South Africa in revolt

Issue section: 
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South Africa is in the grip of a high level of protests and strikes. Socialist Review spoke to Pete Alexander, a South African based socialist and academic, about the nature of the protests.


You and your colleagues have been researching the wave of township protests taking place across South Africa. What conclusions have you reached about the scale and character of those protests?

There have been a very large number of community protests in South Africa, over the last nine years in particular, and they have grown in number and militancy. For the most part they are localised protests, limited to one township or even just one informal settlement. Sometimes they spread out into a number of neighbourhoods within one municipality.

The protests have a mass character. While some are quite small, involving a hundred or so people, some are substantial and involve a high proportion of people from a particular township or settlement. Some have involved over 10,000 people in areas where the overall population may be 50,000 or so

The larger protests in particular follow on from mass community meetings, where decisions are taken to protest. There is sometimes a recognition that the protests are illegal and are likely to lead to conflict with the police. In many cases in the larger protests people erect barricades of stones, tires and other material to hand which are used to keep the police out of the townships. Sometimes that's been done for three days, sometimes even longer. Barricades have also been used on occasion to keep people in the townships, in other words to enforce a "stayaway" from work.

The protests don't always involve stoppages of work, but many do. Especially in the medium-sized towns it's fairly easy to enforce as workplaces are just outside the townships and informal settlements. But in the larger cities, like Johannesburg, where there are a few very large townships with a lot of roads connecting them to workplaces, it's much more difficult and we haven't see those kind of work stayaways so far. But you do often see blockades of major highways which can be effective for up to a day.

Most of those who are involved in the direct action in these protests - throwing stones against the police, putting up barricades and so on - are young, under 35. Quite often the protests involve school students. Often communities will call not just for workers to stay away from work but for students to stay away from school as a way of increasing the impact of a protest.

Buildings are often destroyed, usually by fire. We have been to some localities where people have destroyed virtually all the municipally owned buildings, though never schools.

The focus of the protests is overwhelmingly the municipality - the mayor, the councillors, the municipal manager and so on. The demands focus on "service delivery" - improving electricity services, sanitation provision (especially in informal settlements), water supplies, etc. Some of the demands have been around housing, particularly attempts to get decent housing rather than shacks but also sometimes over the cost of housing or the very poor quality of housing put up by the government.

There have also been some protests against private employers, for example at mines, over whether they employ locals rather than employing miners retrenched from elsewhere.

What is the overall scale of the protests? Are they growing?

A couple of years ago I made a rough calculation that, based on police data, the number of protests per capita is higher than anywhere in the world. Given the size of protests in Egypt, I no longer feel this is a helpful claim, though it may still be true in a literal sense. The police have been recording something between 600 and just over 1,200 "unrest-related gatherings" a year for the past eight to nine years. Last year the number of these shot up by 50 percent to nearly 1,900, a new peak. The number is also quite high this year and we'll probably end up with the second highest number of these "unrest gatherings" in any year. So the general trend is very clearly upwards.

You have described the social base of these protests are the "poor" as opposed to workers - could you expand on what you mean by that category?

In popular consciousness in South Africa people distinguish between what they call the working class and the poor. The people who are regarded, and regard themselves, as poor are, in various material ways, more impoverished than workers.

The poor may be unemployed but they may also be under-employed. In our research on Soweto we found about a quarter of the population were employed as workers. Another quarter are fully unemployed and just under a quarter are people who are under-employed. Some in this group are doing what are called "piece jobs" in South Africa, which means odd jobs, working a day here or there.

Then there people who are sometimes working many hours but making very little money, typically by selling things by the side of the road and that kind of activity.

So when we talk about the poor we are talking about the unemployed and the under-employed plus also pensioners and school children in poorer households. In places like Soweto the "poor" constitute well over half the population and in other townships and informal settlements it's often considerably more than that.

So the poor are far more numerous than workers. Clare Ceruti and I have argued in the book Class in Soweto that the poor in South Africa are very similar to Marx's notion of the relative surplus population. We are not suggesting that the poor are separate from the working class - they are part of the working class. One can see this in terms of how people survive, who they live with, their life-cycle and so on. In South Africa there isn't some fundamental separation between an underclass and the working class.

But there is a distinction nonetheless, and I've tried to understand this in terms of different "relationships to the means (and ends) of protest". So typically workers protest by withdrawing their labour and will make demands of an employer, often for higher pay. They hold their meetings at, or close to, their workplaces, and organise trade unions (which exclude the unemployed). None of these are options open to the poor as I have defined them.

What the poor can do is sustain protests, often for quite a long period of time, partly because they don't have to go to work. They can call on workers to withdraw their labour and they can take action against the police and push the police out of townships. Sometimes they meet during the day, and in the evenings workers are tired; at the weekends there are funerals, weddings and church services. The poor can have an impact on politics - who's elected to the council and parliament and so on. And in particular they can mobilise in the name of the community and make a claim to speak on behalf of the whole community.

There is a high level of strike activity in South Africa. What's the relationship between the localised protests in the townships and the strikes?

There has been a high level of strike action over quite a long period, since around 2005.The year 2007 saw a record for the level of strike days in South Africa. That was overtaken in 2010. In both years there were massive public sector protests. In 2011 saw the fourth highest year on record, and 2012 was even higher than that. So we have had a succession of years with record levels of strikes.

What was particularly important in the period immediately after the Marikana Massacre was the high level of what are known as "unprotected strikes", which occur without recourse to the statutory processes of industrial relations, where workers simply go out on strike, usually without the official backing of a union. These are especially militant strikes with workers involved not only in conflict with their employer and the state but also in conflict with their union. In most cases this was the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

This is reflected in a wider groundswell of anger among workers, which has manifested itself in some very big "protected strikes" this year; organised by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) in the car industry, for instance.

What I've said already about differing relations to the means of protest is expressed in a continuing gap between strikes by workers and protests by communities. That's not to say that there aren't workers involved in those protests, many are. But workers are mainly involved in township protests as individuals and not as workers collectively.

Interestingly, I found references in annual reports of mine company Lonmin to a big community protest around the Marikana mine in 2011, with people attacking Lonmin and police property. It was clearly quite a big thing because it disrupted production and affected Lonmin's profits. It seems to have been around issues of corruption in hiring practices, so it was related to unemployment and jobs.

People who work in mines live close to the mines and in communities where almost everyone is dependent on income from the mines. So it can be around the mines that you find a closer relationship between workers and the wider community. I don't want to imply that there isn't generally considerable sympathy between workers and community protests, and vice versa. But it's sympathy rather than active solidarity.

One of the ways this identification is expressed is in the naming of new informal settlements. We know of at least four new informal settlements that have been given the name Marikana, and these are places where people have been involved in struggle to set up and sustain their settlements.

There is a high level of tumult in South African society and there appear to be fractures developing in the ANC's hegemony. There are some political challenges emerging, like around Julius Malema, the former ANC youth leader. Could you say something about this and the politics shaping such challenges to the ANC?

The ANC doesn't have the same popular support that was present after the end of apartheid from 1994 onward. There have been a series of fractures. The first important one was among supporters of Thabo Mbeki, which was more of a pro-capitalist split, which established a new party, Congress of the People (COPE).

Recently there has been some falling apart of the ANC at the centre, with the exclusion of people regarded as opponents of president Zuma. Some of these are very significant figures; like Toyko Sexwale, a former candidate for presidency of the ANC, who was sacked as Minister of Housing. So there are problems right at the heart of the ANC.

But we have also seen Julius Malema - the former president of the ANC Youth League - establish a new party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). This has attracted some support from people not previously involved in the ANC Youth League, including some from the Communist Party's youth organisation, and some from people involved in black nationalist or left wing organisations.

The program being developed by the EFF is much more clearly socialist than was the program of the ANC Youth League. So Malema represents a shift to the left, at least in formal programmatic terms. So they make statements saying they are Marxists and Fanonists, call for the nationalisation of the mines without compensation, and are in favour of returning the land to the people without any compensation to the farmers.

So these are quite significant statements, which are anti-capitalist in a practical sense but without identifying the agency that can get rid of capitalism. So there is a vagueness to their outlook which expresses the populism of the EFF which is aimed at its unemployed base, but also at a layer of black professionals.

So it's a populist organisation but I would characterise it as a left populist organisation and it's a pole of attraction - for disillusioned unemployed youth in particular. If Malema can mobilise the unemployed and under-employed youth there is the potential for him to get a significant vote, and to pose a threat not only to the ANC but more broadly to capitalist stability in South Africa.

Malema has already shown that he is capable of seriously unsettling the status quo. After Marikana he went round the mines addressing large meetings of miners and encouraging them to go on strike. Following this there were very big and militant strikes in the gold and platinum mines and elsewhere. Though I can't say that this was directly as a consequence of Malema's speeches, it would be surprising if he hadn't had an influence. So Malema is a significant figure to the left of the ANC.

A third development is the very deep divisions that have developed within the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), a key ally of the ANC.

The general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, has been suspended from his position because of a sex scandal, but in reality it is a political affair. No final decision has yet been made about whether he will be removed as general secretary. Vavi has the support of just under half of the unions in COSATU, including NUMSA, the largest, which is calling for a special conference of COSATU to settle the issue.

The majority of COSATU's central committee are opposed to Vavi. Most of them are identified with the South African Communist Party (SACP), which is very close to President Zuma. So we have a very substantial component of COSATU now, in practice, opposed to the ANC-SACP alliance. NUMSA, the metal workers' union, is taking a very clear stance in opposition to the government's economic policy, which it regards as neoliberal and anti-working class.

NUMSA is now saying that it won't support the ANC at the next election. I don't think we are about to see the establishment of a new workers' party, at least in the short term, though there are some significant figures in NUMSA who are pushing the idea of a workers' party. It's much more likely that NUMSA and some other unions will call for an abstention at the next election.

It's still too much for people who have identified with the ANC, over decades in some cases, to vote for the main opposition party, the pro-capitalist Democratic Alliance. And there's also scepticism about Malema, especially among older workers. But we are definitely seeing a decline in the ANC's hegemony.