Capital versus labour in South Africa

Submitted by Matthew on 26 October, 2012 - 7:50

At the KDC East gold mine outside of Johannesburg 8,000 workers were sacked this week for refusing to return to work.

At the same time, the commission of inquiry into the killings of the 34 miners at Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana was opened. Initial evidence presented to the enquiry indicated that 14 of them were shot in the back as they turned to run from the police gangs.

As the inquiry opened there were several shocking detentions of Marikana leaders and the leader of the local Marikana solidarity campaign. The police wanted to intimidate those giving evidence about the police and the vicious gang regime of the mining companies.

They Marikana leaders were detained as they returned from the commission. They were taken from their taxis, kicked and beaten as they lay on the ground and were threatened with being killed. They were all key witnesses.

A class war is being consciously waged against the workers by the forces of law and order. Far from the ANC reining in its bootboys it is avidly proselytizing for its own version of events, in which the miners were murderous gangs evading the control of the officially-sanctioned trade unions.

Meanwhile, the labour dispute is spreading throughout the mining territories and, according to observers on the ground, is turning into a generalised struggle against the corruption of the ANC and its backers in the international mining corporations.

Mining corporations like Lonmin are not only enemies of working class self-organisation but also actively foster the genocidal cliques in countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There, the sourcing and mining of mineral wealth by the corporations goes hand in hand with the destruction of whole communities.

But in South Africa the democratic settlement of 1994 was also a ruling against the working class and for corporations then nervous about some kind of transition to social democracy or “soviet power” under the ANC.

In the wake of the collapse of the Stalinist states in eastern Europe F W De Klerk calmed the fears of international capital and negotiated the transition to the governance of the tripartite alliance of the South African Communist Party, the COSATU union federation, and the ANC.

This week even the Economist waded in to criticise the ANC leadership arguing that its nepotism was bringing South Africa to the brink of political and economic collapse. It pointed to the “declining quality of the government, growing social stresses and worsening conditions for investment”. The incompetence of the government in dealing with the mining catastrophe was making corporate investors nervous.

Certainly the strikes and the burgeoning call for workers’ ownership and control in the mining areas are a sign that the two golden decades of neo-liberal governance is now being tentatively overcome.

Ironically for both capital and labour the problem lies in the nature of the ANC itself.

Governing in the name of a black working class which had hoisted it to power on the back of its liberation struggle but unable and unwilling to challenge the rule of capital, it eased and developed capitalism in South Africa rather than satisfying the urgent and growing needs of the working class.

As the Economist has pointed out, ANC membership is “a ticket for the gravy train. Jobs in national and local politics provide access to public funds and cash from firms eager to buy social influence”. The dishing out of contracts to public works programmes to the cliques provide comfort and finance for a one-party state enriching itself.

Yet, for all its faults Mandela’s “Freedom Charter” of the early 90s pointed to the need for vast public works programmes, proper housing for the majority of black South Africans, education, and a development programme for the South African economy based on the recognition of the needs of labour. Even in 1997 COSATU was arguing for a state in which the ANC was “transforming how work was managed — towards workers’ control and worker self-management – to empower working people”. Theoretically this is still COSATU policy. Yet far from delivering reforms and empowering the workers, ANC has stabilised capitalism in South Africa.

This is why the eruption in the mining territories is so significant — it threatens capital and free trade at the same time as it undermines the social base of the ANC itself, and the idea that it is the force for working-class emancipation.

The political revolution, regime change and transition to democracy in 1994 was for the socialist Neville Alexander about the intersection between national-liberationist, liberal-
democratic programmes, and the socialist left, each with its own base in a variety of social forces.

The “National Democratic Revolution” as it was perceived on the left, was an attempt to square the circle of these competing programmes, ultimately without success.

Success came to the corporate backers of the ANC state and economy and the international investment in the system by transnational corporations. Mining in particular continued with the same relationship with free trade as it had done under apartheid.

The rhetoric of anti-colonialism issued by the ANC left and its social forces represented by Malema is itself a smokescreen. Its focus on race actually undermines workers’ self-understanding, and entrenches the power of the black middle class of the ANC. The attempt to forge a democratic multi-linguistic and non-racial South Africa is not served by tribalist cliques continuing their reliance on what Neville Alexander called “the technical hocus pocus of the apartheid racial ideologies”.

The task is to support working-class self-emancipation through a working class seeing itself as a class against, physically and ideologically, the power of the ANC and capital.

The search for national unity and a national ideology was always doomed to fail in South Africa — the contradictory racial and class genetics inherited from colonialism meant that the Rainbow Nation was never going to last much longer than Mandela himself.

Socialists should continue to agitate for consistent and extreme democracy in the industries, housing projects, inquiries, and political congresses. They should address the key question of the differing needs of the urban and rural poor.

They should educate the new generation of militants into a socialism free of the taint of personal enrichment and the intolerance of dissent represented by the tripartite alliance.

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