Ten years ago this month, Agnes Sehole, a black South African cast a ballot for the first time. Like millions of others, she voted for the African National Congress, the ANC. “I had my hopes to live a better life ,” she recalls.
Swept into power, the ANC, backed by the South African Communist Party and a coalition of trade unions, set out to fulfil Sehole’s hopes. But in the end, the only hopes they fulfilled were those of South Africa’s corporations, global investors, and the white minority. The dreams of the black majority for a better life were dashed.
“I curse the day that I voted on the 27th of April, 1994,” Sehole says. “From the frying pan right into the fire. If I died now, I would spin in my coffin forever because I have left my children in this terrible place .”
“Democracy,” she concludes, “has done nothing .”
You can hardly blame her for thinking that democracy–and the ANC–have been a bust. In June 1996, the ANC government adopted an economic strategy designed by the World Bank, a move that could be likened to putting Vlad the Impaler in charge of the Care Bears Nursery School.
The strategy, know as GEAR (Growth, Employment and Redistribution), promised six percent growth per annum by the year 2000, and 400,000 new jobs every year . It didn’t deliver.
Instead, unemployment soared. The official jobless rate grew from 16 percent in 1995 to 30 percent by 2003 . And when discouraged job-seekers who had given up looking for work were factored in, the jobless rate was 43 percent, and over 80 percent in some rural areas .
The ANC government’s privatization policies didn’t help. Some 20,000 workers lost their jobs at the state-owned telecommunications company, Telkom, after it was placed on the auction block, while 30,000 workers were thrown on the scrap heap after a hurricane of privatization blew through the electricity industry .
With joblessness exploding, poverty deepened. From 1995 to 2000, the average income of black households sank 19 percent. Absolute poverty (the percentage of households earning less than $90 of real income) increased from 20 percent in 1995 to 28 percent in 2000 .
If that wasn’t enough, the ANC government raised water and electricity rates and reduced cross-subsidies on telephone service. An estimated 10 million lost access to running water, 10 million lost their electricity, and 10 million lost their telephone service .
And while the ANC and its Communist Party junior were presiding over an economy that put the screws to the black majority, they were, in true World Bank fashion, indulging the private sector, slashing corporate taxes from 48 percent in 1994 to 30 percent in 1999 .
Meanwhile, as electricity, water and telephone services were priced beyond the reach of the progressively impoverished majority, the average income of white households grew 15 percent .
Critics dubbed the ANC policy “reverse GEAR,” a fitting label for a harsh to the poor, indulgent to the rich demarche that was hardly producing growth, employment or redistribution, though as a policy of redistributing income upwards, it wasn’t too shabby.
Not surprisingly, by late-2002, more than 60 percent of South Africans thought the country had been governed better by the white minority .
You would think that a government that has so conspicuously failed to distinguish itself from ordinary, run-of-the-mill governments of the sort that zealously cater to corporations and investors, would soon fall out of favor with the Left. And so it has, to a degree.
But the ANC and its Communist Party ally have so thoroughly established their left-wing credentials that they can behave just as right-wing as they like, while still drawing on enormous left-wing support. So it is that the latest issue of the Canadian Communist Party’s newspaper, The People’s Voice, can declare that “South African Communists urge massive ANC victory ,” while assuring its readers that South African Communists have “ideas to improve the lives of workers and the poor ,” without drawing forth a chorus of incredulous guffaws.
Why would anyone vote for the ANC? To do so would be like accepting a dinner invitation from a guy who’s out on bail for tampering with the packaged goods at the local grocery store.
Perhaps recognizing that its urging a massive vote for the ANC may just possibly be met by more than a few sneers by the people who’ve spent the last 10 years falling further and further behind, the South African Communist Party has what any rascal should never leave home without: a good story.
Well, it has a story, anyway. It’s titled, “The Bosses Are To Blame.” It goes like this: “The bosses are still sabotaging our democracy.” “We have rolled out democracy, but the bosses continually undermine it.” “The bosses make solemn promises” they never keep .
The solution. Vote for the ANC, so it can fight the bosses it has been giving into for the last 10 years, a proposal that amounts to something like the Vichy government saying, “Support us, because we’re the best alternative to fighting the Nazi occupation.”
What’s more, wailing “it’s the bosses fault” is nothing but an admission that elections don’t really matter. No matter what you do, no matter how many ideas you have to improve the lives of workers and the poor, the bosses win, because the bosses are left in place, even catered to, and the bosses run the place. Which invites the question, why bother voting for the ANC? Or more to the point, why waste your time on elections?
Joel Wendland, an American Communist who calls himself a Marxist for Kerry, thinks elections do matter. And he’s planning to do all he can to get the likely Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry elected come November, even though Wendland says, “Kerry is a representative of the capitalist class and shares many of their interests,” (actually, he’s more than a representative; he’s a member in good standing), “has voted incorrectly many times,” “has taken centrist positions and has even mimicked some right-wing positions .”
Sounds like there are a number of reasons why any self-respecting leftist would steer clear of backing Kerry. So what’s up with Wendland?
It seems there are a “relatively small handful of socialist sectarians ” that Wendland disagrees with. First among these splitists are those who “advocate boycotting the election ,” which the Kerry-supporting Marxist calls “the complete abstention from participation in this crucial element of class struggle .” To Wendland’s way of thinking, voting for a capitalist who’s the candidate of a capitalist party that seeks to implement capitalist policies for capitalist gain is a crucial element of class struggle. That may be so, but exactly what class is Wendland thinking of?
Our Marxist for Kerry, who edits the US Communist Party magazine Political Affairs, also takes issue with “socialist sectarians” who sling the ‘lesser evilism’ line . While their argument makes “a lot of sense ,” he says, it doesn’t make a lot of sense today. When it will make sense, is not clear, but if Wendland is like most US Communists it will make sense in some hard-to-glimpse, hazy future, when millions of Americans will have gone over to the Communist Party, though not as a result of any urging by Wendland and his like who’ve booked indefinite passage on the good ship Democrat, while urging as many other people as they can to come aboard.
Wendland’s arguments aren’t very convincing, but he’s got plenty of others, each as convincing as the last. Consider this one: “Kerry and Bush aren’t the same .”
I’ll grant Wendland the point. Kerry and Bush aren’t the same. In some respects, Kerry’s worse. But that’s not the question. The ANC and its apartheid predecessor weren’t the same either. But that doesn’t mean that the economic policies pursued by the ANC, with the backing of the South African Communist Party, weren’t the same as the economic policies the apartheid regime would have pursued had it remained in power, or that countless other governments around the world of various political stripes have pursued since the ANC came to power 10 years ago.
Indeed, the policies of a group of people in power have a lot more do to with the constraints imposed by the dominant political and economic institutions, and who controls the strategic heights, than what political label the government happens to slap on itself. Or to put it another way: accept the capitalist game, and you play by its rules. This, it would have been imagined, would be fairly evident to a Marxist.
Still, says the Kerry-backing Wendland, “We should send a message to Bush–and to Kerry–that we won’t tolerate [Bush’s] kind of record .” So, cut Bush loose, for his militarism, for waging war on Afghanistan, for invading and occupying Iraq, to send a message to Kerry: We won’t tolerate this.
But wait a moment. Didn’t Kerry support the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq? Doesn’t he support the occupations of both countries? Hasn’t he said he’d spend more on the military than Bush? Wasn’t it Kerry who said he’d add 40,000 troops to the Army? Didn’t Kerry say he’s prepared to use force unilaterally and pre-emptively? So how does voting for Kerry send a message that militarism, wars of conquest, the doctrine of pre-emptive war, the unilateral use of force and aggressive foreign policy, are intolerable? Doesn’t it do the very opposite–say these things are acceptable because we voted for the candidate who promised them?
Somehow, Wendland calls to mind the story of Bill.
For four years Bill received regular kicks to the balls by Sam’s right boot. At the end of the four years he was given a choice: four more years of getting booted in the groin by the right foot, or four years by the left. Bill could have said he’d accept neither. If he was going to get booted in the balls anyway, no matter which boot he chose, he wouldn’t choose either. Why should he be a party to his own ball-crushing? Instead, so angry was he at Sam’s right boot for four years of intolerable blows — and charmed by the argument that the left boot was the only realistic alternative, and that the right boot really needed to be sent a message — he decided he’d get even by choosing Sam’s left boot this time. Maybe it would be marginally better. Today, crouched over in pain, he feebly raises his right fist in victory. “I showed that right boot a thing or two!”
I’m not saying a vote for Bush or for the ANC’s opponents is the better choice. It isn’t. But it’s plain to see that elections within a capitalist milieu are a two, or three, or four boot system, one in which even Communists are prepared to wear one of the boots.
STEPHEN GOWANS is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada. He can be reached at: email@example.com
1. “Despite Deep Woes, Democracy Instils Hope,” The Washington Post, March 31, 2004.
4. Patrick Bond, “South Africa’s Frustrating Decade of Freedom: From Racial to Class Apartheid,” Monthly Review, March, 2004.
6. Washington Post.
11. Bond, Washington Post.
13. People’s Voice, April 1-15, 2004, Volume 12, #6.
15. Highlights of South African Communist Party election statement, People’s Voice.
16. Joel Wendland, “Marxists for Kerry,”