From `service delivery’ to #FeesMustFall, protests target decades of neoliberal austerity

According to Ivor Chipkin, the FeesMustFall movement runs the risk of being coopted by the politicians and business people around Jacob Zuma who are stripping state owned enterprises like Eskom to the tune of billions. This after some student activists called for protests targeting the National Treasury and academic Kelly Gillespie pointed to the role of the treasury in making higher education unaffordable for the majority of Blacks.

Chipkin provides no evidence that there is a real danger that the student movements will inadvertently support the looting of the state, which seems to be the project holding the Zuma group together. In fact, he can only make his point by ignoring the politics of the FeesMustFall movement, which on the whole is diametrically opposed to that of both the Zuma and the Gordhan group. Chipkin’s political agenda is not so much that he seriously believes the students are about to support Zuma; he wants FeesMustFall to support the Gordhan group, even if only by not targeting National Treasury with criticisms and protests.

In order to support his political point, Chipkin argues that the National Treasury has not had a policy of neo-liberal austerity over the last 16 years. But the evidence he provides is as weak as his political framing of no possibilities outside of either Zuma or Gordhan.

To review the evidence, we need an idea of what ‘neo-liberal austerity’ is. Is a simple rise in spending on ‘social protection’, even a doubling over a thirteen-year period, proof enough that there is no neo-liberal austerity? This is what Chipkin suggests, but it is simplistic.

Cutting social welfare spending has been a burning ambition of neo-liberal treasuries everywhere. They have not always succeeded, because they had to contend with the balance of forces. Where there was strong resistance to such cuts, all they could do was keep this kind of expenditure as low as possible. In these cases, it does not mean they are no longer neo-liberal; it means they are neo-liberals who are not getting their own way one hundred percent.

The political essence of neo-liberalism is using the state to create the conditions for maximum wealth transfer from everyone else to the richest elite among business corporations. This is exactly what the ANC has been doing over the last two decades. This is precisely why the elite among the capitalist class is showing Gordhan so much love. From water to land to minerals to investment to monetary matters and agriculture, the ANC’s policies have included privatization, deregulation, commodification and all the other building blocks of neoliberal politics around the world. These long words all mean the same thing – state policies that protect and create opportunities for giant business corporations to make profits at the expense of everyone and everything else.

It is laughable to argue that in the middle of this general neo-liberal approach of the ANC, the treasury stands as the lone exception. Yes, expenditure on social grants has risen (though not in Gordhan’s last budget where it dropped in real terms). But these rises were never driven by what the actual needs for poverty relief and eradication were. It was carefully framed to be affordable while the tax regime leaves the wealth of the big corporates untouched and growing. A treasury that was pro-poor and against neo-liberal austerity would not have dropped taxes on these billionaire corporates as Gordhan and his predecessors have done. Instead they would have taxed them heavily not only on profit but also on accumulated wealth, which is the only way to seriously move towards ending poverty and inequality.

Research by Nandi Vanqa-Mgijima and Christopher Webb of the International Labour Research and Information Group (Ilrig) further exposes the claim that social grants is a sign that there is not a regime of neo-liberal austerity at the treasury. They explain how the payment and distribution has been outsourced to a company listed on the stock exchanges of Johannesburg and New York. Furthermore, all along the chain of the distribution and spending of the grants, micro-lenders and giant supermarkets are set up to make profit at the expense of the poor grant beneficiaries. Undoubtedly grant recipients have benefited, but the neo-liberal manner in which the grants have been distributed have benefited the usual shareholders and creditors for whom neo-liberalism is designed.

Quoting percentage increases in spending on social protection allows talk of ‘more than double’ and ‘well above inflation’, which has the sound of opulence rather than austerity. But the word austere means having no comforts or luxuries. To suggest a child grant of R350 per month means there is no austerity is fucking sick. The thing is that the grants started from such a scandalously low base, that even these large percentage increases still leave grant recipients in poverty. If this is not neo-liberal austerity, then the concept has no meaning.

Finally, Chipkin’s own account of the situation in higher education reveals that the treasury has deployed a strategy that is quite common for neo-liberal treasuries and has been used by Trevor Manuel with regard to local government. This is the strategy of ‘unfunded mandates’. An explosive increase in the number of tertiary students, without a corresponding increase in funding, pressured universities to raise the extra funding through fee increases and corporate funding that further subordinate knowledge production to neo-liberalism. The one is a direct consequence of the other and confirms the neo-liberal orientation of treasury beyond doubt.

Vice-chancellors now find themselves in a similar position to mayors. In the Manuel era funding for municipalities were cut by 90% at the same time that their service delivery responsibilities were increased manifold. Hence we had the ‘service delivery’ protests similar to the FeesMustFall protests, both ultimately caused by neo-liberal austerity policed by the treasury.

It is these community protests that won the increases in social spending, just as the student protests has already won increases in higher education spending. Both are up against the neo-liberal regime of the ANC, of which both Gordhan and Zuma are part. FeesMustFall is completely correct in targeting them both.

 

(Photo Credit 1: City Press / Ndileka Lujabe) (Photo Credit 2: Time / Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters)

Supporting Gordhan against Zuma weakens the resistance politics of the poor

A sense that there is a crisis at the highest levels of government has taken hold in South Africa. The Directorate for Priority Crime Investigations, known as the Hawks, has instructed Pravin Gordhan, Minister of Finance, to make a warning statement on allegations of illegal spying and corruption against him relating to his time as tax commissioner. Gordhan’s refusal to comply, plus his stand-off with senior leaders of some state owned enterprises, have led even Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to speak of a state at war with itself as he declared his support for Gordhan.

The finance minister is enjoying an outpouring of support, especially from the business sector and academics and journalists aligned to it. Their positions are all presented as ultimately a concern for the poor, who they say will suffer even more should Gordhan be defeated by his enemies. Even some in civil society have now taken this position, although they disagree with the economic policies Gordhan and his fellow neoliberal capitalists stand for.

Supporting Pravin Gordhan in the belief that the poor are better off with him rather than his ANC rivals in charge of the finance ministry is based on a mistaken theory. Perhaps the cruellest tyranny of politics is that no amount of sincerity, passion and effort can deliver desired results if the political framework does not support those results.

Maybe Gordhan is a better person than whoever might replace him. And let’s say a neoliberal capitalist system based on the rule of law, which Gordhan is debatably seen to represent, is better than a neoliberal capitalist system without the rule of law, which the so-called patronage politicians in the ANC fighting against Gordhan are seen to represent. But the amount of resources going to the poor is not determined by the ethical character of the rulers, nor by the presence or absence of the rule of law. All three of these factors are the result of the relative strength of the resistance politics of the poor. Supporting Gordhan against Zuma subordinates the resistance politics of the poor to the factional battles of the ANC and thereby weakens it.

This resistance politics of the poor is ultimately based on two broad tactics known as direct action. The first is where poor people simply take resources denied to them, for example through occupying land for residential or agricultural purposes or through poaching. The second tactic is to disrupt the wealth and comforts of the elites until they concede needed resources to the poor, for example through strikes, road blockages and office occupations. Both of these are high risk options usually forbidden by law and almost always repressed by force, and therefore there are a number of other tactics such as marches, demonstrations, negotiations and media interventions, which are often in effect threats to employ direct action and, importantly, processes of building up the necessary support for it.

How does supporting Gordhan weaken resistance politics? Because this support is framed as supporting the rule of law and the power of the ANC. The rule of law is an idea through which the ruling class legitimises their power. It does not exist in reality, although it influences reality, sometimes in ways that benefit the poor. The ruling class does not seriously operate within the law, least of all the faction that Gordhan is part of, even as they use the law to present their power as just and fair. It is precisely the power of the ANC legitimised by the rule of law that has enforced neo-liberal capitalism and led to explosive growth of poverty and inequality.

The struggle for more resources for the poor is essentially a struggle to build the politics of resistance against elite power. Aligning with one elite faction against another on the basis of a framework supportive of elite power as a whole just consolidates the position of the ruling class. Those concerned that Gordhan’s defeat will mean less resources and freedoms for the poor should step up direct actions and deepen the exposure of the power of the ANC and the so-called rule of law as sources of domination and exploitation of the poor.

 

(Photo Credit 1: Roar Magazine) (Photo Credit 2: Right 2 Know Campaign)

Whether they vote or not, the excluded, oppressed and routinely killed are NOT stupid!

 


If previous trends continue, millions of people will choose not to vote on 3 August in the local elections across South Africa. According to Eusebius McKaiser people abstain from voting because they either think voting will not make a difference, or they think it will implicate them morally in a system they do not agree with. These reasons are ‘stupid’, according to McKaiser.

It is breathtakingly arrogant to judge people stupid without knowledge of their goals, and, unlike McKaiser, I do not presume to know the goals of the millions who will not be voting. It is however necessary to say that it is not at all stupid to refrain from doing something you believe will not change anything. To do or not do something for moral reasons, even if it affects you materially in bad ways, only seems stupid to people who believe material self-interest should always be the only or main motivation for political actions.

Perhaps it is more important to remember that there are good practical reasons to abstain from voting for an important group among those who are staying away from the polls. In their case we have a good idea of what their goals are, because they have been articulating it since at least the elections of 2004. I am referring to the various social movements and protest groups that have arisen against the neoliberal capitalist approach of the state and taking positions like ‘no land, no vote’ or ‘no housing, no vote.’ Examples of these movements include the Landless People’s Movement and the Anti-Privatisation Forum.

While the early post-2000 social movements have become much weakened or defunct, their line of thinking has continued to find resonance. The latest group to take it up powerfully is organizing under the hashtag #IamSpoilingMyBallotWithMyBlood in the Cape Town township of Bonteheuwel. This campaign is led by a group of activists mainly associated with the Joint Peace Forum. They are resisting the waves of gang violence that killed thousands of Bonteheuwel residents with the complicity of the police and politicians of all stripes.

The most important idea behind the actions of these activists is that the system oppresses them to such a degree that they need to build movements as alternative sources of power capable of fighting the system as a whole. This does not mean voting and working within the system is morally wrong or does not make any difference. It means that the changes possible within the system still leave people trapped in the hellhole Bonteheuwel has become. It is also based on the calculation that whoever is in power of those on offer, people are better off when they have strong grassroots movements.

Far from being stupid, the decision to refrain from voting serves this movement building agenda perfectly. As we learned from boycotting the tricameral parliament and other Apartheid institutions, building effective liberation movements require foregoing the marginal benefits of working within the system, in favor of the more important benefits of drawing a clear line between oppressor and oppressed. McKaiser cannot see this, because his watered down liberalism tells him we have the best possible form of democracy. Those excluded, oppressed and killed routinely, beg to differ. It’s stupid to think of them as stupid.

(This series is about the unbreakable link between means and ends in politics – the tyranny of politics.)

 

(Image Credit: IOL)