South Africa : an alternative is within reach

Submitted by Anon on 1 March, 2002 - 6:22

An interview with Neville Alexander, Cape Town.

In this interview, Alexander says that in South Africa "there isn't any general system of state welfare is almost exactly the same as during apartheid", and comments on the somewhat strained relations between the neoliberal ANC and their coalition partners the SACP and COSATU, and the possiblilties of a new workers' party.

Question: South Africa plays a key international and negotiating role for the whole southern African region. Who profits from the foreign policies of the South African government?

Neville Alexander: South Africa is seen by above all Europe and the USA as an important partner in the economic development of the south of Africa. In the governing Alliance which exists between the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the trade union confederation COSATU, it is mainly the ANC which almost enthuastically fulfills these expectations. Thabo Mbeki, the ruling President has, with his concept of the "African Renaissance", provided the superstructure for this. On the one hand, the African Renaissance programmatically sums up the regeneration of African culture, the economy, and political and social life. On the other hand, it creates a powerful structure in which, above all, the dominant states south of the Sahara can take the political and economic initiative.

Mbeki and others claim that this programme will benefit all people in Africa, and above all the poor. But because it will be carried out within a capitalist and neoliberal model of society - and because it does not question this model - it will, first and foremostly, if not only, benefit the black or African middle class. The concept of the African Renaissance can be compared with South African "black empowerment", which basically means an increase in power for the black middle class. These programmes no longer have almost anything to do with improving the living conditions of the large majority of the population. Even today, the left inside the ANC claim that, actually, the unemployed, workers and the rural population benefit from black empowerment. But even they then add that it will obviously take a very long time before everyone something from these advances.

Question: Why was the South African government the only one in southern Africa that wanted to force through a new round of talks - against the interests of its neighbours - at the most recent ministers' conference of the World Trade Organisation?

Neville Alexander: That has something to do with the relative advantages of the South African economy when compared to neighbouring countries. The capitalist class in South Africa needs free trade, as pushed by the WTO. Not only within the countries of the southern African economic community (SADC), but in order to be able to penetrate the African continent. The North will only allow this if the South African markets are opened to them. The economic situation of the other countries in southern Africa does not grant them such a position. Unlike South Africa, most of them are at the bottom of the global economic scale.

Question: At home the policies of the ANC also encounter opposition. Has this led to a change in the relationship of the ANC to its Alliance partners in the government, i.e. the trade union confederation COSATU and the SACP?

Neville Alexander: The pressure from below has become so strong that the union leaders, and parts of the leadership of the SACP must openly attack the ANC's policies. They haven't got any other option, as the the political activists in their own organisations are highly dissatisfied because the promises of the post-apartheid era were not kept. More and more jobs disappear, and social conditions are becoming more and more precarious for a large section of the black population The leadership of the ANC's partners must therefore take action against the ANC's policies, but on the other hand they leave escape routes open in case they want to change direction yet again. But there are, in particular amongst the trade unions, some exceptions in which the split with the ANC runs deeper: parts of the public service workers' union; the engineering union; the education union; and the union of chemical workers. Only in a few cases do the most well-known leaders speak out against the Alliance. Mostly they do this in private and don't say anything critical publicly.

Question: At the end of the 1990s the main thing [carried out by the unions] was to attack mass unemployment - the reasons for it were skimmed over. Today the privatisation plans of the government are the major focus of trade union mobilisation. Does this represent a new turn?

Neville Alexander: The main force here is the public service union. The employees in the largest service sectors such as telecommunications and electricity will also be effected by the government's privatisation plans. Many thousands of workers are threatened with redundancy and unemployment. COSATU has no other choice but to focus on privatisation. But one must also take a closer look, because the leadership does not oppose against privatisation as such. They are not against these sectors being viewed as "enterprises" and them being run according to managerial, businesslike criteria. They are merely against the [total] sell-offs to private companies and want the South African state to keep at least more than half of the companies' shares.

Question: Is there an extra-parliamentary opposition, which goes beyond the trade unions?

Neville Alexander: New extra-parliamentary campaigns continually come into existence. On the whole they are groups and organisations that exist on a regional level, mainly of working and unemployed people in the countryside and in the towns, who join together and become active against unemployment, as well as aganist deficits in services, e.g. against high charges for electricity and water supplies, which are simply cut off if the bills aren't paid. Others demonstrate against homelessness and develop models of direct action, as many are evicted from their homes because they couldn't afford to pay the rent any longer.

In South Africa there isn't any general system of state welfare benefits, only pensions and financial support for mothers exist. It is almost exactly the same as during apartheid. The consequences of the ANC's policies are similar for most of the population and they are faced with the only alternative, which is to organise for their own interests. This partly overlaps with the trade unions' campaigns against the government's privatisation plans.

Through this exists the possibility to launch a broad resistance movement against the effects of the neoliberal policies of the ANC government and this is already happening: in Johannesburg; Cape Town; Durban; on the North Cape; and most recently also on the Eastern Cape. In these places "Anti-Privatisation Forums" (APF) exist, which to some extent are led by the public service union, e.g. in Cape Town. But also independent campaigns, such as one to guarantee electricity supplies in Soweto, play a supporting role. The whole structures of these oppositional organisations and groups is very similar to those that existed during the fight against apartheid.

Question: Trevor Ngwane, the Chair of the Anti-Privatisation Forum in Johannesburg, is described by some as the "Subcomandante Marcos" of South Africa. Others claim, he is a "false champion of the poor". Which is correct?

Neville Alexander: (laughs). He is an important personality. In particular because he comes from the ANC. He knows the ANC from inside and as a result began to criticise its policies, and as policies which are for the capitalist class, and directed against wage-workers. He presents his analyses in a simple, almost naive way, which are above all very effective at mass meetings. He also has a diplomatic proficiency which enables him to discuss with the South African finance minister Trevor Manuel at IMF or World Bank meetings. But until now he has played only an important role in Johannesburg, he isn't a national figure yet. The cooperation between different social movements is an example to follow, also thanks to Trevor Ngwane.

Question: The local organisations of the SACP also take part in the regional meetings of the APF. On the other hand, the SACP provides leading ministers, such as the Trade Minister Alec Erwin, who play a decisive role in the government's neoliberal policies. Can the SACP endure this tension?

Neville Alexander: Some members will leave the party anyway after a while. Obviously their loyality to the party is deeply rooted, also for historical reasons. Therefore it is difficult to say exactly when it will come to a split. On the other hand, there are also quite banal and material reasons for remaining a party member, e.g. to protect their own livelyhood. Many of those who really understand where these policies lead do not currently see any alternative. But is perfectly possible that these members would place themselves at the top of a new workers' party, together with other members of the left. This is not only a necessity for South African politics, I even believe that the time has now come to put this possibility to the test.

Question: In some townships, in Durban and in Cape Town, regional electorial lists have already materialised out of the APF, which in some areas have clearly overtaken ANC candidates. Are these the first foundations of a new workers' party?

Neville Alexander: I am of this opinion, as these lists are not made up of small, isolated currents. Many of these regional cooperations play a guiding role and consolidate the existing networks of social movements and political organisations. In Johannesburg it is being considered how these struggles can be spread on to a national level. The activists there have themselves not yet explicitly formulated that they want to form a new party, but the ANC has got there first by accusing them of wanting to do this. But the leading figures of the APF have dismissed this, though I am convinced that South Africa will, within the next two years, experience the founding of such a party.

Question: Does the ANC use repressive methods against the APF or others who criticise its politics?

Neville Alexander: Not through legal methods. But the ANC's critics are politically pushed to the side. There are also many ANC slander campaigns against its political opponents and it also uses its influence to, for example, remove financial support from them. But the plurality of South African society, and the contradictory interests in that society are so deeply rooted, that the ANC would have difficulties if it attempted to rule with openly dictatorial methods. The ANC government fears that a more aggressive course against its political opponents could lead to a situation resembling civil war and that this could also spread to organisations such as the Pan-African Congress (PAC) or the Inkatha Freedom Party. Their first principle is therefore that South Africa must become a country of political and economic stability that can attract foreign investors. They decided on this policy in 1993 and are now consistently taking it further.

Question: Which scenarios are possible if the ANC continues its policies and no meaningful political alternative evolves?

Neville Alexander: Then South Africa will become a country like Brazil or India, in which 60% of the population live in absolute poverty and are totally superfluous for the capitalist economy. One third of society will be able to lead a pleasant and good life, while two thirds vegetate.

Question: In your new book ["Südafrika", published in Autumn 2001 by Verlag C.H. Beck] you deal with the connections between colonialism, the development of capitalism, and the racist system of apartheid. Which consequences do these historical analyses have for the current situation in South Africa?

Neville Alexander: The economic relationships have barely changed. What we refer to as "racist capitalism" is deepening. Merely a few ten thousand black people will be raised into the middle classes. The capitalist system remains. Also, the leadership of the ANC has always accepted the race categories and now continues to divide the South African society into Blacks, Whites, Coloureds and Indians. This consciousness of "different races" is especially supported and cultivated by the South African government. That is one of the largest dangers that we are faced with on the level of the superstructure. If the material situation of the people continues to get worse, then a mobilisation of this [race] consciousness could have an extraordinarily dividing effect - as in other African countries, in which then genocide was carried out.

Neville Alexander was spraking to Gerhard Klas from the German newspaper Sozialistische Zeitung, January 2002. Translated by Matt Heaney.

The scholar of German and historian Neville Alexander, born in 1936, was interned as a political prisoner for eleven years on Robben Island due to his activities against the apartheid regime. Today, the Marxist academic and founding member of the Workers' Organisation for Socialist Action (WOSA) is in charge of the Alternative Education Department at Cape Town University.

The original (German) text of this article can be read at

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.