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South Africa: “We need a new beginning”

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Brian Ashley is the editor of Amandla! [1] and a leading activist of the Democratic Left Front [2].

Interview conducted on Wednesday 23rd December 2015 over the telephone by François Favre et Marc Ducassé.

First of all let’s go over some recent events: was the sacking of Finance Minister Nhlanhla Musa Nene due to his opposition to the Airbus deal wanted by SAA [3] and his chairwoman, Dudu Myeni, alleged President Jacob Zuma’s mistress or his opposition to the nuclear programme wanted by Zuma?

I think the firing of the Finance Minister has got to do with both these issues. He opposed the chairwoman of SAA who wanted to purchase several planes from Airbus because in these kind of contracts there are kickbacks that are given and it is clear that many top officials of the State enterprises (SAA, Transnet [4], Eskom [5]) are profiting through corruption and cronyism. Nene was very loyal to the austerity agenda imposed in South Africa and logically he opposed the Airbus deal and also put obstacles to the nuclear deal because he had many concerns about its financing. He was going to block some of the financial arrangements which would have facilitated accumulation on a big scale for a small coterie of people in and around Zuma, very much like the arms deal of the late 90’s, early 2000 [6]. Nene as a loyal austerity neoliberal minister wasn’t going to commit this kind entitlement, enrichment process that many of the government officials have become used to.

I think there’s also a second element in the sacking of Nene. In 2017, the ANC [7] will have its next national elected conference, and it must decide who the successor to Zuma will be. The issue is that Zuma, of course, can serve another term as ANC’s president but he cannot serve another term as the South African President by virtue of the two-term restriction in the South African Constitution. So far, the ANC has been reluctant to have two centers of power, with a president of the ANC who is not the president of the country, which brings two questions: who Zuma’s successor will be and how the process to replace him is going to be managed. Zuma is also looking at shoring up his own situation so he doesn’t get charged, once he is out of power, with the 700 hundred odd outstanding charges which were withdrawn when he was running for presidency of the ANC in 2007. So by replacing Nene, Zuma was also trying to bring-in fairly weak loyalists that he can more easily manipulate as he tries to organise the succession inside the ANC.

Now let us go over the recent student strikes and the #FeesMustFall campaign. Would you say it’s an anticapitalist, socialist movement and have the students manage to achieve an united front.

I think it’s too early to categorically say what the political orientation of the student movement is, but certainly the demands they are making suggest a confrontation with the existing neoliberal policies and the austerity that is being imposed in South Africa. The students are demanding not just that the fees should not increase in 2016 but they are making two very significant claims: free education across the board for all students (an universal demand) and a return to insourcing university workers. In the late 1990’s there has been a process in which security workers, cleaners, the workers who work on the grounds, etc., have been outsourced to third-party companies. This relieved the universities from their responsibility of paying benefits such as overtime, bonuses, maternity, etc., and decrease their wages payroll.

The process of neoliberalisation at the university has taken many different forms in terms of the education components, but also in the university employment components. Now these two single demands reinforce each other because many workers could identify with the struggle for free education because that’s the only way in which their children would ever have a hope of getting to university. And, in the day to day life of the university, many of the students are supported by the cleaners and other workers, so there is quite a strong solidarity feeling. It would suggest that the movement itself, if it remains loyal to these two fundamental demands, very much questions the current trajectory of government policy in terms both of the education system and its financing and in terms of the structuring of the labour market. At the same time, the struggle radicalised new layers of students at many of the campuses and in this process a very strong united front was formed of students coming from different political traditions. This gave it the power to achieve very significant victories in a very short space of time. At several universities, the administration has agreed to insource workers and has even agreed to a timetable by when this will happen, the students have won the immediate demand against fee increases next year and also, in some campuses, they’ve won demands in relation to students’ debt, in terms of registration fees, and the exclusion of students because they cannot pay their financial commitments.

Were all students involved, regardless of colour and is there unity between black, coloured and white students?

The student movement at several universities has been characterised, and this is novel, by a high level of involvement of white students who, up to now, had tended to play a rather conservative political role at the universities. This is an interesting new development which helps to break down racial tensions and differences, etc. But, in the politics of the student movement, it’s interesting that there has been much reference to black consciousness and the sort of politics adopted by the black movement in the United-States, with the issues of white privilege, « know your privilege » and other privilege theories playing a significant role.

There has also been attempts at trying to have a flatter and less hierarchical leadership structure. There is a very strong tradition of hierarchical movements in South Africa, even in trade unions, student movements, partly because of our southerners orientation.

So, could this be the start of a political consciousness and understanding of South African history?

It’s the beginning process of the radicalisation of students’ layers. The likelihood is this is going to become more intense in the beginning of the year because our academic year starts in the end of January, beginning of February, and already the students have earmarked several demonstrations at the opening of the university, at the State of the Nation Address by the President early February and the presentation of the national budget which is also done around the 23rd or 24th of February. These are three moments in which nationally coordinated demonstrations are contemplated by the students. I should just add, that for us on the left, this has been an amazing and very important movement because first of all it is a breakthrough for the unity and the capacity to mobilise at a national level. We’ve had lots of protest struggles but they were very local except when the trade unions have taken on protest or mobilisation for instance on wages, which you can understand given the way trade unions are located and function. But this is completely fresh in that it’s a breakthrough as, in the past, movements tended to protest against the government policy but at the same time give support to the ANC. This student movement protested against the government policy and started to question the role of the government. It’s important to note that the Minister for higher education is also the General Secretary of the SACP [8]. This is a rupture with the influence of the SACP within the popular movement and particularly the student movement. I also think it’s important to note that there has been a big collapse of radical intellectuals post 1994 and we see the students struggle as giving rise, hopefully, to a new layer of radical intellectuals and that, of course, is going to be very pluralistic with many different influences but nevertheless quite radicalised on a trajectory of what they call « decolonising » the universities.

Let’s now talk about the economy. Can South Africa cope with a devalued Rand, the slowdown of the world economy, particularly China, and the low price of commodities as it represents such a big part of South African economy?

South Africa is facing a very deep economic crisis, partly because of the impact of the global crisis, and particularly the slowdown of the Chinese economy because China is South Africa’s single biggest trade partner, and its hunger for South African commodities like coal, iron ore, etc., has been extremely devastating for the mining sector in South Africa which is laying off workers but also for the linked or downstream industries, such as steel and chemical industries. So the whole manufacturing sector of the South Africa n economy has been in decline.

The mining sector has been in recession for several quarters now, and given the fact that it constitutes the core of the South African economy you can understand the impact that situation is having on South Africa. Because South Africa chose an export orientated neoliberal strategy the slowdown of the global economy has serious impacts for South Africa in terms of two things: the revenue from exports have dropped and there’s been massive capital outflows as South African companies were allowed to globalise and divest from South Africa. So there is a huge outflow of profits and dividends and that’s not to talk of the illicit capital outflows through the process of transfer pricing and profit shifting, etc. This cost the South African economy a huge amount so there’s a latent problem of a very difficult balance of payment problem which exposes South Africa to speculative capital in order to fund its capital balance. We have a situation in which the financialisation of the South African economy through the process of high interest rate, big borrowing, etc. ,attracts this portfolio capital into the capital market here.

But also part of the problem of the South African economy is structural because of the failure to diversify the economy away from mining and energy. And because of the austerity and the structural adjustment programme implemented from 1996 onwards we’ve been facing a lack of investment in infrastructure. This was particularly devastating in the energy sector where we are now facing huge problems of supply of electricity because of failure to invest in new plants, so demand has outstripped supply and in turn this has been devastating for mining and manufacturing in South Africa. In fact, the nationalised electricity utility actually pays the big energy users to lower their levels of production or their use of electricity so as to try and show that the whole system doesn’t collapse [9]. So we’ve had a series of load shedding which led to lower levels of production in the main sectors of the economy.

Which takes me to the environnemental issues. Would you say that South Africa has been very late or not doing much in terms of renewable energy and trying to address the issue of climate change?

The nature of the South African economy is very energy and carbon intense. It’s the 12th biggest emitter of greenhouse gas in the world. And this has to do with the legacy of cheap electricity for the mining sector and 90 odd percent of all electricity comes from coal fired power plants [10]. So this link between mining and energy has essentially shaped the nature of the South African economy. To diversify, to switch and shift to a low carbon economy was not in the interest of the big energy users up to the point that the price of electricity increased in the context of the electricity crisis I was talking about a moment ago. It is at that point that a breakthrough was made with the opposition of the department of energy and Eskom. That opened up a process for what they call the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme. And this programme is securing wind and solar energy from private producers and has grown fairly rapidly as the crisis has deepened, and yet it’s still not the chosen the electricity path that the government and the state agreed on, they’ve still got big ambitions for a nuclear energy programme and more coal fire-powered plants.

So it’s not just nature, there is huge vested interest in ensuring the reproduction of a carbon intense economy. I’ll give you an example, BHP Billiton [11] runs aluminium smelters that consume the equivalent of 10% of total electricity consumption in South Africa. At the same time, BHP Billiton owns a number of coal mines that supply the electricity company Eskom.

Because of the legacy of mining, South Africa not only faces a huge problem in terms of its contribution to carbon emissions, but there’s been a massive devastation to the water ressource. South Africa is a water-scarce country and most of the water is diverted towards mining and commercial agriculture. As a result of mining we have haphazard mine drainage problems, in particular big parts of the water table in the areas around Johannesburg affected. And this is now such a scale of a problem that the entire water system in that area, the most populous in the country, is polluted. But that’s just one example! We have lots of problems of pollution, reverse flow of heavy metal into the rivers… We have vast areas of land uninhabitable because we have, as a result of coal mining, underground fires which have been going for 30-50 years now. So there is a huge devastation from mining, not to speak of radioactive dumps and tailing dumps that have been abandoned by mining companies; when they see the life of mines coming to an end they either sell them on to what we call scavenger miners or just abandon them so they don’t have to deal with the environmental responsibilities which are in the mining code.

Would you give us some information now about the South African trade-union movement as it is currently undergoing some important changes What are the consequences of the expulsion of Numsa [12] from Cosatu [13] bearing in mind that Numsa was its biggest affiliate? And what are the other unions’ position?

There is a very big crisis in the trade union movement as the trade unions generally are bureaucratised and struggle to represent their members. Cosatu has the biggest membership of the different trade union confederations in the country. Its also has the legacy of being at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid and apartheid capitalism. So it has a sort of longevity in terms of its central role in the working class movement. But as the ANC, under President Jacob Zuma, was not willing to accept any dissent from its alliance partners and sought to transform Cosatu into its transmission belt or, if you like toy telephone, contradictions were starting to heighten inside Cosatu as to whether they should continue to participate in their alliance. With the rise in class struggle manifested in the huge strike in the platinum mining sector leading to the Marikana massacre [14], those contradictions came to a hit and eventually, after a long internal struggle, led to the expulsion not just of Numsa but of the Cosatu General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, and hundreds of leading activists in different affiliates that supported the Numsa line that it was no longer tolerable to support the ANC as it was increasingly corrupt, based on crony policies and neoliberal.

So losing 350,000 members is a huge problem for Cosatu but Numsa was also able to organise other unions in support of its position or at least on its platform on how Cosatu should be reorganised and led. In turn, this led to several splits in a number of Cosatu affiliates and several Cosatu unions that are estranged from the central leadership of Cosatu and participate with Numsa in discussions around forming a new federation. This is taking place around a call for a workers’ summit which Zwelinzima Vavi and Numsa have been promoting and which is set to take place in the first quarter of 2016. That workers’ summit will bring together Numsa, its allies and several new unions that have been formed as a split form existing Cosatu affiliates. For instance, there’s a new public sector union called the South African Public Sector Union (SAPSU), a new municipal workers union and several others. But there will also be at that workers’ summit, several regional, provincial, district structures of existing Cosatu affiliates who find no voice in their own union, who are repressed in their own union from expressing their difference.

So the expulsion of Numsa is setting off a process of reorganisation of the trade union movement. The question, of course is: will that reorganisation go far enough in taking into account the new conditions of the labour market in South Africa where vast numbers of workers have been made informalised, made precarious and are not in the sort of leading industrial sectors of the economy or at least not employed on a full-time basis. So there are big challenges in how this sector of the labour force is organised. Then the other question is: have the lessons of Marikana been learnt? An union like the National Union of Mineworkers, which has a very proud history in South Africa anticapitalist trade unionism, became so bureaucratised and coopted by management almost to be a kind of yellow union. Can we reassert independent working class politics within the trade union movement? Those questions remain to be answered and will honestly form part of the discussions and debates within the potential reorganising of the trade union movement. But you are likely to see a kind of continuation of Cosatu as a sort of aligned to the ANC trade union movement, almost as a wing of the ANC, very close to the Communist Party and a new trade union movement, which having ruptured from the ANC and the Communist Party and which may be the basis for a new type of working class socialist party that might emerge in South Africa.

Is the ANC organically financed by Cosatu members?

Yes, the ANC, particularly at election times, gets ressources from Cosatu, as does the SACP. The SCAP is the major beneficiary of finances from Cosatu, and of course the expulsion of Numsa, and its 2013 congress in which Numsa decided to no further support the ANC and the SACP led to big loss of ressources for the Communist Party and so there are question marks on how the ANC and the SACP are making out those losses. Both the ANC and the SACP are facing difficulties financially, but what they are trying to do is to use their political links influencing investment companies to finance their operations. And this is leading to big levels of corruption. For example there are two big coal fired power plants which are being built following the electricity crisis which I mentioned earlier on, and an investment company of the ANC is a major supplier of the boilers to those plants.

The year 2015 has seen a number strikes, marches, all targeted at the ANC and its policies (#FeesMustFall, anti-corruption march, #ZumaMustFall, opposition to e-tolls). Zuma seems to personalise all that is wrong with the ANC. Do you think the ANC could drop Zuma as they did with Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki [15]?

I think that’s become more probable following the debacle of the removal of the Finance Minister, the appointment of an inexperienced minister and his replacement four days later by Pravin Gordhan, Nene’s predecessor as Finance Minister himself. That has weakened Zuma tremendously as can be seen by the fact that Pravin Gordhan has not followed Zuma on the SAA deal but has gone back to a decision where SAA will not purchase these planes from Airbus. Also in the ANC and in the ANC National Executive Committee there is a sense in which Zuma now is very much on the back foot. Whether he can recover in the short to medium term is not yet clear. He has a very strong power basis but they’ve been increasingly exposed for their isolation from the popular movement and the notion of corruption that hangs around him is becoming very difficult for him to move away from. There is a possibility that the situation may become so difficult that he may not serve his full term. The issue and challenge is: could that pull the carpet under the feet of these movements and protests? Will people go back and think we’ve got a new reformed ANC, etc.? That’s not clear yet. You saw how the opposition to Mbeki neoliberalism was absorbed by the Zuma campaign but the rupture today is quite big and I suspect it’s not going to happen at the same level this time as it did. But of course if Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the current head of the African Union or if Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa, Deputy President of the ANC, were to be made the ANC President, then there is a number of sectors of the society that would be willing to give the ANC another chance.

Generally, what do you think the main issues for South Africa are? Unemployment, housing, energy, land ownership, education, control of the economy, wages?

The single biggest issue for South Africans is the issue of jobs. South Africa has an unemployment crisis of almost 40% when you include discouraged workers (25% if you exclude them). Those are the workers who’ve given up looking for work and of course the statistics underestimate the employment issue because of disguised unemployment in the form of women who are identified or categorised as house homemakers So the level of unemployment is huge and it has created a social crisis in the townships, in the black areas of monumental proportions where the social fabric has been collapsing and where crime, gangsterism has disorganised the society and has almost deflected from the sort of political opposition that you would imagine when you have such high level of inequality and unemployment as South Africa. So that is obviously the single biggest issue for most South Africans. Of course, the issue of housing and access to basic services is linked to unemployment and lack of income because people can’t afford to get a decent house, they can’t afford to pay for electricity and water and sewage services. So that’s why you have continual daily protests in different parts of the country in what are called service delivery protests where sections of the community come out, barricade roads, burn tyres, etc. They express their anger at the lack of housing and other basic services. Education and health offer particular difficult problems for the people because you have the development of a two-tier education system. The former white schools are ostensibly private now because even if they remain state schools you have to pay very high school fees so that exclude many black people. And of course in the townships the education system is collapsing, schools are affected by high levels of corruption, have very limited facilities, which results in huge dropout levels, alienation, etc. We have a terribly unequal education system and similarly a terribly unequal health system. We have a very wealthy five-star private health system, with private hospitals. Those with medical aid, by and large for the richer section of the population, can attend good hospitals. But the vast majority has to attend the collapsing public health facilities, i.e. clinics and hospitals. In the rural areas of the country it’s difficult to talk about proper health facilities at all. These are, I would say, the major challenges facing South Africans.

Would you be able to give some perspectives for the radical left? But first could you explain a few acronyms for us, EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters), WASP (Workers and Socialist Party), United Front, BLF (Black First Land First), DLF (Democratic Left Front) and how do these organisations relate to each other?

The major movement on the left which has grown very rapidly is the EFF. Essentially it is a split from the ANCYL [16]. It is led by a charismatic and dynamic leader called Julius Malema [17]. The movement was launched in late 2013 just six months before the 2014 general elections where it did fairly well with 6% of the votes and about 25 MPs. In Parliament, they’ve been able to take a number of radical initiatives, blocking parliamentary debates, putting a lot of pression on Jacob Zuma, which brought a lot publicity and helped to see a rapid growth of this party, to the extent that we think that they will do very well in the upcoming local elections in 2016. This poses quite a big challenge to the traditional radical left, those who have broken away from the Communist Party as the leadership of Numsa, some of the former Cosatu leaders, all those who have the ambition of forming a workers party or a socialist party of some sort because that space is being increasingly occupied by the EFF. So I suspect that some sort of deal is going to be forged between the EFF and any political movement that comes up as a split in the labour movement. To that, you need to add that the United Front constructed or initiated by the metal workers as an initiative to bring part of the labour movement, part of the community into a struggle against neoliberalism. The United front has for different reasons, partly to do with ressources, partly because Numsa is not necessarily clear on how much energy it wants to put into building a United Front at the expense of a Communist Party mark 2, bearing in mind that leaders of Numsa were leading members of the Communist Party. They come with much the politics of the Communist Party (marxism, leninism, National Democratic Revolution [18]) having somewhat been weaned from that and that remains their reference point. They just want to be a more radical and consistent with neo-stalinist politics and they feel the SACP is compromised by its relationship with the ANC. This kind of movement coming out of the unions, linking up with the United Front is confronted by the space that the EFF have occupied. But the EFF themselves are compromised both because of its history within the ANC and because of its leading members having been beneficiaries of cronyism, tendered deals with the State, private companies, etc. Then you have the independent left that has been outside of the ANC and which is primarily represented by the DLF which came together in 2008 bringing together some people who were leading the Communist Party and different currents and popular movements of the independent left in South Africa. And then, in 2012-2013 on the basis of the uprising of the platinum workers a very small trotskyist group linked to sections of the Militant Tendency in Britain, or its remnants, which was called the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) formed the WASP, hoping that the platinum strike would generalise into a bigger struggle to form a socialist party but that’s failed. So they participate in activities of the United Front and discussions with Numsa to form a socialist party or socialist movement. The BLF is a small split from the EFF, very sectarian, black consciousness group that was inside the EFF but they are very small.

As usual, it seems that there are lots and lots of different groupings on the left, would you say the EFF and the DLF are the main ones to look forward for the radical left?

Yes, insofar that the DLF participates in the left regroupment that is underway and linked to the regroupement of the trade union movement. Obviously, we don’t know how that’s going to play itself out, it could equally fragment into different factions. There is a serious attempt to regroup the left coming out of the Communist Party, the trade union movement and the independent left around what is called a Project for Movement for Socialism. That space, that vacuum on the left which you could see clearly in 2013-2014 has been rapidly filled by the EFF. So there has to be some alliance built between the process towards this movement for socialism and regroupment of the labour movement and the EFF, if we are going to see a significant radical left in South Africa. That’s quite feasible and possible, particularly as the crisis deepens both economically and politically. There is more and more reasons for an accommodation to be made between these currents. Inside the left regroupment, the DLF plays an important part, but at the same time, retains quite good relations with the EFF. This is the project to try and bring together broad left regroupment in which one would encourage the existence of left currents built on platforms around how they see the crisis and the solution to the crisis. I am part of the DLF and quite active in discussions with people from Numsa and the trade union movement around regroupment of the left.

Are you optimistic?

There is a very important meeting coming up next week. We’ll see to what extent this regroupment process is able to find itself. At the moment, I think we’ve got lots of challenges and potential threats of fragmentation, disagreement. South Africa is a bit like Argentina, we have a long tradition of a very factionalised and propagandistic left. One hopes that the weight of the crisis knocks enough sense into enough people to say “we need a new beginning”.

View online : Amandla!’s web site


All footnotes by the interviewers.


[1Amandla! is a bi-monthly magazine, its major objective is to contribute to facilitate greater collaboration between broad sections of the left, activists and intellectuals from different traditions and regions of the country.

[2The Democratic Left Front is a non-sectarian and non-authoritarian anti-capitalist front formed in 2008.

[3SAA: South African Airways (South Africa’s national flag carrier airline).

[4Transnet is a large South African rail, port and pipeline company.

[5Eskom is a South African electricity public utility, it produces around 95% of South Africa’s electricity.

[6The Strategic Defence Package was a South African military procurement package. It involved a US$4.8 billion (R30 billion in 1999 rands) purchase of weaponry by the African National Congress government finalised in 1999. It has been subject to repeated, seemingly substantive, allegations of corruption.

[7ANC: African National Congress.

[8SACP: South African Communist Party.

[9Since 2011, electricity production has been steadily declining.

[10Approximately 90% coal, 5% nuclear, 5% renewable.

[11BHP Billiton is an Anglo-Australian multinational mining, metals and petroleum company headquartered in Melbourne, Australia. It is the world’s largest mining company by far (market value 122 billion $ in 2015).

[12Numsa: National union of metal workers in South Africa.

[13Cosatu: Congress of South African Trade Unions.

[1412th-16th August 2012. 41 striking platinum mineworkers were massacred by police.

[15Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki. Second post-apartheid South Africa President.

[16ANCYL: African National Congress Youth League.

[17Julius Malema was President of the ANCYL from 2008 to 2012.

[18The National Democratic Revolution is the official agenda of the ANC. The National Democratic Revolution is described as a process through which the National Democratic Society is achieved; a society in which people are intellectually, socially, economically and politically empowered.

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