The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

South Africa:
The Capitalist State Captured ... By the Capitalists

Oct 16, 2017

The following article on the situation in South Africa was written by British Workers’ Fight comrades in Class Struggle #110, Autumn 2017. Since then there have been several events that have had an impact on this situation. Nevertheless, this article does place these events in their context, which is why we are reprinting it, with minor changes and with this brief explanatory introduction.

The first recent significant event was the resignation of Jacob Zuma from the presidency on February 14, 2018. It had only been a matter of when, rather than if, he would step down, since he had already been replaced as leader of his party, the African National Congress (ANC), at its December 2017 conference. The very next day, his deputy, the capitalists’ chosen candidate, Cyril Ramaphosa, former millionaire and mining magnate, slid seamlessly into his place. Ramaphosa has subsequently reinstated several previously fired cabinet ministers, including former education minister Blade Nzimande and former finance minister Pravin Gordhan. Business confidence is now at a 3-year high, even though one of Ramaphosa’s first declarations was that he intended to implement an ANC resolution on expropriation of the land without compensation. (Of the 33% of land which is privately owned, black people, who constitute 79% of the population, own just 1.2% of rural and 7% of urban land.) However, he was quick to reassure current property owners that this would be done through rational and business-like discussion and that farming and other activities should go on as normal.

The second event was the charging of Jacob Zuma by the Director of Public Prosecution with 18 counts of corruption and 700 counts of fraud and money laundering, on March 16. Zuma has now appeared in court in Durban surrounded by his supporters defiantly singing “struggle songs.” Whether he will eventually be sent to prison or not, or even be found guilty, is of course another question!

Third and most recently, was the death of 81-year-old Winnie Madikizela Mandela, on April 2, 2018. “Mam” Winnie was seen as the real Mother of the Nation, even though she was divorced by her husband, Nelson Mandela, in 1996. She remained a figurehead for those who saw her as representing a less conciliatory version of ANC policy. Winnie had kept the struggle against white minority rule alive during Nelson’s 27 years of imprisonment, despite systematic and violent persecution by the apartheid regime. In the final, most tumultuous years of the 1980s, she led the ANC within the country back to its leading role in the struggle after it had been almost eclipsed by more radical nationalist, but also working class, organizations. It was in this period, she was accused of sanctioning the tactics of a murderous gang of thugs known as the Mandela United Football Club who killed, among others, the Soweto youth leader, 14-year-old Stompie Seipei. In 2003, she was also convicted of fraud. However she soon reasserted herself politically and remained a radical critic of the ANC government in power, but always from within the ranks of the party itself.

Finally, the so-called “state capture” by the billionaire Gupta family, which characterized the last term of Jacob Zuma’s presidency, has now supposedly been terminated by the arrest of some and the flight out of the country of others. But of course Ramaphosa is just the new face of a state which has always been in the hands of capitalists of one sort or another. The article below traces its most recent trajectory and attempted to put this into perspective from the point of view of the working class.

Up until his removal in February this year, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma seemed to have stuck himself to the seat of power with some kind of super-glue. He had reshuffled his cabinet 11 times during his two terms of office. He even axed his former partner in crime, South African Communist Party (SACP) general secretary, Blade Nzimande, who had, up to October 18, 2017, been his Higher Education and Training Minister. Whether his discharge put into question the Tripartite Alliance, i.e., South Africa’s governing establishment made up of the African National Congress, SACP, and the Confederation of South African Trade Unions, COSATU, was debatable. But for some time, CP and Cosatu leaders had been distancing themselves from Zuma and calling on him to stand down.

Their main concern was what everyone called “state capture,” that is, the “undue influence” placed on Zuma by the billionaire Gupta family. In fact Zuma was already officially facing prosecution for corruption. Nevertheless most of his fellow rats, like Nzimande, had chosen to stay on board his slowly sinking ship until they got thrown off.

This saga, also involving the helping hand of several global management and services consultancies like McKinsey and KPMG, preoccupied the media for many months, and not just in South Africa. The scandal also implicated the British firm, Bell Pottinger – a PR firm which in its own words, aimed to “help shape our clients’ reputations, engage with diverse stakeholders across multiple channels, tell effective stories and run creative campaigns to enhance their brand.” Its dealings with the Guptas, through its subsidiary Oakbay, only served to ruin Bell Pottinger’s reputation, and it is now in bankruptcy.

They had proposed that Zuma’s best tactic to defend himself was to launch an offensive against “white monopoly capital,” blaming its never-ending presence for South Africa’s ills. And since there is more than a grain of truth in such an allegation, it was assumed it might work to divert attention away from Zuma himself.

The Great Distraction ... and a Bit of History

Indeed, this whole Gupta-gate scandal was a useful distraction from the real issues facing the working class and poor of South Africa.

The very idea of “state capture” by wealthy individuals, who “influence a nation’s policies, legal environment and economy to benefit their own private interests,” to use the definition provided by Transparency International (the “global anti-corruption coalition”), can only be born in naive minds. After all, how can the state in a capitalist society do anything else? Don’t capitalist societies, by definition, have capitalist states? That is, states held captive by the capitalist classes, to protect their interests against the majority of the population?

So, no, “Gupta-gate” is not an exception to the rule, and whether it is one family or many, this is merely the nature of the state under capitalism. In fact, if it had not been South Africa’s Gupta family manipulating Zuma, it would have been another. Wealthy capitalist families have shaped the South African state’s policies for their own ends, throughout its past history. The apartheid system itself originated in this way as a racial segregation policy with its roots in the demand from the Chamber of Mines, representing the main mine-owning families, for a supply of cheap and reliable labor.

The most prominent of these families was the Oppenheimers, who remained major shareholders in Anglo-American (the mining giant) and De Beers diamonds (founded in 1888 by Cecil Rhodes and Alfred Beit, funded by Rothschild’s bank) right up until 2011.

It was the Oppenheimers who, during the 1980s period of uprising in the townships, organized talks between Mandela’s African National Congress in exile and the Afrikaner Nationalist government in order to find a solution in their own interests. It was precisely these talks which began to set out the framework for South Africa’s so-called “peaceful democratic transition” from apartheid to majority rule in 1994. One could say the Oppenheimers captured the state of white Afrikaner Nationalist President De Klerk and then that of the first black “democratic” president, Nelson Mandela.

Apparently this history was forgotten, as hands were thrown up in despair that the “democratic rainbow nation” had been “taken captive” by the Guptas (or Zuptas, given the intertwining interests between various members of Zuma’s family and their benefactors).

Presiding over the World’s Most Unequal Society

In the meantime, social apartheid has prevailed in all its ugliness and capital has ruled – bloodily, in the case of the 2012 massacre of 34 striking miners in Marikana. Nelson Mandela’s mission when he took the presidency in 1994 was not to rock the capitalists’ boat, and he and those who have followed him did not and have not. Twenty-three years after the first black majority government promised to uphold the “Freedom Charter,” which proposed to return the land to the people and to create abundance on behalf of all, it has become much harder for the government to justify the poverty, gross inequalities and the government’s own failure to address even the most basic needs of the population.

The ANC state has built an economy where 60% of all income earned in South Africa is in the hands of 10% of the population, including a small but sizeable black bourgeoisie which involves politicians and entrepreneurs.

The rise of a black bourgeoisie has partly been the consequence of so-called Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). This was a legislative attempt to right the wrongs of apartheid within the bounds of the capitalist system, in which “white monopoly capital” did indeed own everything – that is, white imperialist (mainly British and American) and white national capitalists.

After apartheid was abolished, companies had, by law, to include black people on their boards and offer them substantial shares in all businesses. But the main benefits of BEE came through the preferential award of government contracts and posts. Inevitably these went to “friends and family” of the new black political class, with lots of “kickbacks” on the way, thus corrupting layer upon layer of politicians and top officials. This is what has created this small but very rich black elite, some of Africa’s richest men and women. And ironically, it has created them from the ranks of a generation whose high ideals sustained them in struggle against apartheid oppression. However, the ideals of these BEE beneficiaries who “took the money” as it were, never included being opposed to the theft of profit via labor exploitation nor to class oppression. Many, like Zuma, have been delighted to indulge in both. They were neither socialist nor communist, even if they carried, or still carry, the Party’s card.

Today, out of a population of 55.9 million, 27.7% are unemployed according to official figures, the highest number since 2003. And the situation is getting worse. Since the beginning of this year alone, 75,000 jobs in the formal sector have been lost. Already, 58.6% of the population lives in poverty. According to the World Bank, South Africa is the world’s most unequal country, followed by Haiti. So no wonder the situation in the poor townships and informal settlements is deteriorating to the point where roadblocks and tire-burning protests against conditions are “normal” events. People want proper brick homes and toilets, not to mention jobs, food and clothing, and they are well aware that Zuma and his government bear responsibility for their on-going hardships.

Zuma thought he would have two more years in office – the next general election is not due until 2019. So he was banking on two more years to feather his nest, including his homestead Nkandla “estate,” which he built out of taxpayers’ money, and which he so far has not paid back despite a judicial ruling commanding him to do so.

Anyway, in the run-up to the ANC’s December party conference, Zuma’s successors lined up: the Zuma loyalist faction represented by one of his former wives, the seasoned politician Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and Cyril Ramaphosa, who at the time was Zuma’s deputy.

But already many former Zuma loyalists had ganged up against him. For instance the leadership of the now split-off Confederation of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), which still has an official participatory role in the so-called “tripartite government.” It even organized a day of action against government corruption on September 27, 2017 with slogans like “Zuma must go,” “Away with the Guptas”... and more significantly, “Cyril Ramaphosa for president”!

The fact that (now state president) Ramaphosa is a former Lonmin mining boss and has the blood of the 34 massacred striking Marikana mineworkers on his hands made no difference to this particular cohort of union leaders. The National Union of Mineworkers, NUM, which is still Cosatu’s largest affiliate, opposed the 2012 Marikana miners’ strike and de facto took the side of the bosses and their state murderers against the miners. Ramaphosa is not only an accessory to this murder, but was one of Africa’s richest men, before passing his assets into his wife’s name when he took political office. He is a capitalist through and through and certainly the bosses’ candidate! Any association with his militant youthful past, as the first leader of the mineworkers’ union back in 1987, has long been wiped out.

But the ultimate irony of this not very well-attended “one day general strike against corruption” was that it was endorsed by many companies and businesses, including the Chamber of Mines, whose workers were given the day off to attend! Apparently the contradictory class interests arising out of capitalism have, in the face of Zuma’s corrupt friendship with “other” capitalists, been all but resolved in South Africa?

We will elaborate later on the politics of the trade union opposition to Cosatu and NUM, in the form of Numsa and the new trade union federation set up earlier in 2017, called the South African Federation of Trade Unions, SAFTU. But suffice it to say that they consciously refrained from participating in this day of action called by Cosatu, despite being criticized for doing so.

Saftu leader, Zwelinzima Vavi, had this to say: “We have learnt the hard way to always ask the question: in whose class interests is this 27 September 2017 strike action? Blade Nzimande has a famous saying that before you climb into the bus, don’t just look at what is written as its destination, but check who is the driver and who are the passengers inside the bus. Is it truly about the job losses or against state capture? Our conclusion based on this class analysis is that this strike is about sorting out the eating queue in 2017 and 2019. It’s about puppies trying to find another master, a new master to serve at the expense of the working class as it has happened for 23 years now. We won’t be duped twice!”

Vavi was referring to the fact that he, as the former leader of Cosatu (suspended in 2013 and expelled in 2015) and others, were the ones who actually swung the vote in favor of Zuma for ANC leader in 2007 and thus for the presidency in 2009. They were “duped” into thinking that Zuma was innocent of the corruption and rape charges he already faced back then.

Significantly, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, AMCU, which, it should be recalled, came out of the betrayal of the miners by the NUM, also boycotted Cosatu’s day of action, issuing the following statement: “The issue of protesting against state capture is playing to the gallery.... The corrupt protest is advancing a particular political agenda within the factional debates leading to the December [ANC] conference. As indicated by the President of Cosatu ... this is a season of madness. As Amcu we will not join the madness and seek to sponsor factional agendas masquerading as genuine worker protests!”

Funnily enough, none of these boycotters seems to have felt it was worth mentioning that the bosses were supporting the day of action and that, in itself, made it a sham.

Zuma’s Vulnerability

Without doubt, Zuma has certainly upset both “white monopoly capital” (and for that matter, black empowerment capital) increasingly, during his tenure! His purge, or “cabinet reshuffle” back in April last year, axing the ANC veteran Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan, and his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas, caused Standard and Poor (S&P) Global Ratings and Fitch Ratings to downgrade South Africa’s sovereign credit rating to junk status, much to its dismay. This sacking was said to have been requested by the Guptas whose influence on Zuma was openly disapproved of by Gordhan.

In fact, if anything was going to push Zuma out, ahead of time, it was rash political actions such as this one, which severely damage the general interests of the South African capitalist class and its foreign cousins who invest from abroad.

That said, while the capitalist class as a whole may not have liked nor even controlled everything that Zuma said and did, as long as he remained within certain boundaries, they were prepared to live with it – provided social peace and thus profit-making were not too much disturbed.

It is worth mentioning that in the past, those overstepping these boundaries paid for it. Like for instance President Thabo Mbeki, who was pushed out of office by political maneuvers involving the Cosatu and SACP leaders in 2007. Mbeki’s AIDS denial, when South Africa had the highest incidence of HIV in the world, and rising, went beyond the flexibility allowed to him by the capitalists because it threatened to decimate the South African workforce. This was one reason why the bourgeoisie eventually accepted Mbeki’s removal (but not before one-fifth of the population was infected), thus paving the way for Zuma’s ascendancy. And this was despite the fact that Mbeki’s stewardship of their economy suited them very well. It is worth mentioning here that the circumstances couldn’t have been more ironical: the resignation of Mbeki was backed up by a legal case against him for not having ensured that Zuma was prosecuted for corruption several years previously!

It turns out that the capitalists could not wait until 2019. In a way it was “just desserts” that he succumbed in the end to the same fate as Mbeki. The description of “Stalinist” for the Zuma regime was chillingly apt, as is shown by the number of political assassinations which have been carried out, for instance. This includes the murder of three shop steward activists from the National Union of Metalworkers, NUMSA, in 2014, who were targeted because of activity against the Zuma-loyalist union confederation Cosatu. It includes several candidates who stood against the ANC in the 2016 local elections. Forty-five municipal councillors were murdered for anti-Zuma and anti-corruption positions. A former ANC Youth League leader, Sindiso Magaqa, was killed in September 2017, allegedly because he had documents that would have exposed corruption in the Umzimkhulu municipality.

South Africans have often boasted about their constitution and their “independent” judiciary. But the very fact of Zuma’s ability to avoid prosecution time and again showed the dependence of these institutions on their masters. As long as they serve adequately the interests of capital, they are left to their despicable and sometimes murderous devices.

On October 13, the Supreme Court of Appeal reinstated 18 charges against Zuma, amounting to 783 counts regarding money laundering, racketeering and fraud, eight years after the charges were first laid. But as the judge commented himself, it remains to be seen whether this would be the end of a saga which has lasted 15 years. Even though the formerly loyal ANC Veterans’ League (veterans of the ANC’s armed wing, umKhonto we Sizwe, from apartheid days) had asked Zuma to leave office, they would not want to see him prosecuted. So many others would have to go down with him!

So What Happened to the Class Struggle?

Despite the obvious and worsening political and economic crisis, there is no alternative which would ensure stability for the capitalist class. Ramaphosa’s take-over will no doubt provide an even longer respite for capital.

South Africa still remains one of the more wealthy African countries with a higher GDP per head ($5,261) than Nigeria ($2,211) and Egypt ($3,685), even if these two countries have larger economies, (by comparison, GDP per head in Britain is $40,096). But all African countries are sliding downward, due to the delayed impact of the world financial recession.

With the slide in the South African economy itself, the class struggle has also declined, shifting to some extent from the union-led, often quite bureaucratically organized strikes, to walkouts and protests by the unorganized workers. Of course, the townships and informal settlements remain the focus for very frequent protests over lack of service delivery, lack of housing, corruption in the awarding of tenders, etc., which are very often met by violence from the police. In Cape Province’s Hout Bay, when local fishermen were recently protesting in the street after their lobster-catching quota was cut, cops shot a teenager in the mouth with plastic bullets at point blank range.

However, despite the unfavorable situation, South Africa’s ever-militant working class remains mobilized when necessary. Today, perhaps because of the split in the union movement and the preoccupation by the leaderships with their own interests and rivalries, the number of strikes which are “unofficial” or in South African jargon, “unprotected” (by the law) have increased, compared to “protected” strikes.

The annual Industrial Action Report for 2016 shows that although there were 10% more strikes (122) than in 2015, the lowest number of workers since 2013 participated in them. There were also fewer strikes in manufacturing. Most took place in mining and community services (like refuse collection/teaching). As many as 59% of these strikes were unofficial, a trend that the researchers say has been increasing since “the Marikana strikes in 2012 which led to the ‘workers death massacre’, the Doorns strikes in the Western Cape in 2012/2013 where workers embarked in long unprotected strikes over wage demands. The community industry saw more unprotected strikes during the first quarter of the year.”

In fact the language of this report, unusually, nowadays, harks back to South Africa’s working class struggle roots, its introduction showing sympathy toward the workers: “The South African labor market still presents a gloomy picture as characterized by a high unequal labor force. [sic] It is also measured by the Gini coefficient that is close to 0.771 [by which 1= the maximum inequality]. With this, the labor unions have a reason to deepen their muscles in higher wage demands higher than inflation so that their workers feel some improvement in their living standards.” And it adds at one point: “In fact, some union leaders are of the belief that violence is the only method of winning justice for the working man.”

The average wage settlement obtained by strikers was an above-inflation 8% rise. This maybe indicates some success, thanks to these “unofficial” and “violent” ways!

But the main problem faced by the working class has been the jobs bloodbath, particularly in the mining industry. Between 2012 and 2017, over 77,000 mining jobs were cut.

... and the Working Class Party?

After the historical decision in December 2013 by the metal workers union, Numsa, to remove its support from the ANC and to build a new workers’ party as a working class alternative to the corrupt ANC-SACP alliance, there has been a bit of a lull. This is largely because of the process which then played out: Numsa’s expulsion from Cosatu (in 2014) and an attempt to find alternative sources of funding for its large official bureaucracy. And, in parallel, Zwelinzima Vavi, considered a supporter of Numsa, was finally expelled from Cosatu in 2015 – having been its leader since 1999. Many trade unions and trade union activists were sympathetic to Numsa’s and Vavi’s stance and thus this suggested the possibility of a new trade union federation being set up to rival Cosatu.

In March 2017, the new South African Federation of Trade Unions was eventually founded. Saftu presents itself as a clean-hands alternative to the corrupted government partner Cosatu, which is still the largest federation, claiming 1.8 million members, but whose leaders are mostly in thrall to the ANC’s top bureaucrats. The Saftu initiators, Zwelinzima Vavi and Numsa, have spent two years trying to persuade the leaders of those unions which, in solidarity with them, stood against these expulsions, to join.

So now SAFTU has grouped inside itself 24 union affiliates with a total of around 700,000 members, Numsa being the largest with around 340,000. Another 16 unions sent observers to the launch. It seemed a foregone conclusion that Zwelinzima Vavi would be elected its leader.

However, there is still another union federation called Nactu, which, like Cosatu, was formed in the mid-1980s, at the time as a Black Consciousness, pan-African union. Today it still exists, claiming 21 union affiliates with around 390,000 members.

One Nactu affiliate is supposed to be Amcu, the mining union formed in 2001, which now boasts 200,000 members and came to prominence at the time of Marikana, in opposition to Cosatu’s NUM due to the NUM’s pro-boss deals. But at the last Nactu conference, there was a row over affiliation fees, so Amcu’s status is in limbo. All of these internal financial and sectarian squabbles, to which Numsa and Saftu are also prone, play a role in distracting from the real problems facing the working class and do not augur well for the future of these organizations, nor for the plans of sections like Numsa, for a “working class party.”

So what about Cosatu itself? Its total membership is probably closer to 1.2 million than the 1.8 million it officially claims and it is still “bleeding” members due to its corruption, past support for Zuma’s overtly homicidal anti-working class government, and the huge job losses caused by the worsening economic crisis. It had already lost thousands of members in the mines to the rival Amcu even before the watershed Marikana massacre.

The official position it still maintains about this massacre will continue to taint it. Ironically this was a position put forward by none other than Zwelinzima Vavi himself! At the time, he and his press secretary Patrick Craven (who has followed him into Saftu) propagated the lie that miners had shot at police and that it had not been a cold-blooded and planned massacre. They said that “police tried to disperse striking workers gathered on top of a hill, wielding pangas and chanting war songs. It ended in a three-minute shootout between the two groups, after police fired teargas and then used a water cannon to disperse the strikers, who retaliated by firing live ammunition at the police.”

Both these individuals were then involved in the lethal war which proceeded against Amcu. Vavi, plus a cohort of NUM officials, were sent to Rustenburg (the provincial capital closest to Marikana) to “reclaim Lonmin”! This, while NUM spokesman Lesiba Seshoka referred to the strikers as “criminals” and called for more policing of the area.

Of course people can change their minds. They can even change their character. Look at Cyril Ramaphosa who morphed from being the first mine workers’ trade union leader into a millionaire mine owner, and who is now aspiring South African president, hoping to step into Jacob Zuma’s shoes. But whether Vavi has morphed in the other direction, from backstabbing workers to fighting for their interests, is rather unlikely!

The Absence of Class Politics

Significantly, however, the founding statements and draft constitution of Saftu do not mention a necessary fight against capitalism – but just a fight against the “global elite” and the unions’ favorite bugaboo, “neoliberalism.”

In other words, what has been created is a re-founded Cosatu, or a Cosatu Mark 2. It was added that “the challenges facing an attempt to‘cross the divide’ between organized workers and the growing precariat, those in casual, outsourced and informal jobs – will require strategic leadership willing to move out of the comfort zone of traditional unionism, recruit unfamiliar constituencies and experiment with new ways of organizing.”

Whether that is exactly what is needed right now in the working class movement is another question. Obviously it is seen as the recipe to provide a framework for the “unity” needed by a working class which is increasingly fragmented and thrown into worsening poverty by the constant after-shocks of the world financial crisis.

However the Saftu draft constitution goes much further than this. In fact what is argued by the new federation is that it is itself already the embodiment of the required unity of the working class – that is, the millions who live in precariousness in the formal townships or informal settlements.

Saftu goes on saying in the preamble of its constitution, that: “the working class and the poor are once again being forced to pay the cost of greed and the mismanagement of the world economy by global and national elites” and the “adoption of a neoliberal orthodoxy across the world is now almost complete.” The main problem, as they see it, is that governments are too afraid to challenge the elites. And happily for them, there is a solution: elect a new government which will drop this neoliberalism, bring back “good” social policies and all will be well. Apparently national capitalism itself is not the enemy of the working class any more and doesn’t bear mentioning. At least not in South Africa? Can it be that they still see South Africa as exceptional and quasi-socialist? They write that: “What was once promised as a thriving participatory democracy has been replaced with a form of representative democracy that allows space for the elites to determine the agenda, and decide on the longer term development of society in South Africa and across the world. Despite the rhetoric, people’s power has been stolen from the people as part of the politics of domination by the elite.”

They thus look to the implementation by a new government (which would apparently be a “thriving participatory democracy”?) of the Freedom Charter – the vaguely reformist but mostly nationalist platform of the ANC conceived in 1955!

What can one possibly conclude, except that there is still a long road ahead for the working class before it builds up the organization it needs for its emancipation? Of course, that road could be traversed quickly if there is a leadership which decides to fight, by building on the spirit which workers showed following the Marikana massacre – when collectively-organized strikes spread throughout the mining areas, in the control not of any of the union leaderships, but the workers themselves. It showed the potential which such workers would have if they were actually organized in their own party, not just a workers’ party,” but a workers’ revolutionary party.