The South African Revolt

July 24, 2009

Although I can give it only a brief mention tonight, one of the most important (and underreported) international stories at the moment is the wave of worker and shack-dweller protest sweeping across South Africa.

As Business Day reports, “thousands of employees are striking in the paper and pulp, industrial chemical, pharmaceutical, and consumer goods sectors, severely affecting operations at companies” while workers at Massmart Supermarkets and Telkom will be taking action next week.

Over the past month, poor neighborhoods have seen a series of protests involving road blockades, which have brought repression. One young girl was reportedly shot in the head by police, while three men have been killed.

Journalist Richard Pithouse sheds some light on the origins of these protests. Housing is a major factor. As he writes:

Disputes around housing are the chief cause of popular friction with the state. The state tends to reduce the urban crisis, of which the housing shortage is one symptom, to a simple question of a housing backlog and to measure progress via the number of houses or “housing opportunities” it “delivers”. But one of the most common reasons for protests is outright rejection of forced removals from well-located shacks to peripheral housing developments or “transit camps”. Another is the denial or active removal of basic services from shack settlements to persuade people to accept relocation. Moreover, to make its targets for “housing delivery” more manageable, the state often, against its own law and policy, provides houses only for shack owners, resulting in shack renters being illegally left homeless when “development comes”.

The timing of the protests is not accidental, coming as the recession deepens and unemployment in South Africa sharply rises. It also comes soon after the elevation of Jacob Zuma to the presidency – a man who depended on elements of the “left” to build his powerbase within the ANC. To an extent, the debts he incurred are already being called in as living conditions deteriorate and the people expect solutions.

The raw poverty experienced by millions of South Africans is at the root, however. Spontaneous actions have emerged in response to huge inequalities. Organized protests by the unemployed in Durban, for example, have targeted supermarkets, resulting in mass arrests. Protesters linked to the  SA Unemployed Peoples’ Movement walked into a Shoprite store before “eating food off the shelves without paying.”

The government has vowed to crack down on such protests in the future, but at the moment, it has lost control in the face of deepening unemployment, failed neoliberal “development” policies and stagnant wages. It is under attack from all sorts of angles – from the unemployed, disgruntled bus drivers, shack dwellers – and many groups of workers – all demanding a change in the way that the nation has been governed.

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