“Political Freedom without economic equality is a pretence, a fraud, a lie; and the workers want no lying.” Mikhail Bakunin
27 April should not be a day of celebrating but a day for recommitment to the task of transforming South Africa into a truly free, equal and democratic society.
On 27 April 1994 South Africans queued in their millions to vote in the first-ever all-inclusive elections for Parliament and Provincial Assemblies. It was a day that all those who joined those queues will never forget.
The elections were a victory for the people after years of struggle and the sacrifice of many lives. They marked the end to more than a century of brutal colonial and apartheid tyranny. It ended a uniquely barbarous form of racist oppression, condemned by the United Nations as a crime against humanity, which forced the majority to live in conditions no better than slavery.
We were voting for democracy, equality, prosperity and freedom. We had dreams!
On 27 April 2020 there are once again long queues – of starving people desperate for food and water.
There are also even longer virtual electronic queues of people stuck in their homes, waiting for overdue UIF pay-outs and the new ‘coronavirus grants’ promised by the government but which it expects to start paying only in early May.
This will leave casual workers, bogus ‘self-employed’ workers and tens of thousands who have been summarily sacked, left to live without any income for more weeks.
Thousands of families who have been told to stay in their homes in order to defeat the coronavirus epidemic have no homes to stay in after their shacks were cruelly demolished. Others have been forcibly removed to ‘temporary relocation camps’ which are in reality bleak, unhealthy and dangerous prisons.
People in the street struggling to get food have been harassed, assaulted and even murdered by soldiers. Spaza shop owners have shut down and only been able to reopen after bribing councillors to issue a permit and many have also been looted.
The Solidarity Fund, which has raised R2.6 billion created to assist those affected by coronavirus, has been overwhelmed by the number of calls for assistance for the growing numbers facing hunger.
While this is unfolding the climate change disaster is getting worse, because even though the CO2 levels have gone down very slightly, there is no progress towards either genuine decarbonisation or a Just Transition for affected workers. This government spent the days just before lockdown approving fossil fuel projects and telling polluters they don’t need to abide by long-overdue emissions regulations. The carbon tax – trivial as it was – has been postponed yet again. Eskom continues its coal addiction, breaking contracts with renewable energy suppliers. Only the crash of oil prices will slow the offshore drilling and onshore fracking explorations. In other words, in spite of a brief slowdown by the climate-suicidal drivers due to the virus, they are still driving the vehicle in the direction of the final precipice.
Is this the South Africa we voted for in 1994?
The Coronavirus has brought all these scandals into the headlines, but it did not cause them; it has rather exposed in the most glaring way the divisions and inequalities, which already existed and which still scar our society 26 years after we voted for what we hoped would be a free, fair, democratic, and equal society.
That is why the majority of South Africans have no reason to celebrate ‘freedom’ on this day. They have no freedom from poverty, no freedom from hunger, no freedom from unemployment, racism, patriarchy and crime. This is not the future that we voted for in 1994! We cannot celebrate freedom in the midst of poverty and hunger. If it was not because of the lockdown regulations SAFTU would have joined Abahlali basemijondolo and other working class formations in major ‘unfreedom rallies’ on the 27 April 2020.
What went wrong?
At first it seemed that 1994 was going to usher in fundamental changes. Despite the ANC’s agreement to form a coalition government with the National Party – a compromise supposedly to safeguard national unity and prevent civil war – the government we elected contained anti-apartheid struggle veterans and trade union leaders.
The government adopted a new constitution and a bill of rights, which, at least in words, guaranteed most basic human rights, including to life, equality, human dignity, universal suffrage, freedom of expression and, for workers, the right to strike.
It published a Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) which promised the distribution of wealth to the poor and of power to the people. It was widely welcomed.
But workers began to become concerned that the RDP was not being implemented, especially when, without any debate or even consultation with the unions and civil society, it was replaced in 1996 by the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy.
This strategy soon turned out to be the exact opposite of its name. There was negative per person growth from 1996-2000, the unemployment rate shot up from 16% to 23% (not including those who gave up looking for work), and the Gini Coefficient rose to levels higher than the prior record-holder, Brazil. GEAR set in motion a pattern of neoliberal capitalist economic policies, based on the interests of international big business monopolies.
This led over the next two decades to deindustrialisation, the closure of swathes of manufacturing industries, massive capital flight both licit and illicit, cuts in real terms of spending on education, health and other public services, soaring misery, worsening environmental degradation, violence including gender-based violence, and redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich.
It was accompanied by an unprecedented level of corruption and the looting of billions of rands of state funds by an alliance of private business people and political leaders and officials, executives of state-owned enterprises.
Companies used illicit financial flows (IFFs) to stash away their profits overseas and into tax havens so as to avoid paying taxes to SARS. IFFs were estimated by the Treasury’s Financial Intelligence Centre in October 2019 to be between R190 to R475 billion a year.
All these policies led inexorably to South Africa becoming the world’s most unequal society, where more than 60% of our citizens barely survive below the poverty line and where almost 40% are unemployed with almost 60% of the youth unemployed. They have no reason to celebrate.
White monopoly capital
It is now clear that GEAR and the disastrous strategy that flowed from it were not some kind of aberration but the outcome of many deals before and after 1994, between big business and ANC leaders. The former would back political transition to universal suffrage and a democratic constitution in exchange for the latter agreeing to preserve the capitalist economy and neoliberalism – and allowing the former to take their apartheid loot offshore, forever.
This ensured that the ownership of South Africa’s wealth and economic power economic power would remain in the hands of capitalist monopolies backed by global financial institutions, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and their economic police force – the credit rating agencies.
This ensured that there would be no democracy or freedom in the country’s economic life. Instead, the architects and paymasters of apartheid – white monopoly capitalists – would dictate to the black working-class majority and deny them the economic freedom that had expected in 1994.
Quickly transformation and BEE including later the BB BEE was turned upside down to mean the accommodation of the motive forces of liberation into the establishment – the system controlled by white monopoly capital.
And all this was driven by an ANC leadership which not only did nothing to stop it but actively promoted it. Successive ANC leaders, state presidents and governments became willing administrators of this form of economic minority rule, for which they were well rewarded with positions on company boards and opportunities to loot public funds through tender manipulation, fraud and corruption. Virtually none have been brought to justice.
Public services being ruined
One finance minister after another imposed drastic cuts in spending on vital public services, including the deterioration and, in some cases near collapse, of public hospitals and health centres, rural schools and community healthcare.
Tito Mboweni’s budget speech on 26 February 2020 was the worst yet. Even while the coronavirus was starting to spread across the world he was announcing massive cuts – nearly R4 billion – in health expenditure and R161 billion in wage cuts for public service workers. Among these are the nurses, doctors and other healthcare providers and essential-services workers who are now working around the clock, risking their lives to save others from the epidemic. They are being praised, rightly, as heroes, yet seeing their wages fall.
These national budgets have hastened the growing chasm in the gulf between public and private services. The wealthy, still mainly white, minority get access to top-class hospitals, well-funded schools for their children and travel on the expensive Gautrain, while the poor overwhelmingly black majority are condemned to critically understaffed hospitals and clinics, under-funded slum schools and inefficient and increasingly inaccessible trains and death-trap taxis. The masses subsidise the hospitals through tax deductions for medical aids, as well as the huge subsidise that are chewed up by Gautrain.
This two-tier service delivery combined with the corrupt plundering of municipal resources and the growth of violent crime has led to an even greater degree of inequality than in the days of apartheid.
That is why so many poor communities have been flooding the streets in angry protests. Denied to the right to a safe and healthy environment, they have no reason to celebrate.
Human rights under threat
Freedom is now also being undermined by the erosion of human rights enshrined in the constitution. Workers’ right to strike is being thwarted by new amendments to labour laws to give employers the right to use all sorts of strict bureaucratic regulations to make strikes and picketing at workplaces almost impossible and use the courts to enforce these rules.
Workers’ rights to a living wage and fair and equal treatment at work are also being undermined by the attacks on collective bargaining the paralysis at the CCMA which is being swamped by claims of unfair dismissal and non-payment of even the poverty-level national minimum wage.
Employment rights are being further eroded by the increasing use of casualisation of labour, part-time working, and bogus ‘self-employment’, which has created an underclass of marginalised and largely unorganised workers.
For them, along with the more than ten million of unemployed workers, there is no freedom worth celebrating.
The right to free assembly is also under attack, with more and more red tape required to get permission to assemble and march. And when frustrated poor communities take to the streets without permission they risk being violently dispersed by police with teargas and rubber bullets.
Women demand freedom from violence
Another crucial human rights issue is the continuing level of violence against women and children. Freedom remains an empty shell unless such it allows women to live and move about free from the danger of violent or sexual assault, rape and murder both within and outside their homes.
The migrant labour system which we thought we would defeat, by building urban communities and ensuring no barriers to living in the cities, was in fact amplified after 1994. For women that means their unpaid labour involved in raising children, in looking after sick or injured workers, and for taking care of retirees, continues unabated at long distances. Many men have two families as a result of the failure to end labour migrancy, by paying a living wage.
And at home, patriarchy is also ubiquitous. The estimated number of 138 women raped per 100 000, is among the highest internationally, which has led to South Africa being labelled as the ‘rape capital of the world’.
The attacks directed at the LGBTIQ groupings continues unabated as some now, 26 years remain trapped in the pre 1994 constitutional era stereotypes of the past.
Women are also frequently denied their right to equal treatment at work. In the private sector women only make up 32.3% of senior management and a mere 21.6% of top management.
There are also shocking statistics for people with disabilities. While they constitute at least 10% of the nation, they make up fewer than 1% of employees in the public and private sectors, despite the employment equity target of 2%.
Freedom of expression under attack
Freedom of expression is also under threat, the most recent worrying example being the threat by the National Lotteries Commission to lay criminal charges against freelance journalist Raymond Joseph and the community news agency GroundUp over their investigation into alleged fraud and corruption involving multimillion-rand Lottery grants.
The ability of state surveillance agencies to tap our phones on often whimsical grounds, and the degradation of security ethics, mean that the ongoing service delivery protests and labour demonstrations will become ever more tense.
• A complete change of fiscal and monetary policies, nationalisation of the Reserve Bank and changing its mandate to promoting sustainable growth, wealth and income redistribution and employment generation
• Introducing wealth and solidarity taxes to get resources that we so desperately need to revitalise economic growth.
• Fighting corruption, fraud and money laundering, prosecuting all those who have been involved in both the public and private sector and ending the culture of impunity.
• Transforming the dysfunctional public education and health systems and putting an end to the two-tier service delivery.
• Fixing Eskom, SAA, PRASA, Transnet, DENEL, PetroSA and all other state-owned enterprises it has killed through corruption and inefficiency.
• Implementing the historic demands for the land, banks and commanding heights of the economy to be nationalised under democratic working-class control.
• A new economic framework that abandons neoliberalism and austerity programmes in favour of a democratically planned socialist society.
This is the only sure way to achieve the democracy, equality, prosperity and freedom which we voted for in 1994.