NY Times, Oct. 2, 2002
In South Africa, Leaders Face Blacks' Ire
By RACHEL L. SWARNS
JOHANNESBURG, Oct. 1 — The black protesters marched by the thousands today
through the gritty heart of this mining city. They shouted angry slogans,
waved fiery banners and, for a moment, it felt like the old days when
blacks took to the streets to oppose the white apartheid government.
But this time, black members of the trade unions and the Communist Party
who fought to end white rule in South Africa were turning their ire against
the black government they elected in 1994.
The demonstrators accused the government of losing touch with the poor, who
are struggling to cope with deep unemployment and surging food prices. They
demanded an end to the nation's privatization of state assets, which they
say has resulted in job losses. "Create decent jobs!" the marchers cried.
"Privatization is born-again apartheid!"
South Africa is often hailed for its efforts to undo the legacy of
apartheid. The government has provided housing, electricity and water to
poor blacks, and an educated and wealthy black elite has emerged.
But the bitterness of a black majority that still struggles to survive is
increasingly bursting into the open. Nine years after Nelson Mandela was
elected president amid national celebrations, disillusionment with the
anti-apartheid government is bubbling up, particularly in poor and
"What is happening in the land?" the black protesters sang. "The government
is our government, but they are privatizing everything."
The discontent is shaking the formidable political alliance between the
governing African National Congress and its anti-apartheid allies, the
Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party.
Both groups have attacked the government's conservative fiscal policies.
The government has won praise from the International Monetary Fund, but the
nation has lost thousands of jobs as the previously sheltered economy has
been liberalized. Officials refuse to reverse privatization plans, saying
such a move might threaten foreign investment.
Last month, the Communist Party warned in its newsletter that there was "a
very real danger" that the A.N.C. would lose touch with its support base.
On Friday, President Thabo Mbeki struck back, accusing his allies of
spreading "falsifications" and "blatant untruths" and misleading people
about continuing efforts to uplift the poor.
The union leaders and Communists ignored Mr. Mbeki's criticism and urged
supporters to participate in a two-day general strike, which began today.
"The struggle now is about economic relations in the country," said Anthony
Selepe, a regional secretary fpr the Congress of South African Trade Unions.
"We don't want a few to benefit; we want the society to benefit," he said.
"We are not against the A.N.C., but people are losing jobs. People cannot
afford their basic services."
No one is suggesting that this dissatisfaction will mean the early demise
of the popular party that produced national heroes like Mr. Mandela, Joe
Slovo and Oliver Tambo. The A.N.C. won 63 percent of the vote in the
presidential election of 1994, and about 65 percent in the presidential
poll of 1999. None of the other political parties comes close to matching
The A.N.C. has worked to help the poor. A recent study by the South African
Advertising Research Foundation found that about 50 percent of rural
households had electricity now, compared to 17 percent in 1994. Water is
piped into 76 percent of households today compared to 68 percent in 1994,
the study said. The government has built more than one million houses for
But unemployment stands at nearly 30 percent, up from 17 percent in 1995.
These days, some poor people speak wistfully about the apartheid days when
jobs were more plentiful.
In a recent survey, nearly 40 percent of South Africans rated the
government's performance as "poor" to "very poor," while just under 30
percent considered the government "good" to "very good."
In low-income households, the government's approval rating has declined
sharply. The survey, conducted by the newspaper Business Day, found that 22
percent of the poor people polled said the government was doing a "very
poor" job this year, up from 13 percent in 2000.
"It is true that we're soon going to enter the phase where the A.N.C. is
going to have to work if it really wants to keep that 65 percent," Tom
Lodge, a political scientist, said of the party's electoral support.
"It can no longer depend on blind faith the way it used to," he said. "More
and more people are beginning to judge them on performance."
Mr. Lodge said that many South Africans fail to recognize the A.N.C.'s
achievements. The government, which acknowledges this problem, announced
this weekend that it would hold community meetings around the country to
remind people of what has been accomplished.
Officials have also promised to increase benefits to poor families with
children, and to increase black control of the economy, which is still
dominated by whites.
In the meantime, Mr. Mbeki is telling citizens not to be fooled by his
critics. "There are some among us who are easily seduced by revolutionary
sounding phrases that are both dangerous and have no meaning," he said.
"South Africa 2002 is a much better place than South Africa 1994."
Boikie Mohlamme, 71, an actor who joined the march today, said he still
supported the A.N.C. But he said government officials had to work harder if
they want to stay in power.
"The A.N.C. is still the party to belong to," he said, "but they must
remember, it was the masses that put them there. To stay in power, they
will also need the masses."