Liberation was not going to be a quick fix. Real prosperity and social inclusion was only going to come from fixing the deep structural problems that had given rise to massive and persistent unemployment and poverty. Our mass struggles within the country, led by Cosatu and the UDF, with tightening sanctions driven by a global anti-Apartheid movement and the ANC’s liberation efforts, had weakened the superstructure of the Apartheid state.
South Africa had entered a phase of a low-scale civil war. A political stalemate was apparent to all. We had the stark choice of a political negotiation or the ‘scorched earth’ of deepening conflict. Thankfully we choose negotiations, spurred on by the collapse of the Berlin Wall and global communism. In its aftermath, we saw the emergence of a triumphant capitalism in a unipolar world. The market and the role of the private sector were glorified, and the seeds of human greed set in and exploded in the economic crisis of 2008.
The release of Mandela signalled a phase of irreversible change. The challenge was whether we would agree that the real content of freedom had to go beyond the right to vote every five years and to tackle the root causes of joblessness, poverty and unemployment.
The battle lines were drawn in 1991 when the Apartheid state sought to introduce unilaterally the VAT system. A broad coalition of democratic organisations, led by Cosatu and including faith-based groups, black business organisations, civil society, trade unions, students, women and rural groups opposed and launched a successful campaign under the slogan “No unfair taxation without representation. We want a negotiation of the restructuring of the economy. The Apartheid Government is illegitimate.” Our demand was a taxation system that did not spread the burden to the poor to subsidise the rich.
The campaign involved direct negotiations with the government. It broke down and a massive national strike, supported by over three million, people brought the country to a standstill. Concessions that exempted basic food were won and a new finance minister, businessman Derek Keys, replaced the intransigent Barend du Plessis. In the aftershock of the VAT strike, negotiations were held with Keys and an agreement reached to set up the National Economic Forum to start negotiating an agenda of economic changes. It was recognised that an economic Codesa alongside the political Codesa would make eminent sense.
This proposal was torpedoed by the ANC and particularly its economic department on some vague notion that it was the responsibility of the future democratic government. But the undertones were clear that powerful forces in the national and global establishment were not going to have Cosatu in the driving seat of economic negotiations. The NEF, although it had some success in creating a Jobs Fund and becoming a model on which a Nedlac would eventually be launched as a socio-economic council, was strangled at birth.
The bullish and confident ‘captains of industry’ were quick to nip any more radical restructuring of the economy and put forward a strategy of economic transformation based on BEE (black economic empowerment). The strategy that would transfer wealth at market prices to politically connected elite in special investment vehicles, and paid for by dividends. It meant that in most cases the established white elite was paid a premium price and the new black elite was powerless to change how a company was run because it would affect the dividend stream to which they were beholden. It also created a model of wealth accumulation that was not productive but hostage to vested interests.
This trajectory was compounded by a returning exile community who believed they were the ‘Government in Exile.’ The die was cast for the eruptions we have seen in the past weeks at Marikana and the service level protests we see igniting across the country.
Within Cosatu, the discussion moved to what was the new programme for building democracy. The idea of reconstruction pact that would be the binding glue of a new tripartite alliance was born. It would commit the ANC and the SACP to a genuine deep-seated transformation that went to the heart of our anti-Apartheid struggle – the cheap labour system and a racial monopoly capitalism that suffocated any emergence of a real entrepreneurial class, based on building the productive industrial capacity of SA or addressing poverty in our country.
Under pressure not to rock the boat, and now also in the dilemma of negotiating with Cosatu comrades that were in leading positions within the ANC, the reconstruction pact morphed into a framework for development and won us a landslide victory in 1994. But the policy and power divisions did not take long to set in. Unfortunately, internal leadership was naïve in the art of palace politics.
Hardly had we begun to warm our seats, starting the painstaking work of rebuilding the country from the trenches, when a new secret process was hatched. Comrades were given the choice to comply or be marginalised. Even more sinister: unbeknown to any of us in the Cabinet, the ANC NEC or certainly the tripartite alliance, a secret process was already underway and an agreement reached on the economic challenges. Black Economic Empowerment was entrenched as the model of economic transformation and GEAR buried forever the idea of the RDP.
Our strategic objectives of financial indices replaced the commitment to the human development indicators, and our work to address the structural challenges of poverty, inequality and joblessness fell by the wayside. It was only a matter of time before state officials began to see their government role as a career to wealth accumulation also. Cadre development became the de facto platform for political patronage, and an insidious corruption deeply permeated the social fabric. The state was incapable of regulating how officials and political office bearers and their families dipped into public coffers or used their formal positions to strike deals with companies they had previously regulated.
And as the grip of politics tightened its noose around the economy, a new predatory elite of middlemen emerged – a criminal horde of brutal shock troops who unabashedly corrupted some of the most senior levels of the state.
Established business which did not play the game was forced into line. BEE companies that did not pay the party (tax that allowed suitcases of cash to buy off votes in our conferences) were quickly marginalised. The levels of corruption based on political patronage now sank deeply into the ranks of the state.
The festering sores of inequality became worse. Absolute starvation was only averted because one in three South Africans now lived on a social grant.
So where are we now?
We have an education system that fails the poorest of the poor. We know that half of the 12 million children in the education system will, in 12 years of schooling, not acquire the skills to get a job in their lifetime.
We need a redesign of education. We need to acknowledge the emergency we have in education and to bury the denialism we see in the government at present. We need an education summit that is a negotiation; the creation of new roadmap. We need decisive action against corrupt officials that rob our children of textbooks, libraries, toilets and school infrastructure. We need a zero tolerance approach to sexual predators and absent or incompetent teachers.
We need a serious roadmap for job creation that creates livelihoods – an economic Codesa that goes beyond the current dominant players. The SA private sector and pension funds are sitting on cash stockpiles of a trillion rands. There are tough choices if we want to see those funds put into productive investment. It’s not about grandstanding or fancy leadership summits. It’s about practical steps to ensure accountability and transparency in the public sector, and the promotion of entrepreneurs who can deliver.
This week, the Securities Exchange Commissioners of the United States voted to uphold the Cardin-Lugar Extractives Transparency Amendment with no exemptions for any companies or operations in any countries. What this means is that from the 2014 financial year, all US-listed extractive companies, numbering roughly 1,100, will have to declare payments of over $100,000 to foreign governments, with no exceptions. I would like to see our lawmakers insisting that such contributions – including party political donations and business dealings – are made mandatory and public.
The nation is in a state of ferment. We will never recover from the massacre at Lonmin’s Marikana mine that saw 44 lives needlessly lost. Last week, Tshwane was left in a state of disorder as informal traders were uprooted from their customary trading spots; moved by the city’s metro police officials to more suitable areas. At the centre of all of these upheavals are people’s livelihoods and rights to decent wages and working and living conditions.
These eruptions give rise to the opportunity for a new political narrative. But we need cool heads and pragmatic solutions. We need an agenda of change that takes us away from the precipice we seem to be standing on. The situation calls for honest leaders who understand the power of service and humility. SA is a tinderbox. There is deep anger, hostility and restlessness in the land. Ethnic, tribal and racial tensions and xenophobic violence are skin deep. It does not take too much demagoguery to inflame emotions that spill over into loss of lives and property.
Ultimately, the real barometer of success is going to be our ability to ensure that every parent has the human dignity to earn a living that puts food on the table for their children. That our schools are places of learning, the clinics are where our people feel they are being taken care of and our communities are places of safety and security.
Marikana was our crossroads. It is our second chance to get our democracy to work for the people. The coming Cosatu Congress is an important landmark on the way to Mangaung. I hope that the current leaders will be courageous and bold; that they will confront the failures we have made as a movement and a society. I hope that we will erase the culture of political arrogance, corruption and entitlement that grows in our midst and alienates us from our grass roots base; that we will recognise that many of the disappointments our people endure today happened on our watch; that we will be self-critical and return to the path of building the better life for our people that we promised them in 1994.
That is my deep desire and hope. The time has passed from my generation to yours. And as we all know, “Every generation has its struggle.” DM
"Last century’s magic is this year’s science." ~ Cherie Priest