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South Africa: Fueling the Fire

category southern africa | community struggles | opinion / analysis author Thursday October 12, 2017 19:58author by Shawn Hattingh - ZACFauthor email zacf at riseup dot net Report this post to the editors

Wave after wave of community protests have been taking place in South Africa. People are angry that after twenty years of so-called freedom they are still confined to living in shacks, having to defecate in communal toilets, and having essential services terminated when they can’t afford to pay.
Protest in Freedom Park, south of Johannesburg on 8 May. Photo by: Jonathan Payn (ZACF)
Protest in Freedom Park, south of Johannesburg on 8 May. Photo by: Jonathan Payn (ZACF)

Fueling the Fire

by Shawn Hattingh (ZACF)

Wave after wave of community protests have been taking place in South Africa. People are angry that after twenty years of so-called freedom they are still confined to living in shacks, having to defecate in communal toilets, and having essential services terminated when they can’t afford to pay.

What fuels this anger further is that on the other side of the cities and towns, in the old white-only suburbs, the elite and middle classes flaunt their wealth.

Yet the ruling class – white and now black capitalists, top state officials, and politicians – have waged non-stop war against the working class to deepen this inequality. The reason they have done this is to increase their wealth – this class war lies at the root of the protests we have seen.

Many of the people that have been involved in the recent protests – or their parents – had hoped for a better life with the fall of apartheid. Under that horrific system, the black working class (workers and the unemployed) were subjected to racial oppression and exploitation. It was cheap labour, in the form of the black working class, which generated huge profits for corporations. To ensure the lowest costs of the reproduction of this exploited class, the apartheid state forced people to live in homelands and townships in which the most threadbare services were provided. The consequences were that the black working class were deliberately kept in poverty and when they rose up they faced the apartheid state’s gun barrels.

Fast forward to today. One can scarcely believe the reality in which the black working class finds itself, which materially is often as bad as under apartheid.

Since 1994, the portion of Gross Domestic Product which goes towards wages has declined. The implications of this are that in real terms the wages of the black working class have been in decline since the fall of apartheid. Unemployment too has exploded as capitalists have reduced their labour force, mechanised, and implemented flexible labour to boost profit rates.

The post-apartheid state has been central to the war on the working class. It has redirected wealth upwards towards the ruling class. It has done this through various means, which have included spending on infrastructure for corporations and tax breaks for corporations.

Since 1994 the tax rate for corporations has been driven down from 49% to 28%. This is money that could have been used to improve the lives of the poor through providing, amongst other things, decent services and housing. At the same time, however, Value Added Tax, a tax that targets the working class, has contributed a larger and larger part of the state’s revenue. Far from being an under resourced state, the South African state has been shifting wealth from the working class to the ruling class.

At the same time, the state has been active in attacking the poor. In real terms (inflation adjusted) spending on services for the working class has remained largely stagnant since 1994. On average the state under the ANC has allocated less than 2% of the budget to housing for the working class. As such, services like water, electricity, housing, sanitation, healthcare and education for black working class areas are a shambles.

The national state under the stewardship of the ANC has also dramatically reduced the amount of money that it transfers to local governments to deliver services such as sanitation and refuse removal. This has been done to please international capitalists in the form of speculators. Speculators tend to target buying the bonds of states with low debt levels. To keep debt levels low at a national level, the South African state slashed transfers to local governments.

This means local municipalities have less for service delivery. To try and generate income, local governments have adopted cost recovery for services to the working class, such as electricity, water, sanitation and refuse removal. The consequences are, if you can’t afford to pay you don’t get the services. Making matters worse is that at the level of local government, municipalities have outsourced basic services. For a connected local elite, usually linked to the African National Congress or in some areas the Democratic Alliance, this has been a godsend. This has seen contracts for housing and service delivery being handed out to those who have connections to politicians. The consequences of these neoliberal policies is that service delivery is abysmal.

The reality is that the state does this, at a local and national level, because it is an instrument of the ruling class. States exist to enforce the rule of a minority elite over a majority. Even in a parliamentary democracy, it is the elite that indirectly and directly control the state and they use it to increase their wealth.

Of course states do provide some services to the poor. These are and were concessions that have been forced on the ruling class by the working class through the history of struggle. Indeed, the black working class only receives some support from the state – although meagre – because of the history of struggle. Under neoliberalism though, these concessions are being rolled back, and it is this that is once again fuelling protests.

The role that the state plays in protecting the ruling class can be seen in how the police have reacted to the protests. Most people involved in protests try to follow the state’s prescribed procedures to air their grievances, for example engaging in Integrated Development Plans – and only embark on protest once these proved to be dead-ends. But once people protest, the police react violently.

The working class, however, has proved that it won’t lie down under the fire from the ruling class. This is where hope lies. What is needed now is for these struggles that we have been seeing across the country to link, based on self-organisation and direct democracy. There are many challenges to this, including toxic party politics, but if society is too change it will have to be done. The fire of resistance needs to burn; and to do so struggles need to link and become a force capable of blunting the attacks of the ruling class in South Africa.

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