21 May 2014

South Africa: ANC Victory - Inequality of Opportunity and the Myth of Revolution in South Africa


South Africa is a much better place to live in under the ANC, but the former liberation movement delegitimizes itself by failure to redress growing structural inequalities and injustice rooted in apartheid. A leftist party is needed to drive a true democratic revolution

The election victory of the African National Congress (ANC) in the 7 May polls marked the fifth time the movement was elected to govern South Africa. Steven Friedman correctly concludes (in Business Day, 9 May 2014) that the ANC may not face electoral defeat for the foreseeable future, though he, uncharacteristically, treats this as everything that may be entailed in the notion of politics. Crucial to the re-election are questions on the direction of South Africa, social and economic policy, a culture of cronyism and nepotism in the ANC, and the failure of the movement to create institutions that diffuse the inequality of opportunity. The advent of democracy in South Africa instilled a new wave of hope and optimism for the disenfranchised citizenry. The ANC was voted under the guise of bringing the National Democratic Revolution (NDR), by rooting out the vestiges of close to five decades of stratification on race, class and gender lines, where the minority whites controlled political, economic and social institutions to their benefit [1]. The four leaders (Presidents Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Kglame Motlanthe, and Jacob Zuma) that have emerged in the post-apartheid era have sought to level the playing field by enacting policies and legislations that focus on social transformation. The ruling ANC has had to face the unholy trinity reflected in labour, capital and government contestations. These contestations are more apparent in another unholy trinity in the party structures of the ANC, as the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party, have vociferously opposed the policy direction of the ANC as a liberation movement. Although South Africa is a much better place to live in under the ANC, I want to argue that the movement delegitimizes itself, which could potentially lead to its electoral demise.

Contemporary South Africa has seen the rise of strikes across all sectors of society. On 16 August 2012 South Africans were reminded of the horrors and brutality of the apartheid state, as the South African Police Services who had themselves demanded wage increase, opened fire on miners, killing 34 and injuring 78. There were further reports that state authorities charged all 270 arrested miners with murder under apartheid-era 'common purpose' rule [2]. This therefore attests to an old-age truism that the citizen, who seeks a remedy for violent attacks by the state, as in the Marikana massacre, cannot rely on the ANC, at any level, nor on its allies. They have shown indifference to the killings and have, through government, taken steps to impede the Farlam Commission's quest to establish the truth. Further, since January 2014, striking miners from the platinum sector have embarked on the longest strike in the industry and country's history. All the while, workers are going hungry and platinum stock piles are dwindling but attitudes remain hardened as employers and labour fail to come back to the negotiating table[3]. Negotiations crumbled on March 5 2014 with no significant movement from either party since. The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) has since organised a number of marches and issued memorandums to two of the three platinum producers so far demanding they revise their offer or come back to the negotiating table[4]. The union also approached National Economic Development and Labour Council for permission to extend the strike to the gold and coal sectors but this was rejected[5].

These strikes and violent acts need to be contextualized in light of the democratic contestations of South Africa's transition, and questions need to be asked whether the May 2014 election victory will usher new realities after two decades of democracy in post-apartheid South Africa. The advent of mining in South Africa in the form of the Gold and Diamond Rush of the 19th Century has had profound impacts on the South African economy. Mining cemented the displacements of a successful black peasantry, with further enactments of the Native Land Act of 1913 [6]. Before the institutionalization of the 1913 Land Act, blacks were successful farmers, contributing to the entrepreneurial activity of the country[7] (Bundy, 1979, Acemoglu 2012). The systemic stripping of tenure rights and land ownership exacerbated poverty as blacks were disempowered of their entrepreneurial ability to farm, leading to the proletaranisation of the peasantry (Bundy 1979, Acemoglu 2012: 265). Subsequent generations of miners were forced or coerced to work under appalling conditions as labour was commodified. These are structural inequalities that have not been reversed since the ANC came to power two decades ago, and three points that this article raises are pertinent.

First, South African society was predicated on violence from the early years of colonialism to the post-apartheid era. The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) in a report, SA Reconciliation Barometer 2011[8] suggested that police brutality has increased across all provinces in South Africa. Violence in South Africa was the product of the apartheid and colonial state, and this condition has resulted in the reproduction of violence in the post-apartheid state. While certain government policies enacted by the ruling ANC have failed to address the issue of police brutality, a violent history has reproduced a violent culture in South Africa. The police during apartheid maintained a monopoly of force and through coercive racial stratification violence became spatial. The culture of violence has infiltrated the institutions of the police, where human rights and intolerance have become common features of those who should safeguard the physical security of the citizenry[9].

The struggles of the striking miners should be further framed in the democratic contestations. This is the second point. Since becoming a democracy South Africa has witnessed high levels of economic, racial and income inequalities and poverty. Other than Brazil, South Africa remains one of the most unequal places in the world with a Gini-Coefficient of 0.67 (See Figure 1 below). Progress has been minimal for the mostly disempowered citizenry as a result of the historical residues of apartheid and post-apartheid policies. According to Africa Confidential Lonmin mine strikers wanted their wage demands met, and on 19 September 2012 the owners announced the strike had been settled by offering mineworkers wage raises of 11-22 percent and one-off payments of 2000 rand ($244)[10]. Trade unions criticised this move and the President Zuma government for aligning itself with non-progressive policies that have failed to equally distribute South Africa's wealth. Since the ascendancy of democracy there has been an increase in inter- and intra- racial and class inequalities, between blacks and whites exacerbated by the emerging black middle class. The rainbow miracle that heralded South Africa's democratic contestation has been replaced by new citizenship contestations reflected in service delivery protests, cronyism and nepotism and the 2008 xenophobic attacks[11].

Data source: Van der Berg et al (2009) based on All Media and Products Survey (AMPS) of various years (1993 - 2008) Bhorat (2008) based on Statistics SA's IES data (1995 - 2008). Reported in Development Indicators 2010.

The poignant point is that the ANC's victory was gained in a South Africa where inequality of opportunity is rife and has become a source of tension and conflict thereby could potentially delegitimize the movement. The world witnessed in December 2010 and January 2011 how the self-mutilation of a Tunisian street vendor and resilient youthful protests in Egypt led to the toppling of the authoritarian leaders Ben Ali and Mubarak. While Moeletsi Mbeki, a political commentator, has predicted an Arab Spring like revolution in South Africa by the year 2020, the reality is that inequality will continue to be a fundamental source of tension and violence in South Africa. I agree with him, and I am of the opinion that a true 'democratic revolution' is long overdue. He further suggests that South Africa is par excellence an extractive economy founded on cheap, under-educated migratory labour, which was driven by growing impoverishment of former peasant populations that were then compelled to leave their villages to work in the mines [12].

Steven Friedman has suggested that electoral victory and losses in some constituencies may herald better city governance[13]. While the ANC prides itself on vibrant democratic institutions within the party, it is increasingly difficult to ascertain whether it still represents the social condition of the working class in South Africa. I suggest therefore that South Africa is also long overdue for a credible leftist party. It will not come in self-proclaimed Marxist-Fanon parties like Julius Malema's Economic Freedom Front (EFF). The EFF's 6 percent triumph will certainly add vibrancy to South Africa's nascent democracy. However, the party remains an opportunist Nationalist movement under the guise of a democratic dispensation. The rise of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy and Spain were predicated on the economic vulnerabilities of then dysfunctional democracies. South Africa needs a democratic revolution that is committed to social justice and humanism. In the realms of the economy, given its turbulent history and the aspirations of its labour and citizens, nationalization may be a necessity. However, the country should learn from myriad global examples, like the Norwegian Oil miracle, Brazil with Petrobas and the role of the Workers Party (PT), and Chinese Communist Party's insistence on growing their economy under State Owned Enterprises (SOEs). The answer, is in between these examples, it is not an either or question.

The Egyptian political commentator and public intellectual Ismail Serageld in his public address when delivering the annual Nelson Mandela in 2011 noted that 'Extreme inequality is corrosive; it hardens the attitude of the rich and powerful towards the poor and lowly; it builds acceptance of the incongruity of wealth and misery and exclusion; and it undermines the very notions of social justice and social cohesion. It makes a mockery of fairness and leads to the slippery path of class warfare as the only means of redress'[14]. The ANC has continued to rely on extractive political and economic institutions, as Acemoglu and Robinson have argued in 'Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty', to maintain economic growth that has excluded the citizenry. Inequality in South Africa is further exacerbated by external factors like a deepening debt crisis in Europe (as South Africa's key trading partners), closure of manufacturing plants as the South African economy recovers from the reels of the Global Economic Crisis (GEC); and deeper global integration and competitiveness.

If there is a reminder in the labour disputes, and indeed the third point, is the demystification of the narrative that purports South Africa's demise to a failed state. The re-election of President Zuma reverberated views that South Africa will follow the governance malaise that has crippled most African countries after independence. While South Africa's democracy has been eroded by new contestations and the ANC's status as a dominant party remains unchallenged and maintaining a corrupt and inefficient government, power remains fluid, particularly reflected in the tripartite alliance (ANC-SACP-COSATU) and the ordinary citizens who represent the voice of active civil society. If 'where South African politics is headed' depends on tensions within the ANC, it cannot lead to an emancipatory politics[15]. Even if President Jacob Zuma were removed, whoever replaces him operates within relationships and structures that have enabled abuse to become well-established [16]. South Africa's negotiated settlement envisioned a constitutional democracy predicated on the deepening of political and economic institutions that championed transformation. A reminder that while the negotiation prevented blood bath, the black community was betrayed as the revolutionary rhetoric of the Freedom Charter was replaced by a failure to dismantle white capital. After two decades of democratic experimentation South Africa needs to start discussions around electoral reforms, referendums that can impeach the ruling party should failure in service delivery and corruption become the order of the day. In lieu of skills development, a major feature amongst most blacks in South Africa, options existed for economic reconciliation to take place. As Patrick Bond has argued in Talk Left Walk Right[17], these contestations have come to haunt the post-apartheid state. Indeed, the major concern especially in the next weeks as the parliaments inaugurates President Zuma and the ANC as a ruling party is whether nascent political and economic institutions have been undermined to cement the National Democratic Revolutions that South Africans from all political convictions shed their life for.

Madalitso Phiri is a PhD Candidate in International Politics in the DST/NRF Applied Social Policy Research Chair housed at the Archie Mafeje Research Institute (AMRI) at the University of South Africa (UNISA), Pretoria, South Africa; Fellow, Next Generation of Social Science in Africa (2014-15) Social Science Research Council (SSRC), New York, USA. This publication was made possible by support from the Social Science Research Council's Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa Fellowship, with funds provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.


[1] Ntsebeza, L, The Land Question in South Africa (2004), Seekings & Nattrass, Race, Class and Inequality in South Africa (2005).

[2] ibid,.

[3] Lisa Steyn, Mail and Guardian, 'AMCU Platinum Strike: Breaking Point is Fast Approaching', http://tinyurl.com/nekg7a8

[4] Ibid.,

[5] Ibid.,

[6] Bundy, C. The Rise and Fall of the South African Peasantry. (London: 1979), Acemoglu, D & Robinson, J, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Poverty and Prosperity. (New York, 2012).

[7] ibid.,

[8] IJR. SA Reconciliation Barometer: 2011 Report, http://reconciliationbarometer.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/2011-SA-Reconciliation-Barometer.pdf

[9] ibid,.

[10] Africa Confidential.'Zuma Hits Back as Mining Unrest Spreads'.Africa Confidential, Sept 2012, Vol.53, No.19, pp1

[11] Bond, P. 2010, 'South Africa's Bubble Meets Boiling Urban Social Protest', Monthly Review, vol. 62, no. Number 2, pp. 17-28.

[12] Moeletsi Mbeki, ANC Scores in African Lessons, Sunday Independent, 07 October 2012, http://tinyurl.com/qh2tvpx

[13] Steven Friedman, 'Elections May Herald Better City Governance', Business Day Live, 14 May 2014, http://tinyurl.com/o3jokcs

[14] Serageldin, I. 2011. 'The Making of Social Justice: Pluralism, Cohesion and Social Participation. Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture 2011.

[15]vRaymond Suttner, 'How do We Move Towards an Emancipatory Politics in South Africa, 14 May 2014, http://tinyurl.com/o3v7ur8

[16] Ibid.,

[17] Bond, P. 2006. Talk Left Walk Right: South Africa's Frustrated Global Reforms. (Scottsville: University of KwaZulu Natal Press).


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