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Transition to a liberal democracy has seen no change. Resistance to apartheid has morphed into resistance to neoliberalism. Ongoing crises in healthcare and service delivery, runaway corruption, continued debasement of education, an inability to meet housing needs, out-of-control crime and high unemployment all speak to the intolerable conditions that have worsened since 1994. It is no exaggeration to say that South Africa is ripe for revolution.


With South Africa’s official unemployment rate just about permanently fixed in the mid-to-upper twenties (26.7% as at July 2016) [1] there is little prospect of this position really changing any time soon. If anything – notwithstanding the several palliative-measures being offered by government (including its National Development Plan) – the rate has every chance of worsening in coming years. One’s biggest clue to this is the inexorably transforming structure of the SA economy: in the 1950s, the economy was based primarily on (labour-intensive) mining and agriculture (then 26.1% of GDP, now a mere 7.9%). In contrast, the tertiary sector (retail, transport, finance, etc) in the same period grew from 57.1% to 65.5% of GDP.[2]

Allied to the high unemployment rate is the state of education, which is no less dismal. Around 57% of our youth (in the age group 15 to 34) have less than matric – in an economy where job prospects are more than ever linked to educational levels.[3]

And our government’s response? Why, simply “more of the same” – that is, a continual beavering away in search of incremental improvements in all the indices that they target. (Einstein would have called this government insane for doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results!).

But then, of course, this is not a government of the people (even though it is and has historically been, propped up by popular mass support at the polls – albeit dwindling popular mass support). It is a government of the neoliberal Masters-of-the-Universe.

Redge Nkosi [4] has the following to say:

“Two decades into democracy the outcomes of our economic system and its policy framework are unambiguous: increased poverty, increased inequality, increased unemployment, escalating costs of living and doing business. How else does one measure the success of any economic model if not on its ability to provide sustainable increases in the well-being to the majority of its citizens? If it does not, as is so abundantly clear, why should a people continue to labour under such a system with such outcomes – even when there is impressive economic growth?

“Attributing such dreadful outcomes to labour laws, policy uncertainty and infrastructure constraints smacks of intellectual poverty, political naiveté and leadership vacuity on the part of the nation. To make matters worse, we have drawn up a 20-year National Development Plan (NDP) based on the same failed policies, backed by the same Bretton Woods institutions. We are told to pile our hopes on this plan.”

Class struggle from above

The “same failed policies” referred to by Nkosi above can neatly be gathered under the rubric of “neoliberalism.”

“ ‘Neoliberalism’ is the term used to describe the transformations that capitalism underwent in the 1970s and 1980s. In essence, neoliberalism was from the very beginning a project aimed at restoring the class power of capital through the liberalizing of markets – in a word, through the restoration of market hegemony, in terms of which markets would come to dominate every facet of social life. 

“Neoliberalism is a . . . stage of capitalism that emerged in the wake of the structural crisis of the 1970s. It expresses the strategy of the capitalist classes in alliance with upper management, specifically financial managers, intending to strengthen their hegemony and to expand it globally.” [5]

In short, the effects of four decades of neoliberalism which have ravaged the working class on a global scale, have their origins in a capitalist class revolt against the welfare state, and might (in the words of James Petras [6]) be referred to as “class struggle from above.”He is worth quoting at some length:

“The entire panoply of neo-liberal policies, from so-called ‘austerity measures’ to mass firings of public and private employees, to massive transfers of wealth to creditors are designed to enhance the power, wealth and primacy of diverse sectors of capital at the expense of labor.  To paraphrase Marx: class struggle from above is the motor force to reverse history – to seize and destroy the advances secured by workers from previous class struggles from below.

“Class struggle from above and the outside is waged in boardrooms, stock markets, Central Banks, executive branches of government, parliaments and Congresses.  Decision makers are drawn from the ruling class and are ‘in their confidence’.  Most strategic decisions are taken by non-elected officials and increasingly located in financial institutions (like the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and the European Commission) acting on behalf of creditors, bondholders and big banks.

“Class struggle from above is directed at enhancing the concentration of wealth in the ruling class, increasing regressive taxes on workers and reducing taxes on corporations, selectively enforcing regulations, which facilitate financial speculation and lowering social expenditures for pensions, health and education for workers’ families.  In addition, class struggle from above is directed at maximizing the collective power of capital via restrictive laws on labor organizations, social movements and public workers’ collective bargaining rights.

“In other words, class struggle penetrates numerous sites besides the ‘workplace’ and the strictly ‘economic sphere’.  State budgets over bailouts are sites of class struggle; banks are sites of class struggle between mortgage holders and households, creditors and debtors.”[7]

Class struggle from below

Despite the multiple, ongoing crises of capitalism, including the way its excesses are speeding us towards the planet’s ecological breaking point, capitalism “will not collapse under the pressure of its own contradictions.” It will, as Alex Callinicos tells us that Marx believed, “require the active intervention of a revolutionary working class, imbued with the necessary levels of class consciousness.”[8] Callinicos adds:

“. . . at the heart of Marx’s thought was the proposition that socialism is the self-emancipation of the working class. It is only by their own efforts that workers can be rid of capitalism. They are their own liberators.”[9]

How should this Marxian precept inform class struggle in South Africa?

Three ‘levels’ of class struggle

Various analysts, including Erik Olin Wright, have found it convenient to distinguish three levels of working class struggle.[10] At the level of the firm, there would be the struggle to improve working conditions for the employees of the firm. Such struggle would not be aimed at overthrowing the system (of capitalism) but rather securing the employees’ work-related interests. At the institutional level, workers would struggle over the “kind of capitalism” applicable. In a nutshell, should this be more or less democratic-socialist (that is, Keynesian)? “What kinds of regulations of markets and sectors are permissible? How organized and coordinated should be the principal collective actors in capitalism? What kind of insurance against risks should be provided by the state? The game of capitalism can be played under a wide variety of rules, whose terms matter a lot insofar as they give advantages and disadvantages to different kinds of players who play the game; but these all constitute varieties of capitalism.”[11] In line with Wright, Ellen Meiksins Wood [12] distinguishes what she refers to as two kinds of non-transformational strategy in the anti-capitalist struggle:

  • “protective strategies” in terms of which workers and working class people fight to defend what they have (for example, the fight against gentrification or dispossession of their land) and for basic demands (such as housing and public services).
  • The struggle over the “terms and conditions of work.”

Then, of course, there is the macro or system level, where the contest boils down to capitalism versus socialism.

At the level of the firm

In South Africa, 1994 did much to usher in a (relatively) more enlightened labour relations regime, what with the substantive liberal reforms to legislation such as the Basic Conditions of Employment Act. However, because such legislation was grafted onto a business environment dominated by neo-liberal capitalism, the dice remained significantly loaded in favour of the employers or capitalist firms. Thus, more enlightened legislation did not slow down the relocation of business firms to cheaper production sites (for example, in China), it just put in place a “fairer process” for terminating local jobs. The fierceness with which employers resisted the legitimate pay demands of workers reached a kind of apotheosis with Marikana[13] and De Doorns,[14] enlightened legislation notwithstanding. Workers operating at the level of the firm do so under enormous threat – the threat that their firm might relocate, the threat that their jobs might be automated, the threat that they might be retrenched in a down-turn, and then, the threat that one or more of their co-workers might “out-compete” them in the workplace, and in this way (through “competition”) threaten their livelihood.

This kind of scenario provides workers with little bargaining power; they end up fighting defensive battles – battles to prevent the (further) erosion of their already eroded pay and working conditions. For real change to happen at this level, the conditions need to be created at a higher level.

At the institutional level

The so-called “golden age of capitalism” probably provides the best vision for the limits of utopia for the working class under capitalism. Reece Jones[15] provides the general picture:

“In the thirty-year period after World War II, the US economy grew expansively. From 1945 until 1975, real wages almost tripled; income inequality reached its lowest point in 1972. Economic growth was fueled by government spending programs. The GI Bill educated returning soldiers and funded research at universities, which gave US companies an educated workforce and new technologies. The Highway and Transportation Funding Act funded construction companies, provided jobs, and established the necessary infrastructure for more cars and long-distance trucking. This made it easier for companies to sell products. The New Deal regulations also created favorable conditions for workers. Minimum-wage laws established reasonable salaries for workers across all industries, and because all US companies had to comply with them, everyone was on equal footing. The forty-hour work week created weekends, a novel idea that gave workers the time to pursue leisure activities. With their higher wages, they could buy new products to use in their free time. The emerging middle class used its growing wealth to buy homes in the suburbs, which funded the construction industry. The suburbs were often far from factories, so workers had to buy new cars to drive to work, which contributed to road building and the auto industry. They had to fill their new homes with consumer goods, which spurred the manufacturing sector. In turn, all of these purchases created more jobs, which generated more wealth and propelled more people into the middle class. Labor unions played an important role in this economy. The unions guaranteed a stable, dependable, and skilled labor force. In return, they demanded high wages, benefits, and long-term contracts. With government support via regulations, the unions helped to create extremely favorable conditions for workers across a wide range of industries. This system worked because all US companies were in similar circumstances; none was able to undercut the others by paying low wages. Instead, they outcompeted each other by having dedicated, skilled workers who were extremely productive and made high-quality products.”

The South African economy shared in the postwar boom (when international economies grow, our exports rise. In fact, this is precisely what happened in the years following the war – our export performance improved dramatically and local industry expanded.[16]). But the benefits were apportioned according to the dictates of apartheid, and it was local capital and the (white) labour aristocracy who appropriated the lion’s share. For those discriminated against under apartheid (that is, the black working class) there was no golden age – just ongoing ultra-exploitation.

NEDLAC[17] and the post-1994 labour reforms were established under the delusion that golden age-type conditions would pertain going forward. Instead, the ANC government’s GEAR strategy[18] - which effectively ushered in SA’s neoliberal era – lay in wait. This contradiction – a social democratic labour relations regime versus a neoliberal economic order – persists into the present. Today, especially with the benefit of hindsight, few would disagree that the “new South Africa” – far from being the intended progenitor of a social democratic paradise – was actually crafted to “save” “apartheid South Africa” for imperialism. CODESA became SA’s Lancaster House,[19] where the necessary deals would be struck.

Critically, these deals included the participation and consent of COSATU. From the very outset, the settlement at CODESA opened the door to an opportunistic element within the (black) working class movement to secure its place at the table (or should that be the “feeding trough?”). COSATU has always been part of the Tripartite Alliance, which makes it a direct part of the ruling class responsible for SA’s neoliberal regime. As Nkosinathi Mzelemu put it, its alliance with the ANC and SACP makes COSATU part of the problem:

“The post-apartheid man or woman that COSATU has begotten is a worker who, instead of challenging the nature and history of the neo-liberal capitalist game, only complains about and strikes over some rules of the game. Truth is, COSATU is a liberal structuralist trade union that checks and balances a capitalist employer-employee relationship. It is a liberal moral vanguard for capitalism and an ideological apparatus that gives workers a false consciousness.”[20]

COSATU thoroughly discredited itself as a part of any vanguard for progressive change by the position it took in relation to both Marikana and De Doorns. For example, note the statement by the Progressive Youth Movement (PYM) on 25 October 2015:

“Doing the dirty work of the ANC, COSATU will follow the logic that if you are not in the alliance, you are a counter revolutionary. Whereas, we, the PYM know that the most real counter-revolutionaries are those in the ANC and its alliance partners who sold out workers and have become capitalists. In these 18 years of so-called ‘democracy,’ they have created millionaires and billionaires while we have a jobs crisis, an education crisis, a housing crisis and many other problems. Yet every five years they want our votes. Through union investment companies, COSATU unions have shares in various companies; they are benefiting from narrow Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), whilst the majority of black people are poor.”[21]

While the ANC and its allies hope for some kind of economic miracle, such as a new “golden age” or a sudden upsurge in demand for our mineral exports, pundits are already speculating on when – not if – capitalism will fall.[22]

System change

There is little likelihood of a return to postwar growth and prosperity. Streeck explains why:

“Crisis symptoms are many, but prominent among them are three long term trends in the trajectories of rich, highly industrialized — or better, increasingly de-industrialized — capitalist countries. The first is a persistent decline in the rate of economic growth, recently aggravated by the events of 2008. The second, associated with the first, is an equally persistent rise in overall indebtedness in leading capitalist states, where governments, private households and non­financial as well as financial firms have, over forty years, continued to pile up financial obligations. Third, economic inequality, of both income and wealth, has been on the ascent for several decades now, alongside rising debt and declining growth.”[23]

If we are to avoid a turn to barbarism, then the only feasible alternative is socialism.[24] Our situation today – the objective situation – is not much different to that which confronted Trotsky’s generation in the 1930s when he wrote:

“The strategic task of the next period – a prerevolutionary period of agitation, propaganda and organization – consists in overcoming the contradiction between the maturity of the objective revolutionary conditions and the immaturity of the proletariat and its vanguard (the confusion and disappointment of the older generation, the inexperience of the younger generation). It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist program of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, (italics in the original) stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.”[25]


Transition to a liberal democracy has seen no change in the pattern of mass rebellion in this country; resistance to oppression under apartheid has morphed into resistance to oppression under neoliberal austerity-measures. Then as now, we remain the protest capital of the world, with a planet-leading Gini coefficient.[26] Ongoing crises in healthcare and service delivery, runaway corruption at all levels of government, continued debasement of the education of our youth, an inability to meet the housing needs of our people, out-of-control gangsterism and crime in local communities, and of course, intractably high unemployment levels all speak to the intolerable conditions that – if anything – have worsened since 1994. It is no exaggeration to say that we are ripe for revolution.

Ferment in the ranks of the organized workers, particularly in the wake of Marikana, saw a significant rupture following the breakaway of COSATU’s then strongest affiliate, NUMSA. The same period saw the formation of the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP) and a call by the Unity Movement for the building of a united front “for the socialist transformation of our country.”[27] It also saw the formation of Julius Malema’s EFF.

NUMSA immediately set about building a united front with leftwing and other “people’s” organizations, with a view to organizing a mass-based opposition to ANC-rule and the neoliberal order. Whether the NUMSA UF is the new Messiah remains to be seen. Certainly, there are many issues to be resolved. As a united front, by definition it accommodates many overtly contradictory positions. For example, elements that see it as a “reformed” ANC (that is, as the new “true guardians” of the Freedom Charter) live side-by-side with those who would espouse an out-and-out socialist programme. In addition, the UF is far from resolving whether it is a movement for socialism or simply for a reformed-capitalism. Many struggles lie ahead for any united front – including resolution of the race versus class conundrum. And then, of course, it will have to resolve its position in relation to bourgeois parliamentary/electoral politics – is it a new political party in the making, readying itself for the 2019 general election, or is it committed to building a class-conscious mass working class movement focused on the overthrow of the capitalist order? If the NUMSA UF is to play a key historical role in placing our struggle irresistibly on the path to socialist transformation, then it will need to successfully address key questions such as these.

In short, if the NUMSA UF is to be the progenitor of a new political order in South Africa, then its “UF phase” will be a transitional phase, one that unites the working class under a democratic banner of non-racialism, non-sexism, non-collaboration and anti-capitalism, leading to the formation of a mass-based workers’ party. This would be its historical task, one that is not only achievable, but achievable in our life-time.

End notes

[1] Taken from the website [13 Nov 2016].

[2] Roux, Professor Andre, Everyone’s Guide to the South African Economy (Kindle Location 1090), Random House Struik. Kindle Edition, 11th Ed, 2014.

[3] Lehohla, Dr Pali (Statistician‐General), Statistics South Africa Report No. 03‐19‐01, Vulnerable Groups Series I: The Social Profile of Youth, 2009–2014, 2016.

[4] Nkosi, R, Failed neo-liberalism sees SA sleepwalking into a revolution, IOL website, , 18 Nov 2013.

[5] From Dumenil, G and Levy, D, The Crisis of Neoliberalism, Harvard University Press, 2011, page 8.

[6] Petras, James, The Economic and Social Crisis: Contemporary Capitalism and Class Struggle: The Motor Force of Regression or Advance, Global Research, April 2013.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Callinicos, A, The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx, Bookmarks Publications, 2010.

[9] Ibid.

[10] See for example, Erik Olin Wright’s Understanding Class, Verso, 2015.

[11] Erik Olin Wright, Ibid, Kindle Locations 2436 – 2440)

[12] Meiksins Wood, E, The Politics of Capitalism, Monthly Review, 1999, Volume 51, Issue 04 (September)

[13] On 16 August 2012, Police mowed down mineworkers who were on strike in support of pay demands against the Lonmin Platinum Mine. 34 workers were killed and 78 wounded.

[14] “De Doorns” is the rubric under which a strike of farmworkers took place in 2012, on farms in places such as De Doorns itself, Worcester, Ceres, Robertson, Grabouw, Wolseley and Villiersdorp in the Western Cape.

[15] Jones, R, Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move (Kindle Locations 1921-1936). Verso, 2016

[16] Roux, André, Op Cit.

[17]7NEDLAC stands for the “National Economic Development and Labour Council.” It is made up of representatives from Government, organised business, organised labour and organised community groupings. The council comes together on a national level to discuss and try to reach consensus about anything to do with social and economic policy.

[18] GEAR – The “Growth, Employment and Redistribution” strategy introduced by the ANC government in 1996 to drive its post-CODESA neoliberal implementation plans.

[19] The discussions which led to the independence of Zimbabwe took place at Lancaster House in 1979.

[20] Article by Nkosinathi Mzelemu, Alliance with ANC makes COSATU part of the problem, Another View, September 2009.

[21] Progressive Youth Movement (PYM), Press Statement: A Response to the NUM’s Problematic Positions on Mineworker Strikes and Response to the Coming Weekend’s Cosatu Rally in Rustenburg, 25 October 2012

[22] See, for example, article by Willem Streeck, How Will Capitalism End? In New Left Review (NLR), 2014

[23] Ibid.

[24] The well-known expression, “Socialism or barbarism” is attributed to Rosa Luxemburg.

[25] Trotsky, Leon, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1977.

[26]South Africa’s Gini coefficient ranges from about 0.660 to 0.696. According to UCT’s Professor of Economics, Haroon Bhorat, “This would make South Africa one of the most consistently unequal countries in the world.” (Mail & Guardian, 30 September 2015)

[27] See Background Notes to the Revised and Updated Ten Point Programme 2012.