The African National Congress represents primarily the interests of both the emergent black capitalists and of the (largely black) state managerial elite. Despite the myth of common black interests, the black elite is anti-working class. The ANC is undeniably full of factions but these conflicts have nothing to do with real political divisions or principles; they arise from vicious elite competition for access to the wealth and power provided by high state office itself, like access to tenders. Given the powerful hold of (largely white-run) conglomerates in the private sector, naturally the emergent black elite must rely primarily on state office for enrichment and accumulation. But the state has only so much space – thus the viciousness of the conflicts, paralleling the viciousness of corporate clashes. The ANC is key to getting office, so this translates into a struggle within the ANC. The system generates the ANC factions, and the factions are no threat to the system: these are tertiary contradictions, equivalent to boardroom fights in private companies.
At the heart of the new South Africa is a balance between two ruling class sectors based on mutual dependence: the (largely black) state elite and the (largely white) private corporate elite, allied against the (largely black) working class (as well the Coloured, Indian and white working class). The state elite needs capital accumulation to fund and arm itself; the private elite needs the state’s power to maintain capital accumulation. The ruling class has two wings: private capitalists centred on means of production in corporations, and state managers, centred on means of administration and coercion in the state. The two are bound by common interests, but neither the mere tool of the other. The mutual interests of the two ruling class sectors are profound. They are concretely expressed in a shared programme of South African expansionism, working class containment and neo- liberalism, exemplifying the primary contradictions between the ruling class and the working class.
Each wields highly centralised resources, via the state bureaucracy, including state companies on the one hand and large private conglomerates on the other. In South Africa, by 1981, the state and eight private companies held 70% of the total assets of the top 138 companies; today, 10 companies control 50% of Johannesburg Securities Exchange capitalisation, matching state monopolies in electricity, rail and so on. There is also a powerful, wealthy black elite centred on the state, wielding an Africanised army and police; and the state bureaucracy, perhaps 30% of the economy through the state, which owns banks, Eskom, harbours, rail, transport, mass media, the weapons industry and South African Airways, plus 25% of all land (including 55% in the provinces of Gauteng and the Western Cape).So “inseparable” are they that the corporate elite uses its private wealth to access state power, and the state elite uses its state power to access private wealth. Both ruling class wings share lives of privilege and power: for example, the top 15 earners in South African state companies got R103 million annually (2010), in a country where 50% of the people get 8% of national income. The ANC government is allied to big business, and the state elite does not represent “the people”, but its own class interests.
Despite (white) corporate hesitancy on BEE, around a quarter of JSE-listed company directorships are held by people of colour, with the proportion of senior managers in the private sector at 32.5% (2008). The top 20 richest in South Africa (using disclosed share data) include old white money, like the Oppenheimers, and new black money, like billionaires Tokyo Sexwale, Cyril Ramaphosa, Patrice Motsepe and Lazarus Zim. Combined with the 25%+ of the economy under state control, it is clear the black elite is far from economically powerless, and it is a myth that the “means of production” are all in white hands, or that the ruling class is mainly white. The ruling class is more than just the capitalists, and not all capitalists are white. However, as the JSE figures show, the private sector remains dominated by white capitalists, just like the state sector remains dominated by black state managers. This is the basic division in the ruling class, generating secondary contradictions.
Not every black is poor; not every white rich. Class is the fundamental mediator. Obviously all whites – including the white working class – benefited from apartheid, and this has had long-term effects. But white South Africa was (and is) deeply divided by class, often violently: consider the strikes of 1913, 1922, 1942, 1979. Meanwhile, under apartheid there was a powerful, if subordinate, black elite with state power, notably through the homelands: consider Lucas Mangope of Bophuthatswana and Bantu Holomisa of Transkei. Today, hundreds of thousands of poor whites live in squatter and trailer camps, while state-led BEE means that a small black elite trades on its race “as a means of justifying entitlement”. No country, not even South Africa, has ever featured universal white privilege and universal black oppression.
The ANC state, despite its talk of national liberation, is an obstacle to the full emancipation of the working class because, first, the state/corporate elite can only exist through the domination/exploitation of the working class in general, through perpetuating poverty, subordination and authoritarianism. And secondly, the conditions of the black, Coloured and Indian working class are deeply marked by an apartheid/colonial legacy in education, housing, health, transport and land that cannot be removed within capitalism or the state system, but only through a society of self-managed, participatory, planned production and distribution for needs, not profit and power, and the abolition of social and economic inequality.
The black elite have achieved their national liberation with the capture of state power; it is now an obstacle to the complete national liberation of the black, Coloured and Indian working class – and of the full freedom of the white working class too. Black nationalism, the official ANC ideology, speaks of a single black interest; it covers the reactionary black elite in the flags of suffering and of struggle. It is mistaken to keep reverting to the easy (but always flawed) black nationalist politics of the 1980s to try and understand the 2000s. Black (like white) nationalism was always flawed, was always an obstacle to completing the national liberation struggle of the black, Coloured and Indian working class. To continue to use nationalist politics is disempowering, confusing and positively harmful. It ignores class, creates illusions in the ANC and disguises the true nature of the black elite. And most dangerously, it easily translates itself into direct racism against the minorities – Coloureds, Indians, whites and immigrant blacks – who make up at least 25% of the population. Cosatu suggests that the ANC is the party with a “working class bias” and the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) a party of “big capital”, but the ANC openly backs “big capital” and its leaders include billionaires like Ramaphosa and Sexwale, and multi-millionaires like Malema and Jacob Zuma. Moreover, “big capital” contributes heavily to the ANC coffers because, as Zuma admits, “investing in the ANC … is good value for your money”. The DA is really a coalition of minority voters, small business and white conservatives, with no serious buy-in by “big capital” outside the Western Cape. The ANC has no “working class bias”, as Cosatu insists but is a party of the ruling class and its “class bias” is against the working class.
Some Trotskyists claim the ANC government is the tool of big business, either by being bribed (the “sold out its principles” theory), or by having no choice (the “victim” theory). The “sold out” theory’s flaw is that the ANC has never been anti-capitalist, nor for radical change; it has betrayed nothing. Its aim was only the end of apartheid, not socialism. The victim theory’s flaw is that the ANC state wields enormous power through its control of the armed forces and state bureaucracy. It is precisely because of its autonomous power base that it enacts measures (violation punishable by law) like affirmative action/tendering and other BEE measures, and defies private corporate opinion on a host of issues such as foreign policy. The ANC often blames “globalisation” for unpopular choices when speaking to the unions, but let us not conflate useful alibis with the facts.
The ANC is a top-down party, run by small cabals of the rich and powerful with enormous state and corporate resources, the prospect of Cosatu calling them to account is less than zero. Rather the ANC uses Cosatu (and the SACP) to extend the power of a hostile state against the working class itself. Measures to undermine the working class include the direct co-optation of leaders into top ANC government positions, institutions that systematically bureaucratise the unions like the corporatist National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) and political manipulation through a pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric that presents the ANC as a movement of the black poor. Two examples suffice: former Cosatu general secretary Sam Shilowa rocketed through the ANC to become a wine-collecting multi-millionaire ; SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande was rewarded for his Zuma support with a ministerial job, immediately buying a R1.2 million German luxury car.
The ANC retains a mass working class base; let us have no illusions, nor engage in the fantasy that widespread township protests over the last 10 years are a “general urban uprising” against the government. True ANC membership is only 700 000, compared to five million in unions, and true, only 25% of the eligible voting age population votes ANC. However, the ANC faces no serious political rivals. Low votes are mainly due to people not voting in ANC township strongholds, not widespread political opposition. Where left-wing movements run candidates, like Operation Khanyisa Movement (OKM), these are regularly defeated. So long as the political subordination of the working class to the ANC, and therefore to the ruling class, continues, the working class is trapped. It is necessary to reject the notion that spontaneous and militant actions are inherently radical, or that a revolution can happen spontaneously. This is not true. Unless the masses have a revolutionary vision, they will simply repeat the errors of the past years, the error of putting our fate into the hands of new masters. That is precisely why Malema could use the poor’s frustration to promote an elite agenda, precisely why Zuma could ride Cosatu frustration to the presidency. No revolutionary ideas, no revolution.
The legacy of apartheid cannot be eradicated under capitalism and the state in present conditions but as part of the project of constructing a self-managed planned economy, a universal and international federation of humanity.
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