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An anatomy of new power

Richard Ballard

Unemployment, poverty and inequality have all grown; and an HIV/Aids epidemic of tragic proportions has unfolded...Since January 2003 a research project on social movements has been conducted jointly between the Centre for Civil Society and the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Richard Ballard, manager of the project, reflects on some of the initial findings.

Under the African National Congress’s stewardship, unemployment, poverty and inequality have all grown; and an HIV/Aids epidemic of tragic proportions has unfolded. Yet, as Mark Heywood of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) points out, the ANC firmly remains the party of the poor.

The official opposition represents the interests of the more privileged. No other political party has been able to make inroads into ANC support on the basis of a pro-poor manifesto. Civics and unions that are allied with the ruling party are now unable to independently champion the cause of the poor.

The emergence of social movements since the late 1990s is a crucial development on the political landscape. They sometimes mature into political parties and some will field candidates in the 2005 local government elections. However, for the time being, most movements are local struggles or single-issue campaigns rather than parties in the making.

Despite the general absence of explicit political ambition within many movements, they have clearly struck a nerve with the government. At times it has responded with alarming hostility and repression.

Other than the threat of political competition, the government’s hostility has been attributed to various factors. Luthuli House dislikes the way in which social movements have been able to upstage it by, for example, organising a much larger march than it could at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development.

Movements are regarded as impertinent; not showing sufficient respect for the government, which believes, somewhat paternalistically, it has a mandate from the majority of the population to proceed the way it feels best. Furthermore, it has been argued that movements are a threat to vested interests.

The government stigmatises some as “ultra left”, notably the TAC, sections of the Congress of South African Trade Unions and independent left community movements and NGOs. However, while some spokespeople for movements provide an anti-capitalist interpretation of struggles, many participants are involved for altogether more survivalist and essentially non-ideological reasons.

As critics such as Andile Mngxitama have pointed out (“Let black voices speak for the voiceless”, June 22 2004), those who seek to represent movements and mediate relationships with funders and international counterparts are often not from the largely poor black female grassroots.

This introduces some complicated dynamics around class, race and gender in which the “suburban left” has to defend the legitimacy of its generally committed and sincere work.

The social-movements label is highly contested and it would be a mistake to presume that various forms of struggle can be equated. As Ashraf Cassiem, of the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, told academics and movement intellectuals

at a conference at the University of KwaZulu-Natal: “‘Social movements’ is a name we got from people like you.”

He went on to say that their organisations were made up of very ordinary people fighting immediate battles in their communities.

As a result of the ebb and flow of some struggles, they fall between the cracks either of media attention or longer-term research projects such as the one on which this article is based.

Recent struggles in Harrismith, Diepsloot and among students at universities, indicate the spontaneous nature of resistance that cannot always be linked to a head office of an organisation with its own Web page. And for every protest or dispute that makes the headlines, countless other battles go unrecognised by the media.

With this proviso in mind, here is an introduction to some of the more established grassroots movements that have emerged:

Anti Privatisation Forum

The Anti Privatisation Forum (APF) was formed in 2000 by a group of organisations, including members of the ruling alliance, concerned with cost- recovery based service provision and privatisation.

After the APF’s establishment, challenges to the Johannesburg metro resulted in leading city officials putting pressure on alliance participants to withdraw.

The APF claims a support base of 10 000 people, primarily women, represented by 21 organisations and four political groups.

A watershed event was the march by a range of social movements during the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, a group which has met a number of times since, under the banner of the Social Movements Indaba.

Permission to march on the opening of Constitution Hill on March 21 last year was denied. Attempts to go ahead with the march resulted in scores of arrests including bystanders who happened to be wearing red T-shirts.—Sakhela Buhlungu

Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee

Although the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC) subsumes itself within the broader APF, it is the largest member organisation with a membership of 7 000 across 44 branches and, therefore, has significant impact in and of itself.

Its seeds were sown in September 1999 when the Pimville councillor, Trevor Ngwane, was suspended from the ANC for challenging its policy on service provision. A series of workshops on the privatisation of services led to the creation of the SECC with Ngwane as chairperson.

Campaigns challenged Eskom’s aggressive cost recovery, focusing in particular on the disconnection of 20 000 households a month in 2001. Operation Khanyisa saw the reconnection of 3 000 households, which the government deemed illegal, but which the SECC felt was justified under the Constitution. This campaign resulted in a moratorium on cut-offs in 2001 and a partial amnesty on arrears.

A defining moment for the SECC came in April 2002 when a protest group disconnected Johannesburg mayor Amos Masondo’s residential electricity supply. His guards opened fire, injuring two people and the crowd responded by throwing stones. Eighty-seven protesters were arrested, but were acquitted after six financially draining court appearances.—Alex Wafer and Anthony Egan

Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign

Pre-existing community organisations came together as the Anti-Eviction Campaign (AEC) in 2000 in response to evictions from council accommodation. This collaboration has been unstable, with tensions around whether to formalise leadership.

There is debate among AEC activists over whether to engage the government or oppose it. Some see engagement as essential. Others have little faith in the right channels and believe progress only happens with more direct challenges, or that boardroom engagement can only be successful in combination with direct action.

Community activists were trained over five months on the legal aspects of evictions.

These activists now represent families threatened with eviction in court with a view to frustrate and slow down banks’ and the council’s attempts to evict. Rather than evictions being rubber-stamped, they are now contested, which makes authorities think twice about this route.—Sophie Oldfield and Kristian Stokke

Landless People’s Movement

The Landless People’s Assembly, timed to coincide with the World Conference against Racism in Durban in 2001, served as a catalyst for the formation of the Landless People’s Movement (LPM).

The National Land Committee (NLC), an NGO, had for some time supported community structures addressing land. The LPM is effectively a national grouping of such organisations.

Its twin objectives are to campaign for more effective distribution of land and to prevent the loss of current access to housing and land. The organisation believes that effective land redistribution cannot operate through the current willing-seller willing-buyer mechanism.

There has been considerable tension between the LPM and the NLC. The financial dependence of the movement on the NGO was used to attempt to curtail anti-government activities within the LPM.

This year the NLC attracted the wrath of the government with its “No Land No Vote” campaign. Trading on the fact that voters have to be registered in their home ward, they cleverly pointed out that this would be impossible if voters were under threat of eviction or had no secure tenure.

On election day in April last year, 62 LPM protesters were arrested in terms of the electoral Act for gathering too close to a polling station.

In the past few months the announcement of a formal alliance with the South African Communist Party has been the subject of much debate within the LPM and broader social political community. The perennial concern that the loss of independence results in a compromised position has been raised by sceptics of this development.—Stephen Greenberg

Environmental movements

South Africa has a set of organisations that are concerned with “green issues”. Their heritage is white-dominated conservation organisations and they are often corporate-sponsored.

However, many other activists who engage in environmental issues would not call themselves environmentalists. They are concerned with “brown issues” such as industrial pollution and the provision of clean water. Underpinned by an ethos of environmental justice, they are concerned with the welfare of humans as much as issues of biodiversity.

One key organisation is the Environmental Justice Networking Forum. Formed in 1992, it soon developed a focus on “greening” the Reconstruction and Development Programme. A decade later its radical focus was solidified through its involvement with the Social Movements Indaba at the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

Other environmental justice organisations include groundWork, Earthlife Africa, the Environmental Monitoring Group and community organisations such as the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance and the Steel Valley Crisis Committee.—Jacklyn Cock

Treatment Action Campaign

The TAC was formed in 1998 to promote access to treatment for people living with HIV/Aids.

The defining battle of the TAC has been with the government’s intransigence in providing treatment, underpinned by President Thabo Mbeki and the Minister of Health Manto Tshabalala-Msimang’s reluctance to acknowledge the role of the HI virus in Aids.

Those who have commented that, if the TAC were to run for office it would gain considerable support, have missed the point that the TAC is not pursuing a political programme beyond the provision of HIV/Aids treatment.

Its campaigns have a social dimension. The increasing openness with which HIV/Aids is addressed in public life today is in no small way attributable to the work of the TAC. The organisation also acts as a support system for those living with HIV/Aids, whether it is themselves or family members that are infected. 

The TAC has 40 staff. Its 8 000 formal members are mostly women and most are HIV-positive, but it is able to mobilise far beyond this number. The TAC is a master of flexible strategy, engaging in everything from formal negotiations in the National Economic Development and Labour Council to a defiance campaign.

Concerns have been raised that the TAC’s focus on court action has been at the expense of other kinds of mobilisation, although it has also been defended as evidence of the significant gains that can be made using the tools of post-apartheid democracy.

Future developments within the TAC include closer involvement with the provision of treatment, and a particular focus on the need to build up delivery capacity.—Steven Friedman and Shauna Mottier

Jubilee SA

Although Jubilee SA was established in 1998 as a local branch of Jubilee 2000, it later became independent. Globally, the more modest and time- bound objectives of Jubilee 2000 had been superseded by the more trenchant demands of Jubilee SA. Jubilee SA had been influenced by this shift towards a more comprehensive social justice focus.

Jubilee SA claims that the foreign debt inherited from apartheid was $26-billion, a figure the National Treasury disputes because it does not include the debt of parastatal corporations or private firms. Jubilee SA argues for the inclusion of these debts as they were guaranteed by the PW Botha and FW de Klerk regimes. In contrast with their current policy, ANC leaders in exile had themselves campaigned against the banks which made these loans.

Jubilee SA’s apartheid debt and Reparations Campaign has resulted in further antagonism with the government. Jubilee SA filed a claim in a United States court against companies that profited from apartheid. However, the South African government wrote a letter to the court distancing itself from these claims and the lawsuit was subsequently dropped in November last year.—Cyrus Rustomjee

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