The anti-corruption march, planned for September 30, is turning into a thing. The coalition United Against Corruption gathers more logos by the day, and it should be one of the most sizeable gatherings of South Africans in the democratic era. But so what? What scores will need to be settled to make it worthwhile? And where does it stand in the stream of our history? By RICHARD POPLAK.
“Just call me a Thatcherite,” then deputy president Thabo Mbeki said during a fateful Tuynhuys press conference.
The year was 1996, and Mbeki had just introduced to a incredulous South African public the Growth, Employment, and Redistribution(Gear) plan. The document, Mbeki insisted, was the neoliberal Viagra that would afford the country an endless, Western-style socio-democratic hard-on. (President Nelson Mandela described Gear as “our homegrown structural adjustment programme”, the rare utterance from his lips unlikely to make it onto a T-shirt.) Gear represented a sharp right-turn from the labour movement-endorsed Reconstruction and Development Plan (RDP), which is precisely why Mbeki and the plan’s principle architects had done everything they could to keep its formulation a secret.
The RDP was cobbled together slowly, tortuously, with endless consultative sessions and ‘buy-in’ from the Broad Church’s disparate constituents. It was a compromise’s compromise, and reading it in the cold light of 2015 reveals just how little of actual substance there is in its numberless pages. Nevertheless, it was representative of what most African National Congress (ANC) cadres actually wanted the future to look like: pinkish, but with television sets for everyone.
Cue sweaty, nervous ‘foreign investment partners’, a plunging currency, and all the necessary sturm und drang that precedes the implementation of the economic shock doctrine. Gear set South Africa on a course very different from the one prophesied by the Reds Under The Beds crew, who saw a commie in every comrade. The plan was startlingly, aggressively conservative, which is why an astonished reporter asked Mbeki if Gear would make him Africa’s ranking ersatz Iron Lady.
His response was duly noted for the record.
What does any of this have to do with Unite Against Corruption (UAC) and their big walk, currently scheduled for 30 September? Well, nothing if you believe UAC is simply a gathering of 100,000 South Africans who hope to get some air and have a nice kvetch-fest because the ANC steals stuff. And rather a lot if you consider that Zwelinzima Vavi, Jay Naidoo and a number of the other instigators were intimately involved (or deliberately not involved) in putting Gear into gear. With the latter in mind, what the UAC can represent — and provide covering fire for — is the redemption of a local, labour-driven left, and its resurgence as a South African political force.
Here’s the part where we’re forced to note Bernie Sanders surging poll numbers, as the US socialist challenges neo-Mbeki-ite Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination; and Jeremy Corbyn, the newly elected, nationalisation-crazy pinko now heading up Britain’s Labour Party. We could go on: Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, our very own Economic Freedom Fighters. Not for a second am I suggesting that these movements have been particularly successful, at least not in the short term. But as capitalism’s kamikaze death spiral continues to fragment political elites in favour of the wacko fringe (I’m looking at you, The Donald), labour and its traditional hangers-on — declared dead last year by those who were declared dead last week — are benefitting by default.
South Africa, the shock doctrine’s best-behaved bastard offspring, is currently too divided to have its Oxi moment. The anti-corruption march will have to do.
In a way, this is all about payback, a showdown at the OK Coral with sensible shoes instead of six shooters. Consider the fact that the UAC’s most notable figurehead, fired Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) secretary general Vavi, played his own (non) role in the Gear debacle. He was among the first union representatives to hear of the plan just two days before its debut in Parliament, after which he was, shall we just say, nonplussed. Despite his and others’ disappointment, Cosatu made what would turn out to be a catastrophic blunder. Instead of calling for hellfire and a paper shredder, the federation closed ranks with the Mandela/Mbeki camp, thus dooming the South African worker to a future without work.
We must take the organisers of the march at their word—this is an anti-corruption thing, driven to no small extent by professional organisers like Section27’s Mark Heywood, who has no ancient political gauntlet to unbury. But being against corruption is not the same as being for something; the march’s raison d’être tacks dangerously close to the currents of apolitical wishy-washiness reminiscent of the worst of the RDP-era’s equivocations. The really interesting thing about the UAC is how self-consciously retro it is, like an ’80s hair metal cover band, or a MacGyver reboot. The churches have now come onboard, along with the breakaway union the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa. Dozens of civil society organisations have signed up. It all resembles — nay, is designed to resemble — those big-ass marches that defined the ’80s in this country.
The stakes are both lower and higher this time around. No one will be killed or arrested for marching; the cops will not drag the organisers out of their bed during pre-dawn raids. But South Africa’s evils are now more hidden, and also more entrenched — inequality fuels a machine that maintains apartheid’s privileges and dispenses its miseries much the same way it did the time last folks were hoofing it en masse.
There is no single historical breach that turned South Africa into one of the most unequal societies on earth. That said, if you had to pick one, the implementation of Gear would certainly be a candidate. The UAC cannot redress all of the screw-ups of the past. But beyond it’s anti-corruption mandate lies a real political mission, one that involves a broad constituency of leftist groups, all of whom are linked either historically or in spirit to what remains of the labour movement.
The Thatcherites have had a good run. Nineteen years later, perhaps it’s time to tarnish their iron. Played correctly, the anti-corruption march allows a second front to open on the ANC’s left. Played incorrectly, this is just another of our short walks to futility. DM
Photo: Striking Cosatu members take to the streets of Johannesburg, April 30, 1996, in their fight against politicians they accuse of trying to enshrine inequality in the post apartheid constitution. (Juda Ngwenya/Reuters)