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Alex Callinicos

Year of peace?
Historic compromises

South Africa

(December 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 181, December 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The world seemed to stand still when South Africa went to the polls in April. Tens of millions of black people voted for the first time in their country’s history. Their action, and the victory of the African National Congress under Nelson Mandela to which it led, seemed to be the culmination of decades of bitter struggle against apartheid. It was all the more remarkable as Mandela himself had spent nearly 27 years languishing in jail, finally released by the apartheid regime in February 1990.

Voting for the ANC was far more than a symbolic act. For the black masses it was an affirmation of the demands that had driven forward the decisive battles of the 1980s – for jobs, housing, education, in sum, for a better life.

The most striking thing about the nine months since the election is how few and tiny the steps the new ANC government has taken towards realising these demands. ANC leaders seek to justify the slow pace of change by arguing that they came to power as a result of a compromise with the established order, and that consequently they have little room for manoeuvre.

It is true that, in line with the constitution agreed between the ANC and the apartheid regime, Mandela presides over a coalition government including representatives of the old order. One of his deputy presidents is FW de Klerk, leader of the National Party, the party of apartheid. The home affairs minister is Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, leader of the tribalist Inkatha Freedom Party, who wants to stop democratic local elections taking place in his KwaZulu fiefdom.

But the restraints imposed by the coalition are not sufficient to explain the government’s lacklustre performance. It was ANC MPs who voted huge salaries for themselves and even larger ones for government ministers. It was left to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu to denounce this ‘gravy train’.

Meanwhile, down below, in the townships and squatter camps very little has changed. One of the most burning issues is housing. Yet the ANC dominated national and provincial governments have still to launch the massive house building programme promised at the election. One of the few concrete steps was taken recently by Joe Slovo, housing minister and leader of the South African Communist Party. He signed a deal with the banks and building societies designed to make it easier for blacks to obtain mortgages. In exchange he promised that the state would take responsibility for evicting mortgage defaulters.

This agreement is part of a government assault on what it calls the ‘culture of boycotts’. During the 1980s massive boycotts of rates, rents, and electricity bills developed in the townships as part of the struggle against the regime. Far from attitudes changing under the new government, the number of boycotters has actually risen since April!

One of the most defiant groups are ex-combatants belonging to the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK). They are supposed to be integrated into the new South African National Defence Force. Recently the former commander of MK, Joe Modise, now minister of defence, dismissed 2,000 of his men and women for protesting against the conditions under which they are being integrated.

Meanwhile a series of investigations into government hit squads under de Klerk serve as a reminder that the security forces remain, despite a few ANC figures at the top, essentially those who so brutally defended apartheid.

Elsewhere in the government there are more dubious plans for South Africa’s new international role. One NP minister, Dawie de Williers, wants to set aside a ‘sub-region’ where imported toxic waste can be dumped. The state weapons company Armscor has a similar plan to earn foreign exchange by offering a remote part of the Northern Cape as a bomb disposal site.

ANC supporters have attacked these proposals. But they follow from the logic of the general policy being pursued by the government – namely seeking to make South Africa a competitive unit of the world market. As the fine print on the much touted Reconstruction and Development Programme – centrepiece of the ANC’s promised reforms – begins to appear, the continuity between this government’s economic thinking and that of its NP predecessor becomes more striking.

One of the best known socialists in the government, former trade union leader Alec Erwin, has struck a pose as deputy finance minister little different from a Tory chief secretary to the treasury eager to cut public spending.

The biggest threat to these policies comes from the ANC’s most important support base, the unions. The initial strike wave after the elections was snuffed out eventually, thanks to the efforts of the COSATU leadership. The federation’s congress reaffirmed its commitment to a partnership with the government and big business. But more recently there have been some militant strikes, for example by bus drivers in Johannesburg and municipal workers in Cape Town.

These struggles serve as a reminder that the ANC came to office thanks to the emergence in the 1980s of a powerful independent workers’ movement. That movement has, however, been held back by its commitment to the politics of negotiation and compromise. Those politics are, however, likely to come under increasing pressure as the ANC becomes subject to the test of government.

Those who want to realise the hopes raised in April will have to look elsewhere – to those such as the SWP’s fast growing sister organisation, the International Socialists of South Africa, who are seeking not a compromise with the old order, but its overthrow.

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