Even with all eyes on the World Cup, movements of the workers and the poor in South Africa must not forget that another challenge looms: the local government elections of 2011. And with the approach of elections, we are already seeing the return of the wave of authoritarians and opportunists of the left, all singing the same old song: if they are elected, they will somehow be able to do something about the problems of the workers and the poor. And while they may remix the song over and over, the tune remains the same: individual leaders, experts, or vanguards can find the answer; the mass movements of the people cannot liberate themselves.
This is the one big lie of all who seek our votes.
It is a lie when it is told within our movements. A leader may say “all that our organisation has gained is because of me”. But it is not so. Whenever a movement wins better houses, or cheaper water and electricity, or prevents an eviction, this is not because of leaders. It is because of the strength of our numbers as the workers and the poor, the great majority of the people of the world. It is not because a leader persuades the government to be nice, but because the actions of our mass movements force the government to give back some of what the bosses have taken from us. It is not because the leader knows how to get houses or electricity, but because a mass movement is united in reconnecting, in invading land, in resisting the Red Ants. Leaders, indeed, will sometimes pretend that they know best and that the movement depends on them. But they can do this only by holding knowledge and power for themselves, keeping them away from the masses. This is why it is important to try to make our organisations as democratic as possible. If we rely on one leader, or a group of leaders for our victories, we are putting ourselves in a vulnerable position because we can easily be betrayed which can have devastating consequences.
Once leaders have gained dominance within a movement, they move on to tell the people that they can solve the problems of “service delivery” if they are elected to local government. But this too is a lie.
Municipalities have undergone major restructuring in recent years, and the end of apartheid has not improved matters. Already in the 1980s the old regime was requiring city councils to cover increasing proportions of their own costs, and this sped up under the ANC. From 1991 to 1999 allocations to municipalities for “service delivery” were gutted by an average of 85%. It is government policy that municipalities must raise their core funds from property taxes and service charges (from both businesses in the area, and residents) in order to finance development. This is why municipalities are so keen to attract large business and shopping centres (like Maponya Mall, Jabulani and Protea Gardens) to our areas. Municipalities think that if they can attract investment to their areas, that the private sector will step in to fund development. So instead of focusing on service delivery to the poor, municipalities dedicate the majority of their effort to making sure our areas are attractive to big business. Essentially, local government is relying on business to do development on their behalf. In addition, services are only provided to those who can afford them. But the working class and poor are most often unable to pay taxes or service charges due to the enormous pressure they face just to make ends meet. On top of that, the poor are made to pay more for services – precisely because they often can’t pay, cost recovery drives councils and utilities to suck every drop they can out of the townships. Township residents pay rates up to 40 percent higher than those in the wealthier suburbs. And industrial capitalists – the big bosses – have it even easier: industry rates are typically one-sixth of those charged to the suburbs! The poor can’t pay much, and the rich don’t pay much. The result is that most municipalities in South Africa are bankrupt or indebted to the tune of millions, and cannot deliver the services we are promised. However, this does not mean that central government does not have money. It simply means that under neo-liberalism, the government prioritizes infrastructure development that it hopes will make South Africa look like a good place for foreign investors (like the Gautrain and World Cup stadiums) over service delivery to the poor. The problem of service delivery is not simply a problem of corrupt councilors, or that there are “backlogs” or “bottlenecks” in service delivery as the government claims (although these factors don’t help). The reason that municipalities cannot deliver services is because it is government policy not to allocate money to municipalities for this purpose. Furthermore, municipalities will not provide services to those who can’t pay – this is the reason for all the prepaid meters, evictions and cut-offs.
What all this means is that, in practical terms, it makes no difference if we elect new councillors. Even the most honest, well meaning and hard working councilor is powerless to make any significant change because the fundamental structure will remain in place.
This does not mean we shouldn’t resist the councillors and demand the services we need. But it does mean that our resistance is equally against the capitalists, and against the national government. We cannot expect Jacob Zuma to solve our problems: Zuma is part of the problem because his administration are the ones implementing these policies! And we cannot expect to solve the problem by electing new councilors: councilors couldn’t solve the problem even if they wanted to. The capitalists and the national government could solve it – but they won’t, because it’s in their interests to make the poor pay, not to pay themselves. They will not give us what we need unless we force them to do so, by the direct action of our mass movements.
Though the workers and the poor are the vast majority, the bosses and rulers control the resources – and they will not allow us to challenge them in parliament and city councils. Parliament and councils are their territory; and when we send our comrades onto enemy territory, our comrades will be lost to us. Sitting with councilors whose interests are tied to the rich and the bosses rather than the poor and the workers, they will be drawn away from the people and side with the class enemy. In 2006 Joyce Mkhonza of the Operation Khanyisa Movement was elected to the Johannesburg council; within a couple of years she had defected to the DA. And this is what almost always happens with “representatives” of workers and the poor in parliament and city councils. Even if they don’t individually switch to capitalist parties, their “workers’ parties” stop being workers’ parties and become capitalist in turn.
The workers and the poor have nothing to gain and everything to lose by relying on leaders and governments. And we have nothing to lose and everything to gain by relying on ourselves, collectively, on mass organisation and direct action from below. As the ZACF wrote in arguing against participation in the 2004 election:
The social movements must play to their strengths. And we have seen that our strengths are not in election campaigns, in parliament or in the media; these are the strengths of our enemies. Our strength is in grassroots organisation and direct action. We can reconnect electricity and water; we can destroy prepaid meters; we can sometimes defend our homes against the Red Ants and even recapture them once we are evicted. True, our movements are still comparatively small and weak, and even in these battles we are often defeated. But there is far more scope for strengthening ourselves on our own terrain than on the terrain of the enemy. While parliaments have always been the place where workers and the poor are defeated and betrayed, direct action has frequently been their source of strength. In Mexico, in Ukraine, in Spain and in many other countries, direct action has enabled workers and the poor to seize control of factories and farms, to drive out the bosses, to take control of the places where they lived, and to threaten and even topple the governments of the rich … In Argentina [in 2001], workers who took to the streets, seized factories and set up community structures to run their own lives sufficiently terrified the bosses that four presidents had to resign in the space of a week, without the effort of voting against them. The road of direct action, of taking control of our own lives, is a long and hard one; but it offers far more promise than elections ever could.
In previous elections, the Poor People’s Alliance has adopted the slogan “No land, no house, no vote!”. The adoption of this position was the outcome of the PPA meeting in Durban. It was not supposed to only be the position for that year’s elections, but the official position of the alliance for all elections to come. Working class movements should stick with this slogan instead of being drawn to illusions that voting will help. Voting will not win us land and houses and electricity; only direct action can do that. Direct action has already won some of these things for some of us, and it can win us more. And direct action, by destroying capitalism and the state, can finally win land, housing and electricity for all, and ensure that these are never again taken away.