The article looks at recent notable acts of repression by the South African state directed at protestors and strikers. Linked to this it looks at what this says about the nature of the South African state, the basis of its economy and the ruling class
In the last year and a half in South Africa, approximately 40 people involved in protests and strikes have been killed at the hands of the police, including at Marikana. Many more people were beaten, tear gassed, shot with rubber bullets, arrested and some even tortured. The latest person, unfortunately, to die at the hands of the police was a 17 year old girl, Nqobile Nzuza, who was killed on the 30th of September during a demonstration for housing in Durban. She was shot in the back by the police with live ammunition (in fact her family claims she was shot by the police when she went to see what the protests were about).
Many people in South Africa believed and hoped that police and state brutality after 1994 would be a thing of the past, considering the massive struggle against the vile apartheid system and state that had marked the history of the country. The reality though has been very different. Given the anti-working class policies that have been in place in South Africa under the African National Congress (ANC), protests and strikes have been common place. As these have increased, and as people’s patience with the ANC state has declined as the years have gone by, so too has police and state repression.
Despite state brutality becoming more common (as protests have increased), however, the state under the ANC from the very beginning showed that it would use violence and intimidation to quell protests and strikes. During student protests against growing neo-liberalism in 1995, for instance, Mandela warned protestors that the state would act harshly against them, and this threat was carried out. Likewise, during strikes, police have often beaten, arrested and tear gassed workers, including under the increasingly mythologised Presidency of Mandela. Indeed, police firing away at community protestors with rubber bullets and buckshot were common even during the early days of the ANC at the head of the state. In many ways, therefore, the manner in which the state has reacted to protestors has been marked by continuity when compared to the apartheid years. In fact, the post-apartheid state has even used an apartheid era law to ‘govern’ protests in terms of the Gatherings Act.
The question is then why has the state in South Africa, during the post-apartheid era, used such a degree of violence and coercion (or the threat of) when dealing with protestors or strikers? The brutal answer to this question is that the state has done this to ensure the interests of the ruling class in South Africa (capitalists and top state officials) remains intact, and that the status quo in the country, whereby the majority of the population, and specifically the black working class, is a source of extremely cheap labour remains in place.
In South Africa, black workers have historically been turned into a source of extremely cheap labour for capitalists and subjected to racial oppression. From the very beginning state violence and brutality played a central role in this. It was the colonial states in South Africa that forcefully created and drove black wage labour into the mines and farms. It was state violence too that kept this system in place throughout segregation and apartheid resulting in massacres such as at Bulhoek and Sharpeville. The history of very cheap black labour, therefore, enabled white capitalists – traditionally centred around the mining houses – to make huge profits, and it is on this basis that they became very wealthy. As part of the super exploitation of black workers, they were paid very little and up until the 1970s faced prison sentences for breaking work contracts. Very little too was spent by the state on housing, schooling and healthcare for the black working class under colonialism, segregation and apartheid. This along with the homelands system meant that the reproduction of black workers cost very little for the ruling class.
The post-apartheid state has continued to entrench this situation; it has maintained a legal and policing system that is aimed at protecting the wealth and property of companies and preventing the working class from their rightful access to this wealth. It has also ensured, through cutting spending on housing, schooling, and ‘service delivery’ under neo-liberalism that the reproduction of the working class costs the post-apartheid state, and ruling class, as little as possible. This means the systemic source of the huge profits that the ruling class reap has been maintained and kept in place by the post-apartheid state. Along with this, racial oppression directed at the black section of the working class remains entrenched.
As a result, since 1994 the entire working class has fallen deeper into poverty, including sections of the white working class, as inequality has grown between the ruling class and working class as a whole. It has, however, been the black working class that has been worst affected. The black working class, therefore, continues to live in impoverished townships and squatter camps; they continue to receive appalling wages and they continue to face abuse at the hands of bosses and managers.
While it is clear that the black working class remains oppressed, including being subjected to racial oppression, the situation for the small black elite, nevertheless, is very different. In this difference lies one of the reasons why the state continues to brutally put down strikes and protests. Some sections of the black elite, through their high positions in the state have joined the old white capitalists in the ruling class. They are now well paid and live lavish lifestyles. Many also use their positions in the state to accumulate wealth via corrupt tenders and looting state coffers. The tax generated to pay their high salaries and maintain their lifestyles, however, comes from exploiting the working class, and in South Africa the black working class in particular. As such, state officials – mainly linked to the ANC - have their own reasons for wanting to protect the minority ownership of property in the country, low wages for black workers and the cheap reproduction of labour (and black labour in particular): because their own privileged positions rest on this. Any threat to this, therefore, is met by attempts to co-opt and coerce protestors or strikers; but when this fails, the ultimate weapon of the state is used: violence and brutality (including at times even against bystanders).
Top state officials, therefore, for their own reasons don’t want the demands of strikers to be met regarding higher wages; and they certainly don’t want to roll out better housing, schooling and services as it would drive up the costs of labour and reproducing labour – driving down profits and diverting taxes spent on state salaries and the ruling class. That would undermine the interests of the ruling class; of which top state officials are part. The lifestyles of people like Jacob Zuma, Tokyo Sexwale, Pravin Gordhan, Trevor Manuel and rest of their cohorts in the Cabinet, therefore, is based on the continued exploitation and oppression of the working class, and the black section in particular. To keep this in place, they will authorise, sanction and use state violence when need be.
There is also another section of the black elite that have also joined the ruling class, but through the route of Black Economic Empowerment. They too have no qualms about the state using violence to protect their interests. Indeed, all of the top ANC linked black families – the Mandelas, Sisulus, Thambos, Ramaposas, Radebes etc. – have shares in or sit on the boards of the largest companies in South Africa. Their social circles also no longer include township activists or striking workers, but rather wealthy white capitalists like the Oppenheimers and newly rich fellow ‘struggle’ heroes. The wealth and power of this black section of the ruling class too rests on the exploitation of the working class as a whole, but mostly and specifically on the exploitation and continued national oppression of the black working class. Hence, this is the reason why the black section of the ruling class has been so willing to take action to ensure the state uses violence against protestors that undermine the profits of the companies they have shares in – including at Marikana.
The revolutionary anti-state socialist (anarchist) Mikhail Bakunin foresaw the possibility of such a situation arising in cases where supposed national liberation was based on capturing state power. The reason for this is because the tactic of gaining state power does not abolish the class system, inequalities nor capitalism – and consequently it has failed to end racial oppression in South Africa. Capturing state power simply changes the make-up and some of the faces of the ruling class; but it does not end inequality both in material terms and in terms of power. Due to the centralised nature of states, only a few can rule: a majority of people can never be involved in decision making under a state system. Hence, when former liberation fighters or activists enter into the state, because of its top down structure, they become rulers and get used to the privileges their new positions entail. They literally become governors and gradually begin to rule in their own interests. To keep this going they have to exploit and oppress the vast majority of the people.
As such, no state is truly democratic, including the one headed by the ANC. Even in a parliamentary system, most high ranking state officials, including generals, director-generals, police commissioners, state legal advisors, judges, magistrates, and other top bureaucrats are never elected by the people. Most of their decisions, policies and actions will never be known by the vast majority of people – the top down structure of the state ensures this. Linked to this, parliamentarians and cabinet ministers make and pass laws; not the mass of people. In fact, parliamentarians are in no way truly accountable to voters (except for 5 minutes every 5 years). They are not mandated nor are they recallable. They – along with permanent state bureaucrats - have power; not the people. As such, no state, including the ANC headed one, is participatory; but rather designed to ensure and carry out minority rule. Likewise, the state’s main function is not to protect workers or the unemployed, but to ensure rule over them. When this is questioned or the interests of the ruling class undermined in anyway; the role of the state – even under a parliamentary system - is to undermine and end the threat. This is what the state’s violence and brutality has been about whether at Marikana, during the farm workers’ strike, and more recently in Durban.
While there is a need for the working class to struggle against police and state brutality, there should, however, be no illusions about what the state is; who it is controlled by; who it protects; and what its function is. The deaths of protestors in this country, sadly, has made this more and more evident. As such, the working class (workers and the unemployed) must mobilise outside of and against the state and force it to give back what has been stolen. In this, there should not be illusions that in doing so the state protects workers or the unemployed – indeed, as an institution it is an enemy of the working class. As such a huge struggle for better wages and better living conditions is needed – first to try and win gains and then to build towards revolution – but in that struggle the state can’t be seen as a neutral entity or an ally or an instrument that can be used by the working class.
This too means abandoning faith in running for and winning elections – as in the past, all that will happen is that some of the faces of the rulers will be changed. Indeed, parties don’t change states; rather state structures change the nature of parties. The ANC, Bolshevik and labour parties are clear examples of this. It also means, however, abandoning the notion that the state should nationalise companies, land or housing, which would mean ownership and control by a state bureaucracy; not the working class. Indeed, calling for nationalisation builds illusions in a higher power: the state; and it does not show faith in, or build the power of, the working class itself. The state is not a lesser evil to class rule and/or capitalists; rather they are part and parcel of the same system. Workers need, and Marikana and the farmworkers strikes highlights this, to use struggles for reforms, such as winning higher wages, to build towards seizing the land, mines, factories and other workplaces themselves so that they can run them through worker self-management for the benefit of everyone in society. Likewise, people need to mobiles against te ruling class and its state in communities, build movements and begin to develop through this experience a system of self-governance, based on direct demnocracy, which could replace the state in a revolutionary society. Only when the working class has done this, and runs society through their own structures and not a state, will the power of the ruling class, the power of its violent state, and inequality be broken and ended. Only when this happens too will the racial oppression that the black section of the working class faces in South Africa be ended; and only then will the likes of the Marikana massacres, the death of Nqobile Nzuza and other killings in the name of profit and cheap labour be part of history. Until this happens true freedom and equality for both the black and white working class will not be fully achieved.