“The APF … was the first crack in the monolith … the ANC had dominated all struggle since the early eighties … so I think it was very significant that there was this beginning of something outside of that and I think that’s what the APF represented.”
When South Africa’s first ever one-person, one-vote elections in 1994 resulted in an overwhelming victory for the African National Congress (ANC), it was the South African working class that was at the forefront of celebrating the arrival of a new democracy.
Throughout the late 1980s and first two years of the 1990s, the ANC had consistently kept to its ‘line’ that, once in power, it would nationalise key sectors of the economy, would set about a radical redistribution of land and wealth and would ensure that the black working class became the main ‘driver’ in a ‘people’s’ state dedicated to popular, participatory democracy. The ANC’s adoption, in 1994, of the fairly radical, social-democratic Reconstruction & Development Programme (as its electoral platform) only served to fuel such expectations.
The bubble was clearly and publicly burst with the ANC state’s 1996 unveiling of the neoliberal GEAR (Growth, Employment and Redistribution) macro-economic policy. GEAR codified the new government’s commitment to macro-fiscal discipline, export-oriented growth, the privatisation and corporatisation of state assets, a flexible labour market, decreased levels of corporate taxation and full-scale integration into the logic of a globalised capitalist system of production and accumulation (Habib and Padayachee 2000).
"So if you were going to oppose water cut offs and electricity cut offs and a range of other things, well then why, what was giving rise to these? – GEAR.
GEAR gave rise to those things and so it became that symbolic coat hanger with which you could hang those kinds of things on and be able to explain to people why it was, politically and ideologically, that you needed to do these kinds of things because GEAR represented everything that we didn’t fight for and didn’t struggle for."
Consistent with the socio-political thrust of GEAR, the ANC government also set about forming national structures and adopting legislation to give institutional and legal form to its corporatist commitments (Ballard et al 2006: 397). All of this fit comfortably within the ANC government’s push “for a more formalised civil society constituency as part of a developmental model where formally organised groups participate in official structures to claim public resources” and where “the role of such organised groups is constructed along the lines of official government programmes, without space to contest the fundamentals of those programmes” (Greenberg and
Ndlovu, 2004: 32-33).
Cumulatively, these developments meant that by the mid-late 1990s the vast majority of what had constituted a South African civil society rooted in broad working class politics and struggles, and which had sustained the hope of millions for an anti-capitalist transformation of South African society, had largely ‘disappeared’. Whether swallowed by the ANC, absorbed into other Tripartite Alliance structures, hobbled by the co-option of key leaders into the state and associated corporatist institutions or starved of financial resources, the bottom line was that the political and organisational terrain for active and militant resistance to the ANC’s creeping neo-liberalism, elite deal making and wholesale acceptance of the institutionalised framework of bourgeois democracy had been (temporarily) contained.
The logical result of these developments was a precipitous decline in the overall living standards of the working class simultaneous to a further material and social stratification within it. Those who lost their formal jobs (alongside their families / networks) or whose labour became even more precarious were hit hardest by the huge escalations in the costs of basic services and a concomitant increase in the use of cost-recovery mechanisms such as water and electricity cut-offs.
By the turn of the century, millions had experienced cut-offs and evictions as the result of the ANC’s neo-liberal orgy (McDonald and Smith 2002, Cottle 2003) and were also being devastated by an HIV-AIDs epidemic, catalysed by official denialism and the state’s refusal to provide decommodified access to anti-retrovirals. As if all of this was not enough, the ANC state’s capitalist-friendly land policies, which ensured that apartheid land ownership patterns remained virtually intact, meant that South Africa’s long-suffering rural population continued to taste the ever more bitter fruits of labour exploitation and landlessness.
It was the cumulative result of such political / strategic choices and socio-economic realities, combined with the failure of the main traditional, organised working class forces to lead and sustain counter mobilisations and active class resistance, that eventually saw the rise of new social movements / community organisations, at first in the main urban centres and then also in some rural areas. One of these movements was the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF).