In the 1970s and 80s, protests by the Black majority became increasingly powerful with the rise of militant labor actions and widespread popular uprisings. By the mid-1980s, many white South Africans especially the owners of major banks and mining companies realized that the contradictory logics of exclusion and exploitation could no longer be sustained. The major capitalists began reaching out to the leadership of the ANC, promising to help facilitate the transition to democracy as long as the ANC was willing to abandon all talk of socialism and the redistribution of wealth.
This led to a series of reforms and negotiations that eliminated the racist apartheid legislation, while also restructuring the South African economy along neo-liberal lines. In its final years, the apartheid regime liberalized trade, dismantled the welfare state, and privatized many state-run industries. During the negotiations, the ANC made major economic concessions to win the support of the South African and global business elites. Dropping its demand to nationalize the banks, mines, and land, the ANC agreed to fully protect private property and existing property ownership even though this property had been acquired through brutal massacres and forced removals. The ANC also agreed to take on the international debt accumulated by the apartheid regime and to adopt a neo-liberal economic strategy that promoted export-oriented industry and the privatization of state-owned businesses. Ironically named ‘Growth, Employment, and Redistribution’ (GEAR), this strategy has led to the collapse of industrial employment and the loss of over 1.5 million jobs in the last ten years. As unemployment skyrockets throughout the country, poor Black communities are being devastated by poverty and HIV/AIDS. The rapidly expanding gap between the wealthiest and poorest South Africans has already grown so wide that post-apartheid South Africa is ranked as one of the three most unequal countries in the world.
GEAR also reversed Constitutional promises to provide housing, land, and basic services to every citizen, making it increasingly difficult for the poor Black majority to access water, electricity, health care, and education. Municipal ‘cost-recovery’ strategies have turned poor South African townships into testing grounds for ‘pre-paid’ water and electricity meters. Like the prepaid phone cards in Palestine, residents are forced to purchase credits before using their water or electricity and the meters automatically cut off the flow whenever the credit runs out. The privatization of housing has driven up the cost of shelter, led to widespread evictions, and multiplied the number of people living in squatter camps. The government’s ‘willing seller, willing buyer’ land redistribution program is based on World Bank-approved market principles and has utterly failed to return stolen land to the dispossessed Black majority. Only 3% of the land has been redistributed and this has merely enabled the growth of a small class of Black corporate farmers while ensuring that the land remains predominantly in the hands of 46,000 white corporate farmers. Meanwhile, twenty-eight million South Africans remain landless either as tenants on white farms, homeless in the cities, or squatters in the townships.
Most analysts too easily dismiss the intensity of the crisis facing the poor, Black majority in post-apartheid South Africa. It is usually written off as either the lingering hangover of a defeated system or a momentary speed-bump on the highway to democracy. These analyses miss the point: the crisis facing poor, Black South Africans reveals the limitations of liberation itself. The elimination of apartheid laws was a major victory that freed Black South Africans from the confines of an explicitly racist political system. But the illusion of ‘liberation’ obscures the fact that an increasingly aggressive form of global capitalism shaped by neo-liberal economics, dominated by multinational corporations, and enforced by the US military has deepened the poverty of millions and rapidly expanded the gap between the poor, Black majority and a tiny South African elite still primarily white despite the emergence of a Black bourgeoisie. As the South African scholar and former political prisoner Neville Alexander explains, ‘what we used to call the apartheid-capitalist system has simply given way to the post-apartheid-capitalist system.’
For millions of poor, Black South Africans the neo-liberal ‘liberation’ has meant the elimination of jobs, the eviction of families from their homes, the denial of life-saving medication to people living with HIV/AIDS, and the commodification of basic services such as water, electricity, health care, and education. By the late 1990s, uprisings against the ANC government had begun in townships and squatter camps throughout the country. Over the last six years, waves of revolt have shaken the country from Durban to Cape Town, from Johannesburg to Harrismith. Some of these uprisings arrived dramatically and then quickly disappeared. Others have crystallized into lasting social movements such as the Anti-Eviction Campaign (AEC), the Anti-Privatization Forum (APF), the Landless Peoples Movement (LPM), and most recently Abahlali baseMjondolo a shackdwellers movement based in the squatter camps around Durban. In communities throughout South Africa, the streets are alive once again as these new social movements generate powerful critiques of post-apartheid neo-liberalism and invent new forms of struggle and popular resistance.