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Neoliberalism, the Left and Revolution in South Africa: An Interview with Trevor Ngwame

Left Turn
Date Published: 
February 14, 2003
    Trevor Ngwame, a key South African activist in the anti-capitalist movement internationally, has helped found and lead two organizations: the Anti-Privatization Forum (APF) and the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC). Both organizations are part of a constellation of new social movements which have grown into the main opposition to the African National Congress (ANC) government’s neo-liberal policies. The growth and success of these social movements has been met with increased repression by the state. In April, 2002, Trevor along with 86 others were arrested and are being tried for simply marching on the residence of the ANC Mayor of Johannesburg to protest electricity and water cut-offs, evictions and privatization. The trial of the Kensington 87, as they have come to be known, has been postponed 4 times and may finally be heard on January 22, 2003. Left Turn spoke to Trevor about the trial, the government’s disastrous policies, and the prospects for a new Left in South Africa.

Left Turn: Who are the “Kensington 87” and how were they arrested? Trevor Ngwame: About a third of those jailed were pensioners and youth, including 4 minors and a 5 year old girl arrested together with her mum. The pensioners and minors spent 3 days in jail while the rest spent 11 days. The incident started when, about 10 minutes after the protesters got off the bus from Soweto, the black working class township, in Kensington, the rich suburb where the Soweto-born mayor moved to once he was elected, the mayor’s bodyguard started shooting at the crowd from the roof of the house. In the pandemonium which followed most of the protesters got arrested and a few windows were broken and the mayor’s water and electricity cut by the protesters. This was done to give the mayor a taste of his own medicine. The case made headline news in South Africa and it indicated a widespread frustration by the working class and the poor with the government’s use of cut-offs as a “credit control” measure in respect to basic services. If the state loses, it will be a victory for the new social movements in South Africa and will validate the perception that the ANC government is increasingly and spuriously using old apartheid style repression against human rights activists. LT: Could you tell us a little about the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC) and the Anti Privatization Forum (APF)? What’s their relationship? Are they connected to the Anti-Eviction Campaign (AEC)? TN: The SECC is an organization (social movement) based in Soweto which was formed about 2 years ago to fight against electricity cut-offs in the township. When the ANC government of Nelson Mandela took over, it embarked on a neo-liberal economic program, a major part of which was privatization. ESKOM, the government-owned electricity company that generates and distributes virtually all of South Africa’s electricity, is even up for grabs. To put the company “on a competitive footing,” the government is making it implement the policy of “cost recovery” which has seen millions of poor South Africans having their electricity cut off due to failure to keep up with their increasingly high bills. The SECC uses militant methods to fight against cut-offs. They have called for a boycott of payments until the people’s grievances are met which include stopping cut-offs, scrapping all arrears, providing free basic electricity for all, and stopping privatization. The SECC is famous for its Operation Khanyisa (Zulu for “to bring the light”), where SECC technicians re-connect residents who have been cut off by ESKOM. The SECC is affiliated with the APF, an umbrella body of about 12 community organizations operating around Johannesburg’s working class. The APF was born 2 years ago when the struggle against the privatization of Johannesburg’s municipal services combined with the struggle against the privatization of Wits University, also based in Johannesburg. The two municipal and university councils decided to jointly host an international conference called “Urban Futures.” The APF was formed with the express purpose of actively fighting privatization through uniting workers and residents. Throughout the country, the same problems which the APF deals with abound, namely cut-offs of basic services, evictions from houses by banks, job losses, etc. In Cape Town, a movement called the Anti-Eviction Campaign (AEC) was formed about 2 years ago fighting against evictions. In Durban, another major city in South Africa, there is the Concerned Citizens Forum, also an umbrella body of community organizations fighting against evictions and cut-offs. What is significant about all these new movements is that, unlike the traditional organs of workers and people’s power in South Africa, such as trade unions and civic groups, these organizations are not loyal to the ANC government and are willing to confront it in struggle. LT: There was lots of news internationally about these campaigns a year ago, but very little lately. Are they still active? What role did they play in the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD)? TN: These campaigns were the forces which took part in the great August 31 march from Alexander (a working class township which has all the attributes of a slum) to Sandton (the richest suburb in Africa where the WSSD was held). This march was a turning point in the history of these new movements because on the same day, time and route, the ANC government had its own counter-march and lost dismally in terms of numbers. The movements’ march was 25,000 strong while the ANC could only attract 3,000 people to its march. The two marches were important in clarifying the line of division in politics here. Many overseas visitors and people who supported the anti-apartheid struggle are still confused about the ANC and South Africa, choosing to still see Mandela as the great hero who liberated the people and the government as a true people’s government. Nothing could be further from the truth. The ANC government has completely turned its back on the working class, the poor and its left-leaning ideals of the anti-apartheid struggle days. It is now a fully-fledged neo-liberal bourgeois government consistently taking the side of imperialism and of the big capitalists in national and world affairs. The campaigns are continuing although some not in their original form, given the state’s response to them. The SECC, for example, won a victory in October last year when ESKOM announced a moratorium on cut-offs in Soweto and a few other working class townships around Johannesburg. The government had no choice but to do this given the success of Operation Khanyisa and the wide public sympathy for the SECC’s cause. This retreat by the state has been followed by a new plan to attempt to install pre-paid electricity meters to avoid the problem of non-payment altogether. But the SECC technicians have already figured out how to bypass this device and is again affording people free electricity. In some other areas of South Africa the state is installing pre-paid water meters. In Cape Town the AEC recently won a 6-month moratorium on all evictions. But this victory came together with a public announcement of a “crackdown” on the AEC—in particular, the Mandela Park Anti-Eviction Committee, by far the most militant affiliate of the AEC and very much in the news lately for taking senior council officials hostage until they signed pro-resident, anti-eviction agreements. New communities erupt in struggles now and again with some making common cause with the new social movements. The latter identify themselves with the international anti-capitalist movement and many left-wingers in SA still swear by socialism despite the disorientation caused by the ANC sellout. I would say the movements in South Africa represent a slow regroupment of left forces and a modest regaining of confidence to struggle by the rank and file working class. LT: What were some of the events and actions those opposed to neoliberalism and capitalist globalization organized during the WSSD? Did they have any impact on the Summit? TN: The big action was the march from Alexander to Sandton. This was the climax of a sustained public debate between the Social Movement Indaba (SMI), a coalition of the new social movements put together to unite organizations for the WSSD. The SMI’s position was to reject the WSSD as a forum for the rich and powerful while the ANC government used its state machinery to shout that the WSSD could have something for the world’s poor. [South African] President Thabo Mbeki paraded himself as the spokesperson of the world’s poor and a statesman with a plan for Africa’s recovery, namely NEPAD (New Economic Partnership for Africa’s Development). The SMI saw its role as exposing not only the summit and its imperialist interests, but also the sub-imperialist role of the South African government. Mbeki, scared of losing face in his own backyard, inadvertently revealed a latent authoritarian streak by attempting to ban the march, which was still a proposal at the time. When the SMI stuck to its guns and the Minister of Police, South African Communist Party (SACP) national chairperson Charles Nqakula, thumped his fist on national TV saying the march will never go ahead, the stage was set for a dramatic showdown and test of political strength. A peaceful candlelight march organized by the SMI from Wits University to a local police station to protest against the use of state repression against protesters met with the full wrath of the hyped police who threw stun grenades into the crowd which included well-known international activists such as Maude Barlow, Oscar Olivera, Vandana Shiva, Njoki Njehu, and others. An international activist sustained burns to her legs and Njehu got a baton to her head. The TV cameras were there to record the moment and the government had to back down on its ban on the big march. LT: It sounds like this march and the organizing in the lead up to and during the WSSD continued a process which started during the Durban conference against racism of coalescing a new Left in South Africa. Is that what you meant when you said, “the new movements have arrived” during the final rally of the march? TN: There is definitely a new Left in South Africa, specifically, an anti-ANC Left. What is great is that this Left is relating to a real movement of working class people frustrated by and under attack from neo-liberalism. What is new about the new Left is that after the demise of apartheid there was a marked lull in the struggle in South Africa. Many activists were co-opted and absorbed into the bourgeois state and also into a corporate world hungry for politically connected former comrades, self-consciously cultivating a black middle class to safeguard capitalism. The failure of COSATU, the SACP and the old civic organizations to challenge the ANC government on its policies left a leadership vacuum in communities pushed to struggle as the dream of liberation turned into a neo-liberal nightmare. The new Left is learning to occupy this space. A positive factor is that with the collapse of Stalinism, the ground is clear for a new socialism, Marxism, a new dream. Of course, at the moment the struggles which this Left supports and tries to lead are defensive in character, localized and fragmented. But slowly the need for national co-ordination is pressing itself on the activists and the situation demands strategies for doing this effectively. The creeping state repression is also teaching the new forces to develop a healthy attitude to the bourgeois state, namely not to trust it under any circumstances. The movements in South Africa are inspired by the international anti-capitalist mobilizations starting from Seattle, to Genoa, Florence, London, etc. Recently, we too had our anti-war march in Johannesburg. The challenge, of course, is for this Left to learn the new tools of the trade while benefiting from the historical memory of fighting against apartheid and revisiting some of the socialist ideas current then. There is also a healthy respect for different perspectives and methods and currents among this Left, with sectarianism rejected because, frankly, everyone agrees, we cannot afford it. The other challenge is for the new movements to win organized labor, which is still tied to the ANC government through the ANC-SACP-COSATU alliance. The latter was effective in the struggle against apartheid but is now blatantly used as a mechanism to contain and divert working class anger and struggle. LT: It seems that these new social movements you refer to are a response to the ANC/SACP’s wholesale adoption of neo-liberal policies? Why has this new black leadership implemented these policies in the face of deteriorating conditions for the vast majority of South African blacks? TN: The ANC came to power at a “wrong” moment in history. Neo-liberal triumphalism dominated a unipolar world. But the historical context is not enough to explain why the ANC sold out. For many decades, in fact from the day it was founded in 1912, the ANC was a party of educated Africans and privileged chiefs. Later, in the era of a youthful Mandela the decision was taken to stop using middle class methods of struggle such as sending deputations to the queen of England requesting that educated and propertied Africans should be given the vote. The ANC’s famous 1946 program of action marked a turn to mass struggle. However, when the apartheid regime took power in 1948, state repression got so bad that the liberation movement was pushed to adopt desperate methods of armed struggle. In exile, far from the masses whose cause it championed and its political orientation influenced by its use of guerilla tactics, the ANC lost its mass orientation and, now virtually merged with the Stalinist SACP, adopted a class collaborationist, populist politics. While running guerilla camps in liberated African countries it increasingly spent its time doing the diplomatic rounds, which included an unprincipled but convenient ability to curry favor East and West of the Iron Curtain. These lost years from 1960 to 1978 were interrupted in 1973 by a spontaneous strike wave inside the country that fuelled the June 16, 1976, student uprising. The ANC was well positioned to benefit from the stream of youth who skipped the body to escape the wrath of the murderous apartheid regime. The death of Steve Biko and other Black Consciousness comrades left the internal movement beheaded, and the ANC and the SACP took full advantage of this. Unlike the Pan-Africanist Congress, which more or less disintegrated in exile, the ANC had been able to keep its organization intact. The failure of the internal Left forces to marshal the energy of the internal township uprising, soon put the ANC firmly at the head of the anti-apartheid struggle. Despite all the rhetoric about socialism, it is clear now that the preferred road to power for the ANC leadership for many years was power through negotiations. All that the black middle class wanted was a place in the capitalist hierarchy and not the fundamental transformation of society. External factors such as the fall of the Soviet Union strengthened these right-wing tendencies. Inside the country, the apartheid regime and big capital put tremendous pressure on Mandela and ANC leaders to “repent” from their socialist ways. Violence was used liberally to soften the ANC, including state sponsored “black on black” violence in KwaZulu-Natal and the infamous death squads which murdered workers randomly on trains. But the speed and the ease with which the ANC leadership have assumed their newfound roles as managers of capitalism betrays the essence of their politics. A recent study has shown that the income gap among black Africans has risen tremendously since the ANC took over. At the same time as the average African household has become 15% poorer than in 1995, the average white household has gotten 19% richer according to the state statistics bureau. Since the ANC took over, South Africa has lost more than a million jobs and COSATU estimates unemployment to be 49%—the government puts it at 39%. The job losses are directly linked to trade, market and job liberalization and deregulation. The removal of exchange controls has seen billions of rands leaving the country including the de-listing of the biggest companies which made their money during apartheid days. While 3 million new electricity connections have been effected in South Africa, an indicator of “delivery,” 4 million disconnections have been made due to non-payment. It is exactly the same with water. LT: Many in the new social movements include COSATU in the “Tri-partite Alliance” with the ANC and the SACP, which is responsible for implementing these neo-liberal policies. But COSATU has called general strikes against privatization and other policies of the government. What role is the South African working class playing in resisting the government’s neo-liberal policies? TN: COSATU is trapped in the Alliance and its leaders know no other politics except of Stalinism, class collaboration and trade unionism. However, unlike Mbeki, they are vulnerable to ousting by their members despite the vice-like grip of the SACP on its leadership. At the moment the grass is burning under their feet, hence the call for a general strike against privatization. For the past 3 years COSATU has called 2-day strikes once a year and the joke is that the general strike has become an annual general meeting. No real follow up to the strikes or sustained struggle is done or aimed at by the union leadership. Their aim is not to deal the bosses and the ANC bosses government a death blow. No, they just want to push the bosses back and chide the ANC like a younger brother to an errant older one. But COSATU’s politeness is not matched by Mbeki, who has come out firing with both barrels against the calling of the general strike, which he saw as an attack on him because it came so close after the WSSD and, worse, after the humiliation of the SMI march. Mbeki publicly insulted and rebuked the COSATU leadership calling them “ultra-leftists” intent on derailing the “national democratic revolution” and working in cahoots with the white right-wing. This achieved the effect he wanted which was to scare the COSATU leaders into denouncing the “real” ultra-left, namely, the APF, LPM, Jubilee SA, and other elements of the new movement. What the COSATU leadership fail to understand is that by doing this, they are digging their own graves because Mbeki gets stronger and they in turn allow their hands to be tied vis-‡-vis Mbeki’s attacks on organized labor. COSATU needs to re-claim its class independence otherwise it risks a slow and agonizing political death. Already many of its rank and file members are questioning its role in the working class struggle. LT: What do you think needs to be done now to transform the new movements into a mass movement which can not only stop the attacks on South African workers, peasants, and the poor but pose a serious challenge to global capitalism? TN: The important thing now is to win the millions and millions to be part of the new movements. We must win organized labor either through winning COSATU or significant parts of COSATU. We cannot duck the bureaucracy by avoiding this challenge. It is easy to organize in the township away from the bureaucracy. It is also important to do so. But workers have the power of the strike. By simply not going to work they can stop the plans of the bosses. The new movements need to appreciate this and acquire a healthy respect for the working class. When organizing where workers live and sleep, we must make a conscious effort to reach out to both employed and unemployed workers. We must support working workers’ struggles and include their demands in our platforms. We need to strengthen our movements and build lasting not temporary organizations. These organizations must increasingly take on all the issues affecting the class and other oppressed elements in society. At all times we must build maximum unity in struggle against the bosses and in defense of working class interests. We must show the links between the issues and the capitalist interests causing all the problems. The flag of socialism must be flown high and proudly. We must develop and present a vision of a new society. We must not turn the necessary fragmentary, localized and sectoral nature of the new movement into a virtue. We must strive to find common ground, common demands and common action. We must struggle for power. We need power to stop the cut-offs once and for all. This means we need a government and a state which works for and stands with the working class. We cannot even begin to plan and strategize to do so if we are anti-state, anti-power and anti-party. But it is true that we must adapt and adjust the old concepts to match new conditions. But we have to learn to name the beast. Capitalism. And build the power to destroy it.