitalist struggle in South Africa is going to require patient political and organizational work and activism informed by a democratic spirit of humility and openness. There is no space here for vanguardist, paramount leadership, no room for the presumption of collective “working class” consciousness and no place for the defensive and divisive promotion of narrow organizational identities and terrain.

While a longer-term goal of broad working class struggle might well be to replace capitalism with an alternative system, it is only by engaging in the kind of practical, here-and-now struggle for real changes in the lives of the public, both human and institutional, that the possibilities for more radical change can be brought into being.

Dale T. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer based in Johannesburg. He is a long-time political activist and has been involved in social movement, community and liberation struggles for over three decades. He is the author of four books and has written widely on various aspects of South African and international political, social and economic issues and struggles.



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