The people shall govern - class struggles and the post-1994 state in South Africa

Jeremy Cronin

Part 1 – The Freedom Charter and the post-1994 state


The Freedom Charter’s first substantive clause declares that “The People Shall Govern!” It is followed by four inter-related demands – the franchise for all men and women and the right to stand as public representatives for legislative bodies; the right of all to “take part in the administration of the country”; equal rights for all, regardless of “race, colour or sex”; and, perhaps the boldest of all, “democratic organs of self-government”. We should be cautious of scriptural debates around the precise wording of the Freedom Charter, it is an inspiring and visionary document not an academic treatise. It is, nevertheless, possible to discern in this clause of the Charter at least three strands of thinking about democracy – democracy as representative democracy; democracy as the enjoyment of rights within a constitutional, rights-based dispensation; and democracy as popular, collective self-empowerment.

The case for finding this third strand within the Freedom Charter can be made not just on a textual reading, but also and rather more on the basis of the Charter’s struggle context. The 1955 Congress of the People emerged from a decade of heightened popular and working class mobilisation in the latter part of the 1940s and early 1950s. In preparation for the Congress, volunteers moved throughout South Africa collecting demands for a popular charter. In their door-to-door work they asked ordinary South Africans basic questions like: “What would you do if YOU were the government?”. It was a simple enough question, but when posed in a lunch-hour meeting in a factory canteen, or in a remote rural village in the reserves, or to a road construction gang, the question itself had a subversive and liberating edge. The idea of self-government was beginning to be pre-figured in the manner of the Charter’s making itself.

In the 1980s, in the midst of the rolling waves of semi-insurrectionary struggle, the “People Shall Govern!” vision was once more invoked. It was also enriched with deeper meaning in a thousand sites of struggle, in civics, in rural women’s organisations, in shop steward councils, in school classrooms, in the mushrooming of local newsletters, in liberation theology, in poetry, song and graphic design. In struggle, popular forces pitched against the apartheid regime increasingly fought not just against oppression, but also for something - for an alternative, if still rudimentary, popular power, “democratic organs of self-government”. People’s courts and self-governing street committees emerged in the township vacuum as black local authorities were chased away and the apartheid police retreated. In schools and universities alternative people’s education days and courses were run. In the early 1990s, with the regime’s counter-revolutionary violence escalating, communities constituted self-defence units.

And now? Fifty years after the Congress of the People, eleven years into our new democratic dispensation, what can we say of the vision of popular participation in self-government? The participatory traditions of the 1950s and the people’s power traditions of the 1980s have left an important legacy that continues to resonate[1]. A number of notable participatory practices and institutions have emerged more or less directly out of the pre-1994 popular struggle. These include community policing forums; school governing bodies; and ward committees in which, at least in terms of the law, councils are obliged to submit budgetary proposals and integrated development plans to popular local assemblies. Government has also increasingly instituted the practice of izimbizo – open-ended community meetings in church halls and township meeting places in which the president or ministers listen to community concerns and engage with their interlocutors, explaining policies, promising interventions and assigning officials to effect follow-up. Running through all of these realities is an implicit broadening of the meaning of government – that it is a matter of collective engagement and popular participation, and not something for elected representatives or state functionaries alone.

Of course, we need to examine in detail the actual experience of, for instance, izimbizo. Participatory democracy may be more honoured in form than in substance on occasion. Some of these institutions may also be more readily captured by middle strata and used, not for democratic inclusion, but to preserve and reproduce suburban privileges – the experience with some school governing bodies is a case in point. There is also evidence, for instance, that the majority of ward committees, those that are actually convened, are not functioning as dynamically as envisaged. Nevertheless, there are also many positive examples of the traditions of popular democratic participation, forged in struggle, and actively carried through into the new democratic dispensation.

But, while these traditions survive, we need to admit that this legacy of popular power has been considerably overwhelmed and displaced in our post-1994 reality, with the other two paradigms of democracy prevailing – representative democracy, and democracy as the exercise of rights. I should immediately emphasise that, like the Freedom Charter itself, I do not see these three strands as inherently in opposition to each other, but I do believe that they all need to be consolidated as complementary features of a vibrant and progressive democracy. The relative displacement of popular power democracy is not a class neutral fact. Where this marginalisation occurs, where there is not a powerful counter-balancing of the power of legislatures, or courts, or the executive by organs of self-government, a technocratic and, in our conditions, capitalist-oriented content invariably begins to hegemonise both the representative structures, and the interpretation of rights. But, since there are not technocratic capitalist-oriented solutions to our challenges of underdevelopment, many popular aspirations and energies then invariably burst out as oppositionist, sectoral, spasmodic and grievance-driven. And these, in turn, tend to provoke another round of earnest managerial attempts to speed up “delivery”, or denialism, defensivism and a bureaucratic closing of ranks from elected representatives and functionaries. How have we got here?

The negotiated transition

The present South African state has, of course, emerged out of a negotiated transition to democracy. In the late-1980s and early-1990s a complex balance of forces was at play. The apartheid regime could no longer rule in the old way, and the ANC-led liberation movement, while generally growing in strength, was still far from being able to decisively defeat the apartheid regime, the latter retaining a significant strategic advantage in its armed repressive capacity. While the domestic balance of forces generally shifted favourably for the liberation forces in the second half of the 1980s, the international balance generally moved in the other direction.

This overall conjuncture might be described (borrowing from Gramsci) as a “state of reciprocal siege”. This crisis-ridden balance of forces impacted severely on all sectors of South African society, including the capitalist class, with negative growth for the better part of the pre-1994 decade, and with an all-round systemic economic crisis manifesting itself from at least the late-1980s. The negotiated transition needs to be located within this overall conjuncture.

It was this conjuncture that impelled the major political (and behind them, the major class) forces into a negotiated transition, which has, in turn, shaped the state that has emerged out of the 1994 democratic breakthrough. One useful entry-point, I suggest, for carrying forward an analysis of this new state is the concept of “bonapartism” as elaborated in a relatively extensive body of Marxist theory. [2] In doing this, however, we should guard against trying to overwork the concept – it is not some ideal-type that materialises itself in concrete conditions, and whose every feature can then be read off, item by item, from the reality in front of us. I see it, rather, as a working concept that helps to alert us to certain objective tendencies within particular, concrete conjunctures.


Drawing on the key Marxist texts – which do not necessarily themselves use the concept in a single or consistent way – I suggest that the following are important features of bonapartism:

  • It tends to arise as a state form in a situation in which there is no clear-cut class victor, in which there is a certain contested and unstable “equilibrium”. Marx locates “bonapartism” in a conjuncture in which “the bourgeois class had already lost, and the working class not yet gained the ability to govern the nation.” Gramsci says something similar: “the forces in conflict balance each other in a catastrophic manner; that is to say, they balance each other in such a way that a continuation of the conflict can only terminate in their reciprocal destruction.” (Gramsci, PN, p.219).
  • There are different versions of which key class forces are at play in this state of reciprocal siege. Gramsci tends to use the concept of “bonapartism” interchangeably with “caesarism”, and he extends the concept into a variety of capitalist and pre-capitalist formations. In other Marxist writings, the concept “bonapartism” tends to be used more specifically to refer to a state of contested “equilibrium” between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat[3]. I suggest that we use bonapartism in the more restricted way, while noting interesting parallels with earlier, pre-capitalist formations.
  • This situation of “catastrophic equilibrium” is “resolved” – always only temporarily - by a politics/a state form identified with a “personality” “standing above” the contending forces, and “entrusted with the task of `arbitration’” (Gramsci, ibid.).
  • There can be both progressive and reactionary forms of bonapartism. It is progressive when its intervention helps the progressive force to triumph, albeit with its victory tempered by certain compromises and limitations. It is reactionary when its intervention helps the reactionary force to triumph – in this case too with certain compromises and limitations. According to Gramsci: “Caesar and Napoleon I are examples of progressive Caesarism. Napoleon III and Bismarck of reactionary Caesarism.” (ibid.)
  • A key aspect of the “standing above” society of the bonapartist state (i.e. its assertion of a relatively significant degree of autonomy) is that it also “stands above” political parties. Gramsci notes this tendency in the Italian risorgimento:

“The government in fact operated as a `party’. It set itself over and above parties, not so as to harmonise their interests and activities within the permanent framework of the life and interests of the nation and State, but so as to disintegrate them, to detach them from the broad masses and obtain a force of non-party men linked to the government by paternalistic ties of a Bonapartist-Caesarist type…the bureaucratic hierarchy replaced the intellectual and political hierarchy. The bureaucracy became precisely the State/Bonapartist party.” (ibid. p.227)

These characteristics of bonapartism help us to understand some of the relatively objective (but not inevitable) features of the state and political struggle in our own post-1994 situation. They help us to move beyond the merely subjective and anecdotal, which is where many of the studies of the state in the new South Africa remain.

A great heroic personality

In one of his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci sets a task for himself: “Caesar, Napoleon I, Napoleon III, Cromwell, etc. Compile a catalogue of the historical events which have culminated in a great `heroic’ personality.” (PN, p.219)

Mandela is an obvious name to add to the list of larger-than-life personalities associated with the “culmination” of a major historical process. Clearly, Mandela’s “bonapartism” owes a great deal to his own outstanding personal qualities (bravery, principle, wisdom, generosity). His “standing above society” and his being “entrusted with the task of arbitration” also owes something to his sometimes arcane, quasi-feudal, pre-capitalist corporatist values (everyone, regardless of station, ethnic background, etc. has a “place in the sun”, “there are good men and women in all political parties” – provided we all know “our place”, etc.)[4]. But while acknowledging the special personal qualities of Mandela, it would be wrong to ignore the ways in which the particular balance of class forces nationally actively helped to construct Mandela-ism. The same should be said of the international balance of forces, Mandela came to be a global (and not just national) iconic figure, supposedly symbolising “a new post-Cold War era of hope and shared human values”. There is a sense in which, from different and contradictory class-perspectives, Mandela was an objective necessity to preside over the stabilisation and consolidation of our national democratic breakthrough of 1994.

Borrowing from Gramsci’s view that bonapartism can either be progressive or reactionary, and accepting that there were at least some significant bonapartist features in the Mandela presidency, then we should also affirm that this was an overwhelmingly progressive bonapartism, at least within its national setting. Mandela used his office and his iconic prestige to over-ride and discipline all forces, including his own ANC mass base. But, predominantly, these interventions favoured the consolidation, the institutionalisation and defence of a major democratic advance won by the popular forces. It is true that, for a time, Mandela used his status and office to enforce “acceptance” of the 1996 GEAR macro-economic policy. But he later expressed regret at the way in which it was done, and the GEAR process needs essentially to be understood as the first decisive step in the launching of a new state/presidential project under the effective direction not of Mandela, but of his successor, then deputy president, Thabo Mbeki. Before we move on to this, however, it is important to note one significant feature of the Mandela presidency that marked it out as somewhat different from classical bonapartism.

A mass-driven transition or an elite pact?

In much of the Marxist literature a defining feature of bonapartism is that the leading bonapartist persona is not associated with a political party, but “stands above” political parties and often neutralises and marginalizes them by building a populist/demagogic support base amongst the peasantry or de-classed urban elements (in the case of Napoleon I and Napoleon III). The bonapartist figure typically seeks to “disintegrate” (Gramsci’s word) political parties, cutting off their organic links to a mass base, and substituting a bureaucratic-technocratic stratum of “non-party” men as the key leading cadre. Mandela, by contrast, is essentially the product of an experienced and deep-rooted ANC national liberation movement, and he has, more or less consistently, always endeavoured to present himself first and foremost as an “ANC member”. This has extended to a respect for the alliance.

But, once more, we should not only focus on the subjective inclinations of Mandela. The key point to make is that the South African negotiated transition did not neatly follow the “transitions to democracy”, “elite-pacting” paradigm, so beloved by liberal think-tanks in the US, and espoused locally by a number of leading liberal political commentators and academics (Deborah Posel, Frederik Zyl Slabbert, Alistair Sparks). This elite-pacting paradigm, it should be said, was also espoused in varying degrees by elements within the ANC itself, but it was also always challenged by a significant body of ANC and alliance opinion. Above all, it was challenged on the ground in practice. Our negotiated transition was considerably (if unevenly) mass-driven, with popular organisation (self-defence units, shops stewards councils, ANC and alliance branches) and popular mobilisation, like mass stayaways (the most significant being in the aftermath of Chris Hani’s assassination) playing a critical role. Contrary to liberal opinion, these mass-driven features of our democratic transition were not destabilising anomalies. They were an important factor both in driving forward the process, particularly in moments of impasse or crisis, and in laying down the foundations for a relatively durable democracy. But the continued (if uneven) existence of a mass movement in our post-1994 reality has remained a significant, non-bonapartist feature of this reality. Which is why, in our enthusiasm for the concept of bonapartism, we should be careful to qualify what we are saying lest we produce a revisionist reading of the negotiated transition that serves to entrench a liberal, elite-pacting (it was “the work of a few great men”) recollection of that transition. The struggle of memory against forgetfulness about the role of popular power in the negotiated transition is itself an important contemporary, democratic struggle.

Over the rainbow - beyond stabilisation

The stabilisation and temporary “resolution” of an otherwise mutually “catastrophic” “equilibrium” between antagonistic class forces locked in struggle can always only be, precisely, temporary. The inherently antagonistic relation of these forces will simply break out again in further crises, unless the breathing space offered by the initial bonapartist moment (in our case the “rainbow” period of national “reconciliation”) begins to be actively shaped in one of two basic directions:

  • a restoration of the conditions for capitalist profit accumulation on a new and supposedly more sustainable basis, or
  • a revolutionary/systemic transformation of society that begins to resolve the inherent contradiction in favour of the working class and its popular allies.

The central project of the Mbeki presidency has been the former - to drive a process of restoration of capitalist accumulation. The overriding objective has been to create conditions for a sustained 6% (capitalist-driven) growth path. The assumption is that only such a growth path will provide the resources with which to address the developmental challenges we all agree are critical (racialised inequality, unemployment, poverty, socio-economic duality, etc.).

There have been three different phases within this project:

  • macro-economic policy as the assumed central public sector driver of growth (1996-9),
  • privatisation as the key catalyser of growth (1999 –2002),
  • public sector infrastructural investment to “lower the cost of doing business” – state capitalism - as the key catalyser (2002 to the present).

As each successive phase has failed to deliver fully on its promises, we have seen new central policy themes, but behind the successive changes there has been a steady continuity in the underlying assumption: sustained capitalist growth of around 6% is the only way forward.

This project has been advanced with considerable strategic awareness, skill and determination. The main protagonist, President Mbeki, has certainly not been the unwitting instrument of the project. This restoration project is not, however, about a return to the apartheid past. It is a modernising, not a conservative, agenda. Relative to the pre-1994 reality, the restoration project is progressive.

But relative to the transformational potential of the 1994 conjuncture, this project represents a serious strategic setback for the working class (and the national democratic revolution).

This is not to say that the 1994 breakthrough suddenly meant that all things were possible. The conjuncture did not present possibilities, for instance, for a rapid advance to a full-blooded socialism (as some on the left might have imagined). Strategic advances or setbacks should not be measured simply against an aspirational ideal, they need also to be measured in the context of a real situation with its actual possibilities and constraints. Any left critique of the post-1996 project must appreciate these possibilities and constraints, otherwise our critique will itself simply reinforce the argument that there “are no serious alternatives to capitalist-driven growth”.

In order to carry forward the capitalist-driven growth path project, Mbeki appreciated the need to forge a powerful political-technical-managerial centre within the state, focused around the presidency with close ties to key departments, notably Treasury and Trade and Industry. In order to forge this political centre, then deputy-president Mbeki was able to build on some of the bonapartist features that had emerged post-1994, thanks both to the subjective prestige of Mandela and to the objective requirements of the immediate post-1994 moment.

It is important to appreciate that the key features of the Mbeki presidency are not merely the result of a particular person with particular subjective traits (the kind of argument that sometimes dominates William Mervyn Gumede’s biography[5], and is also to be found in much of the anti-Mbeki pro-Zuma mobilisation at present). There is a certain “objectivity” about the character and evolution of the Mbeki presidency, and this can be demonstrated by the interesting parallels between the evolution of the Mbeki presidency and that of the Lula da Silva presidency in Brazil, for instance[6]. However, to argue that there is a certain “objectivity” about the South African and Brazilian presidencies is not to argue that their particular trajectories were/are inevitable. In both cases, while global and national realities impose real constraints, which the South African and Brazilian left need to appreciate, national realities would have allowed (and still do allow) different, much more transformative outcomes.

Technocratic vanguardism

Building on features of the transitional bonapartism of the Mandela presidency, Mbeki has spearheaded a self-styled “developmental” state that might be characterised as “technocratic vanguardist”. The project has rested on three main pillars:

  • The first is the assumption of “a new global era” – a post-Cold War world, characterised by a “growing international consensus on human rights and good governance”, and in which the South African negotiated transition is held up as a pre-eminent example and role model, a reality that enables us “to punch above our weight” on the international stage. This is a world of “benign globalisation”, in which booming trade is supposedly spurring sustained growth and development, and all that is required for individual countries to benefit is a catch-up and alignment strategy, with “sound economic policies” and “good governance” at its heart. In constructing this first key pillar, Mbeki has drawn upon diverse contemporary ideological resources – certain Gorbachevian and “Third Way” social democratic themes (about a largely “de-ideologised” post-Cold War era), and the Asian developmental states (notably the Malaysian example). But Mbeki has also explicitly resurrected, from within the ANC tradition, the early writings of Pixley Ka I Seme – who, at the beginning of the previous century, similarly heralded a new global dawn of shared human values made possible, it was assumed, by the technological advances of that era:

“See the triumph of human genius to-day! Science has searched out the deep things of nature…brought foreign nations into one civilised family…A great century has come upon us. No race possessing the inherent capacity to survive can resist and remain unaffected by this influence of contact and intercourse, the backward with the advanced. This influence constitutes the very essence of efficient progress and of civilisation…The regeneration of Africa means that a new and unique civilisation is soon to be added to the world.” [7]

This liberal humanism of Seme, which he shared with the majority of his fellow founders of the ANC, informed the early strategies of the organisation, which devoted considerable time and energy to international deputations. A century later, a very similar assumption of a new global era has underpinned Mbeki’s evocation of an “African century”, and an “African renaissance” (concepts that, by the way, have been evoked less and less in the last two years). What is radically absent from this pillar of the project is any serious appreciation of the persisting (strengthened) role of imperialism after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and the global reproduction of combined development AND underdevelopment.

  • The second pillar of the project is a powerful presidential centre. Given the assumption that we are embarked upon a new global era, and that modernising alignment with “international best practice” is the holy grail, then the second pillar of the Mbeki project follows logically. Mbeki has sought to build a strong presidential centre within the state, in which the leading cadre is made up of a new political elite (state managers and technocratically-inclined ministers) and (often overlapping with them) a new generation of black private sector BEE managers/capitalists. What is radically absent from this pillar of the project is any serious appreciation of the manner in which (strengthened) capitalist accumulation within South Africa, rather than innocently providing the resources for sustained “delivery”, is actively reproducing the very crises of underdevelopment, which the best of the technocratic state cadre are, at the same time, valiantly seeking to ameliorate. The assumptions implicit in this pillar of the project have also under-estimated the many entirely predictable and now increasingly burgeoning contradictions between the “good governance”, “international best practice” pretensions and aspirations of the state managers (and of Mbeki himself) and the largely comprador and parasitic nature of the emerging BEE elite with whom they are often entangled. [8]
  • The third major pillar of the Mbeki state project, and again it follows logically, is the organisational “modernisation” of the ANC. This has been the attempt to transform the ANC from a mobilising mass movement, into a “modern”, centre-left, electoral party. This has involved, amongst other things, the “bonapartisation” of the ANC itself, replicating the state presidential centre within the ANC, and reducing the secretary general’s office and organising work to administrative tasks, while “politics” is housed in a separate, more or less parallel ANC dominated by the president. The attempted “modernisation” of the ANC has also involved a deliberate strategy to marginalise the SACP and COSATU and perhaps even to provoke a walk-out from the alliance. This third pillar of the project has greatly overestimated the ability of a technocratically-oriented presidential centre, organically remote from a popular power base, to control and direct a mass-based organisation with the mobilising and revolutionary traditions (however presently attenuated) of the ANC. The project has also underestimated the persisting popular support for the alliance among its own middle-ranking cadres and mass base.

There are now interacting crises within and between all of these main pillars of the Mbeki state project. The growing difficulties and internal contradictions of this project have many causes, among them:

  • the manifest inability of capitalist stabilisation and growth to resolve the deep-seated social and economic crises of unemployment, poverty and radical inequality in our society;
  • the ravages to the ANC’s organisational capacity and coherence caused by the attempts to assert a managerialist, technocratic control over a mass movement; and
  • the crises of corruption, factionalism and personal careerism inherent in trying to build a leading cadre based on (explicit or implicit) capitalist values and on a symbiosis between the leading echelons of the state and emerging black capital.

The ANC’s July 2005 National General Council gave vent to these crises in a relatively dramatic if often inchoate manner – with a wide range of quite different grievances and aspirations coming together around support for Jacob Zuma, a Congress traditionalist, with a strong working class/peasant demeanour about him. In my view, Zuma does not (as some have argued) “represent the left” within the ANC alliance. He concentrates, rather, in his own specific way, within his personality and politics all of the contradictions of the post-1996 project – a presidentialist project that depends upon the ANC (and alliance) for its electoral reproduction but which seeks to hollow-out the movement at the same time; the problematic and corruption-prone relationship between the new political elite and emerging and established capital; the schizophrenic balancing act inherent in a project that presents itself simultaneously as “westernising/modernising” on the one hand, and “Africanist” on the other; and, related to all of the above, the over-burdening and excessive personalisation of the presidential political centre. This accounts for the fraught nature (already more than three years ahead of time!) of the succession question. Can anyone, other than Mbeki (or even Mbeki), perpetuate (assuming this is desirable) Mbekism? Can Zuma (or anyone else, for that matter) be consistently both “westernising” and “Africanist”? The answer to these questions reflects not so much on the possible shortcomings of Zuma as a potential successor, and more on the internal contradictions of the project itself.

I believe there is now both the necessity and possibility for a major internal ANC and ANC-led alliance review of what has happened and on how to move forward. I believe that this debate should not be factionalised, nor should it be unduly personalised. I believe that many of the leading personalities in the Mbeki state project, including the president himself, need to be engaged constructively in this debate. It is also a debate that cannot be confined to ANC or alliance ranks alone.

Democracy as “representative vanguardism”

Much more than with the Mandela presidency, Mbeki’s state has been actively and deliberately shaped by a programmatic and strategic vision. To better understand the features of this state and the internal contradictions that are now manifesting themselves, it is important to unpack further features of this strategic vision. It is informed, by what I will call: “representative vanguardism” and “righteous vanguardism”.

Its vanguardist politics obviously owes something to Leninist traditions within Marxism, and to the exposure of much of the leading ANC cadre to a certain communist tradition. But there is one immediate and decisive difference (apart from, but related to, class content) when comparing the present state vanguardism to the original Leninist vanguard tradition. In its understanding of historical change, our contemporary South African state vanguardism is economistic and evolutionist, rather than dialectical. Change is assumed to be led from the “front”, from the most progressive point of technical advance, rather than, in a more Leninist understanding, through, for instance, crisis-ridden rupture at the “weakest link”.[9]

The leading cadre within the Mbeki technocratic state centre has also included personalities drawn from the trade union movement and the point of convergence is a shared economism, which was always a feature of the more reformist but ideologically influential wing of “workerism” in the progressive trade union movement of the 1980s.

If we are looking for biographical influences on this representative vanguardism then we should also, no doubt, factor in the reality of an ANC cadre shaped by three decades of increasingly successful exiled representation of the South African oppressed masses in international forums – the OAU, the Non-Aligned Movement, the UN, in the capitals of Africa and the Soviet bloc, and later in the West.

Our current state representational vanguardism is bold in its aspirations.

  • It seeks to “represent” the best of modernity in and to the South, in and to Africa – proselytising on behalf of “international best practice”, providing “leadership” to the AU, to NAM, etc.;
  • Conversely, it also seeks to “represent” Africa (and its diaspora) in all major international forums, bringing the voice of the South (or of Africa) to the North – to the UN (and especially a reformed Security Council), the WTO, the G8, Davos. We even “represent” the “whole of Africa” in having won the 2010 World Cup Soccer bid;
  • It seeks to “represent” the “only sustainable” way forward in South Africa – bringing the best of “best international practice” to our country, through its technocratic vanguardism and by encouraging “investment” (“selling South Africa”);
  • It also seeks, as a technocratic (but also BEE enriched) elite, to “represent” “blacks in general, Africans in particular” within our country.

Apart from the audacity of its scope, which means it constantly runs the risk of being over-stretched and even operating in relative ignorance of the specific local terrain[10], the project runs two general kinds of risk. Are all of these different “represents” mutually congruent? And, do all of those whom it claims to represent actually acknowledge and accept this representation?

I believe that the different “represents” are often not congruent. To take an obvious example: attracting foreign investment and seeking to maximise capitalist growth are not easily congruent with enforced BEE quotas required of established capital. These quotas are, often, a much larger disincentive to foreign investment than an allegedly “inflexible” labour market. Or, to take another relatively topical example, to wear the mantle of “representing” Africa in global forums requires constant back-yard manoeuvring, regional compromises and “quiet diplomacy” (to prevent, for instance, a demagogic anti-imperialist outflanking within the AU by a Mugabe/Ghadaffi axis). But these compromises and silences then tarnish the democratic, human rights and modernist international mantle that opens the doors at G8 Summits, or in Davos.

“Righteous vanguardism”

But there is another dimension to our present state’s vanguardist inclinations – it is what I shall call “righteous vanguardism”. There is a constant conflation between what is most “modern”, what is most “up-to-date”, what is “technocratically progressive” and what is just. If history were fundamentally a progressive and evolutionary process (the core argument of reformism), then this assumption might make sense. But since history is seldom a smooth-flowing, evolutionary process, reality constantly clashes with the expectations embedded in this assumption.

Yet it is a powerful assumption within the project. This righteous vanguardism was most in evidence in the initial renaissance arguments for a “new African century”. We were told that “all other continents” had enjoyed their renaissances[11], and now it was “Africa’s turn”. Already over a century ago, the Reverend John Dube (along with Seme a key founding figure of the ANC) was evoking a similar argument:

“This shall be the dawning of a brighter day for the people of Africa. Christianity will usher in a new civilisation, and the `Dark Continent’ will be transformed into a land of commerce and Christian institutions…Hail, O Africa, thy ransom! Raise to heaven thy grateful song! Last in rank among the nations, Thou shalt lead the choral throng…” [12]

Because it is right that Africa should have “its turn”, so the argument goes, this will indeed come to pass – “ought” becomes “will be”, “righteousness” is predictive. The last shall be first.

In October 2001, President Mbeki addressed a joint sitting of Parliament, his theme was Africa and the 21st century. It opens with a question that he derived from a publication of the World Bank: “Can Africa claim the 21st century?” Mbeki’s response is categorical:

“It is our firm view that together, as Africans, we must answer that question with a resounding yes. Africa’s time has come…When, at the end of the century historians cast their eyes back over this the 21st and African century, what will they see? They should see that Africa has at last emerged from a long period of darkness and fear into one of light and a dream fulfilled. They should see that through our persistent efforts we have redefined ourselves into something other than a place of suffering, a place of wars, a place of oppression, a place of hunger, disease, ignorance and backwardness. They should see the reality of a new African…These are Africans who have chosen to define themselves in action…The African Union and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development constitute the ways and means we have chosen to take us forward decisively towards the realisation of all these goals.”

Note how, despite the talk of a “renaissance”, the past of Africa is characterised in terms that 19th century European missionaries might have used: “darkness and fear”, “place of suffering”, “disease, ignorance and backwardness”. I am not denying the absolutely brutal, often genocidal, impact of slavery and colonialism, but what is radically absent from this vision is any sense of a courageous and resourceful anti-colonial popular struggle. In order to invent an ennobling history, Mbeki displaces his historians to the end of the 21st century, and they look back on us, here in the present! History runs the risk of becoming narcissistic. But it is this kind of conceptual conceit that enables us to think of ourselves, here in the present, as righteously endowed, at the leading point of history.

The question of emerging black capital

The coming together of “representative vanguardism” and “righteous vanguardism” is at its most concentrated in the arguments for the so-called new “patriotic” bourgeoisie, the emerging black economic empowerment (BEE) stratum. We are told that, since we are living in a capitalist society, and since we “need growth for development”, then those who “control capital” will constitute, for better or worse, a central part of the advance-guard of the revolution. But the “developmental state” needs leverage over capitalists, who are overwhelmingly white or foreign and, so the theory goes, we need to place (deploy) “some of our own people” into the key sites of capital accumulation in the name of overcoming historical disadvantage. Those so “deployed” will “righteously” “represent” “us”, that is to say, blacks in general, Africans in particular. But at what point does a black billionaire cease to be “historically disadvantaged”? Righteous- representative vanguardism has a ready answer – blacks in general remain hugely disadvantaged, the individual in question is black, therefore he/she is eminently righteous.

However, notwithstanding the “righteous-representivity” argument, emerging BEE capital is (with some possible exceptions) not a typical “national/patriotic bourgeoisie”, for the simple reason that we are dealing in South Africa with a mature – if highly uneven, developed/underdeveloped – capitalist formation in which there has already long been a significant domestic capitalist class. This is a direct consequence of the manner in which South Africa was integrated through the 20th century into the imperialist chain – by way of a colonialism of a special type, in which many of the features of a classical metropole were located within the “colony” itself. These features include developed (if extremely polarised) infrastructure, high levels of capital concentration, an increasingly dominant finance sector, and, in the past decade, trans-nationalisation of South African capital.

In these circumstances, emerging black capital (at least the key faction most closely associated with the ANC and the state) tends not to be involved with an expansion of the national forces of production, including significant job creation. It is, rather, excessively compradorist and parasitic.

Its compradorism reflects its reliance on the patronage of established capital, not just foreign, but also, in particular, established sectors of domestic capital. This emerging class fraction has, typically, not accumulated its own capital through the unleashing of productive processes, but relies on special share deals, “affirmative action”, BEE quotas, fronting, privatisation and trading on its one real piece of “capital” (access to state power) to establish itself. This compradorism also explains many of the cultural/moral features of this emerging class fraction – its remuneration expectations are aligned with an apartheid-era wage gap, and its life-style aspirations are those of the white capitalist German luxury car, country club and golf-estate. It is not involved in primitive accumulation, so much as primitive consumption.

Its parasitism is reflected in its reliance upon and symbiotic relation with the upper echelons of the state apparatus. It is state policies (BEE charters, with their ownership quotas and tender policies) that are driving the emergence of this class fraction, putting pressure on established capital to cut this emerging fraction “a slice of the action” in order to remain in favour with the “new political reality”.

However, this hybrid comprador-parasitism reproduces its own complex features. Given the unequal economic power relation between private domestic capital (the financial and mining houses that have been in the forefront of promoting ANC personalities) and the state, it is always the compradorist side that is likely to prevail. Unlike with, say the ZANU-PF ruling elite, which has degenerated into a much more straight-forward state-parasitic bourgeoisie, and for whom state power is everything (and therefore not something that can be relinquished or even easily shared), leading ANC black capitalists can fall out of favour with/or be seen as a challenge to the hegemonic faction within government and yet retain significant economic and even political power (see the Ramaphosa/Sexwale/Phosa “Plot” episode of 2001). The more hybrid comprador parasitic South African reality means that accumulation is less brutally one of property seizure. Political tensions within the state and ANC leadership group are “resolved” (i.e. managed) by allowing some to be “deployed” into the private sector. However, the converse of this is that the leading financial and mining conglomerates are increasingly reaching into the state and the upper echelons of the ANC and its Leagues – actively backing (betting on) different factions and personalities, and seeking to influence electoral outcomes and presidential successions. These different factions are also often linked to different media corporations, and we see all of these dynamics playing themselves out in the war of leaks and “informed sources” around the various corruption scandals (real or alleged).

Because we are talking here not of a genuinely new national accumulation process, but rather of different consortia, alliances and personalities all competing for slices of existing action (privatisation proceeds, mergers and acquisitions, BEE quotas, BEE tenders), this black capitalist faction is not galvanising a national developmental effort. It is, in fact, highly factionalised, incapable of uniting itself, and, therefore, increasingly incapable of uniting a national bloc behind its hegemonic leadership.

A way forward?

Does all of the above prove, as some will argue, that the multi-class national democratic strategy is inherently flawed? Does it demonstrate that our present state is inherently capitalist, or that parliamentary democracy is, by definition, bourgeois? Does it mean that the left, or the working class, should launch a separate electoral party? Or does it mean that we should regroup exclusively into a front of social movement activism, to avoid the dangers of co-option and corruption inherent in the politics of professional politicians? Should we build popular power on the ground as incipient dual power with a view to an eventual regime change? Can we make any meaningful advances without first abolishing capitalism?

I disagree with diverse inclinations implicit in all the above questions. What the past eleven years demonstrate is not the irrelevance of a national democratic strategy, but that this strategy cannot be reformist. If it is to have any prospect of addressing the dire legacy of colonial dispossession and apartheid oppression, a national democratic strategy has to be revolutionary – that is to say, it must systemically transform class, racial and gendered power (and not just re-allocate, or transfer some power and privilege to a representative racial or female elite). Instead of “lowering the cost to doing business”, it must actively transform the persisting capitalist accumulation path whose key features remain those set in place over the past century. In critiquing reformism, I am not dismissing the importance of reforms. In fact, in the post-1994 South African reality we are essentially operating on a terrain of reforms. The key strategic and tactical question is whether particular reform package carries transformative potential, or not. Is it building momentum towards, capacity for, and elements of popular power and working class hegemony? Or is it no more than ameliorative at best, serving to entrench and perpetuate the present accumulation path?

The post-1994 democratic state is not inherently capitalist, it is, in fact, a sharply class-contested reality (which is partly why its bonapartist features have emerged). It is true, however, that established and emerging capital have succeeded in exerting considerable dominance over the state. This reflects the sheer strength of capital, as well as the illusions and emerging class interests of a leading stratum within the ANC. However, capital’s dominance over the state is unstable, partly because of the popular mobilisation trajectory out of which the ANC-led post-apartheid state has emerged, and partly because a capitalist “development” path is hopelessly inadequate in the face of the South African crisis of underdevelopment.

But how do we strengthen a different kind of class hegemony over the state? Not by weakening the state, nor by watering down the ANC’s overwhelming electoral majority (as liberal commentators constantly advise). We need, I believe, to strengthen the state, including a wide democratic public sector – but around a different strategic agenda from that which has prevailed since 1996. These objectives will, however, not be accomplished if the great majority of South Africans (workers and the poor) are relatively passive observers, hopeful recipients of “delivery”. A different kind of class hegemony requires the continued mobilisation of these social forces, not so much in opposition to government but in order to empower and hegemonise the state.

All of this also means that a number of more immediate tasks become imperative. These include:

  • re-building (which is to say, contesting for) an ANC that is capable of leading popular struggles on the ground, an ANC in which organisation and popular politics are re-connected. This is not just a matter of head-office re-design, but also of ensuring that gate-keeping, narrow careerism, and plain corruption are eliminated from the branch-level up;
  • to achieve this, there must be an offensive against the problematic axis between ANC elected representatives and state managers on the one hand and emerging (and behind it established) capital on the other. A sustainable left strategy does require effective public sector managers, progressive public representatives and technical expertise. A key part of the 1996 GEAR offensive was to build an alliance between emerging black capital and these state-related technical/managerial strata against the left. The left needs to re-connect with those located in the commanding heights of the state apparatus – less through an endlessly repeated (and invariably disappointing) deployment strategy (“getting our guy into the job”), and more through a principled and programmatic engagement. This means actively disrupting the political elite/capital axis. The Zuma crisis, the constant round of corruption scandals, and growing township disaffection with perceived or actual corruption in local government, have created an important opportunity in which a principled ANC-led offensive against corruption becomes possible and desperately necessary. Some important suggestions were flagged at the ANC’s National General Council in the Secretary General’s Organisational Report. These included increased public funding for political parties complemented by transparency around any private donations; much more severe post-tenure restrictions on outgoing senior public servants and public representatives; and a ban on any serving ANC public representatives being involved in business. These proposals need to be taken up vigorously and understood to be important means for ensuring greater internal popular democracy within the ANC and the state. We also need to open up for much more rigorous assessment and radical review the doleful history of BEE.
  • some critics of the present dispensation have described our new political reality as “parliamentary democracy” (implying that it is, therefore, “inherently” bourgeois). While we now have representative democratic legislatures, the fact is that the technocratic vanguard state has tended to marginalise parliament. Established capital, for instance, by and large boycotts parliament, preferring to deal directly with a series of presidential councils (the Business Council, the Investment Council, etc.). Neither parliament (which meets in public and is, therefore, in principle transparent) nor the ANC receive reports or briefings on the proceedings of these influential committees. If the working class is to assert its hegemony over our state institutions, then parliament is one of the institutions that will have to be greatly strengthened (not weakened) and transformed. This will require, amongst other things, a review of our current electoral dispensation. The sorry spectacle of opportunist floor-crossing within a one-hundred percent PR system is hardly strengthening working class and popular hegemony over this nominally central institution.

Above all, a national democratic revolutionary strategy remains the programmatic basis within which, in our concrete circumstances, the advanced sectors of the working class are best able, in principle, to secure a broad hegemony. This is particularly relevant in the context of our own crisis of underdevelopment with levels of real unemployment currently around 42%. At the heart of any revolutionary democratic strategy needs to be a national democratic alliance between the working class and the mass of urban and rural poor – casualised and retrenched workers, unemployed youth, de-classed elements, land-hungry rural and peri-urban households, the black-listed, the red-lined, the vast sea of own-account workers and petty entrepreneurs in squatter camps and townships.

If the working class were to quarantine itself entirely within “pure” working class formations and campaigns, it would be foregoing contestation on this critical terrain and it would be putting itself on to the strategic defensive. In fact, struggle at the capitalist-owned point of production, while absolutely critical and while typically being led by the most advanced, best organised and most experienced detachments of the working class, will in the present conjuncture always be of a largely defensive character. The class balance of forces within the key sectors of the capitalist economy is weighted heavily in favour of capital. Particularly with the current levels of liberalisation within our economy and in the context of the current global reality, capital is highly mobile, and this mobility gives it great leverage. In the first decade of democracy, and notwithstanding important formal advances for workers in terms of labour market rights, we have witnessed a massive capitalist-led restructuring with more than a million workers retrenched and many tens of thousands casualised, and significant levels of disinvestment and transnationalisation by major South African companies. Our new democratic state now confronts SAB, or Anglo as foreign companies whose investment must be wooed.

Productive workers within the public sector have also faced major capitalist inspired managerial restructuring and major retrenchments in some sectors. But the actual or potential balance of class forces in the public and parastatal sector is more favourable than the private sector to workers in our present conjuncture. Possibilities for a more offensive working class hegemonic struggle therefore exist here.

But, and this is the main point I am seeking to make in this section, we should never neglect the terrain of the so-called “second economy”, located largely within working class communities. For all its crisis-ridden, under-developed character, in fact, precisely because of these features, this terrain is one in which the writ of capital is less secure. The so-called “second economy” is a potential “weak link” in the South African capitalist chain, and it provides considerable scope for an offensive posture by progressive working class formations.

The representative-vanguardist state has not neglected this terrain. However, its interventions have sought to promote (absorb?) this pole of our society into the dominant (capitalist) accumulation system. The interventions have sought to transform existing community activities (everything from spaza shops and stokvels to church volunteerism) into “business-planned”, “emerging” “SMMEs”. With a barrage of (largely unsuccessful) technical, top-down projects, this “informal” sector has been invoked as a petty (i.e. infant) bourgeoisie, under “incubation” for greater things. (The illustrative case of the minibus sector will be considered below).

Other well-intentioned and often large-scale “delivery” interventions from the state have, deliberately or unwittingly, served to demobilise working class communities. This is inherent in the top-down “delivery” paradigm that prevails. But it also exacerbated by the technical means often used, which atomise working class communities. For instance, the introduction of pre-paid water meters into poor communities, while making life for technocrats in local government technically easier, has the potential effect of fragmenting working class communities into atomised households. A poor household with its water cut off is now less likely to find solidarity next door if neighbours’ houses also have water-metres that are ticking down. Local government technocrats hope, perhaps, to deal with aggrieved single and scattered “defaulting” households, while the community at large is de-collectivised and disempowered in the struggle over the politics of water. Pre-paid water metres have been widely resisted by poor communities – successfully in the recent case of the Cape Town metro, where their use in poor communities has now been halted.[13] However, these kinds of technocratic interventions into working class communities are likely to persist in one form or another, and the struggle against the “pseudo-petty bourgeoisfication” of working class households, and of township activities is critical.

Dangers of petty-bourgeoisfication

Writing after the 1917 Revolution, this is what Lenin had to say about the petty bourgeoisie and its potential role as support base for a bonapartist counter-revolution:

“The profiteer, the commercial racketeer…these are our principal `internal’ enemies…the million tentacles of this petty-bourgeois hydra now and again encircle various sections of the workers…profiteering forces its way into every pore of our social and economic organism. They do not believe in socialism or communism, and `mark time’ until the proletarian storm blows over. Either we subordinate the petty bourgeoisie to our control and accounting (we can do this if we organise the poor, that is, the majority of the population or semi-proletarians, around the politically conscious vanguard), or they will overthrow our workers’ power as surely and as inevitably as the revolution was overthrown by the Napoleons and Cavaignacs who sprang from this very soil of petty proprietorship.” (“Left-Wing” Childishness and petty-bourgeois mentality, SW, p.438-9)

Lenin is writing here of the Russian petty bourgeoisie post-1917, and sees it as a potential seed-bed and mass base for a bonapartist capitalist restoration. Obviously our post-1994 situation is different. But it is not difficult to recognise in Lenin’s portrayal of this class, the kind of social reality that is forcing “its way into every pore of our social and economic organism”. The dominance of this phenomenon is particularly noticeable in the ANC legislature caucuses, in ANC-run councils, and is a driving force in many ANC branches. Unless the ANC as a mass-based, democratic and self-styled “disciplined force of the left” begins to assert a real revolutionary authority and discipline over its legislature caucuses, for instance, a petty bourgeois cadre focused almost entirely on commercial racketeering will swallow the organisation.

This is not to say that we should condemn small-scale entrepreneurial activity. In fact, it is the only chance of survival for millions of South African households. Much of the SACP’s recent campaigning has been focused on liberating this kind of activity from the suffocating grip of the credit bureaux, the banks, and the white-dominated agricultural sector. But in doing this we should be seeking, in Lenin’s words, to “subordinate” these strata to the popular mandate of the national democratic state and the broader hegemony of the working class. Hence, for instance, the SACP’s emphases on coops, on sustainable communities, on land reform for household food security, on people’s land committees and other forms of popular power. The problem with the current petty accumulation tendencies, which are so rife within the ANC, is that they are under the economic, social and moral hegemony of private capital.

A second economy?

The present hegemonic state project conceptualises this terrain as the “second economy”, and although the word “under-development” is invoked, it is not really understood as the dialectical consequence of the current “development” path of capitalist accumulation. The so-called “second economy” is, in effect, understood as undeveloped – i.e. as a “left-over” from the apartheid past that requires modernisation and “promotion” into the “first economy” – the metaphor of a “stairway” is sometimes evoked. This conceptualisation has taken a strong hold on public discourse, where the “second economy” is variously defined in negative terms as a “marginalized” (i.e. not the mainstream) sector, as the “informal” (i.e. not the formal) sector, as SMMEs (i.e. not yet “fully grown-up” capitalist enterprises), as “under-capitalised” (i.e. needing capitalist capitalisation), as unsuitably skilled (i.e. not possessing the skills that would be useful to a Raymond Ackerman or Bobby Godsell). We should certainly not romanticise the so-called “second economy” - but nor should we mechanically hold up the capitalist-dominated “first” economy as the model to be emulated.

In our own attempts to characterise this underdeveloped pole, some on the left have suggested that it might be considered (at least in part) as the sphere of working class reproduction. But this characterisation (which begins to be more scientific) is still approaching this reality from the perspective of the capitalist mode of production – i.e. as socially necessary work for the reproduction of wage-labour for capital. But from the perspective of the working class these activities might be seen less as re-production, and more as production of use-values for working class consumption.

In other words, should we not be considering this reality from the perspective of the political economy of the working class? From a proletarian class perspective, when we are considering the minibus sector, or backyard repairs, or township hair salons and spaza shops, are we not dealing with productive labour for the worker? Are we not dealing with a pole of the economy in which it is possible (but not a given) that production for social need can become hegemonic over production for private profit?

So long as capitalism is dominant, nationally and internationally, the relative independence of productive labour for the worker will always be relative. The capacity to create an economy premised on social need and not on private profit will be a relative capacity – whether we are looking at the progressive state and parastatal sector, or at worker household and community economies. Transnet, the community coop, or the family subsistence farm may achieve significant degrees of independence from capitalist markets, but they are unlikely entirely to escape their influence in the present realities.

However, this relative potential for de-linking is absolutely critical, and it helps us to understand a still very under-theorised factor behind the rolling waves of semi-insurrectionary struggle of the 1980s. The South African liberation struggle never had significant liberated rural zones – a Sierra Maestra, or a Yenan, or the Zimbabwean Eastern Highlands. What we did have were quasi-liberated zones in townships and squatter camps. When we speak of liberated zones we tend to think of geographical terrain, but we should really be thinking of social terrain, of a socio-economic support base. In the case of China, Cuba, Vietnam or Zimbabwe, this socio-economic support base was, essentially, a semi-independent peasantry that fed, clothed, concealed and supplied recruits to the liberation army in marginalized areas of their societies. In South Africa, another socio-economic reality provided the working class and popular forces with some leverage, with a “reserve fund”, breathing space, quasi-liberated zones – and this socio-economic reality was what is today referred to, disparagingly, as the “second economy”. If we are to properly appreciate the struggle lessons of the 1980s, then we would appreciate that the marginalisation and relative de-linking of the so-called “second economy” from the dominant capitalist economy might be a problem, but it is also potentially a revolutionary asset.

Part 2 – Transforming the minibus sector, a brief case study

The minibus sector provides us, I believe, with a useful empirical window into many of the themes that have been developed in a general way in the first part of this paper. The minibus sector is the back-bone of South Africa’s crisis-ridden public transport system. Minibuses transport 64% of all South African commuters[14] . The sector is a multi-billion rand a year operation (precise statistics are not known). The owners of the taxi fleet, like those involved in similar and often interrelated entrepreneurial activities (township taverners, township football club owners) have carved out an organic (but often crisis-ridden and insecure) accumulation niche in the context of our polarised, dualistic economy and society. Much of this capital is locked into petty-accumulation, but there is growing stratification in some sectors and the emergence of some relatively serious personal capital.

Unlike the parasitic-comprador fraction of black capital, taxi owner-operators are much more “self-made”, organic, less dependent on (often in conflict with) either the ANC government or established capital – while at the same time engaging in a variety of deals and alliances with vehicle manufacturers, oil companies, local authorities, etc. The taxi business obviously fulfils a real social need, and it is a “green-fields” operation that has created insecure and poorly paid jobs – but jobs - for more than 100,000 drivers and, perhaps, another 200,000 and more informal workers in a wide-range of related activities – rank marshals, rank hawkers, cleaners and back-yard repair shops.

To this extent it can be said that taxi-owners (unlike the more parasitic-comprador faction of emerging black capital) have contributed to building the national market and extending the national forces of production (at least by way of a quantitative increase of the work-force, however informal it might be). But, in other respects, particularly from a more technicist/economistic perspective, their particular accumulation path is a “brake” on the development of productive forces, both within their own sector (in terms of limited technological innovation, productivity of labour in the sector, etc.); and in overall contribution to national development:

  • their niche of profitability lies, for the moment, precisely in the existence and therefore, perhaps, the perpetuation of a wide chasm within a highly polarised economy; and
  • the backbone public transport mode of our economy, minibuses, provides dangerous and uncomfortable commuting that hardly helps to advance the overall productivity of labour within our economy.

It is these features of “backwardness” that the government’s taxi re-capitalisation programme was designed to remedy – we will consider this in a moment.

The taxi-owners also have a contradictory relationship to the largely working class communities they serve. Many operators are themselves family members of basically working class households, or retrenched workers using pension pay-outs to secure ownership of a used vehicle with which to eke out some subsistence. Many are driver-owners. But the upper stratum within the taxi business, those controlling mother-bodies, are often closely linked to warlord-like structures deriving their profits from the tributary extraction of surplus from the members, guaranteeing access to routes in exchange for exorbitant membership fees and regular levies. These arrangements are held in place often through a corrupt interface with local authorities and through heavy-handed coercion that erupts into violence from time to time.

If this fraction of emerging capital is considerably less parasitic on the democratic state, it is “parasitic”, or rather dependent for its accumulation niche on the deep-seated “dualism” of our economy and society, on the crisis of under-development. The taxi industry’s accumulation niche is, precisely, to provide mobility to the working class and the poor within under-serviced and inaccessible townships and especially between these displaced (peri-urban and rural) dormitory townships (the “second” “economy”) and the centres of power (places of work, study and of public administrative and social welfare provision). There is a lucrative accumulation niche here precisely because of the apartheid geographical displacement of poor communities, a marginalisation that has generally been accentuated by the RDP housing delivery programme of the first ten years of democracy, and because of exceedingly poor provision of alternative forms of public transport (trains, buses, etc.). This niche is the very reason why this faction may actively resist genuinely transformational programmes.

And herein lies the nub of a complex set of contradictions that lie between this fraction of capital and the broader national democratic project – whether in its currently dominant reformist, or an alternative left transformational version.

Taxi recapitalisation

The taxi recapitalisation programme of government, in its original form especially, exemplifies the attempt (and inevitable failure) of the reformist national democratic project to “modernise”, technically, top-down this sector under the combined class hegemony of:

  • transnational capital - the vehicle manufacturers winning the tender would have manufactured, supplied and maintained a fleet of some 90 000 new vehicles. The market would have been a captive market, the National Land Transport Transitional Act (2000) stipulates that only mini- and midi-buses of the contract winners would be allowed to operate as taxis within a space of five years. This whole project, a potentially profitable entry-point for transnational capital, would have been further underwritten by South African taxpayers to the tune of some R4 billion – the estimated subsidy to be paid to existing vehicle owners for the scrapping of the old fleet;
  • consortia of transnational and big local capital – the major refineries, beneficiaries of the plan to ensure a larger domestic market for diesel fuel. The government tender stipulated that the new mini- and midi-buses were to be diesel driven, because a surplus of diesel is produced in the local refining process, much of which is then exported unprofitably;
  • local capital - the IT and financial consortia that were bidding for the lucrative smart card tender – which would have opened up a massive cash kitty, accumulated capital with which to leverage many other accumulation possibilities; and
  • an “affirmed”/BEE -promoted stratum, first of all, those benefiting from quota requirements inherent in all of the above; and, secondly, the most upwardly mobile of taxi owners (those with the capacity to meet the re-payment requirements on the mandatory new vehicles) who would ultimately be the stratum that was “re-capitalised”.

Broken down in this way, it is clear that the original taxi recapitalisation programme has all the hallmarks of a developmental state-driven, top-down technocratic process in which a close collaboration between a managerialist political elite, big capital and emerging “national” capital are assumed to be the best (perhaps the only) path to development and “modernisaton”. However well-intentioned in its expectations of delivering a safer and more affordable public transport system to the majority of South Africans, the programme was seriously flawed from the start.

This attempt to “bridge” the “first” and “second” economy has now ended in a signal and predictable failure. It has failed for several inter-related reasons:

From the side of big capital, the dominant manufacturer in the South African market – Toyota – never even bothered to submit a tender for the recap programme. Perhaps this was because, knowing the market as it did, it correctly appreciated that the proposal was unworkable, the technical dream of some well-meaning public sector bureaucrats who produced specifications for two vehicles (an 18-seater and a 35-seater) that didn’t exist anywhere in the world. While an estimated 90,000 new vehicles was not, perhaps, an order to be sneezed at, it was also not an enormous market in its own right. Those manufacturers who did actively tender – they included Tata, Iveco and GAZ – were presumably seeking to gain a strategic foothold in the South African (and African) market, but they too failed to produce tenders remotely within the affordability range, notwithstanding an anticipated, legally regulated market monopoly and significant government subsidies. In short, the assumption that government technical planners had the capacity to “lead” a market dominated by major transnationals proved to be misplaced. Indeed, while the protracted tender process was under-way (it extended over some five years) there was active, market-driven re-capitalisation occurring in some key sectors of the taxi industry, with long distance operators out of Gauteng, for instance, purchasing without any government assistance an impressive new fleet of midi-buses.

The plan, and for good reasons, has also never enjoyed unreserved support from those who were intended to be the most immediate beneficiaries – the taxi-owners themselves. There are several dimensions to this. The top-down, technocratic nature of the programme required that government should have a single, “representative”, national taxi-owner interlocutor. And so, as an integral and logical part of the recap programme, there have been parallel processes of “formalisation” and “democratisation” of the sector. The latter involved nine provincial taxi conferences, electing nine provincial structures, and a national conference electing a national body, SANTACO. This process was, in itself, no small achievement, considering the complexity, fluidity, fractiousness and disparities of the industry with large numbers of small owner-operators working within the framework of local associations and larger “mother-bodies”, whose organisational principles are often more coercively feudal than democratic. (It should be noted that, given that the process was driven as a largely technocratic one, the whole recap programme has never been grounded in any comprehensive research into the actual socio-economic character of the sector – degrees of stratification, actual profit margins, organisational structures, etc. Much of what we say is, therefore, based on dated research from the late 1980s and early 1990s, and on localised interactions and episodes, including the recent Western Cape commission of inquiry into taxi violence in the Cape Town metro.) However, it is unrealistic to expect SANTACO to ever acquire the kind of representivity of its membership that even the Chamber of Mines sometimes battles to achieve, when all it has to represent is a half-dozen well organised and entrenched mining houses. Being the entrepreneurial spirits that they are, the elected leadership of SANTACO (and its provincial counterparts) have always tended to use their access to information on the programme and other resources as a business opportunity. They also quickly became the favoured interlocutors not just of government, but also of the interested vehicle manufacturers, IT and finance companies, and of the petrol companies – provoking the inevitable suspicions and rumours amongst their general membership.

But the unease of a significant number of taxi-owners and the sector at large should also justifiably be understood in the context of the class implications of the programme. In effect, a successful implementation of the programme would have promoted a fraction of the owners, those who would be able to afford the recapitalisation process, i.e. the monthly repayments on new vehicles. The exact proportion of existing owners who would have succeeded in this respect was never known – partly because final tenders could never be negotiated down to reasonable prices, but partly, also, because no-one had really done comprehensive research into stratification, accumulation tendencies, etc.

Those successfully promoted (making the trip from the “second” to the “first” economy – not now as drivers but as emerging formal sector capitalists) would, however, in effect, have increased their dependence upon, and subordination to big capital – the finance houses, the vehicle manufacturers, and the banks and IT companies running the smart card float. They would also have increased their dependence on the state (for subsidies and for protection from a significant number of operators who would fail to make the step up, and would now be “illegal” competitors).

For those owners able to make it into the recap programme, the government scrapping allowance was intended as a down payment on a new vehicle. For those taxi owners (numbers unknown) who would not be able to afford the new programme or who (as the official line went) “wanted to exit the system”, the scrapping allowance would have been, in effect, a retrenchment package.

The integration of the taxi industry into, and under the effective dominance of, big capital would also have had major implications for a much wider network of drivers, cleaners, and back-yard repair shops. For instance, part of the plan was to enforce maintenance contracts to be carried out by franchised formal sector dealerships. This would probably have destroyed tens of thousands of jobs in backyard repair shops, while creating a few (but far fewer) in the formal sector. It would have cut profit margins for the operators (repairs would now have to be done in regular working hours, instead of as in the current practice in taxi down-time – at weekends or through the night). Again, because no research had been done on any of this, it is difficult to be sure of exact numbers of informal sector workers whose jobs may have been threatened.

In brief, taxi recapitalisation in its original (and now partially abandoned) form was a well-intentioned, but excessively technocratic and top-down initiative to improve the quality and reliability of this back-bone of our public transport system. It identified the key immediate challenges in a technocratic and market-centred way. And so it set about designing new vehicles, and eliminating from the “market”, through regulation and affordability barriers, a significant proportion of existing operators.

Stepping back a little, it is possible to understand the illusions of the programme if we locate them within the broader paradigm of the reformist national democratic project which I have critiqued in some detail in the first part of this paper. Capitalist integration, formalisation, and “modernisation” are assumed to be the answer to the challenges (the “legacy”) of underdevelopment. This modernising integration is conceptualised as a state-led technical and regulatory intervention that creates market space for capitalist corporations to drive the process. At the political centre of the process is a cadre of state technocrats and emerging black/ “patriotic” capitalists. In this latter respect, it is interesting to note that although the notion of a national (or “patriotic”) bourgeoisie (usually simply equated with emerging black capital) is greatly in vogue - the actual impact of the original taxi recap programme would have been to increase the comprador and parasitic features of one of the few areas of organic black capital accumulation. The dominant class fraction in state power, with the best of intentions, was trying to re-make the taxi owners in its own comprador-parasitic image.

Where is the programme now?

Faced with endless delays and opposition, and, above all, with mounting evidence of the unworkability of the programme in its original form, government announced in 2004 a review and scaling down – but continued to commit to a recap programme. The scaling down now consists, essentially, in a regulatory framework that specifies certain basic safety and other features that will be required for an operating licence. This is a massively scaled-down and considerably more realistic version of the taxi-redesign proposal. Gone are the “two-sizes” fits all approach, gone is the idea that wholly new taxis will be built, gone is the idea of a monopoly award to one or two manufacturers. The scaled-down programme still includes a scrapping allowance (now of R50,000) as incentive to scrap old vehicles and to invest in new vehicles with the required regulatory design features. The programme will be rolled out by the national Department of Transport over several years, beginning with some pilot areas deemed to be most ready.

This is a huge improvement and eminently more practical. But it still preserves in shadow form some of the questionable assumptions of the original model. No thorough research has been done on the dynamic socio-economic features of the industry. We do not really know what the programme’s likely impact will be. In addition, although government’s public transport policy is (correctly) multi-modal, and stresses the need for seamless inter-modal public transport (non-motorised, taxis, buses, trains), we still have in the taxi recap programme a massive government subsidy that will be going to a single mode (one that has not received any subsidies historically – notwithstanding it market dominance). This might be “just” and more “equitable” – but an opportunity to use public funds to drive effective integration of modes is being lost. In short, the technical and top-down character of the recap programme still persists.

Is there an alternative?

The transformation of the taxi industry has to be integrated not just into a more seamless multi-modal approach to transport, but into a much broader programme of building sustainable communities, towns and cities. Taxi sector transformation must be part of integrated spatial planning, where the developmental needs of workers and the poor are priorities. Much of what is, currently, thought of as a “transport” headache, and as a burden on public transport subsidies, may well be an accessibility challenge. In other words the mobility problems of the poor (and they are considerable) may be best solved not through more motorised transport on freeways that encircle many poor communities like mediaeval moats, but through communities that are not just dormitory townships cut off from resources, but in which jobs, schools, and public amenities are within walking or cycling range.

This means that taxi sector transformation cannot be a national, top-down technocratic affair. It has to be located within and driven by local level spatial planning, infrastructure development, and democratic participation. The greater proportion of the current transport subsidies (rail, bus, and eventually taxi) must be integrated modally but also, critically, devolved to the municipal level[15]. Vehicle design should be subsidiary to the above priorities, and while national standards are required, there should be room for considerable adaptability for what works best locally.

The organisational transformation of existing taxi formations should be less focused on “formalistic” national and provincial “representative” bodies that interface with (and run the danger of being dominated by) vehicle manufacturers, petrol companies, etc., and much more focused on the organisational development of municipal-level public transport companies with a mixed ownership.

For example, what are the possibilities of a single Cape Town public transport company with a mixed ownership that combines a rail parastatal share-holding, a municipal transport share-holding, a private and/or cooperative bus and taxi share-holding, and, perhaps, some form of community ownership (which could be exercised directly through the municipal share, or additionally through other community entities, including trade union investment holdings)? In this way, inter-modal cooperation will be fostered through the joint ownership arrangement. In this way, also, taxi associations will not be “negotiating” (i.e., offering themselves up for compradorist appropriation) on their own with the major private corporations, but as part of a public/private/community consortium. Profits (and subsidies) should be allocated on the contractual service provided, and not on the basis of a free-for-all and dangerous competition for routes and passengers.

For all of this to work effectively, not least the transformation of the warlordism of the taxi associations and the monitoring of service contracts – popular power at the community commuter level is the key factor. As with so much else, this has been the key shortcoming of the taxi recap programme – those intended to be the ultimate “beneficiaries” have been treated, precisely, as “beneficiaries” who will have safer and more affordable public transport “delivered” to them. Our mass base has been a spectator in the process.

Yet there are many embryonic examples of community activism and embryonic popular power taking up public transport issues:

  • On bus commutes from the former KwaNdebele into Tshwane and Johannesburg, for instance, commuters have organised committees in which volunteers stay awake on a rotational basis to allow all of the others to sleep safely, ensuring that there is no on-board petty theft during the long commute.
  • On Metrorail Soweto trains there is a long tradition of “singing coaches” – coaches that are taken over and turned into mobile congregations. Metrorail has noted that there is virtually no crime or vandalism in these coaches, and has been working with the “congregants” to form commuter forums.
  • In the Western Cape, the MEC for safety and security has recruited members of township neighbourhood watches and CPFs, and provided training, uniforms, radios and a basic stipend for carrying out protection work on stations and also along problematic stretches of the N2 freeway.
  • Also in the Western Cape, COSATU in alliance with some citizens’ groups, has been running a campaign around lack of security on trains. The campaign has played an important role in getting government to agree to the training and deployment of a new SAPS railway police – with the pilot already running on the Cape Town Metrorail network.
  • In the Free State, a local radio station runs an hour-long phone-in programme every week-day in which listeners call in with their complaints (and commendations) in regard to their public transport experiences. Most of the callers complain about rudeness, or dangerous driving by minibus operators. Names are named and the station tries to follow up with the relevant operators, giving them a chance to respond, to acknowledge the problem, and so on.

These and other examples of popular organisation (often working with government or relevant parastatals) could be developed and consolidated into community-level transport forums which might, for instance, monitor and assess the contract performance of different participants within a metro-level mixed-ownership public transport company. Ward committees need to be used to address public transport issues, and the popular engagement with IDPs should also have a strong public transport focus. The branch-level of the ANC and its alliance partners should also be much more actively involved.

All of this is, admittedly, a fairly sketchy outline of an alternative strategy for public transport transformation. It is offered here not as a ready-made blueprint, but to provide some sense of a different approach to the national democratic project, in which we advance transformation around the mobilisation and hegemony of a different configuration of class forces. A progressive developmental state – and particularly the local state – is the key power centre in this case, but it needs to be buttressed by relevant parastatals, local community-rooted emergent capital and mobilised working class/community forces. Whether it is taxi transformation, or in much broader endeavours, we need to ensure that our policies and our technical interventions mobilise and strengthen the key class motive forces of the NDR, rather than (inadvertently perhaps) strengthening the very forces whose objective location within the national and global economy will inevitably lead to an accumulation path that reproduces the crisis of underdevelopment we seek to overcome.

By way of conclusion:

Can we move towards the Freedom Charter’s vision of the people governing?

In one of its strategic resolutions, the ANC’s July 2005 National General Council reflected on the kind of state we should be building in South Africa. The passage reads:

“In many international cases, the developmental state has been characterised by a high degree of integration between business and government. The South African developmental state has different advantages and challenges. While we seek to engage private capital strategically, in South Africa the developmental state needs to be buttressed and guided by a mass-based, democratic liberation movement in a context in which the economy is still dominated by a developed, but largely white, capitalist class.” (para. 20, ANC, National General Council, July 2005, Consolidated Report on Sectoral Strategies)

This, it seems to me, sets us on the right line. Of course, the fact that an ANC NGC resolution affirms this vision is no guarantee it will be implemented. Exactly the same might be said of the Freedom Charter’s hallowed and often repeated demand that “The People Shall Govern!” These are broad visions for which we have to struggle.

However, given the manifest crises of the reformist, technocratic national democratic project, whether writ small in the failed attempts to recapitalise the taxi industry, or writ large across the wider canvas of the post-1994 South African reality, the possibility and the dire necessity of an alternative hegemony is evident.

[1] The following two paragraphs are paraphrased from the Introduction of 50 Years of the Freedom Charter, Raymond Suttner and Jeremy Cronin, UNISA and Zed Press (forthcoming)

[2] The key foundation text is Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Antonio Gramsci’s Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1971; and Nicos Poulantzas’s concrete application of Bonapartism in several of his writings – but particularly in Fascism and Dictatorship, New Left Books/Verso, London, 1974. There are numerous other Marxist writings that touch upon the topic, including occasional references by Lenin to Marx’s study of Napoleon III. There is also an extensive secondary literature, interpreting and debating Marx, Gramsci, etc.

[3] While the absolutist state is associated with an “equilibrium” between bourgeoisie and the landed nobility, and Bismarckism is seen as a hybrid of both of these.

[4] See Andrew Nash, “Mandela’s democracy”, in Thabo Mbeki’s World, the Politics and Ideology of the South African President, ed. Sean Jacobs and Richard Calland, University of Natal Press and Zed Books, 2002.

[5] William Mervin Gumede, Thabo Mbeki and the battle for the soul of the ANC, Zebra Press, Cape Town, 2005

[6] See, for instance, Emir Sader, “Taking Lula’s Measure”, New Left Review 33, May-June 2005. Interestingly Sader also invokes the concept of bonapartism (see p.79) to capture the principal line of evolution in Lula’s presidency.

[7] Seme, “The Regeneration of Africa”, in From Protest to Challenge, ed. T Karis and GM Carter, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, California, 1972. The Seme document won a public speaking prize at Columbia University in the US, and was first published in The African Abroad in 1906.

[8] The disavowal of the parasitic and comprador character of this favoured new BEE elite is one of the reasons why the unfolding crisis in Zimbabwe, rooted precisely in capitalist parasitism, has proved so difficult for the Mbeki project to digest and articulate.

[9] It should be said, however, that in the 1930s within the Comintern and in the post-WW II communist movement, Lenin’s thoroughly dialectical approach was increasingly displaced by evolutionist, technocratic “catch-up” assumptions.

[10] Perhaps what happened around the noble attempt to sponsor the Toussaint L’Ouverture bi-centennial celebrations in Haiti?

[11] It is an argument that makes two major assumptions. First, there is the assumption that continents have singular histories – but, if we were considering the history and reality of Egypt, for instance, it might make a lot more sense to link it into the history of the Fertile Crescent; or of the Mediterranean, a tricontinental reality; or conceptualise its current reality in the context of a global – not continental – polarisation of societies into a North and South, a First and Third World? The second assumption is that, for instance, Latin America, or SW Asia have had renaissances – you can perhaps argue this if you allow the US to “represent” the Americas, or Japan to “represent” Asia.

[12] John Dube, “A talk upon my native land”, first published 1892, in Karis & Carter, vol.1, pp.68-9

[13] See “Water pilot project is a failure, says city”, Cape Argus, Oct 4, 2005.

[14] The figure of 64% is actually a considerable under-calculation. In the National Department of Transport’s National Household Travel Survey 2003 Technical Report (2005) the 64% share is calculated on those commuters who are ONLY using minibuses for their daily commute. Where commuters use minibuses and buses and/or trains, then the latter are considered the “primary” mode, and the minibus commute is not factored into the count.

[15] There are, of course, important inter-city, inter-provincial and inter-country rail, bus and taxi services whose needs must also be taken into account – but the greater bulk of public transport is at the metro level, or between two or three adjoining municipalities – especially in rural areas.