South Africa: Understanding the turmoil

After two decades of rule, the ANC’s African nationalist calls are vulnerable to counter-claims of betrayal.

South Africa is to hold general elections on May 7 [EPA]

Shortly after the 20th anniversary of liberation from apartheid, South Africans will go to the polls on May 7. Most pundits predict that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) will be re-elected, although with a reduced majority. Yet the tensions and turmoil roiling the country are likely to continue after the election, for reasons that go well beyond conventional understandings.

Eroding support for the ANC from within its ranks is dramatic. Prominent veterans of the liberation struggle are calling for people to spoil their ballots rather than vote for the ANC.

Shortly after Mandela’s death, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) – the largest and most influential union – announced that it would not support the ANC in elections, and would work to form a left-wing united front of oppositional movements.

In addition, Julius Malema – the firebrand former leader of the ANC Youth League dismissed by the ANC – has formed the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), calling for nationalisation of the mines and expropriation without compensation of white-owned land.

The turmoil in South Africa today is the product of deep-seated forces that can be traced to the transition from apartheid.

In the mainstream press and right-wing opposition parties, the ANC is blamed for corruption, incompetence, over-regulation of the economy, pushing unions to drive up wages, while simultaneously bleeding “responsible” taxpayers dry through welfare for the poor. Adding fuel to the fire of corruption charges is the scandal surrounding government spending on President Jacob Zuma’s rural homestead in Nkandla.

While the Nkandla scandal has angered many South Africans, the conventional diagnosis of the ANC’s problems is inadequate. The turmoil in South Africa today is the product of deep-seated forces that can be traced to the transition from apartheid.

When the ANC and other political parties were unbanned in 1990, powerful South African conglomerates were straining for de-nationalisation, breaking away from the confines of the apartheid national economy to reconnect with the global economy, from which they had been partly excluded in the 1980s by sanctions, exchange controls and the growing crisis of the apartheid state.

De-nationalisation has involved corporate capital’s forging alliances with the ANC to negotiate highly favourable terms for re-engaging with the global economy. It goes beyond the conservative neoliberal economic policies adopted in 1996.

Post-apartheid de-nationalisation has not only enabled a number of large companies to restructure and move their operations, investments and headquarters overseas. In addition, it has led to massive and escalating capital flight; disinvestment from the South African economy; encouraging a small but powerful black capitalist class to ally with white corporate interests; and continuing influence over ANC government policy such as National Development Plan to which NUMSA is sharply opposed.

The consequences have been intensification of brutal inequalities and widespread unemployment. Large portions of the black South Africa population continue to live in poverty, only partially and very unevenly alleviated by social grants. 

Ravages wrought by processes of de-nationalisation are central to the turmoil in South Africa today, but are only part of the story. Also of great importance are practices and processes of re-nationalisation.

In 1990, the South African “nation” did not exist; It had to be produced. The ANC’s strategies of re-nationalisation are three-fold: the inclusive rhetoric of the Rainbow Nation associated with Mandela; immigration laws and practices that have bounded the nation in harsh new ways that fuel xenophobia; and expressions of African nationalism that, for the majority of black South Africans, conjure up histories, memories, and meanings of racial oppression, dispossession and struggles against colonialism and apartheid.

Over the 20 years of ANC rule, de-nationalisation and re-nationalisation have played out in relation to one another in increasingly conflictual ways. Business needs the ANC to manage the fallout from its accumulation strategies and keep the lid on popular protest.

The ANC tries to do this through invocations of African nationalism that have deep popular appeal. Yet because these nationalist calls are linked to memories and meanings of suffering and redress for the wrongs of the past, they are vulnerable to counter-claims of betrayal – a vulnerability intensified by processes of de-nationalisation.

The limits of this Faustian bargain were evident in August 2012 in the platinum mining town of Marikana, when police and paramilitary units killed 34 striking mineworkers in cold blood.

The Marikana massacre was the catalyst that gave rise to the EFF and to NUMSA’s split from the ANC. In different ways, both are tapping into widespread popular anger and discontent that has been gathering force over the past decade. On the ground the ANC deploys a formidable patronage machine that may well deliver more votes than many expect.

Yet regardless of election results, a deeper understanding of the turbulence in South Africa is salient well beyond its borders. South Africa is an extreme but far from exceptional embodiment of dynamics in many other regions of the world: Intense inequality alongside “wageless life”, proliferating protest and populist politics that move in different directions and official efforts at containment ranging from “pro-poor” policies to increasingly common police brutality.

Gillian Hart is a Professor of Geography at the University of California Berkeley and Honorary Professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Her book Rethinking the South African Crisis has just been published by the University of Georgia Press.