From Seattle To Soweto
5 September 2001
Resistance / SOUTH AFRICA
As the sharks of global capitalism circle South Africa, Ferial Haffajee tracks a growing grassroots resistance.
On a crisp morning at the beginning of June, the tape of South Africa’s history appears to have been rewound to the time when the community protests that began to topple the apartheid regime were at their height.
The Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC) is on the march, led by veteran activist Trevor Ngwane who, lifting his feet in the ritual dance of protest, toyi-toyis with them through dusty streets.
The poor in the townships that have outstanding bills owing to the electricity utility Eskom are being cut off. Before partial privatization Eskom must become more profitable and lower the numbers in its debtors book. According to Ngwane: ‘Our belief is that electricity is a right. We cannot afford to pay rates much higher than big business does. The system’s in a mess.’
Ngwane has gone door to door, collecting information about conditions in Soweto, to help bolster the call to end electricity cut-offs. What he has seen is shocking. Most households in this metropolitan township earn less than R 800 ($100) a month; almost half the households surveyed survive on an old-age pensioner’s payment of R 540 a month. Ngwane recounts how he is often stopped in the streets by acquaintances ‘asking me for five rands to buy bread. I see starvation, actual starvation.’
For Trevor Ngwane, electricity cut-offs in Soweto are easily located in the global economic diktat that services are better run on profit lines. As one-time speculator George Soros admits: ‘South Africa is in the hands of global capital. That’s why it can’t meet the legitimate demands of its people.’
For this reason, Ngwane has also brought his toyi toyi to Washington protests against the World Bank, the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and the World Economic Forum meeting on South African soil in June 2001. Though at heart he is a community activist, he takes hope from a new wave of international protest against economic globalization.
Ngwane’s message to this movement is: ‘Through international solidarity we were able to get rid of the apartheid regime. But now our freedom is coming to nought because of neoliberal policies of these institutions which undermine our freedom. We need solidarity to oppose these policies.’
And about the growing resistance on the home front, he explains: ‘The point has been reached in South Africa where people have been pushed to struggle in defence of their standard of living. It happened under apartheid. When people are under pressure, they have no choice but to fight back.’
He adds: ‘Organizations like the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee are small beginnings, of this we are under no illusions. But I am also aware that history can move in leaps and bounds.’
Soweto, the township that is a symbol of the struggle against apartheid, is the heart of the country – the real South Africa. The taxi dodges potholes and then a horse and cart, piled high with coal. You speed past tiny brick houses, set cheek by jowl. It’s dusty and mostly treeless, except for forlorn attempts at ‘greening’ – a ragged tree, a patch of grass dotted here and there.
In the suburb of Dlamini electric cables run from tall, wooden poles into the mkukus – chicken coops – as the ubiquitous shacks are called. Children run wire cars along the dirt road.
This is the stomping ground of Trevor Ngwane. He wears street-smart dreadlocks and a lumber jacket favoured by urban black men. His turquoise cell-phone rings constantly.
A veteran anti-apartheid activist born and bred in Soweto, Ngwane was expelled as a local councillor of the ANC for Pimville in 1999. He was disciplined after he objected to the Government’s World Bank-influenced development model for Johannesburg which involved privatization (known here as ‘corporatization’) of public services like electricity, water, parks and even the Zoo.
For the ANC has changed course and character from the liberation movement which took power on a wave of euphoria in 1994. The Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) it began with was a radical social-democratic policy document based on the Freedom Charter, centred around human, infrastructural and economic development. Its goals were one million houses, universal and affordable electricity, a national health scheme and social security.
But in 1996 the ANC was forced by powerful investors and the IMF to adapt itself to the ‘realities’ of the global economy with its new Growth Employment and Redistribution strategy (GEAR). International economic élites helped shape this programme, and its heart is neoliberal, placing macro-economic targets like low inflation and a low budget deficit (three per cent) at the apex of policy, and relegating development goals to second place.
Since then, health, welfare, education, electrification and housing budgets have been slashed. Income disparity has actually increased since the end of apartheid, and around one in four South Africans are unemployed.
‘There’s been a shift in policy from a redistributive policy to a trickle-down policy,’ says Ngwane. In a nutshell – if you can’t pay, you can’t have it. So he has moved from the inside of power, back to the outside, back to challenge, back to protest.
The struggle against apartheid is so recent that a proud culture of resistance is still latent in the townships, and it is this that is feeding the rumbling at the grassroots.
Ngwane says: ‘It’s just like the old days. We are pamphleteering, we have meetings. There’s a defiance campaign called Operation Khanyisa, where people themselves reconnect electricity that’s been cut off. It balances the power between Eskom and us, we contest their power to switch on and off.’
‘I’ve addressed about 20 to 25 meetings recently and things are changing, people are listening. What strikes me now about all these protests is that we’re so fresh out of political independence and it’s amazing that people have shaken off the nationalist honeymoon so quickly,’ he continues.
Trevor Ngwane is seeing that in every community the issues sparking people to march and to organize are different but the same. Different in detail, but they reflect the same needs. Many are allied to the Anti-Privatization Forum, of which Ngwane is secretary, a national forum that links a range of organizations which oppose various forms of privatization and which assist with community struggles.
In Katorus, former guerillas of the ANC are bitter at being forgotten by their comrades – now the war is over, they have not been rehoused, retrained or retained. They too are organizing and last year challenged the ANC during the local election.
For them, Ngwane is an icon, a leader who hasn’t left the township for the suburb; the barricades for the boardrooms. Without a touch of arrogance, Ngwane states: ‘I represent a feeling, a trend, a thinking among people. People come to me and say we are willing to fight. We need someone who is willing to speak out for us.’
Assisted by local and international academics, radical groups, trade unionists and others, the new movement is nascent but has potential. Many from this new movement were heavily involved in the protests against the global pharmaceutical giants and for affordable AIDS drugs, for example. In the port city of Durban, ANC veteran Fatima Meer helps to organize poor communities faced with evictions. She and other former ANC supporters have organized ‘defenders of communities’ – mobile groups who forcibly stop evictions. In April last year, for example, older women in the Chatsworth community surrounded and defended their homes against eviction – this became known as the Auntie’s Revolt.
Ngwane says: ‘The ANC is a shell of its former self. It has no mass politics; it only prepares for power struggles. You still get loyalists, but most people are demobilized, cynical; they are leaving the stage. They are our happy hunting ground. It’s easier to win those on the outside. Our problem now is to provide a political home for these people, but there isn’t a consensus of how we relate to the state. We are a young democracy, remember. But we have to provide people with choices. The ANC in power is very unresponsive. This is their big mistake. When people elect you, you’ve got to be there for them.’
‘When the next election comes in 2004, there will be pressure from the left for a more coherent approach.’ While some of his comrades favour the new politics of social movements, which place little faith in electoral politics, Ngwane is still an old-school activist. He believes that the time will soon be ripe to consider a workers’ party.
Ferial Haffajee is a journalist based in South Africa.