Since coming to power in 1994 the African National Congress (ANC) has been caught between the aspirations of the majority and the reality of power in a global capitalist world. The ANC came to power on the back of a wave of mass resistance to apartheid and capitalism. When faced with the reality of power once inside an unchanged capitalist state machinery, the ANC became a mouthpiece of the old power elites. Faced with the brutal and unrelenting pressure of the ruling class, the ANC folded. The ANC elective conference that took place at Nasrec represents another landmark, another pause on the relentless downward trajectory of the ANC as it hollows itself out and sells its soul to the old apartheid ruling classes.
Between 1994 and December 2017, we have seen a drama in three acts, with a fourth act beginning with another capitulation at Nasrec. Indeed, as each of these acts unfolded, the language of the actors remained frozen (Freedom Charter, etc), even as the real substance moved further away from this language.
The first act played out between 1990 and 1994. In this period white monopoly capital (WMC) – the real power behind apartheid – survives the transition. Following a period of instability and uncertainty from 1990, by 1994 WMC had managed to guarantee two key outcomes: firstly that its state apparatus would survive intact – including its repressive arms; the police and armed forces. Secondly, it managed to get a commitment that the free market will rule the new South Africa. These commitments were extracted from the ANC by 1993, and they set the ship of state and economy in a direction that reinforced the poverty of the masses, guaranteeing an economy based on cheap black labour.
The second act begins immediately after the ballot boxes are packed away. The Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) is given a neoliberal spin in the White Paper, neoliberalism is celebrated in the Labour Relations Act of 1995, and Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy is installed in the darkness of night. All this becomes official policy of the ANC in 1997 in Mafikeng. Neoliberal stability runs through Stellenbosch in 2002 until the stability, and not neoliberalism, hits a wall in 2007. This period marks the defeat of the working class. Its organisations (COSATU in particular) are captured by the black middle class, itself reeling under the economic pressure unleashed by neoliberism. For the working class the defeat means a jobs bloodbath, rising poverty, and the distribution of income swings in favour of capital.
The third act begins in Polokwane in 2007. In this period the black petty bourgeoisie attempts to put up some resistance against WMC. The petty bourgeoisie comes up against defences that capital had put up in 1994 – a liberalised economy firmly controlled by WMC. Citing ‘lack of confidence’ in the policies of the ANC, WMC goes on strike and refuses to invest in the economy, piles up cash and in the main moves its funds off-shore. Without any real programme of transformation, the petty bourgeoisie finds the struggle too difficult and falls back on theft and corruption as a method of accumulation. Having been taken by surprise in Polokwane and having lost the ANC to the petty bourgeoisie, WMC regroups and launches a fierce offensive against the capture of the ANC. The loss of Eskom contracts by one of the world’s largest commodity trading companies, Glencore, in 2015 was the last straw.
After the losses the ANC suffers in the municipal elections of 2016, WMC becomes bolder and sees the possibility of recapturing the ANC. The disintegration of the Polokwane alliance accelerates as the petty bourgeoisie faces the real prospect of losing political office in 2019. The 18 months between mid-2016 and the end of 2017 is a story of the defeat of the Polokwane bloc, now stripped to its bare core of Zuma and his die-hards. The report of the Public Protector, published in October 2016, incomplete but vitally necessary, provides a line of march for the forces now being marshalled by WMC. From then on it was retreat after retreat for the petty bourgeoisie.
What is therefore surprising about the results of Nasrec is that Ramaphosa was not able to deliver a rout of the Zuma bloc, even though he had the entire WMC, its finances and its press behind him. Further, the entire judiciary was sailing in the favour of WMC. Indeed, so weak was the position of WMC and their candidate Cyril Ramaphosa, that for a long time running into Nasrec WMC expected a victory by Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (NDZ). After a long campaign anchored on anti-corruption, WMC and its candidate sobered up and accepted that the only road to power was through the cesspool of corruption – a deal with David ‘DD’ Mabuza was the only salvation for WMC and its candidate.
We thus have a situation where the candidate of WMC, Cyril Ramaphosa, is meant to preside over nationalisation without compensation, the nationalisation of the Reserve Bank and other radical economic transformation policies. In fact, Ramaphosa’s role is to kill these policies as soon as possible, and to return the ANC to the period between Mafikeng and Polokwane (1997-2007). During that period, the ANC continued to sell the rhetoric that GEAR was a means to implement the RDP, while destroying any possibility of implementing redistributive policies. Job creation was presented as the top priority of the government, while all policies served to deepen unemployment. We therefore have enormous pressure for Zuma to be recalled and for Ramaphosa to take over power now, and not in 2019. For WMC, more ‘populist’ economic experiments like free education have to be prevented, and free education slowed down and reversed.
The Ramaphosa victory thus opens up a fourth act in the sorry history of the ANC post 1994. What can we look forward to in this act? The editorial rooms of the monopolised press would have us believe that the biggest obstacle to ‘prosperity’ and economic growth is the survival of elements of the Zuma bloc in the ANC. The task is therefore to arrest the lot and jail them, and the world will smile on South Africa, foreign investment will pour in, business confidence will return and we will live happily ever after.
The grim reality, however, is that over the last 23 years the ANC and by extension WMC policies have not only impoverished the majority, but they have failed to create a stable black middle class. The gap in the distribution of income has widened; small businesses have continually collapsed; the traditional middle classes have become more impoverished and precarious. The section of the middle class dependent on finance capital and WMC is itself precarious. The structural positioning of the South African economy means there is really no way out: more export led neoliberalism continues to decimate South Africa’s industrial base, “innovation” and technology sends unemployment even higher, and resistance against policies like free higher education and Judge Heher’s proposal to bond students to finance capital mean that the prospects of a prosperous black middle class look very dim. The irony is that at a time when ‘anti-corruption’ is the mantra of the established press, the structural forces pushing the black petty bourgeoisie toward corruption are becoming stronger.
The fourth act beginning at Nasrec may appear to be the beginning of the restoration of neoliberal stability in South Africa, but the foundations that would make for such stability have been destroyed. More importantly, the policies set to be unleashed will destroy the foundations of a stable black middle class even further. Corruption will turn out to be a hydra, a monster with a thousand heads. As soon as the Zupta head is chopped off, other heads will grow in its stead. One only has to look at the current fate of the Democratic Alliance to understand the structural roots of corruption in South Africa.
If Thabo Mbeki’s attempt to tame the petty bourgeoisie in the ANC ended in tragedy, Ramophosa’s second attempt will end up as a farce. Beginning with a marriage to DD the Cat, agreeing to vote-rigging to keep the peace, and contending with structural forces propelling the petty bourgeoisie towards corruption, the ANC is in motion towards an implosion.
It is the supreme irony of Nasrec that an outcome that favoured the stability of the ANC, and therefore the stability of capitalism in the short to medium term, was an NDZ victory. What WMC needed was a leader that could force the kind of compromise (serious radical economic transformation) that Mandela failed to force onto WMC in 1994. And who else could attempt this almost impossible feat than Mandela’s ‘blue-eyed woman’, NDZ?