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Monday, 21st April 2014

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Arrow in the wind

The decisions at the ANC's Polokwane Conference, including the election of Jacob Zuma, have increased the likelihood, not merely the possibility, of a better world.

Jacob Zuma's accession to the post of President of South Africa is by no means a done deal. If the Scorpions get their way, by 2009 Zuma could be taking up residence in the Qalakabusha Prison rather than in Pretoria's Union Building. And even if Zuma does become South Africa's head of state, it is by no means clear that this would lead to a radical change in the course of the country's capitalist economy- a course which has further enriched the white elite, and created a new wealthy black elite, while leaving millions in abject poverty.

But whatever eventually flows from it, the fact of Zuma's election, together with the other candidates supported by the trade unions and the communists, to the leadership of the African National Congress, is a matter of significance to the world, not just to South Africa.

The clean-sweep change of leadership within South Africa's ruling party is the organisational expression of a change of understanding and a change of mood. The cruel myth of 'trickle-down' has already been exposed, and it is no longer controversial to observe that neo-liberalism delivers only misery to the majority of the people. Yet neo-liberal policies have been tolerated, even in South Africa where the political representatives of the mass of the people hold state power, because these policies have been seen as essential for national economic survival in our globalised world. The way that the 4,000 delegates at the ANC's conference at Polokwane voted signifies a further shift. Among the activists there is no longer merely a view that neo-liberalism is bad, but a feeling that something can be done about it.

The factors behind this shift include changes taking place internationally. Zwelinzima Vavi, the leader of South Africa's trade union federation COSATU, used his speech at a Communist Party rally in October 2007 to point out that socialist forces are regaining the initiative. As he declared:

When many have declared socialism dead, it is appropriate to mark the 90th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution and re-instil confidence in the future of socialism. This rally takes place amid rising working class confidence in South Africa and the world, especially in Latin America.

The collapse of the Soviet Bloc in the later 1980s led to a triumphalist imperialist camp and some of their ideologues claimed the end of history.  Today as we meet in this rally the overconfidence of neo-liberal globalisation has been challenged both by peoples' struggles and the failure of the system to resolve class contradictions and humanity's basic problems.  We are therefore at an important and opportune juncture to pursue the struggle for social transformation to greater height.

After giving a positive assessment of the achievements of the socialist countries in the 20th Century, Vavi contrasted that record with the failure of capitalism to deliver on its promises:

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 80s we were told was a poignant statement of the infeasibility and undesirability of socialism. Globalisation we were promised will herald a new era of prosperity for all. The new liberal dogma was unleashed on the people of the world and with more vigour and cynicism in the former Soviet republics. Capitalism was re introduced overnight without due regard to the social political and economic context of the former Soviet republics.  This resulted in a Mafia - style privatisation of state owned enterprises and the tearing down of the social welfare system.

What is the record since then? Capitalism remains a crisis-ridden system based on profit for a few. The divisions between the rich and the poor have widened both within and between nations...

Mass impoverishment has become the order of the day as Neo liberalism has shattered social welfare systems and destroyed the public sector in many developing countries. Simultaneous with the restructuring of the working class, profits have soared for local and international bourgeoisie. In short mass impoverishment coexists with high levels of profit.

Vavi was explicit in his analysis that the struggles in South Africa are part of a global contest:

Neo liberalism has been challenged throughout the world and more forcefully in Latin America. In this context we salute the wave of left wing-parties coming to power in Latin America, part of that wave of global challenge to neo liberalism. The South African working class has also forcefully challenged the neo liberal dogma...

What are the implications for the South African Revolution? We must see our struggles as interlinked with the global struggle against neo liberal globalisation. Our challenge is to radicalise the current path of the National Democratic Revolution. This means building the power and the confidence of the working class to challenge the hegemony of capital. That requires a reversal of the flirtation with the neo liberal dogma by the democratic government.

Zwelinzima Vavi

Concluding his speech, the COSATU leader called on African National Congress members to mobilise to elect Jacob Zuma as ANC president. In this, he and his allies were successful. Whether the ANC under its new leadership will or can alter the direction of the country's development to benefit the poor and the working class is another matter. Critics who pour scorn on the idea that such change is likely have focussed on the assurances which Zuma has given to big business. Professor Patrick Bond of the Centre for Civil Society remarked on 21st December:

In his first speech to the ANC as president, Zuma himself intoned that there was “no reason why the business or international community or any other sector should be uneasy.” Quite so; after all, a mealy-mouthed Zuma made this clear last month in closed-door meetings organised by officials of two New York banks, Citi and Merrill Lynch, which are themselves making the world markets rather uneasy with their financial shenanigans.

In Professor Bond's opinion, Zuma should instead have "address[ed] these bastards as follows":

'You international financiers have wreaked havoc on the South for more than three decades: with your loans to dictators like the apartheid regime, with your Third World Debt Crisis from the early 1980s which completely wiped out our 1960s-70s socio-economic progress, with your Emerging Markets crises starting in Mexico in 1994 and continuing across the world, including destruction of post-apartheid SA's currency on four occasions, and now, with your Subprime Mortgage gambles which suckered African-Americans and other low-income people into the US real estate bubble leaving them to now suffer wealth shrinkage more severe than at any other time in modern history - at the same time threatening the safety of the world financial system.

'Your two institutions had to fire your CEOs Stan O'Neal and Charles Prince for incompetence and write off more than $20 billion in bad investments. And you're telling me I must dance to your tune, to calm your goddamn jitters? Actually, you should calm OUR jitters!'

This criticism is naive in the extreme. Firstly, on the tactical level: Jacob Zuma is still far from becoming the leader of his country, and the big investment banks have the capacity to exert considerable pressure on South Africa, for instance by destabilising its economy, in order to seek to prevent Zuma from taking up office as president. The facts in Professor Bond's paragraph are accurate, and ably demonstrate the destructive power which the international financiers have at their disposal. While ANC leader but not yet South Africa's president, Zuma would not be in a position to manage the country's response to such attacks.

Secondly, strategically: even were one to assume that the correct socialist strategy for a medium-developed Third World country is the immediate nationalisation of all economic activity (a most questionable assumption in present global conditions), South Africa would still need a relationship with the transnational companies, including the banks, in order to be able to trade and to attract technology.

One of the most disastrous consequences of the collapse of the USSR is that, almost without exception, all international trade, all international finance, all international investment, and all international technology transfer now takes place on a capitalist basis. The challenge facing any country wishing to develop in a socialist direction- or even, as in the case of Cuba, to retain its socialism while developing its economy- is how to successfully engage with global capitalism while seeking to change the system.

Nevertheless, South Africa does have prospects in the present context. Venezuela and some other Latin American countries are demonstrating that it is possible to take some, at this stage very slow and limited, steps towards socialism. A new factor of great help is the rise of China as a trading power and potential investment partner, which reduces- but does not remove- the ability of the USA to impose its will on other nations. There are respects in which South Africa is well placed to take, and further, to lead, a move away from rampant capitalism. It is, both economically and politically, the leading nation in its continent.

The country's political structure gives it a further advantage. The overwhelming public support enjoyed by the ANC, the genuine mass involvement in the organisation, and the high level of political consciousness of its activists give South Africa some of the advantages of a one-party state without any of the disadvantages which occur through the banning of opposition parties. Further, not only is the ANC in an alliance with the Communist Party (SACP) and COSATU, the trade union federation, but these organisations are highly influential within the African National Congress itself. In his closing speech to the Congress at Polokwane on 20th December, Jacob Zuma reaffirmed this relationship:

Comrades, this conference has also reaffirmed the need for the continued existence of our Tripartite Alliance. This proves the correctness of the statement made by Inkosi Albert Luthuli when he said that the ANC is the shield and SACTU [the previous trade union federation] the spear.

This is the nature of the ANC-SACP-COSATU Alliance relationship. This alliance is based on mutual trust and respect and should be defended and protected by all ANC members. Coming out of this conference we have a clear mandate to build and strengthen the alliance, to nurture it and defend it.

In his greetings to fraternal political parties, Zuma mentioned by name only one organisation outside Southern Africa- the Communist Party of Cuba.

The new leader of the ANC described the outcome of the conference as having "historical significance". The extent to which this is true remains to be seen. But at the very least, the decisions at Polokwane have somewhat increased the likelihood, not merely the possibility, of a better world.