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South Africa’s Untold Tragedy of Neoliberal Apartheid

The Marikana workers

Twenty years after apartheid, the old freedom fighters of the ANC have come to reproduce the same structures of oppression against which they once arose....And one of the bloody red lines that runs through the broken social fabric of this heartbreakingly beautiful country is that human life is accorded shockingly little value.

All of this became painfully obvious in August last year when militarized police forces violently cracked down on a wildcat miners’ strike in the platinum town of Marikana. In the ensuing bloodbath, the most serious bout of state violence since the Sharpville massacre of 1960 and the end of apartheid in 1994, 34 workers were killed after being peppered with machine gun fire at close range. Needless to say, the Marikana massacre brought back painful memories of police brutality under white minoritarian rule. This time, however, the policemen and politicians responsible for the massacre were mostly black and represented the same party that had once led the struggle against racial oppression: the ruling ANC of President Jacob Zuma and the iconic freedom fighter Nelson Mandela. The Marikana massacre was the most powerful expression yet that little had changed below the surface. The violence of the state simply reasserted itself anew under the ANC.

Today, the ANC faces a growing crisis of legitimacy. While it is still on course to win next year’s elections, disillusionment with the party and its leaders has become widespread even among its traditional support base: poor people living in the shantytowns.

The Post-Racial Apartheid of Neoliberal Globalization

Today, both the revolutionary narrative of the ANC militants and the liberal narrative of the world’s progressives ring increasingly hollow. Racial segregation may have been institutionally lifted, but the socio-economic segregation that undergirded it continues unabated. South Africa is still one of the most shockingly unequal places in the world, ranking second (after Lesotho) on family-level inequality. In this middle-income country, forty-seven percent of the population still lives in poverty, which is actually two percent more than back in 1994. Unemployment formally stands at 25 percent, but the rate goes up to 50 percent for young black men. Twenty years later, blacks on average still earn six times less than whites. While a couple of pejoratively called “black diamonds” have made it to the top, crafting a small indigenous elite that slowly takes up residence in the old vestiges of white privilege, for the vast majority of South Africans nothing has really changed.

Of course, there are good reasons for this. Apartheid fell as neoliberalism rose, knocking down old walls on its quest for globalized market access but forever erecting new ones in its concomittant quest for cheap labor and natural resources. Samir Amin once wrote that “the logic of this globalization trend consists in nothing other than that of organizing apartheid on a global scale.” Apartheid here is not meant as a metaphor; it is what a philosopher might call an ontological category of the neoliberal world order. As Slavoj Žižek has argued, “the explosive growth of slums in the last decades … is perhaps the crucial geopolitical event of our times.” Shantytowns continue to arise around South Africa’s cities and mines as workers migrate in the hope of securing a humble living, even as new gated communities and shopping malls protected by private security guards bearing assault rifles spring up to cater to the consumerist desires of an emerging interracial elite. The Rainbow Nation may be blind to race at the top; but it still reproduces apartheid-era segregation at the bottom.

The Oppressive State and the Political Philosophy of Rights

None of this is a coincidence. In a way, the tragic outcome of the ANC’s liberation struggle was encoded into the very DNA of the party’s vanguardist strategy. First of all, the ANC decided to take over existing institutions — political and economic institutions that were based on systematic exclusion and massive inequality — and thereby ended up unwittingly reproducing these same oppressive structures with a new elite formation. Secondly, as Lawrence Hamilton explains in his book The Political Philosophy of Needs, the ANC leadership deliberately embraced a particular ideological vision of how to “transform” the country: a vision he refers to as the “political philosophy of rights”, in other words: liberalism. South Africa’s new constitution was the clearest manifestation of this: everything was put to work to secure the rights of individuals to vote and be represented, to own property, and to not be discriminated against in any way. Little attention, however, was given to questions of political participation, genuine popular sovereignty, and the satisfaction of basic human needs.

This state-centered and rights-based approach never truly broke with the legacy of apartheid; it merely extended the franchise while keeping the structural logic of separation between people and power, between property-owners and wage-earners, intact. Partly because of the reigning neoliberal ideology of the time, and partly out of fear of reproducing the Zimbabwean experience where Mugabe’s violent land expropriations had led to a white exodus and economic collapse, Mandela and the ANC opted for a gradualist approach that actually ended up turning the ANC into an agent of apartheid itself. Legally, the property rights of white landowners took priority over the human needs of local shackdwellers. Workers’ rights were increasingly hollowed out as the right to unionize gave way to the “right” to be “represented” by a corrupt and ANC co-opted union leadership. The state-oriented approach and the political philosophy of rights thus locked poor South Africans into a logic of representation and top-down decision-making whereby human needs, social autonomy and political participation came to be subordinated to the formation of a new political and corporate elite of former ANC revolutionaries.

Towards Autonomy and a Political Philosophy of Needs

But there are signs that things may be changing. In 2005, a completely different type of movement burst onto the scene when a large group of poor shackdwellers set up a roadblock in Durban to protest against the eviction of an informal settlement. The so-called Abahlali baseMjondolo, or shackdwellers’ movement, has since spread to Cape Town and Pietermaritzburg. With tens of thousands of members, Abahlali now constitutes the single largest grassroots organization of poor South Africans. Unlike the reactionary maverick, corrupt multi-millionaire and former ANC youth leader Julius Malema, who is now contesting the ANC on a Chávez-inspired populist platform, Abahlali stresses its autonomy from state institutions, political parties, businesses and NGOs, and rejects both the ANC and its principal rivals in the opposition, drawing instead on self-organization and direct action to secure improvements in living conditions, to defend communities under threat of eviction, to reclaim urban land for social redistribution, and to democratize society from below.

The ANC and all other so-called revolutionaries betrayed the poor the moment they made it their aim to take over the institutions of apartheid and reproduce them in a different form. But with the ANC’s crisis of legitimacy deepening following the Marikana massacre, more and more people who do not feel represented are being driven towards the only sensible conclusion. Earlier this year, in March, one thousand shackdwellers stormed a piece of land in Cato Crest in Durban, occupied it, and called it Marikana in honor of the slain miners. The action was just one more expression of the dawning realization around the world that, in these times of universal deceit, only an insistence on radical autonomy can take the revolution forward. In South Africa, the only way to overcome the social segregation that continues to needlessly kill hundreds every day, is to embrace a political philosophy of needs that focuses on the empowerment of communities; that operates through democratic participation and militant direct action; and that — instead of trying to ‘emancipate’ South Africans by becoming more like their former oppressors — actively breaks out of the cycle of exploitation by building interracial autonomy from below.

This is an excerpt of an article published on roar.mag.

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