Collective bargaining by riot: election day in South Africa (2006)
southern africa |
community struggles |
Friday February 09, 2007 17:40 by Michael Schmidt, Johannesburg
A field report on a trip transsecting South Africa's industrial heartland and its outlying small towns on municipal election day 2006 - and an examination of who actually wields municipal power in the country - from the ZACF journal Zabalaza #7.
COLLECTIVE BARGAINING BY RIOT:
ELECTION DAY IN SOUTH AFRICA
Seeing the police move on a single column of smoke rising from two burning tyres over rebellious Khutsong, south-west of Johannesburg, on March 1, local government election day, I was reminded of the Native American warrior in Dances With Wolves remarking of the distant fire of a frontiersman that he would not tolerate “a single line of smoke in my own country”.
The ANC-led government in similar fashion had determined that Khutsong would not explode on voting day; that the mockery of the vote that occurred would be “free”, albeit an enforced peace in a township that had driven ANC leaders out, revolting against an administrative transfer out of Gauteng province to an uncertain future in the poverty-stricken North-West.
FIRE IN KHUTSONG
So two armoured Nyalas lumbered over to the smoking tyres where photographers were vainly trying to get a dramatic shot - but Khutsong was virtually deserted on the morning of the vote.
The fire-gutted Gugulethu community centre was already defaced by crude sexual, gangster - and, in what is a hopeful sign, anarchist - graffiti. The presiding officer at the government’s Independent Electoral Commission tent set up next to the ruin glumly told me he did not expect a single soul to turn out to vote that day.
He proved right, with barely more than 200 out of 29,000 registered voters exercising their hard-won right. Khutsong resident Albert Mamela stood near the smouldering tyres and told of his dream that the people of Khutsong - whether Zulu, Xhosa or “foreigner” - could “be like the Bafokeng” - the tribe that owns platinum mines near Rustenburg - and take ownership of Khutsong’s nearby gold-mines, the riches of which seldom finds its way into local pockets.
Community ownership of the mines would render local government irrelevant, he said: “because then we will take care of development ourselves”. There is some healthy anti-capitalist sentiment here, but it is also confused. The Bafokeng royal house controls the mines in question, and exploitation carries on as before. A king makes the economic decisions: this is not the working class ownership and control anarchist-communists advocate .
Khutsong residents accused councillors of nepotism, the provision of toilets that did not work and, worse in their view, not living in the areas they supposedly represented, a common complaint. Mamela claimed that councillors said R1,2-million had been spent on the road to the Khutsong graveyard, whereas he knew it had only cost R800,000, suggesting the councillors had pocketed the rest.
He suggested that Merafong mayor Des van Rooyen had, unlike previous mayors, acquired bodyguards “because he knew what he was going to do” in “selling” Khutsong to the North West province.
But despite the powerful emotions circulating on voting day, Khutsong was suffering a hangover from the previous night’s celebration of the successful boycott call and was unlikely to produce drama, so I drove on into Gauteng, north-east to the gated suburbs of Houghton to watch former President Nelson Mandela cast his vote.
THE APF AND ELECTIONS
I had far to travel, so bypassed Pimville in Soweto where the Operation Khanyisa Movement (OKM) was contesting the elections. There was a fierce debate in the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF) over the question of elections. Trotskyist leader, APF organiser and Soweto activist Trevor Ngwane jumped the gun, forming the OKM as a party and political vehicle for his career and his politics without an APF mandate. In stark contrast to the social movements in areas such as Motsoaledi, Orange Farm and Sebokeng stood firmly by a “no services - no vote” position [although in Motsoaledi, this was later reversed following an internal struggle].
Ngwane’s movement won a paid position as a councillor, based on 4,305 votes.
Ngwane did not take the seat as expected, but the OKM councillor who did will have her lone left-wing voice drowned out by the 75 ANC and 31 DA councillors. Working class power lies in the community and in the workplace, not in the forums of the ruling class. Ngwane was ousted a month later at the Anti-Privatisation Forum annual general meeting as APF chair by Brickes Mokolo of the Orange Farm Crisis Committee - a key figure in the anti-electoral faction of the APF. This is a hopeful sign, for Mokolo has helped build a viable, anti-electoral strategy in that poor settlement.
THE OTHER HALF
Houghton is old, genteel Joburg, replete with bowling greens, high walls and lanes of poplar trees and oaks, gated with booms and security guards. The old and new elites, with their black maids in tow, were smartly lined up to cast their ballots: no burning tyres here; only the worship of Mandela - the architect of post-apartheid neo-liberalism - as some sort of living saint of the wealthy.
From Houghton, I drove north-east to the small diamond-mine and prison town of Cullinan to the east of Pretoria. There, the local Freedom Front Plus branch - Afrikaner seperatists - was hoping to oust the incumbent Democratic Alliance neo-liberals from the Nokeng tsa Taemane Municipality. The ANC won, but the only real excitement on the day was when Afrikaner singer Valiant Swart happened to pass through town.
From Cullinan, I drove out to Siyabuswa in Mpumalanga, the former capital of the apartheid-era homeland of kwaNdebele, because here, the Ministry of Provincial and Local Government had promised me, was an example of a municipality that, while not wealthy, was exceptionally well run.
Siyabuswa means “we are governed”, but I found that the way that governance works sadly conforms to the patterns of endemic corruption so well established in apartheid days.
Residents such as Amos and Elisabeth Msiza and their friend Petros Mhlangu - all in their fifties - complained that their water-supply (charged at a rate guessed by the council because their meters didn’t work) was intermittent and that they lost their pre-paid electrical power whenever it rained.
“If you have money, this government helps you - but not those who struggle,” Mhlangu said.
The three residents blamed unelected municipal manager George Mthimunye for Siyabuswa’s shoddy service delivery.
Their view was supported by ex-ANC independent candidates such as July Msiza who told me that Mthimunye faced not only criminal charges of having sexually harassed his secretary, but was also accused of having stolen council funds to pay for two friends of his to be trained as traffic officers (one of whom allegedly crashed a council vehicle she was illegally using for her own purposes, in far-off White River). So much for well-governed Siyabuswa!
TWELVE YEARS ON
Fast-forward to April 27, “Freedom Day”, twelve years down the line from what Archbishop Desmond Tutu memorably called the “Rainbow Nation” waiting to make their mark in the first post-apartheid ballot.
And what a mark it has been: from the heart-rending wail of Fort Callata’s mother at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings to the ascendancy of the Black Economic Enrichment phalanx into positions of capitalist and state power; from the collapse of the neo-fascist AWB to the rise of Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka as a possible future president thanks to the axing of Jacob Zuma.
Trevor Manual is the darling of this elite and its middle-class praise-singers, for whom fiscal discipline is a golden calf and equality a sin. This mutual admiration society has decreed a perpetual round of expensive parties to praise the near-feudal conditions on which their empires are built, a perpetual celebration so to speak (I’m reminded of Jello Biafra’s phrase “the happiness you have demanded is now mandatory!”).
But millions look set to be unemployed for life and HIV/Aids, tuberculosis, malaria and ailments of malnutrition such as kwashiorkor and marasmus - usually associated in the popular imagination with famine in Sudan or the Horn of Africa - stalk the population.
Last May, at the second annual National Security Conference, two analysts from very different sectors had a dire warning for the country: COSATU chief economist Dr Neva Makgetla and Standard Bank credit policy and governance director Desmond Golding agreed that a highly educated but permanently unemployed “underclass” constituted the country’s biggest security threat. The working class is retreating, but not defeated, and it haunts the imagination of those who rule this country.
Further rioting and arson in Khutsong attended the elevation of councillors to office on the basis of a 2% poll - an election that Human Sciences Research Council society culture and identity specialist Dr Mncedisi Ndletyana rightly described during a TV interview as “illegitimate”.
The official celebration was declared an “unFreedom Day” by the poor in Durban who decried the evaporation of the dream of equality the 1994 elections had promised, but which the elites had betrayed. They demanded an end to evictions, cut-offs and forced relocations, saying they were fighting for unconditional access to the resources fenced off by the rich.
Local government specialist Greg Ruiters of Rhodes University told me that the yawning chasm between the developmental promises of neo-liberalism and the grinding poverty of South Africa’s sprawling shackland (three out of every four South Africans now lives in urban areas) would increasingly see people take to direct action.
“The key problem for all parties contesting the local government elections,” Ruiters said, “is that citizens have discovered another, more direct, channel for giving voice to their needs: ‘collective bargaining by riot’ may become more common than waiting to vote.”
The key problem for all the poor, however, is that electoral, representative politics is so limited and disempowering. As Sheila Meintjies of Wits University’s political studies department put it, “there is a growing sense that the councillors don’t necessarily hold all the power, that the officials are really, if anything, to blame for a lack of service delivery.”
These unelected municipal officials, she said, were directly lobbied by very powerful big-business interests that short-circuited the country’s bourgeois-democratic process and skewed development in favour of the rich.
A grim example of this powerful bureaucratic class is eThekwini (Durban) municipal manager Mike Sutcliffe, an ANC strategist and die-hard opponent of the Abahlali baseMjondolo (Shack-dwellers’ Movement), whose protest marches he illegally tried to ban.
In March, Sutcliffe and his ideological cohorts suffered two key court defeats - by the Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Soweto Concerned Residents - which confirmed the absolute right of people to gather and to demonstrate without requiring police permission. This is a big victory for the social movements that they should fully exploit.
WORKING CLASS DEMOCRACY
We anarchist communists would go further than Meintjies, underlining that it is simply impossible for the country’s 400 Members of Parliament to truly represent the interests of 46.9-million people. It is even less likely that 37 very wealthy party-political Cabinet Ministers, tainted by the elitist idea of “democratic centralism” will bend over backwards for the working class and poor. Both our Westminster-style parliamentary democracy and the ANC’s “democratic centralism” are anything but democratic.
The elections of 1994 were a huge victory inasmuch as apartheid’s doom was sealed. But there were not enough, and could never be enough, and their achievement is increasingly overshadowed by the grim neo-liberal class war being waged by the ruling elite . Capitalism, with its class system, will always benefit the few at the expense of the many.
Activists in Swaziland and Zimbabwe should take heed. Real popular empowerment and real economic and social equality can only be achieved by well-organised, mass-based, directly-democratic, community-controlled action against the parasite class. “Collective bargaining by riot” is a good start, but we must build working class power until we can move onto the offensive, and remake the world.
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I just came across your webpage with some false remarks about me. It is not true that I jumped the gun to stand in elections for my career. As you yourself point out I did not occupy the seat we won and I don't know where you got the idea that when I do politics it is for my personal advancement or benefit. Speak for yourself. Me I am a revolutionary and I have sacrificed and will continue to sacrifice a lot for the sake of the cause. It is also not true that I lost the APF elections because I was never nominated nor stood for elections. Please don't write your articles based on what you heard people say. In fact Comrade Briggs defeated a female comrade, just as most of those male office bearers did in order to win positions in the APF. They forgot about our policy of gender equity and women empowerment in the scramble for positions. Please take time to visit the APF office and find out what happened to Comrade Briggs, your hero, after he was elected chairperson. He seems to have dissappeared into his food garden projects in Orange Farm. I am not saying gardens are a bad idea, hey we need to eat something, but his prolonged absence from the APF, after fighting so hard to become chairperson, leaves many of us in the dark as to how exactly he is building the revolution among those tomatoes and cabbages and all the cash he has to count when selling the poor vegetables. But let us not worry about Comrade Briggs, let us worry more about what has happened to the APF after the victory of Briggs and his allies in taking over the APF. An audit conducted by Briggs himself revealed that the non-Trotskyist APF leadership has managed to run down the organisation through espousing a politics whose raison d'etre, modus operandi, strategy and ultimate aim I have so far failed to figure out.. But maybe it is just me. I can however confirm to you that in respect of the anarcho-autonomists of South Africa I don't see where they are building the struggle, except maybe on this webpage, but certainly not anywhere near the ground. In any case I just wanted to point out the inaccuracies in your article. Cheers! Aluta continua! No hard feelings.
In response to Trevor Ngwane's comment, we must acknowledge that our article "Collective Bargaining by Riot" contained errors and misleading statements. We regret any statement or suggestion that Ngwane was a candidate either for the Johannesburg metro council in 2006, or for any position as an office-bearer of the Anti-Privatisation Forum at the time of the election of Bricks Mokolo as chairperson. We know of nothing in APF policy that denied Ngwane and his comrades the right to stand in the local elections via the Operation Khanyisa movement, nor would we have denied them that right, although we have consistently rejected electoral politics as an authoritarian method that can only undermine the struggles of the oppressed classes. Let them stand if they want, but we will neither vote for them nor in any way support them. Further, we regret the misspelling of comrade Bricks' name, while noting that Ngwane was also in error on this matter.
At the same time, we stand by our rejection of Ngwane's authoritarian and divisive electoral politics, and we further reject his comment as a whole: it is an entirely unsupported slander against the APF, Bricks Mokolo, anarchists and autonomists. We may, indeed, have gone too far in calling Ngwane a careerist. We must acknowledge that he has made sacrifices. If Ngwane had toed the party line of the ruling ANC, of which he was once a member, he could have been a prominent party bigshot or a "black economic empowerment" businessman. We assume that he rejected such opportunities on principle, and, indeed, that his sacrifices went much further than this.
But there is a well-known phenomenon of revolutionary leaders making genuine sacrifices and going on to act in ways consistent with personal ambition, and just as destructive. Consider the Bolsheviks, who made great sacrifices in the revolutionary struggle, but went on to seize state power, install themselves as oppressors and exploiters, and obtain great privilege and power through the toil of the workers and peasants. ("The Russian Revolution Destroyed", online at http://www.zabalaza.net/pdfs/varpams/rusrevdestroyed.pdf, explains how the Bolsheviks' authoritarian ideology led to authoritarian and capitalist practice.) Again, Nelson Mandela and many other nationalists in South Africa and elsewhere endured prison and numerous sacrifices. But when Mandela took power, he got rich from the sweat of the workers and became a vigorous defender of capitalism. Whether an individual is a careerist or not, authoritarian politics leads in careerist directions. In a recent article, "The Struggle as Seen from Soweto" (http://www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs/default.asp?2,40,3,1380), Ngwane notes that the Operation Khanyisa Movement's councillor, Joyce Mkhonza, has defected to the right-wing liberal opposition, the Democratic Alliance. We in the ZACF are not at all surprised by such events: they follow from electoral politics, which separate the leaders from the popular classes. Whether or not individual representatives make such open breaks with working class politics, ultimately electoral and statist parties are bound to turn against the workers they "represent", however sincere they may be. We note from Ngwane's article and appended material that he and his comrades of the Socialist Group are aware of these dangers; this leaves us all the more baffled that the comrades continue to insist on participating in elections! As for the expropriation by an electoral party of the name of a direct action movement – Operation Khanyisa, the reconnection of electricity that has been cut off for non-payment – we can only regard this as a travesty of working class resistance. Indeed, Ngwane himself did not asume the OKM council seat - but the OKM person who did proved our argument perfectly by her actions in defecting to the DA. All that time, effort and money wasted to bankroll her betrayal - and that was the predictably bankrupt strategy that Ngwane argued for - and which we argued so vehemently against, consistently.
Our quarrel, let us be clear, is not with Ngwane as an individual, but with his ideology and practices. At the same time, Ngwane has attained considerable status, in South Africa and globally, as a leader of the APF and the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee. Such status carries an inherent danger of authoritarianism and careerism, and such individuals must expect to be harshly scrutinised. One hundred years ago, Piotr Kropotkin had earned the reputation of perhaps the world's leading theorist of anarchism. But on many occasions, anarchists rightly subjected him to harsh criticism. And when World War 1 broke out, and Kropotkin made what amounted to a break with anarchism by aligning himself with British and French imperialism, he was duly rejected by some of his closest comrades. Nobody is immune.
On to Ngwane's attack on the APF. He charges that the election of Bricks Mokolo and other office bearers was contrary to "gender equity" because they ran against women. Now it should be clear that the ZACF is fully committed to the liberation of women and to complete gender equality. And we fully agree that there is a problem of sexism in the South African social movements. But we do not stand for gender equality in the manner of President Thabo Mbeki. That is, we do not think having a woman as Supreme Commander, or proportional representation of women in the leadership, secretariat or what-have-you, is the answer to the problem.
The ZACF's own secretariat is currently entirely male; this is regrettable, but the organisation chose those it regarded as the best individuals for the positions. Such situations are not changed by wishful thinking. If we had a chance to elect a secretariat consisting of Mikhail Bakunin, Errico Malatesta, Nestor Makhno and Buenaventura Durruti, based on their record, we would probably do so, regardless of whether someone accused us of sexism. And we would go on to scrutinise their performance, as is appropriate for mandated delegates – all the more so if they have great prestige. We have every reason to believe the APF acted in the same spirit when it elected Mokolo as chairperson. We know that Ngwane and the Socialist Group backed women against Mokolo to become APF office-bearers; but they could have been rejected for any reason from genuine lack of readiness for their positions to their adherence to the Socialist Group's authoritarian politics! Taking the support of female candidates as the one true expression of anti-sexism is the road to Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice and Margaret Thatcher. We would oppose sexist candidates – and we know that sexist leaders in the social movements have been a major problem. But it would be absurd to automatically oppose all female candidates or support all male candidates.
The problem of sexism in the APF and other social movements shows itself most deeply at the grassroots. In a movement that is numerically dominated by women, men are the main decision makers; women are excluded in all the standard ways characteristic of a sexist society. The problem isn't that women aren't on the secretariat: we do not believe the secretariat should be the main decision making body in any case! Decision making should come from the membership, from the bottom up. The problem, roughly speaking and hugely oversimplifying, is that women are silenced in discussion and expected to follow men's lead in action. This must be tackled on the ground. Thinking that even an *entirely* female leadership or secretariat could resolve this problem is an authoritarian illusion. Revolution begins, not in the inner councils of the vanguard, but in the sink.
Turning to the alleged "running down" of the APF, we note that it is well known that Mokolo has not been particularly active in his role of chairperson. We also note that this was expected: he informed the APF at the time of his election that his role will be limited. Bricks Mokolo is our comrade, but he is not our hero. Creating heroes is not what we do, and we recognise that questions have been raised about his performance. But to accuse him of running down the APF is absurd. This running down exists only in Ngwane's imagination. Since its launch in 2000, the APF has gone through periods of strength and periods of weakness; it is our view and that of many APF militants that under the current non-Trotskyist leadership, its strength has been growing. In 2007, under this non-Trotskyist leadership, it organised a series of locally initiated workshops, protests and campaigns, and carried on a general public campaign and legal action against prepaid water meters, among many other things. What more would Ngwane have it do? Does he have anything else to offer beyond standing in elections, which we maintain would only make things worse?
Ngwane talks of confusion regarding the APF's "raison d'etre, modus operandi, strategy and ultimate aim". We do not fully understand his meaning here; but while we see that some such confusion probably exists, we hold that this is only to the extent that it can be expected. It would be inconceivable for a mass organisation in the current circumstances in South Africa to have a fully consistent ultimate aim – still less one that made sense to revolutionaries with sophisticated theories, whether anarchist or Marxist. Members' understanding is bound to be uneven. From a Trotskyist perspective, informed by substitutionism and entryism, a fully worked-out strategy and ultimate aim might indeed seem desirable: the Trotskyist vanguard can take the leadership and impose the strategy, regardless of confusion on the ground. But we anarchists do not believe such authoritarian methods can take the struggle forward.
It may well be that there are clearly identifiable flaws in how the APF operates; but Ngwane should point these out specifically, rather than making general attacks that could be informed by an unrealistic pursuit of perfection. All we can see behind his attacks is dogmatic electoralism, authoritarianism and the politics of the sore loser – the trademarks of Trotskyism. We understand that Ngwane has elsewhere attacked anarchists and autonomists, accusing us of undermining the social movements. Not surprising given his politics: Trotskyists seldom see anything in libertarian ideas beyond undermining. But who is undermining what here? Who is spreading unsubstantiated slanders? Ngwane has lost support within the APF; does he maintain that small groups of anarchists and autonomists, who by his account are not active on the ground, have somehow turned so many comrades against him? Does he think that we somehow engineered the split in the SECC, the breakaway of the Soweto Concerned Residents? His response in "The Struggle as Seen from Soweto" is that greater unity is required. He talks of discipline. Does he think this unity and discipline can be imposed from above? Does it not occur to him that his methods of achieving unity and discipline might be part of the problem?
Finally, we must point out that we in the ZACF are not "anarcho-autonomists". We are anarchist communists; we uphold the ideas and practices of Bakunin, Makhno and many generations of working class militants in the anarchist tradition. Among our main principles are anti-authoritarianism and anti-electoralism – and we have consistently fought for these principles within the social movements. On this and many other matters, we have found ourselves in agreement with those militants who are widely known by the name of autonomists. We have much in common with them and our relations are friendly, but we are not the same tendency.
Ngwane charges that anarchists and autonomists are not building the struggle on the ground. As far as the ZACF is concerned, we welcome criticism; we would be happy to hear any specifics on what we're doing wrong and where we could do better. We would particularly welcome such input from the many comrades who do know us on the ground, but if Ngwane has anything specific to offer, we are ready to hear. He may not know all we are doing on the ground. Being involved at the grassroots is not the same as being involved in APF or SECC leadership structures – and certainly not the same as promoting electoral politics! As for the "autonomists", they have been involved both at the grassroots and in the leadership structures of the APF since its inception; some of them, and some of us, are working closely with the General Industries Workers' Union of South Africa; and not least, "autonomists" have played the biggest part in building Indymedia South Africa, one of the movements' most valuable resources. Some would say these and other contributions are less valuable than standing in elections. We would disagree. We are confident that our comrades of the APF would welcome any constructive suggestions; but we are equally sure that they are no more interested in slander than we are, and are ready to rebut unsupported attacks.
Ngwane accuses us of bias. We fully admit to this. Not being liberals or capitalists, we have no reason to deny our biases. We are biased in favour of the working class, communism and freedom, and against the ruling class, capitalism and authoritarianism. We have no wish to make factual errors or to mislead, and we regret having done this at any time. But we will continue to exercise our bias against those who mislead oppressed people and build new structures of authority under cover of struggle.