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May 14th, 2008

South Africa in serious crisis

Manning Marable

Part II of II

Within several weeks, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) will hold a national convention to select the successor to South African President Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki has complicated the contest by trying to pull a "Putin" – to hold onto power by getting himself elected Chairman of the ANC. Through his position as party boss, he could handpick a "weak" president, thus continuing to exercise real power.

What’s really at stake, however, is not which personality occupies South Africa’s presidency, but whether the ANC will finally address the looming crisis of millions of black poor people throughout the country. Despite thirteen years since the demise of white minority rule, the economic conditions for millions of Africans continues to be terrible.

South Africa today has two, distinctive economies, separated by a vast chasm that is partially the by-product of its unique racial history. The first economy is fully integrated into the global economy. At the national level, government programs such as the "Growth, Employment and Redistribution Program" (GEAR) have been efforts to reject Keynesian or government-dominated redistributive and social services programs, for neoliberal, private sector-oriented initiatives. The "first economy" is aggressively market-oriented, and has a growing black elite.

But South Africa’s "second economy" still remains largely outside of the prosperity and affluence of the first. According to the 1996 census, the poorest 40 percent of South Africa’s population received less than three percent of the national income. By comparison, the upper 10 percent of South Africa’s population earn about one-half of the nation’s total income annually. One in five urban households as of 2002 had no electricity. One in four had no running water.

Democratic institutions cannot be sustained, or survive, where there are such vast disparities of wealth and income. When millions of poor people are confronted with the bleak spectre of choosing between paying for their food, clothing and medicines vs. paying for their electricity and water bills, they will inevitably question what social and moral responsibility government has to provide basic services to those who are truly disadvantaged.

The South African government has responded to the crisis of poverty in the second economy by establishing major initiatives, such as the broad-based Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) codes, which are designed at enhancing human resources and skills development of workers, and promoting affirmative action hiring and the growth of enterprise-development among blacks, women, rural communities, and individuals with disabilities. Private companies that want to do business with the government, such as providing goods and services, must be rated and certified annually that they have adhered to the BEE codes. There’s no question that Black Empowerment initiatives have been largely responsible for greatly expanded the black middle class, and a black elite within South Africa over the past decade.

But what suchreforms have not done is to address the deep alienation and growing resistance among the millions of poor South Africans to mass evictions, water cut-offs, or the widespread disconnection of electricity. So in the black township of Soweto, by 2002, there was the development of a Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, which launched "Operation Khanyisa", reconnecting electricity to poor residents’ homes. In the Cape Town black township of Khayelitsha, community activists have challenged the mass evictions of poor people from their homes by banks, by returning people to their houses. Among the permanently unemployed and casual workers in the townships, a culture of angry resistance is growing.

One of the most enduring legacies of the apartheid regime was the racial segregation of land tenure and occupancy. Millions of landless black peasants and farmworkers had hoped that democracy would usher in a fundamental redistribution of rural land. The inaction of the ANC led by 2001 to the emergence of dozens of nongovernmental organizations (NGO’s) across South Africa’s rural districts, fighting against privatization and for land rights.

These smaller movements coalesced at the August-September 2001 World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa, culminating in the "Landless People’s Movement" (LPM). The LPM as a social protest movement contains two broad currents. One tendency is largely pragmatic and oriented toward negotiations with the ANC government to achieve land reforms. A second tendency is characterized by its militancy and spontaneity. For example, in 2001-2002 the LPM took up the struggles of poor Gauteng residents living in informal settlements who were being faced with evictions.

Is a "second revolution" now necessary, to fulfill the promises of economic fairness and workers’ rights in South Africa? As the ANC decides who will succeed Thabo Mbeki, it may also be determining whether it can finally deliver on the promises of social and economic justice it once made many years ago to the oppressed.

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