Cry for the Beloved Country - (pt 4 of 6)

Hinrich Kuhls kls at
Fri Jan 19 14:43:24 MST 2001

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sun, 14 Jan 2001 15:07:54 -0500 (EST)
From: John Saul <johnsaul at
Subject: MR article (pt 4 of 6)


In focusing upon the terms of ANC hegemony we should avoid any
underestimation of the hard edge that Mbeki and his party also maintain in
order to lock their project firmly into place -- the iron fist beneath the
velvet glove of their undoubted legitimacy, as it were. The truth is that
many members of that leadership group are people of limited democratic
sensibility who simply do not like to be crossed.

Most importantly, Mbeki's own approach to the exercise of power is far less
avuncular and "chiefly" than Mandela's, a style of top-down control and
micro-management already visible during Mandela's term when Mbeki
effectively orchestrated much of the hands-on functioning of the state
apparatus. Mbeki's peevishness was also on display during that period.
It was he, for example, who seemed principally responsible for the ANC's
initial rejection of the TRC's final report, an approach, based on a
demagogic and willful misrepresentation of that report's mild critique of
the ANC's own abuses of power in exile, that undermined much of the
positive resonance that report might have been expected to have. As
president Mbeki has further centralized things in his own hands. The fact
that virtually no leading ANC politician would publicly critique his
stubborn attempt to contradict progressive consensus on the question of the
link between HIV and AIDs may provide some indication of just how far the
writ of his own authority runs. But his very stubbornness on this issue may
also suggest exactly what one would be up against in daring to cross him:
in consequence, an air of considerable trepidation scars official circles,
with only the occasional bold soul (like Johannesburg councilor Trevor
Ngwane, recently suspended from the ANC for choosing to defy the
government's sweeping privatization schemes for the city) daring to risk
career prospects in defense of principle.(45)

Moreover, this distaste for disagreement has proven to be even more
pronounced with respect to the policy-making center-piece of the
Mandela/Mbeki presidencies, the commitment to meridianal Thatcherism
epitomized by the adoption of the GEAR strategy document. Recall that from
the outset this document -- although never publicly debated, nor even, it
would seem, vetted by Mandela himself -- was declared "non- negotiable."
Recall, too, the tone adopted by both Mandela and Mbeki in defending it. At
the 1999 conference of the South African Communist Party, the ANC's
ostensible partner (along with COSATU) in a formally institutionalized
political "Alliance," both men produced paroxysms of rage against any who
would have the effrontery to criticize the policy.

The language used to whip its allies into line was harsh, variously
described by Southscan (10/7/1998) as "markedly aggressive," as a
"scathing...barrage," and as a "public onslaught." Mbeki accused SACP
leaders of "fake revolutionary posturing," terming them "charlatans" and
"confidence tricksters" attempting to build their organization "on the
basis of scavenging on the carcass of a savaged ANC." As for Mandela, he
stated firmly that "GEAR, as I have said before, is the fundamental policy
of the ANC. We will not change it because of your pressure." And he hinted
darkly of the consequences that might well follow from any continued
criticism of GEAR.

Although the rhetorical fury unleashed by Mandela and Mbeki at that
conference was particularly vitriolic in tone, this kind of attack has been
linked to an offensive also directed in recent years against criticisms by
the ANC's other major ally, COSATU and its affiliates. A particularly
startling example was Mbeki's 1998 address to the SADTU (South African
Democratic Teachers' Union) congress where he contemptuously characterized
the membership as a "bunch of drunken and ill-disciplined teachers" and
lashed out at their union's expressed skepticism about GEAR: "The members
of SADTU stand out as competent practitioners of the toyi-toyi. We [Mbeki
sardonically used the associative "we" in making his points] come across as
militant fighters for a better pay cheque at the end of the month. We are
seen as excellent tacticians as to when to disrupt the school programme so
that we can extract from the Government the greatest material benefit for
ourselves....We behave in a manner which seems to suggest we are alienated
from the revolutionary challenge of the education of our youth and masses
and greatly inspired by the value system which motivates the traitor and
the criminal."(46) Flash forward to 2000 and the ominous report that
now-President Mbeki "has lost patience with COSATU's and the SA Communist
Party's opposition to government's market-friendly policy," with the
union's national strike (May, 2000) "against spiraling unemployment and
grinding poverty (being) the last straw for the President." "What irks
Mbeki most," the Financial Mail (19/5/2000) continues, "is the COSATU/SACP
contention that his free-market economic policy mix is to blame for rising
unemployment and poverty."

Not surprisingly, perhaps, this virus of contempt for dissenters has been
catching amongst ANC ministers. In 1998 Derek Hannekom, then land affair's
minister, launched an attack on the National Land Commission, when that NGO
advocated the scrapping of the property rights clause in the constitution
in order to facilitate land restitution, he accused it of being "stubbornly
frivolous" and "ultra-left," the latter being precisely the phrase used
about the same time by constitutional affairs minister Valli Moosa to
dismiss a campaign by SAMWU (the South African Municipal Workers' Union)
against the privatization of water and municipal services. And when, a year
later, Public Service minister (and SACP member) Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi
-- dubbed "Thatcher-Moleketi" by a sympathetic conservative Sunday
newspaper for her pains -- also used that phrase in coldly backing down the
wage and anti-privatization demands of public sector workers she even
proposed that they read Lenin's "Left-wing" Communism, an Infantile
Disorder! Meanwhile, at COSATU's 1999 conference Terror Lekota, minister of
defense and chairman of the ANC, delivered a speech on behalf of Mbeki in
which he warned the union darkly that "the recent trend on the part of some
highly-placed comrades of ascending platforms or by other ways criticizing
or agitating against policies and actions of the movement, inside and
outside government, smacks of a lack of revolutionary discipline." "Sharp
and uncontrolled criticism merely confused the masses," Lekota continued,
while also creating a climate "in which agents provocateurs can thrive and
advance their counter-revolutionary agendas" (Southscan, 20/8/2000).

Here is the "one-party dominant system" so feared by many liberal observers
in South Africa showing its teeth, albeit teeth that are more often flashed
at those on the left than those on the right. Not, as we have seen, that
the ANC has much to fear from the political right. But then, at the moment,
some would argue that it really hasn't too much to fear from the left
either. Thus, despite the raw treatment they often receive, the unions have
clung to the Alliance, once again acting uncritically at election time in
1999 as a key political tool in mobilizing votes for the ANC. It is true
that some labour-linked analysts have seen COSATU, with this strategy, as
continuing to be a potent player in the transition, still armed within the
Alliance and within fora like the tri-partite (government-business-labour)
National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) to carve out
space for forcing a class compromise upon capital that is, at least in some
of its particulars, to labor's advantage.(47) They cite, for example.
certain progressive aspects of post-apartheid labour legislation in support
of their further hopes in this regard and suggest that, in any case, the
world for COSATU outside the Alliance with the ANC would be even colder
than that which currently seems to exist within. And it does seem likely
that COSATU will accept at least this latter premise for the foreseeable
future -- despite the pounding it has taken and despite a certain amount of
open debate within the labour movement as to the costs and benefits of the

Perhaps all they can realistically hope to gain in this way is a bit of
time, however. Thus, early in 2000, born-again neo-liberal columnist Howard
Barrell writes (in a column in the Mail and Guardian [21/1/2000] about
Mbeki entitled "Talking left and doing right") that the new President will
certainly sustain the party's conservative trajectory even if he may do so
somewhat more surreptitiously than some (including Barrell) would like.
Why? In order "to avoid disturbing the ANC's left- wing Alliance
partners... [since] an open declaration of the depth of its resolve to
privatize, rationalize, downsize and liberalize may provoke an unhelpful
[sic] response from trade unionists, communists and some in the African
National Congress. So much better just to slip things past the awkward
squad, if at all possible, with a few pat or ambiguous phrases and empty
reassurances." Nonetheless Barrell concludes, "government economic measures
are be any less decisive for the stealth with which they may
be implemented." Small wonder, then, that a figure like Saki Macozoma,
identified as chief executive of Transnet, one of South Africa's biggest
soon-to-be- privatized companies, and a former senior ANC leader, could
hail Mbeki's ascension to the presidency by suggesting that his "term will
be an opportunity to revisit legislation of the past, like making labour
regulations more business-friendly"!(48) Certainly, legislation that favors
greater "flexibility" in the labour market (with the threat this poses of
eroding gains already made by workers in terms of minimum wage guarantees
and other related provisions) seems likely in the future. So too does a
continuation of the wearing grind of policies of privatization and
retrenchment and of macroeconomic strategies fated to produce, at best,
jobless growth that have become so marked a dimension of the South African
labour scene in the post-apartheid period.

Inevitably, some will judge that trade union leaders have remained unduly
naive and/or unduly
timorous vis-a-vis the ANC and the Alliance.

Their approach has not dictated absolute passivity, however. In May of this
year the trade unions (COSATU, together with its allies in other, smaller
federations) were able to organize a day-long stayaway in protest against
joblessness that pulled over four million people away from work and
produced demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of workers in major
cities. And despite ANC's threats COSATU vows to continue with its critical
role: "Undeterred [COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima] Vavi says he has
put in place a second programme of rolling mass action if government and
business fail to respond positively to COSATU's demands to stem job losses,
stop privatization and for the state to play a direct role in correcting
market 'imbalances.' 'The economy is not working for us. GEAR is not
working. How can we support this?' Vavi asks" (Financial Mail, 19/4/2000).
True, the unions have been weakened by the post-apartheid drain of trained
personnel to government and to business and they have paid a price for
defensiveness and for the difficulties they have had in defining a
countervailing political economy for South Africa. But they continue to
criticize and even to keep alive a debate about macro-economic alternatives
as in their 1995 report Social Equity and Job Creation and the exhaustive
1997 report (to that year's 6th National Congress of COSATU) of its own in-
house September Commission. In particular, the latter commission sharply
attacked GEAR (pp. 49-50) as spawning "economic policies [that] are likely
to lead to the strengthening of vested economic interests which have their
roots in the apartheid era...[thereby promising] to strengthen capital, and
specifically its financial interests, and weaken labour [and to offer] very
little redistribution of wealth and economic power in our society." The
Report also evoked the possibility of a "new kind of struggle" and of more
ambitiously progressive economic strategies that would "reclaim
redistribution as the fundamental goal of economic policy and as an
instrument for generating economic growth." Moreover, trade unions have the
numbers, revenues and level of organization that will continue to make them
the most important players on the left in South Africa.

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