Community struggles in South Africa, 1994-2004

Strikers in 2001
Strikers in 2001

A pamphlet about anti-eviction, water and electricity cut-off movements, and some workplace struggles in South Africa.

Submitted by Steven. on November 10, 2006


Submitted by Steven. on November 10, 2006

Driving through the glorious open South African rolling countryside. Mile upon mile of open fields, with hardly any buildings except for the large manor house of the landowner… Then you come over the brow of the hill and there are tens of thousands of tightly-packed, small crowded houses. No real gardens or streets, just ramshackle buildings and signs of poverty and overcrowding everywhere.

Almost no land and no wealth was redistributed after the ANC government was elected in 1994.1 Material inequality has deepened, and new and dynamic forms of solidarity and resistance have emerged in communities.

This article is based on an excellent book by Ashwin Desai about the emergence of community struggles in South Africa – We are the Poors.

The recent information and the ‘background’ come from my own research. Desai documents the real stories of those struggling in the South African townships: the ‘struggle electricians’ who reconnect their neighbours' cut-off power; the ‘grannies’ and ‘aunties’ who blockade narrow flights of stairs in their tenement buildings to prevent cops from carrying out evictions; the entire communities that react to the arrival of new water meters by revolting, smashing the meters and chasing away the installers. It is “first and foremost an account from the frontlines of the establishment’s undeclared war on the poor. It is, I am told, a heart-warming report because the war no longer seems to be one-sided”.2 Desai vividly describes the history and background to the areas he writes about, putting the current situation into context, but here I focus on the more recent events, at many of which Desai himself was present.

Although We are the Poors was printed two years ago, the actual struggles remain much the same. What has changed is that they are more connected to each other, they receive more publicity (and so benefit from the added support), and the academics and politicians are now debating their significance.3 There are also reports that Trotskyist groups are trying to dominate the movement, with mixed success.

  • 1 Except for the creation of a new black elite, giving the appearance of change without the upper class really having to give anything away. There are even bizarre stories of workers going on strike for ‘more black bosses’.
  • 2 Ashwin Desai, We are the Poors, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2002, page 14
  • 3 To the extent that a (recuperative) conference was held on this topic last month: The President from the Sky v the Auntie who says “NO!” Social Movements Conference, Johannesburg, October 28 & 29, 2004

The ANC and the legacy of the liberation struggle

Submitted by Steven. on November 10, 2006

“What [the ANC] have done to put the economy on a right footing, is, I think, almost miraculous,” Pamela Cox, former head of the South Africa Division at the World Bank.1 At every turn the ANC government has embraced neo-liberal policies, and followed or gone beyond the advice of the IMF and the World Bank.2

There was huge hope and faith placed in the promised land of ‘democracy’ and ‘black rule’ during the struggle against apartheid. Now ex-activist officials complain about a prevailing ‘culture of non-payment’ as a redundant legacy from the anti-apartheid struggle, calling critics ‘counterrevolutionaries’, ‘agitators’ or ‘radicals’ – even as they cut off water and slip eviction notices under doors. But “there [is] simply no income in these areas. What had taken root was an economics of non-payment”. Much of South Africa's liberation struggle had a near-religious faith in a small group of leaders, but now there is widespread disillusionment with party politics and the whole parliamentary system. In April 2002, hundreds of people from Soweto burned their ANC membership cards at a protest over those arrested at an action against water cut-offs.

Those politicians who try to use or influence the new community struggles are faced with laughter and derision. In Chatsworth, Durban, where Desai focuses his book, the election turn-out in the year 2000 was 20 per cent. (It was 15 per cent during the hated tricameral system.)3 “People came to see that lobbying and due process was a futile fob-off when live ammunition was fired at them while they were begging for just thirty minutes more to obtain a court order preventing their eviction. Although tragedy constantly haunts those who operate in Chatsworth, the heavy handed response of the authorities has been a blessing. It has founded a politics that is unrepentant and unusually clear.”

These very people who every Saturday attended three or four funerals of comrades who died in struggle, those whose families and friends lie in the huge, stretching landscape that is the Soweto graveyard, the people who were convinced that “the blood of the martyrs waters the tree of freedom”, now pick themselves up and fight again.

  • 1 Alistair Sparks, Beyond the Miracle (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2002), page 16.
  • 2 Under UN law, a democratic government that takes over from a dictatorship is not responsible for paying any international debts incurred by that government. The ANC, however, chose to pay the apartheid government’s international debts voluntarily. The ANC voluntarily imposed its own Structural Adjustment Programme on South Africa. Taxes on the rich were cut, exchange controls dropped, and tariffs protecting unionised South African workers from imports were dropped. Water, electricity, housing and healthcare were taken from those who couldn’t pay. Or another example; when the WTO gave the South African government twelve years to phase out protections for its national garment industry, the ANC chose to complete the project in eight years. In the first six months of 1999 alone, 10,000 jobs were axed in and around Durban.
  • 3 In 1984, a new constitution was enacted which provided for a tricameral parliament. The new parliament included the House of Representatives, comprised of coloureds; the House of Delegates, comprised of indians; and the House of Assembly, comprised of whites. This system left the whites with more seats in the Parliament than the indians and coloureds combined. Blacks violently protested at being shut out of the system, and the ANC, which had traditionally used nonviolent means to protest inequality, began to advocate more extreme measures as well.

Some background facts

Submitted by Steven. on November 10, 2006

After the ANC came to power, “by every measure (life expectancy, morbidity, access to food, water etc) the living conditions of the poor rapidly worsened.”7 The national unemployment level is 42 per cent (September 2003). In some of the poorer areas, the figure reaches 80 per cent or even higher. There is no unemployment benefit or social aid. There is a state pension, so often whole families live on one person’s pension. Almost half of the households in Soweto survive on an old-age pension of R540 [rand] a month. In 2000, government child-care grants were reduced from R420 to R100, and now only apply to under-7s. New criteria also meant many people being thrown off disability grants. More and more people are turning to crime, begging and prostitution.

An average of R400 a month is needed for rent, light and water, but by 2002 the majority of the population was living on less than R140 (about $15) per month. A typical job would involve working eleven or twelve hours a day, seven days a week for R150 per week. Cleaners employed by the council for R22 a day spend R14 a day on the bus fare to work.

Over 20 per cent of the adult population is infected with HIV, compared to 0.1 per cent in the UK. Life expectancy at birth in South Africa is 48. In the UK it is 78 years old.

However, South Africa also has one of the ten largest stock exchanges in the world, and a GDP per capita of US$10,700. But the richest 10 per cent of the population shares 46 per cent of the wealth (compared to 27 per cent in the UK). The poorest 10 per cent shares a mere 1 per cent of the wealth. While South Africa is classified as a middle-income country, it has a Gini coefficient – the measurement of inequality – of 0.58, the second-highest in the world after Brazil. South Africa also has one of the worst records in terms of social indicators (health, education, safe water, fertility). The government made a commitment to privatise all the public companies in South Africa under the 1996 ‘Growth, Employment and Re-distribution’ (GEAR) programme. In order to make these companies more attractive to potential buyers and fetch a better price, the government tried to clear any outstanding debts.

Community struggles

Submitted by Steven. on November 10, 2006

But of course there is also struggle. The current struggles take the form of legal challenges to the evictions and cut-offs; forming community organisations and linking with other groups from other areas; ‘emergency’ reconnections by ‘struggle electricians’ and ‘struggle plumbers’; mass actions against evictions; demonstrations at and occupations of the houses of the councillors and officers responsible for the decisions; disconnecting the water and electricity of these officers; land invasions and workplace strikes that involved the whole community.

Anti-eviction actions in Chatsworth, South Africa

Submitted by Steven. on November 10, 2006

An article with information about resistance to eviction and workers' struggles over housing in Chatsworth, South Africa in the late 90s and early 00s.

"You throw the people out, we put them back in. You cut the water off, we put it back on”
– Western Cape Anti-Eviction slogan

“In May 1995, the city council’s new housing director and former [community] activist called for an increase in rentals in the Greater Chatsworth area…. It took the City Council two years of democracy before they called upon the chief constable, once again, to fetch the police dogs from the kennels and reach for the tear-gas canisters in the Old Fort Road armoury. In May 1996, a detachment of 50 security personnel rolled into Unit 3 in Chatsworth in four-wheel-drive pickups and began disconnecting water and electricity, throwing furniture and other belongings onto the street, before sealing doors of flats that were suddenly empty. It is impossible to chronicle how disillusionment turned into dismay and finally antagonism.”

In 1998 one particular round of evictions in Chatsworth ended in one death and several injuries. There was a spontaneous protest of 2,000 people at Durban City Hall but “no organisation to absorb and direct the militancy. Many people were so terrified that they went without food to keep up with payments.”

But then the community started to take the offensive – for example, going to politicians’ houses, and speaking to local gangsters to tell them not to trouble the vulnerable people in the area.1 The community in Chatsworth celebrated Diwali, the annual Hindu festival of lights, by holding a Festival of (No) Lights, casting the local City Council as a satanic villain pushing them into darkness.2

They also took Durban Council to court, claiming that the evictions went against the human rights to shelter and water. The council then tried to get the people to buy the houses (after paying their full rent arrears). A council administration entourage arrived in Chatsworth, to ‘sell’ the houses. “After the protesters had spent two hours encircling the room, the process was forced to stop. It had become clear to the officials that there were no takers for that deal.” When one of the officials accused the group of being ‘privileged Indians’, an elderly woman screamed back, “We are not Indians, we are the poors”. Within minutes this could be also heard as ‘we are not Africans, we are the poors”.3 The council then tried to relocate those who couldn’t pay to toilet-sized buildings even further out of town.4

Desai records three evictions that were to take place in Chatsworth in February 2000. The first was of Mr Biswanath, an epileptic man who lived with his niece and carer, Vanessa, her husband and their children. Vanessa and her husband sell cosmetics and make R500 a month. The police arrived at the eviction with ten vehicles and two platoons of armed men. Firing tear-gas, they entered the premises and threw possessions onto the street. Mr Biswanath suffered a seizure.

The next person on the list was Mr Mhlongo, an African single father of four children and a self-employed mechanic. Over 150 people, mostly Indian women, blockaded the stairs to Mr Mhlongo’s flat. They asked the police to wait for half an hour while they attempted to gain a postponement from the courts. The police did not wait. They fired live ammunition and tear gas at those preventing the eviction. The onlookers were so angry that they all joined in. “The ferocity and dedication of the community forced the security forces to call for further backup in order to retreat from the area, without effecting the eviction.”

The third family on the eviction list was squatting a flat after having lived for two years in a shed without water or electricity, and with snakes nesting in the floor. They had been on the council housing list for nine years. The community and media presence was so strong that the authorities did not attempt the eviction. Many people turned up for the eviction court cases. When they were adjourned, they went to the deputy mayor’s house. As he was not at home, they occupied the rent offices. At the next court date, the magistrates didn’t show up – but 2,000 protestors from the nearby African township, Bottlebrush, did. When the cases finally did go to court, the evictions notices were withdrawn.

Desai also records the struggles in Tafelsig and Cape Town and notices, “In the context of the relentless poverty in Tafelsig, the role women play in building structures of communal responsibility has become a vital part of day-to-day existence. The meetings that launched the campaign were mostly comprised of women, and in the crowds that confront the sheriffs and police, women are always prominent.” Linking struggles in the Cape Town area, the multi-racial Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign was born. “Much like the organisations in Chatsworth, it has become amoeba-like. When there’s a need for action it expands and increases in density. In between it shrinks, concerning itself mainly with resolving community disputes and providing a kind of social worker service.”

“The initiative of poor communities in self-organising, re-housing evicted families, and re-connecting disconnected water supplies (often using inventive local technology), and the courage of campaigners to fight the police in the streets, has meant that to enforce the war on the poor in Cape Town is no simple thing…. By and large the actions of the council grind to a halt.”

  • 1 One example of the terrible effects of systemic poverty is when the authorities built a much-needed bridge across a motorway, thus connecting two halves of a township. Previously, lots of people had died crossing the motorway to get to the shops, or visit people. However, as soon as the bridge was built, gangs appeared at the entrance to the steps demanding money to cross.
  • 2 On a cultural note, Desai also tells of Psyches, “a local rapper who captures the emergent consciousness and the battles of the immediate past in a language that people could relate to: the rap artist as the custodian of the people’s history; as critical interpreter/gossiper, carrying stories from the ‘poors’ that gather round him: carrying the rumour - a human pamphleteer. He carries a challenge to last century’s model of revolutionary propaganda”. page 62.
  • 3 The Apartheid classifications of African (black), Indian, coloured and white are still in common usage in South Africa as people still live in the areas they were forced into by those definitions. As everywhere, although we ultimately have to get rid of these definitions, one cannot discuss social South Africa without referring to them.
  • 4 But, as the housing official accurately explained, this was not apartheid because “apartheid was about grouping races. This proposal is about grouping classes…. It is racially blind. Normal business practice demands that if tenants can’t pay rent, they must be evicted,” Desai page 48.

Water struggles in South Africa

Submitted by Steven. on November 10, 2006

An article on struggles over water supplies in South Africa since 2000

“As much as water is a basic human right there is a cost to recover and if no payment is made the Metro Council disconnects,” Trevor Bonhome, council official, 2000. By 2002, over a million people across South Africa had been disconnected from water since 1994 because they couldn’t pay; 40,000 children were dying form diarrhoea caused by dirty water every year. Cholera returned with a vengeance, infecting over 100,000 people in Kwa-Zulu Natal alone.1 In urban areas, the people do not have the access to communal water supplies that those in rural communities still do. “In cities, all taps have an owner”. Biological necessity would sooner or later have sparked massive resistance.

Thulisile Christina Manqele left her job as a domestic worker after 12 years, due to ill health, at aged 28. She did not even receive one month’s severance pay. She has four children of her own and permanently looks after three others. In 2000, already behind with her rent and without electricity, her water was cut off. She turned first to neighbours, then, as their water was cut off too, to a leaking pipe and then a stagnant, contaminated stream. The Westcliff Flats Residents Association took the case to court as a test case. The Water Services Act gives everyone the right to a ‘basic water supply’ and 6 kiloliters of water free of charge. But the council argued that Thulisile had previously illegally re-connected her water; that she had given water to neighbours; that the council could not police the restriction of use to the free amount; and that the court had to consider the 8,000 other households that would want their water turned back on in order to have the free 6 kiloliters. The courts ruled against Thulisile, and her water was disconnected as a ‘credit control’ mechanism.

Desai criticises court cases as consuming energy and deflecting from mass mobilisation. But he says they also generate publicity, provide focal points for mobilisations and can help link communities similarly affected by service cuts in other areas of the country.

When the water company came to disconnect the water in another house in Bayview, in Chatsworth, the community turned up en masse and formed a human wall around the targeted houses. “The security company withdrew. There was a mood of elation and militancy… with people dancing in the cul-de-sacs between the rows of flats to music hastily improvised… This was now the fifth battle in a row they had won against those who would either evict them or cut off their water…. Chatsworth was fast becoming a theatre of defeat for the Metro Council…. The next day… an agreement was reached that the water cut-offs would be stopped… Accounts would be frozen with no further interest charged on arrears, and the water could be turned back on. On the day the Bayview water case was to be heard, 200 people from Umlazi arrived at the High Court. Their water had also been cut…. They had come to protest in solidarity.”

Struggle plumbers abound – and are not prosecuted. The council re-disconnects, and the struggle plumbers dis-re-disconnect. “The Durban Council is thus creating mass lawlessness by the sheer scale of its acts of oppression, which are bound to breed resistance.”

  • 1 Desai, page 11. During the first half of 2000 in Durban, 23,786 households have had their water cut off owing to non-payment. This will almost certainly amount to more than 130,000 people without water at all.

Water struggles in Mpumalanga

Submitted by Steven. on November 10, 2006

An article about struggle over water supplies Mpumalanga , South Africa.

Mpumalanga was violently divided during the anti-apartheid struggle, with the ANC and Inkatha (Zulu lead black separatist party) youth tearing each other apart. It is also desperate economic wasteland of a place. A University of Natal survey concluded that, in 2001, the average income per person was R23.70 per month. The council’s electricity and rates bills are R200 a month.
Nowadays there is a vibrant, militant and united struggle against both the ANCdominated local government and the Inkatha-controlled provincial government. This was sparked in 1999, when the council tried to install water meters. The community reacted by ripping up the meters and chasing the contractors away. Running battles were fought with the police and the broken water meter gadgets were left strewn everywhere.

In 2001 the council tried again. “Again residents resisted with intent, ripping up the water meters. Ten thousand people attended rallies, the speeches were hot and the demands steadfast – free essential services for the poor. Beautifully, the brave, responsible, physically capable youth of the Inkatha Youth Brigade and the hip, intellectual and earnest youngsters from a Congress tradition reached out to each other during these times.” In May 2001, a mass meeting took place to protest against the installation of water meters, and was attended by the Concerned Citizens Group from Chatsworth, the Mpumalanga Concerned Group, activists from the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee and community leaders from Umlazi.

But there was also police repression, arrests, impoundment of communal cars, and two people were shot dead by a shadowy ANC vigilante group. But the most dangerous tactic employed by the council was to employ local people to install the meters, thereby risking a return to violence within the community. But the community realised this, and agreed to suspend the violent sabotage policy and waited instead for the first non-payment disconnection letters. In March 2002, the whole community closed down, and schools, taxi ranks and roads were shut as tens of thousands of people marched to the local rent office. There, they demanded to pay R10 a month and the UniCity officials had to process each singular payment. The idea caught on, and there were ‘ten rand marches’ in Tafelsig, Chatsworth, Wentworth, Umlazi and Mpumalagna.

Electricity struggles - Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee

Submitted by Steven. on November 10, 2006

Article about struggles over electricity supplies in South Africa.

“We don’t ask why or when people are cut off, we just switch them back on. Everyone should have electricity.”
- Virginia Setshedi, SECC.

In line with its programme to clear old debts, in 2001 the manager of the state-run electricity company Eskom announced, “The aim is to disconnect at least 75 per cent of Soweto residents.” 20,000 households a month were cut off during 2001 – many times more than were connected by the ANC's great programme to connect millions of black households to the national grid. In Soweto, the cost of one kilowatt unit of electricity is 28 cents, while in Sandton (the ultra-rich area of Jo’burg) it is 16 cents. Big business pays 7 cents, and people in the worst-off rural areas pay 48 cents. Eskom security forces assaulted and bullied members of the community and opened fire on protestors. The community marched to the mayor’s house and pledged to “embark on a campaign of mass non-payment”. After Emergency Electricians in Soweto reconnected 3,000 houses in six months, Eskom announced that it would not be cutting off those who could not pay. The successful results of direct action!

The Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee also went to the home of the Johannesburg Mayor Amos Masondo, and disconnected his water supply. Councillor Rocky Naidoo also had his electricity and water disconnected at his house in May 2001.

The South African Landless People’s Movement

Submitted by Steven. on November 10, 2006

Very brief information about the landless movement and land struggles in South Africa.

Only 3 per cent of arable land was redistributed and much of that had been given to black commercial farmers and not to landless peasants. In the winter of 2001, hundreds of homeless families invaded an unused piece of land in Brendell. This was shortly after news of the Zimbabwe land invasions, and the prices on the Jo’burg Stock Exchange fell. The government got very nervous and brutally cleared the land and broke the shacks. After this, the LPM grew to thousands, including many city-dwellers. During apartheid the African population had 13 per cent of the land, with the remaining 87 per cent of land held by white farmers and the state. Despite promises of redistribution and tenure reform, in 2001 African people occupied about 14 per cent. There are many shocking reports on the National Land Committee’s website [] of brutal land clearances of settlements that have been there for years, and which are homes to thousands of poor families.

Workplace strikes

Submitted by Steven. on November 10, 2006

Volkswagen South Africa strike, 2000

Submitted by Steven. on November 10, 2006

Short article about the 2000 South African Volkswagen workers' strike.

Supported by the ANC government’s pro-business stance, companies started rolling back the gains made by the workers’ struggles of the 1980s and 1990s. “In one fourmonth period in 1989 there were thirty industrial actions at VWSA. These included nine strikes and fifteen work stoppages. Bit by bit the management had conceded decent conditions. But now, management was using every opportunity to roll back the gains of the 1980s.”

In 2000, the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) signed a deal with VW in exchange for the promise of investment and the production of 68,000 Golfs. The deal included, amongst other things: no overtime pay for weekend work, compulsory overtime with no notice, a reduction by half of the break time, and a pension reduction. Workers learned about the signing in the newspapers. When the workers at VW started their strike, it was clear that it would have to be a strike against NUMSA. Initially the strike was strong, but the endemic unemployment meant that scab labour was available. Eventually the dispute went to the labour mediation court, and the workers lost.

Meanwhile redundancies, outsourcing and a general rollback of the workers rights continued apace in the motor industry. NUMSA officer Alec Erwin wrote, “Our target is to persuade international investors to invest here… You don’t know how much damage [the strike] did… We had to send cabinet ministers to Germany on the VW dispute to convince them… Their concern – ‘your best union can’t hold its factories.” President Mbeki made speeches against the VW strikers and praised his ‘International Investment Council,’ which included Jurgen Schrempp of Daimler Chrysler, Citigroup’s William Rhodes and Minoru Makihara of Mitsubishi.

South Africa Exxon strike, 2001

Submitted by Steven. on November 10, 2006

The 2001 strike of workers at Engen - the South African affiliate of the oil multinational Exxon.

Workers here forged better links with the local community and didn’t put its faith in the courts. The Engen plant is the single biggest employer of people living in Wentworth, a Durban township with typical high unemployment. Once a year, Engen employs thousands of temporary workers for six weeks during the annual factory overhaul. Engen has its own training centre but it uses temp agencies to employ people. Any attempt at unionising results in the temp agency contract being dismissed.

In 2001, a strike was planned. But there was a danger of the anger turning in on the community itself, either on the scabs, or on the temp-agency bosses, many of whom also lived in Wentworth, so the workers invited prominent members of the community to be on their organising committee. A joint body called the Industrial Relations Forum was formed, and operated as both the strike committee and the equivalent of the residents’ associations in the other areas.

“The executive of [the union]… devolved their organization into a loose and very broad grouping of activists and community and religious leaders. The unemployed (some would say ‘gangsters’) were represented at the discussions and their inclusion played a crucial role in cutting off Engen’s ability to recruit scabs. All the time the workers tried to ensure Engen was totally isolated from reaching potential allies in the community, by … “getting there first” in the information battle, and creating space for various interest groups to become part of the strike committee. For much of the time the union and community structures appeared as one.”

The strike was solid from the beginning, despite the knowledge that this two months’ work was all that many of the people would get all year. At the first meeting, every single worker attended, along with their wives and teenage sons – “keen for action”. They all put their badges, needed to gain entry to the plant, into a large bag and a constant, roving picket was planned; but as the meeting broke up, some of the key organisers were arrested and the bag of badges was taken by the police. Desai was at the meeting the next day:

“Reggie, one of the workers, takes to the stage. In a speech, replete with Durban slang, he talks of labouring at Engen for over two decades. He talks of exploitation, of being pushed around, and the hurt of still having to find employment again and again every year through a labour broker, being ‘inducted’ anew each time into a plant he built. It is a moving speech that he translates himself into Zulu for the benefit of the African ‘chargehands’ of a particular labour broker who have just joined the strike after walking off the nightshift. They form a bright blue knot in the back of the hall where they stand in their overalls. Spirits are unbelievably high. I feel transported back into the 1980s and the meetings of righteous anger against apartheid that abounded. A member of the Cape Town gang of metalworkers brought down to assist on the shut, pledges his crew’s support for the strike. He speaks in Afrikaans and the message is translated into English and Zulu”.

After the meeting, everyone went to the police station to demand back their badges. Not a single window in the Wentworth police station remains unbroken. The army moved into Wentworth using apartheid-era security legislation. The company was trying every trick to bully, cajole, bribe and propagandise the people back to work. It didn’t work. Then they let the temp agencies know that they would accept the strikers’ demands, and made a written offer to underwrite the important wage parity demand.

But now that the community had found a voice there was a sense of purpose beyond the compromises, and they stayed out on strike. Desai: “When I pointed out to one of the community leaders that they had won the strike and could just as well call it off his answer confounded me: ‘We are not striking for demands, we are striking for dignity’. I told him that Engen could not provide ‘dignity’. ‘Exactly, my friend, exactly!’ was his answer”. The strike went on for another week until Engen itself negotiated with the strikers and capitulated to all their demands, including the reinstatement of a man badly injured by the police.

“The strike at Engen, unlike that at VWSA, did not take seriously the conciliation and other legal measures afforded in post-apartheid South Africa. It relied on timing a wildcat strike to fit in with the company turnaround when the company was most vulnerable. A considerable amount of energy was devoted to building community support whilst [not] becoming a captive of one political tendency or casting itself in dogmatic ideological terms. ‘It was as if the whole of Wentworth was on strike’.”

The Durban Social Forum

Submitted by Steven. on November 10, 2006

The Durban Social Forum
South Africa’s hosting of the World Anti-Racism Conference provided a focal point for the formation of the Durban Social Forum: a loose collective of various groups such as the residents’ and concerned citizens’ groups, the Cape Town Anti-Eviction Campaign, the Anti-Privatization Forum, the Landless People's Movement, Durban University Students, Keep Left (a group of Jo’burg Socialists), Jubilee South Africa, and SA Indymedia. The DSF organised a national march and a series of meetings and exchange visits in order for the various groups to get to know each other and discuss together.1 The DSF march was “not a conceptual rejection of capitalism or neoliberalism, but a direct attack on the agents of the anti-poor policies in this country – the ANC”. Over 30,000 people attended from all over South Africa. “It is difficult to capture the joy and surprise and vibrancy of the march”. It ended with an attempt to break through police lines and storm the conference. “More revolutionary songs were sung, loud and fast, the footfalls and claps of the toyi-toyi2 sounding like gun shots… For the first time there was a mass based and very public reaction of the ANC… This loose collection of community based social movements unified by their opposition to the ANC’s policies is now a significant force in South African politics…. It validated a form of collectivity, the community movements, free from the ideological inhibitions of organised labour or the tired dogmas of the Left”.3

The Durban Social Forum declaration is available on line at

  • 1 In some ways, it did not sit easy on these groups to go from the immediate struggles for their daily needs to a more abstract protest at the conference. “An ideological offensive assumed a common ideology among those who made up the Concerned Citizens Forum, and this was an issue that had, deliberately, never been clarified. After the cannon-fodder approach to politics that many people had suffered at the hands of either Inkatha or the so-called liberation movements, it was no wonder that these ideas were treated with some suspicion at first. Why go to Durban and march for or against a conference? Those are politicians’ issues,” page 122. But, as one woman wrote after a meeting where Dennis Brutus ‘explained global apartheid’, the abstraction could also be useful: “By the time we left the meeting, there was a buzz amongst us all like I have never felt before. People were talking to each other. Suddenly so many things made sense. Why our water was getting cut off and our people thrown onto the street. Why our children had to pay school fees or else. Why the local clinic had been closed down. Why Engen had retrenched workers to increase its share price. Why foreign companies are happy to give Yengenis [4x4 cars] to local elites. Why our president doesn’t support the intifada. Why the youth of the North are also out on the streets and why our Minister of Finance hates them so…” page 127
  • 2 The vibrant combination of dancing, singing and running that characterised the mass scale protests of the 1980s and 90s in South Africa, originally imported from Zimbabwe where many ANC armed fighters were based in the 80s.
  • 3But “It attracted the usual array who earn their keep lobbying, politicking, and gaining public notice for some or other cause. Many of the causes are noble but many of those speaking on behalf of those causes are not. The world of the NGO is a cynical yet self-righteous, populist yet undemocratic, and sympathetic yet disempowering arena.” In fact, when the Jo’burg contingent arrived, those very NGOs – who were holding an official ‘alternative’ conference at the Cricket ground - called the police to disperse them when they wanted to camp and sleep the night there

A luta continua

Submitted by Steven. on November 10, 2006

‘Case of 5’ In October 2004, a victory against the state repression of activists was won when the 'Case of the 5' against Khayelitsha Anti-Eviction Campaign activists was withdrawn. The case started in September 2002, when two Mandela Park Anti-Eviction Campaign activists were arrested along with other striking workers at their (then) workplace at the Zandvliet Water Treatment Plant. This was part of a campaign of repression orchestrated by the police and major banks against the Anti-Eviction Campaign. The more than two years that this court case lasted makes it the longest-running political trial in recent South African history.1

  • 1The tale of the Mandela Park evictions, relocations and the struggle against them is documented and examined in a report called ‘“But We Were Thousands”: Dispossession, resistance, repossession and repression in Mandela Park’, by Ashwin Desai & Richard Pithouse

Phiri water struggles, 2004

Submitted by Steven. on November 10, 2006

Short article about a water struggle in 2004 in South Africa.

On October 15 2004, residents of Chiawelo, Phiri and Dlamini joined residents from elsewhere in Soweto in blocking the Old Potch road, a main Jo’burg through-road, to demand that the installation of prepaid water meters by Johannesburg Water be stopped. Police were out in force to disperse the protestors using stun grenades and random arrests. Since August 2003, at the start of Operation Gcina'Amanzi in Phiri, the water company has been confronted by resistance to its project to commodify water.

The threat that prepaid water meters constitute to the livelihoods and health of all Sowetans has reoriented the focus of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee's struggle for basic services. Frustrated by continuing community resistance to the prepaid system, Johannesburg Water has not been able to complete the installation of the new meters in Phiri.

South African public service strike - September 2004

Submitted by Steven. on November 10, 2006

Very short account of a strike over pay of 800,000 South African public-sector workers.

Probably the biggest strike in South Africa’s history took place on September 16 2004. More than 800,000 public sector workers, including 320,000 teachers, took part in the one-day strike.

Eight public-sector unions, including those representing teachers, nurses, police officers and prison wardens, have rejected a 6 per cent pay offer, demanding a 7 per cent rise. Teachers have not had a pay review since 1996. Around 200,000 strikers took part in the 24 marches held across the country, where workers blew whistles and sang old liberation songs.

South Africa has about 1.1 million public servants, of which 990,000 are union members, and there are fears the strike could cost as much as US$30m (£16.8m). The strike is also putting pressure on the alliance between unions and the ANC government.

South African platinum industry halted by two major strikes, 2004

Submitted by Steven. on November 10, 2006

Very short article on two South African metal workers strikes.

A strike involving 17,000 employees at Impala Platinum’s mining and processing plant, near Johannesburg, began on September 30 2004. The dispute is over the terms of a wage deal agreed on last year between Impala and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

Production at the plant has come to a complete standstill. A spokesman for Impala, which produces one third of the world’s platinum, said that the strike would cost the company R28 million (US$4.3 million) a day.

Four months ago, Impala sacked 1,700 rockdrill operators for taking part in what the company claimed was an unofficial strike. They were reinstated after the settlement of the dispute. On September 30, another strike began at Anglo Plat, following a go-slow at a number of the company’s mines.


Submitted by Steven. on November 10, 2006

The site of many of these struggles is the neighbourhood. The people involved are men, women and children of all ages, and of many different African cultures. The important thing is the form the struggles take – the way they organise, and the way they communicate amongst themselves and take decisions in large assemblies. Desai reports how new social relations are being formed in the townships, as people gather in the evenings and “escape the loneliness and lethargy of TV or slumber to crisscross their areas bearing messages or pamphlets or gossip”.

The struggles are largely led by women, and largely focused on immediate needs, not on some hypothetical future aim. But “these protests were not driven by ideology but by the need to survive and their desire to live decently.” Decisions are taken by consensus. The demands are winnable, and are sometimes won – but they always have to be fought for. The state is giving nothing away – or even leaving anything the same – without a fight. But whilst abstract ‘political’ identities are rejected – there is also an understanding of the global nature of capital and of those struggling against it. “News of social struggles in Soweto, Zimbabwe, Bolivia and Genoa… are received with intense interest and joy.” The people are interested in both the common forms of struggle and the common enemies.

We have yet to see if these new struggles will continue to grow in number and effect, or if they will stay in a defensive position and fall into pitfalls such as those of successful repression, or diversion into ‘politics’ (e.g. what the Trotskyists offer and, to a certain extent, what happened to the popular assemblies in Argentina). It seems that all over the developing world, people are struggling to keep some basic living together some land, water and food. However, as Desai points out: “The struggles… reveal much about the transition to democracy in South Africa. So often they are aimed at no more than remaining in dilapidated accommodation devoid of basic social amenities, without lights and water. And yet they are seen as a threat to the state. The poor are having to fight to remain ensconced in the ghettoes to which apartheid consigned them. Are these the revolutionary demands we make?” Are we seeing the start of a new movement based on autonomous ‘communist’ principles and the emergence of a new politics based around community activism, or just desperate and isolated responses by communities under constant assault – or just desperate survival measures driven purely by reaction?

Perhaps the extreme measures of depriving people of water stems from the simple fact that the numbers of people moving to the cities exceeds the numbers needed to work. We are superfluous humans – and simply have to be stopped from causing too much trouble, using prisons rather than welfare.

Within this new movement, any direct action taken by ordinary people to meet their needs is not only considered justified, but heroic. In it, a worldwide tendency to reject the politics of the 1970s can be seen: a rejection of highly centralized parties, of armies of followers treated as ‘cannon-fodder’, and of stale political dogma. Noticeable instead are the movement’s widely-shared ideals of horizontal organisation, with emerging and mutating forms of organising, according to the immediate situation, replacing organisations whose orders one simply follows. Other welcome trademarks of these new movements, and visible on a worldwide basis, are their frequent acceptance of consensus-based decision-making processes, and an appeal to the notion of human dignity.

January 2005 [email protected]