This is such an interesting moment: here I am at a conference venue in Honeydew outside of Johannesburg with 65 activists, unionists (including leading people from COSATU), community workers and radical intellectuals all talking about the failures of South Africa’s post-1994 capitalist system and the potential for a ‘wage-led sustainable growth path’. While we talk and debate, all across the country poor people are protesting – from mineworkers to farmworkers, transport workers and angry urban youths. And every now and then the word ‘Marikana’ is mentioned – a word that is now shorthand for a turning point in South Africa’s post-apartheid history. Why? Yes, it was a particularly horrific moment of state violence against workers that seems to have been justified by the government. But, more importantly, it seems to capture the moment when formerly loyal supports of the ANC-COSATU alliance publicly and forcefully declared their disillusionment with the alliance. By joining a new union led by a former NUM member who was excommunicated from NUM, mineworkers made clear what they were rejecting. Ramaphosa’s membership of the Lonmin Board is also symbolic of a new class politics – as one activist put it, ‘in Marikana Cyril is not a comrade, he’s a coloniser’.
There is a new atmosphere about, but also something familiar: feels to me a bit like the era that led to the formation of the UDF in 1983. A kind of mushrooming of grassroots anger, a patterning of protest action around an shared agenda of grievances, a new leadership that is fired up by the passions of newfound power while they feel excluded, pervasive despair in the face of easy use of violence and the cheapness of life, a generalised critique of a particular South African capitalism that retains much of its racial character and a sense that ‘if we don’t make it happen, no-one will’.
Talks mix together detailed analyses of the living and working conditions of mineworkers and farmworkers, the gender dynamics of the workplace, the power dynamics of post-apartheid BEE politics, the implications of climate change and resource depletion for workers and small farmers, reconnections to the land and soil, how workers have earned less and less since 1994 while shareholders have earned more and more, how Reserve Bank figures show that productivity has increased by 3% per annum since 1994 while wages have increased by 2% thus giving the lie to mainstream claims about the unaffordability of wage increases, and South Africa within the context of the global economic crisis. Although a center-piece was COSATU’s presentation on the Living Wage Campaign, the highlight was undoubtedly Gavin Hartford’s presentation on the causes of the Marikana strike and subsequent massacre – a story about a fundamental restructuring of the workforce as migrants urbanize, and as labor aristocracies take power in the union movement.
This is a significant gathering, but a shared language to articulate real alternatives has yet to emerge. Identifying the problems is easy, but much harder to identify and develop real alternatives that will have to be executed by appropriately configured institutions and movements.