Letter from South Africa

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Angry at betrayals by leaders of the national liberation movement, working class protests are taking on a new militancy, reports Trevor Ngwane.

South Africa is a country in turmoil. Over the past four years the country saw an exponential rise in the number of protests and strikes. This created a political crisis which expressed itself as a vicious leadership battle inside the ruling African National Congress (ANC). But despite the recall of the country's president, Thabo Mbeki, and his replacement by Jacob Zuma, the turmoil continues.

Zuma led the ANC to a decisive election victory in April. But his first few months in office were a baptism of fire. For example, 6 August alone saw community protests in six working class townships and at least three significant strikes, including one by municipal workers which saw them trashing the streets of major cities.

The man crisscrossing the country in a frantic bid to put out the fires is Sicelo Shiceka, the local government minister. He explains: "These [local government] problems range from institutional incapacity, corruption, nepotism and erratic service delivery." Nosizwe, a resident in an informal settlement, explains the protesters' concerns: "We have no roads, no houses, no water. We're living on sand here. We're living in a swamp. Winter's arrived; we're going to swim in flood water. Each year's the same story."

Since taking power in 1994, the ANC has done a good job of protecting the interests of capital at the expense of the working class. Nelson Mandela tasted freedom after 27 years in jail as a result of a bold gamble by capital offering the militant masses of South Africa a change in the system of government in exchange for maintaining the system of economic exploitation.

The ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) went along with the deal which allowed the "miracle" of orderly transition from apartheid to democracy. Today the miracle is unravelling.

It is becoming clear to working class people that the politics of class collaboration - the foundation of the new South Africa - triumphed largely at their expense. They have weathered 15 years of attacks, deprivations and hardships under the new democratic regime. Unemployment, poverty, disease, squalid living conditions and criminal violence are part of their daily lives. The rich get richer, the poor poorer. The masses, so full of hope after making huge sacrifices to defeat apartheid, witness daily their trusted leaders and erstwhile liberators acting as agents of neoliberalism and imperialism, as they become billionaires and fat cats with well paid government and corporate jobs.

The working class feel that the government is not listening to their concerns, which mainly centre on access to basic services and tolerable living conditions. Instead the government deploys an array of excuses to deny the existence of the problems or to explain them away, calling for more patience. When the masses take to the streets the answer is unhesitatingly tear gas, rubber bullets and arrests.

The left has so far failed to coordinate and unite the protests into a force that can challenge the ruling class. Instead some senior SACP and COSATU leaders have been included in Zuma's cabinet. The protests also found social movement organisations such as the Anti-Privatisation Forum disoriented due to internal political weaknesses. As a result, the transformative potential of the militancy has not yet been realised. But this militancy is not going to go away. The South African economy has slid into a recession which will have a devastating impact on the working class and the poor.

The working class in South Africa was not defeated by capital. It rather allowed itself to be fooled by the leaders of the national liberation movement into thinking that a solution could be found to accommodate the interests of capital with those of the working class. From that point of view South Africa is entering a period of reckoning. A new chapter in South Africa's history is opening and it looks like it will be written through the intervention of a militant working class thirsty and hungry for change that will push the country beyond the boundaries of capitalism.

Trevor Ngwane is a member of the Socialist Group, a small collective of socialists active in the social movements in South Africa