South Africa Pushed to the Limit

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Hein Marais


Imagine thousands of key activists steeped in the traditions of mass struggle and revolution catapulted into government. Imagine leading officials in the judiciary calling themselves revolutionaries and trade union leaders running government ministries. This has been South Africa under the African National Congress (ANC) government since 1994. Hein Marais's latest book on what became of the South African revolution provides some detailed lessons for those in the midst of revolution today.

Despite the number of people receiving some form of government welfare rising from 2.6 million in 1994 to 14 million in 2010, the unequal social structure has deepened social inequality. While 49 percent of African households earned less than $210 a month in 2006 only 2 percent of white households earned so little. Class differences have also widened. Government figures show that in 2005 the poorest 20 percent of the population received only 1.4 percent of total income, while the richest 10 percent grabbed 51 percent. Little wonder then that by 2008 the Gini coefficient (a measure of income inequality, ie the wealth gap between rich and poor) was 0.8 - probably the highest in the world. Tragically, it is only violence against women that knows no social boundary.

Despite immense changes, one warning noted by Marais is that "politics and activism have come to be seen as avenues for the ambitious, not mechanisms for effecting change". While in formal politics this is undoubtedly true, the waves of township rebellions and strikes that have been a regular feature of post-apartheid South Africa constantly regenerate the seeds of a different form of politics. Just a few months after Jacob Zuma was elected president, securing a fourth election victory for the ANC in 2009, the country was faced with a wave of township protests. Called "service delivery" protests (they were around the lack of municipal services) they also represented revolts against neoliberalism.

While keen to promote grassroots activism, Marais also has illusions in developed state power combined with forms of participatory governance, as witnessed in Porto Alegre in Brazil and Kerala in India. He is right to note that the future of the radical left will be conditional upon whether the Congress of South African Trade Unions (and I would add the South African Communist Party) break from the alliance with the ANC and whether they find ways to work together with the new social movements that have emerged since 1999. What South Africa shows us, and as people in North Africa are starting to find out, is that the democratic revolution is only the start of a revolutionary process. This book contains many valuable lessons.