South Africa’s ‘class apartheid’

As South Africans march on May Day, the country’s left looks to overcome disunity.

As workers around the world filled the streets on May Day, Al Jazeera looks at the current state of the South African left [Reuters]

“The ANC is the shield, Cosatu the spear of the workers. There is no other political organisation in this country that has a historical duty to defend the interests of the workers than the ANC,” said Jacob Zuma, the South African president, during this year’s May Day rally in Durban.

The African National Congress (ANC) has been South Africa’s governing party since 1994 and is supported by a tripartite alliance with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the biggest trade union federation, and the South African Communist Party (SACP).

The history of May Day goes back to 1884, when the US Federation of Organized Trade and Labour Unions passed a law declaring that eight hours would be the full and legal working day for all US workers as of May 1, 1886.

Factory and business owners rejected the law and on the day it was due to be imposed workers took to the streets across the US to force the implementation of the eight hour working day.

Haymarket riots

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In Chicago, the strike action continued for three days and, in what later became known as the Haymarket riots, police opened fire on unarmed striking workers, killing six.

Outrage ensued and protest rallies and demonstrations were planned across the country for the next day.

On May 4, a rally of several thousand workers at Haymarket Square turned violent when a bomb was thrown at police who were attempting to disperse the protesters.

The police responded by firing into the crowd. Several police officers and workers were killed.

Eight activist leaders were subsequently arrested – even though it was claimed that only three were actually present at the rally – and convicted of murder and inciting a riot.

Four were executed by hanging, one is reported to have committed suicide in prison, and the remaining three were paroled in 1893 amid increased protests.

On May 1, 1890 mass demonstrations and strikes were held throughout Europe and North America, to commemorate those that became known as the ‘Haymarket martyrs’ and to demand an eight hour working day and better working conditions.

Since then May 1 has been known as May Day – a day of international worker solidarity – with the Russians adopting it a year later, the Chinese by 1920 and the Indians by 1927.

Class apartheid

May Day has only been celebrated in South Africa since the advent of the new post-Apartheid democracy in 1994.

Al Jazeera spoke to Salim Vally, a veteran activist and lecturer at the University of Johannesburg, who said that the country is experiencing deepening levels of inequality as a result of the ANC’s macro-economic policies.

“We had a negotiated settlement in this country that saw a fairly peaceful transition from Apartheid to democracy, but we continue to have inequality and it is getting worse,” he says.

South African student organisations recently spoke out against this growing inequality, and the small but extremely wealthy black middle class, saying that while the race struggle may be over, the class struggle continues.

For Vally, May Day in South Africa is significant because, while the fight against Apartheid has been won, “we now have the major task of fighting against class apartheid”.

Rising inequality

“The benefits of economic growth have not been broadly and equitably shared”

Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president

The wealthiest 4 per cent of South Africans, a quarter of whom are black, now earn more than 100 times what much of the rest of the population live on.

Zuma acknowledged this during his May Day address, saying that the workers’ share of the national income in Africa’s largest economy had not yet grown to acceptable levels.

“The benefits of economic growth have not been broadly and equitably shared,” he said, promising to introduce new laws to address this.

“The World Cup is a celebration of our freedom, a celebration of the sacrifices and struggles of our people. Together we will make the tournament a resounding success, because we worked so hard for it over many decades,” Zuma said.

But, many are critical about the amount of money that has been poured into the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, while millions still struggle to escape poverty.

“This May Day the 2010 World Cup is the context – it has already shown a lot of wastage and corruption in a country that can ill afford it,” Vally says, referring to the $6bn spent on stadiums, roads, airports and other World Cup related expenses.

“Only the elite, the multi-national corporations and FIFA have been benefiting from this and not the people,” he adds, explaining that this is similar to the billions of Rands wasted on the arms trade deal a few years ago.

Uniting the left

Protests against a lack of services have erupted across South Africa [AFP]

Mazibuko Jara, a former spokesman and strategist for the SACP who was expelled from the party for expressing critical views, says that while the SACP has been able to maintain a critique of the ANC’s neo-liberal policies, they have failed to use the political space to make sure that leftist policies are taken forward and implemented.

“South Africa has the largest number of protests in the world, but these are having no effect because the left is not united and organised,” he says.

Together with a group of former SACP activists and key figures from South African NGOs and universities, Jara has recently called for a Conference for a Democratic Left (CDL).

“Our call this May Day was for a united platform for struggle across the board, which is important for the whole of southern Africa because South Africa is central to this region,” Jara says.

Although the CDL is being led by key communist figures such as Vishwas Satgar, a former provincial leader of the SACP, and Martin Legassick, a renowned academic and anti-Apartheid activist, most trade unions are firmly locked in with the ANC.

“In our country the left has been disparate and many of the values we fought for in our struggle against Apartheid have gone on the wayside for the mindless pursuit of profit and material advancement,” says Vally.

“We have given capitalism over 15 years and it has failed to deliver even basic services to the people, so we have to look for alternatives that are not based on profit, which will deliver education, health care and development to our people.”


While deep divisions exist within the tripartite alliance, many believe that there is little chance that Cosatu and the SACP will make the necessary break from the ruling party.

Recognising the divisions, Zuma used the May Day rally to call on the alliance partners to stand together and to be united in order to transform the lives of South Africans.

“There is still a lot that we must do together to advance the interests of workers,” Zuma said.

But, Vally says that the global financial crisis has revealed the failings of capitalism. “We were told that there was no alternative to capitalism, but this [the financial crisis] has shown that it has failed.”

“The communist party (SACP) has been compromised and it will continue to be compromised for as long as it stays in the alliance with the ruling party.”

So while the left struggles to regroup and reorganise, South African workers continue to march on May Day, in the hope that their pleas are not in vain.

Source : Al Jazeera

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