The South African political situation has developed, as Emperor Hirohito would put it, not necessarily to the left’s advantage. It is striking that recent developments in the application of reactionary theory and practice in South Africa are not being discussed by the left. It should be.
One of the biggest single changes in public discourse has been the move against organised labour. Since the mid-1980s, organised labour has been too powerful and too popular to be challenged effectively by the right. After 1994 it had a defender in the government, even if that defence was lukewarm at times because organised labour loved to legitimate itself in the eyes of the plutocracy by attacking the government on questionable grounds. The socio-economic system was structured to serve the interests of trade unions as a legitimate part of the economy, even though the unions never used this opportunity for any greater purpose than the customary union project of more money for the workers represented by the union. Hostility to unions was, for a long time, largely confined to extreme right-wing organisations like the Free Market Foundation and the Institute of Race Relations. Even the Democratic Alliance restrained its hostility, possibly because its main funders found unions a convenience for preserving peace in the mining industry.
Now, however, anti-union sentiment is widespread throughout the media, electronic as well as print. The DA began the process with its campaign against SADTU, but more recently the propaganda arms of business denounce every union which attempts to improve the lot of its members. This is arguably nothing new — it simply represents what they always wanted to say but felt unable to. It has surely been made possible by the rightward move of the ANC and the unanimity of the media. It is a little surprising that government joins in the chorus of denunciation of organised labour, given that an election is coming up, the ANC expects to do poorly, and therefore the ANC needs the support of organised labour. Instead, the ANC government uses the existence of trade unions as an excuse for the poor performance of the government’s economic policy as well as of service delivery.
This hostility to trade unions is significant in itself — after all, the SACP was once sympathetic to workers — but it is also significant as a symptom. There are others. The entire National Development Plan, once one disregards the saccharine developmental boilerplate with which it is stuffed, is filled with passion for public-private partnerships — that is, with plans for providing money to corporations so that they will pretend to provide the public services which the state used to provide. Such passion is, once again, all but universal in government as well as media — as a panacea, not for the actual problems, but for taking responsibility for problems.
The educational policy of South Africa is largely devoted to promoting education for economic development — which means nothing, of course, since education itself cannot promote economic development when there is no investment, and when economic development is not the goal of the bourgeoisie. It is an excuse for not providing economic development — which is, again, a form of conservatism. The idea that it is necessary to educate people into understanding capitalism and “entrepreneurship” is absurd, and yet it is almost universal in the educational establishment which is structured towards such things as SETAs, which are largely intended to make money for someone while pretending to help the people supposedly being educated. It is a facade, not even a functional one.
It might seem that this is not a big change from the past, when ostensible education for economic development was always part of the pattern. The difference is that now there is nothing else available. It is a significant difference which also plays itself out in more fundamental policies.
For example, under Sexwale, the pattern of housing provision shifted away from the state providing housing to the state “facilitating” “human settlements”. The former thing entails measurable performance under which the government uses tax money to build houses (usually, admittedly, hiring private companies to do the building) and thus provides employment. The latter thing entails something much vaguer — for one thing, the ideal of eliminating shacklands has been forgotten. Sexwale always made a great fuss about the shoddiness of the building of the RDP houses (in which, admittedly, he had a point) and then claimed that it would cost about twice as much to repair them as it had cost to build them in the first place. Surely these figures were being fudged in the interests of the big construction companies, but also they were being used to justify not providing houses, because it would supposedly be too expensive (even though virtually all the money was being recycled back into the South African economy, so providing housing was one of the best things the South African government could do.
All this could have been blamed on the fact that Sexwale was a billionaire property developer — but then, why appoint a billionaire property developer to that position. Now Sexwale is gone, but the weak right-wing unionist who has replaced him has followed the same pattern. Increasingly, the move is towards not building houses for the poor, but instead providing them with stands and requiring banks to offer them easy credit so that they can have someone (presumably, another big construction company) build it for them. This, again, seems superficially similar — doesn’t it also provide houses? But it provides houses without any government intervention other than facilitating the provision of cash. Also, it ensures that the poor will be endebted for the houses that they get, which means that instead of providing people with homes which could potentially serve as bases for people to empower and enrich themselves, people will be provided with debt, and the banks will be provided with a revenue stream (guaranteed, no doubt, from government coffers). This is all painfully like the policies which provoked the 2007 financial crash, and suggests that the South African government has not learned anything from that — or rather, it has learned to take its orders from Barclays and J P Morgan, which it did not do before.
Healthcare, too, has shifted sharply towards the pursuit of private profit rather than public service. Admittedly there are still plenty of public hospitals and clinics, which should not simply be sneezed at. However, the quality of healthcare is declining steadily because the existing system is being starved of cash while receiving no leadership. In its place, supposedly, will come the National Health Insurance system, which is supposedly the ultimate public-private partnership under which the big medical aid companies and the big private hospital chains will work together with the government to ensure that the poor can gain affordable access to the private hospital system. Of course, this means pumping vast amounts of taxpayer money into the private healthcare and health insurance systems, but isn’t this a small price to pay for saving millions of lives?
Actually it seems to be simply a scam — which could have been anticipated from the bullshit way in which it was presented when it was introduced, from the crooks who introduced it, and from the fact that it emanated from the Zuma administration which specialises in scams. Obviously, in order to provide access to private healthcare, public healthcare has to be made effective enough to refer patients who cannot be treated at public institutions to private ones — otherwise the system would quickly break down. Instead, the areas which are supposedly the “pilot projects” for National Health Insurance and where there has been immense spending, are almost invariably areas where healthcare is collapsing under the impact of mismanagement and corruption, much of which has been imported into the area by bringing in Zuma cronies. In other words, NHI is inevitably going to fail, apart from the urban areas where there is already accessible high-grade healthcare, but it is also already dragging public healthcare into the mud even before dump-trucks full of money start to be transferred from the public sector to the private sector.
Meanwhile, rural public healthcare was one of the focuses of the early ANC government, despite being hampered by the spending restraints of the late 90s — but this has all but disappeared in favour of corporate bullshit and technobabble about how all operations will henceforth be performed via Skype.
Health, housing, education — these are central things which could have been used to salvage the national economy. When the government backs away from these things, or hands their management over to someone else, it is consciously weakening its capacity to make a positive difference. But all this weakening is not happening as part of a plan, it seems to be happening partly in order to avoid responsibility, and partly because the right wing has a dynamic plan and the government doesn’t.
After all, the National Development Plan is fundamentally a project to help out the mining industry and to a lesser extent the construction industry, two of the most corrupt capitalist entities in the country. It was set up, not by people with an interest in party or government or country, but by business managers whose mandate was to serve the interests of business. Now it is being sold to the country as a government project when it is nothing of the kind, and the government connives at this.
All these things are happening out in the open, and yet all these things are being fundamentally ignored by South African leftists. And, of course, by the leftists of the world, many of whom recently combined to leap to the defense of land invaders in Cato Crest in Durban. No doubt land invaders in Cato Crest have legitimacy (although it might be argued that the local municipality also has legitimacy if it wants to build houses for workers in the land which the invaders want to build shacks on). However, it is hard to believe that a small-scale land invasion is so much more important than a national policy trend towards neoliberal capitalism that the former needs to have support canvassed for it across the world, whereas the latter can be safely ignored as too trivial to be worth of notice.
Fundamentally, then, this means that the rightward move is happening without any resistance from the left. Which is, of course, why it has been so successful. And, therefore, the general public loses faith in the left’s willingness to struggle. It is worth pondering why this is so, whether the left is deliberately undermining itself because it has sold out. More probably, the left in South Africa today, like the left in Germany in 1932, is incapable of focussing on real problems and prefers to focus on fantasias of power and political significance.