Mazibuko and Malema: New Profiles, Reshuffling Social Forces

Two events have been the subject of recent media comment: the ANC Youth League’s (ANCYLs) march for “economic freedom” and the rise of Lindiwe Mazibuko as Democratic Alliance (DA) leader of the opposition. These rather over-shadowed a third, Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan’s, Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF).

Gordhan’s message of pre-emptive austerity - doing “more with less” - of course couldn’t compete with Mazibuko’s rise and, as many would hope, Malema’s fall.

A common feature of media analyses is that the broad-church ANC is bleeding -- losing key sections of its congregation, the black “born-frees,” to the transformed DA and the poor unemployed youth to Malema’s ANCYL. Gordhan’s MTEF then passed by largely unnoticed because it is apparently so much common sense in these tough times that comment was superfluous.


But such a picture is a false one. The ANC is the favoured party of Big Business and Gordhan’s MTEF bears testament to how pro-business the ruling party is. Thus, making it ill prepared to meet the biggest economic crisis facing the world today.

Gordhan committed the state to cuts in expenditure and a return to a three percent budget deficit by 2014. He argued that cuts would involve a shift away from consumption expenditure (salaries and wages) to investment in infrastructure. Public sector consumption expenditure is code for the employment of teachers, nurses, doctors, street cleaners, plumbers and librarians.

This is nothing more than warning all of us that service delivery will be downgraded even more and that all the talk of prioritising education is mere talk and that the flagship National Health Insurance, which requires massive investment in health personnel, including the near 40% vacancies in the sector, will be compromised.

Gordhan combined this with a further relaxation of capital controls, which will heighten the two worst threats to all of us in this time of global financial crisis: South Africa’s (SA’s) increased exposure to the bond market and the negative current account caused by having to remit profits and dividends to SA’s departed transnational corporations. Instead of spending more on services and jobs to facilitate growth and reducing capital volatility in a time of economic crisis, our finance minister is cutting growth prospects and exposing SA more in international markets.

Meanwhile, the DA has elevated Lindiwe Mazibuko as a credible black leader ready to mount a serious challenge to the ANC by 2014. By then, so the DA hopes, the born-frees will have no loyalties to the “struggle.”

Much has been made of Mazibuko’s youth, gender, blackness and the image of being a professional untainted by the past, a “born free,” kind of Obama-style post-racial politician.

But why is it assumed that the black middle classes consider themselves born-frees and above the fray of apartheid’s past?

Mazibuko may well be the harbinger of such a new political alignment, which the DA can capture. But is this layer significant enough to produce an electoral revolution? Is it even a unified layer? Is it impatient to shake off the “shackles” of the racial past or does it still have racial axes to grind? And why should it opt for the DA when the black middle classes are already the playgrounds of a number of other forces from the mainstream ANC to the ANCYL and even to COSATU?

Certainly there is a growing layer of young urban black professionals, products of private and Model C schools and beneficiaries of affirmative action. The Unilever Institute’s research into the ‘black diamond’ phenomenon recently concluded that there had been a 30% increase in the size of what it terms the black ‘middle class’, from two million to 2,6 million between 2005 and 2007.

But black business leaders are disgruntled at the slow pace of at which their share of ownership of companies has proceeded. A JSE study found that over 83% of the South African economy is in white hands and only eight percent of the direct investment of the top 100 JSE companies was owned by black shareholders. Employment Equity Reports by the Department of Labour reveal that nearly 70% of managerial and CEO positions in both the private and the public sector are still white.

More recently, we have seen the furore within Business Unity South Africa (BUSA) with the Black Management Forum disaffiliating, alleging that BUSA was still focusing on white business interests. So the black middle and upper classes still burn with indignation at the legacies of apartheid.

It was noticeable how the ANC was able to get the loyalties of the Kenneth Kunene’s, the black “it-girls” and the Kwaito pop stars for both its 2009 general election platforms and the recent 2011 municipal elections.

But, more than this, if the DA is hoping to use Mazibuko to win the black middle classes then she is going to come into direct confrontation with Malema and his ANCYL.

For his part, Malema has tapped into a rich vein of indignation. But his appeal is directly to the unemployed young black graduate, the losing entrepreneur, the frustrated civil servant who didn’t get the affirmative action post (which is by no means an illegitimate or ignoble cause).

But this is a layer caught between the mass of the working class poor beneath them and the continued domination of white people above them. They are the ones seeking the jobs in the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA), the access to or the possibility of promotion within the civil service.

Malema’s “economic freedom” march must be seen in this context. Claims that the ANCYL has now become the voice of the young, unemployed poor in the townships, invoking images of the Arab Spring, are exaggerated. Malema is a wealthy capitalist dispensing tenders and flaunting wealth.

The ANCYL is largely made up of individuals on the NYDA payroll, students, unemployed graduates, SANCO members and young councillors -- hardly the stuff to stir the passions of the township unemployed. Malema’s threat to the ANC’s “Big 6” - that he would bring them down with mass support - has been proven to be a hollow one. Mantashe and Zuma know this, which is why they called his bluff.

For Mazibuko to represent some kind of sea-change in South African politics, the DA would have to drastically change tack and become the vehicle for middle class black frustration and this, given its history and make up, we can largely exclude.

Within the terrain of elite politics different parties compete for the honour to satisfy the markets. The ANC wins because it has the liberation credentials. In the past, hundreds of activists took their first steps towards resisting apartheid oppression in and through the ANC. So the ANC’s credentials are not mere electoral nostalgia or “tribal instincts.” Of course the ANC has since done everything in its power to extricate itself from this legacy.

But there are two ironies here…

Firstly, post-apartheid SA looks and feels - for the majority - exactly like apartheid SA: the rich, the best schools, the fancy cars, housing, etc. all replicate the racial make up of the past.

So the majority continues to want to defeat apartheid and the ANC is still the closest in the majority’s lived experience to that ideal of the parties in the current line up. All the statistics confirm this. The ANC’s electoral strength lies with the very poor, the townships and shacks that dot the urban and rural landscapes.

Which leads us to the second irony…

It is the ANC government that is responsible for the neoliberal policies of today, for the widening gap between the rich and poor, for the white sense of largesse and black poverty. But the ANC can, at least for the moment, carry this contradiction, can even lose some sections of the black middle classes, and still rely on the urban and rural poor – the very victims of their betrayals – to carry the day for them at the polling booths.

So why do the poor continue to vote for the ANC? There is even evidence that many of the township activists in social movements fighting ANC councillors put aside their actions at election time and go and vote for the ANC.

They do so as individuals - this is the nature of liberal democracy. It converts the working classes into citizens - discrete individuals exercising their individual rights. This is embodied in the idea that “my vote is my secret” and the suspension of political activism during elections and the sanctuary of the polling booth is a private space.

Of course these individualised sanctuaries were a necessary gain against state repression and are, as such, a hard won right. But they also epitomise the individualistic nature of liberal democracy.

As a result, the poor vote, not as a working class, not as a social force contesting power relations in the country, but as discrete individuals.

And in this quiet space, poor people seek individual possibilities, however small, for themselves or their children to escape poverty. And they choose a party accordingly. Rather like the way poor people make decisions to send their children to private schools. They do so well aware that such schools entrench poverty and in inequality for their class. But as individuals it is about making choices from the limited ones available.

The same contradiction exists with private hospitals. COSATU takes a stand against private medicine and calls for increased public hospitals, yet individual worker members quietly set aside these dreams whilst they take the “realistic” option of negotiating that their employer should pay for their membership of a Medical Aid scheme so that they and their children can go to private hospitals.

So you vote for the party who may well have an individual councillor who can put you higher up in the housing waiting list, or guarantee the child support grant, or get the truck to come and pick up the garbage for once. In a world where all parties are hostile or have the same policies, people vote as opportunistic individuals.

But there are other dramatic events taking place off stage…

These are the ongoing service delivery revolts. The idea that Malema somehow represents the anger and frustrations of the young activists protesting in the townships and shack dwellings is a media fiction. It has no basis in fact and only serves to insult these activists and their struggles. It speaks in a deeply patronising way to the idea of the “crowd” in Shakespearian literature, infinitely able to be manipulated by demagogues and ever at the mercy of their most basic passions.

No, these struggles reflect something much deeper – a change in the composition of the working class and a shift in the centre of gravity of struggles.

The last twenty years of neo-liberal policies - privatisation and commercialisation, cuts in social services etc - and their intensification by the ANC government after 1996 have had devastating effects on the working class. Unemployment levels average 40% across the country but reach levels of 60 to 80% in rural areas and the poorer provinces. People in rural areas now rely entirely on welfare grants and remittances from already poor workers in the cities.

Faced with a housing backlog of 1.5 million in 1994, the ANC government simply abandoned any programme of public housing. The apartheid regime had stopped building houses in 1982, so there was already a housing crisis. The new government adopted a policy of only providing subsidies to people to buy their own RDP houses from developers with loans from the banks. Today government statistics on housing are buried under the term “housing opportunities.” This means that those who have taken advantage of “housing opportunities” are in debt, others are on waiting lists to qualify for the miniscule rental stock, whilst millions are abandoned to informal settlements or backyard dwellings.

Rural livelihoods have collapsed and, as a result, small towns – the Balfours, the Howicks and Sebokengs - have become rural ghettos of the unemployed, the youth and women. And in urban areas the older brick-house townships have become enveloped in new camps and backyard dwellers. As a result, it is not so much the Sowetos, Tembisas, Botshabelos or Mdantsanes that are the nerve centres of protest, but the Diepsloots, the Site Cs and the Protea Glens.

Mazibuko and Malema may be media celebrities, but relative to these struggles and the power exhibited by Gordhan’s government, they are bit players in a larger drama.

 

This article was first published online here:http://www.sacsis.org.za/site/article/777.1

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