Saints make the worst role models. How precisely can one emulate Nelson Mandela, a “supernatural human” who moved mountains of injustice, except by becoming him, which is impossible because he was a saint?
Saints stand above history, making choices based on internal moral struggles and exhibiting unimpeachable fortitude, faith and grace. This implies events were ordained and could not have been otherwise. We are afraid to see Mandela as captive of history because it may tarnish his memory. But that’s a mistake. The bitter history of post-liberation South Africa does not diminish the heroic and costly struggle to end apartheid.
The Afrikaner elite negotiated the end of apartheid after mass movements made South Africa ungovernable in the ’80s, and its military was defeated in a regional war. Mandela and the ANC (African National Conress) made a fatal miscalculation, however. They decided that political liberation for all people meant economic liberalization for corporations that propped up and profited off the racist system.
Consequently, argues political analyst and author Patrick Bond, “South Africa’s democratization was profoundly compromised by an intra-elite economic deal that, for most people, worsened poverty, unemployment, inequality and ecological degradation, while also exacerbating many racial, gender and geographical differences.”
In short, racial apartheid was replaced with class apartheid. In 1993 a transitional government that included the ANC endorsed an IMF (International Monetary Fund) structural adjustment package. The roots of this policy were planted a decade earlier when leaders of the United Democratic Front, which coordinated the antiapartheid resistance, gambled that democratic rights should be secured before economic rights. Critics presciently argued that socialism delayed would be socialism denied. Because the defeat of liberation forces by capital happened rapidly in South Africa under a revered leader like Mandela and with the majority thirsting for economic and social justice, there are important lessons for our time. South Africa’s shift to class apartheid parallels US history in which Jim Crow was dismantled but eventually replaced by Reaganomics class warfare.
One lesson is to keep up the street heat. After being elected in 2008, Obama ditched progressive rhetoric for austerity policies: protecting banks, dithering on the home foreclosure crisis, calling for Social Security and Medicaid cuts and deficit reduction. It was only thanks to Occupy Wall Street that the national debate was flipped from austerity to economic inequality. Occupy has faded but its impact is still felt in low-wage worker organizing, minimum-wage initiatives, climate-justice organizing, and the elections of Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council and Bill de Blasio, who will be inaugurated on January 1, 2014, as the 109th mayor of New York City.
The 99% Mayor, de Blasio’s “tale of two cities” has resonated across the country because most Americans are locked out of gilded communities zoned by race and class. De Blasio is no Mandela, but his candidacy was propelled by low-wage worker movements, the grassroots coalition against stop-and-frisk policing, and anger over economic inequality. Rather than lead the charge against this soft apartheid, however, de Blasio will be another liberal enforcer for the 1%. Once victory was in hand, De Blasio moved to appease the markets by calling himself a fiscal conservative, tapping stop-and-frisk architect Bill Bratton as police chief and a Goldman Sachs exec to fight inequality, and signaling that mega-real-estate projects would be approved, if with less public aid. He and his officials will now move in a world of boardrooms, penthouses, Michelin-starred restaurants, and galas where they will hear the woes of the oligarchy. At least he won’t be as cartoonish as Bloomberg, who fantasized about every Russian billionaire moving to the city, police profiling minorities more, and poor neighborhoods hosting waste incinerators. But his policy-making will involve horse-trading with liberal bigwigs and union leaders who will agree to toss crumbs to millions of struggling New Yorkers and call it progress.
There is another option: Strive to make the city ungovernable.
Let me explain. What made Occupy potent was that it was a continuous, populist protest that rattled Wall Street and paved the way for de Blasio. His victory has raised hopes, but he will not address inequality unless movements from below disrupt the status quo, like the anti-apartheid movement did in South Africa. If movements can learn from Occupy’s failures and organize strategic protests and strikes that mobilize the public to confront de Blasio’s proposals as inadequate, which they will be, then there’s a chance to redistribute some wealth and power in meaningful ways to the 99%.
Learning From South Africa
The modern history of the antiapartheid movement begins with the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre. The killing of 69 peaceful anti-pass law protestors and subsequent repression left the public traumatized and led to the jailing of Mandela and other leaders, the banning of the ANC, and its turn to armed struggle. Organized resistance did not resurface until 1973 when about 100,000 workers in Durban went on strike, reviving politicized trade unionism. The 1976 Soweto Uprising by students opposing Afrikaner-language education baptized a new generation with “bullets and tear gas.” This was the coming of age for the Black Consciousness movement (influenced by Amílcar Cabral, Frantz Fano, and the Black Panthers), which promoted an ideology of racial assertiveness and psychological liberation over racial inferiority. Anthony Marx points out in Lessons of Struggle that Black Consciousness was the main game in town as young activists saw the ANC and other foreign-based groups as “not only irrelevant, but wasteful.” (Much of the analysis that follows is based on Marx’s excellent history of South Africa’s internal resistance from 1960 to 1990.)
Despite months of organizing, a quarter-million students joining walkouts, and workers’ sympathy strikes, the state crushed the uprising, leaving hundreds dead and thousands jailed and tortured. The Black Consciousness movement’s emphasis on ideas as prior to physical liberation appealed mainly to students, especially those in universities, instead of the black working class it needed to win over. This limited organizational development and the chance to keep up the momentum from Soweto. The breadth of the uprising also showed the movement had achieved its aim of changing consciousness. This spurred a turn in the movement overall from a racial analysis to class and nonracial organizing. Additionally, events in mid-70s South Africa were influenced by liberation struggles that freed Angola and Mozambique from racist European rule similar to apartheid. Many youth gravitated to ANC politics after serving time in prison with senior leaders. Thousands of others fled the country and were recruited by the ANC, which alone had the resources, discipline, and organization to house, educate and train, allowing it to rebuild its internal network and popular stature.
Obviously there are huge differences with the here and now, but there are intriguing similarities as well. For example, Occupy Wall Street was also influenced by international events, such as the Arab Spring, learned the hard way that the movement behind the ideas can crumble, and succeeded in changing consciousness by popularizing the terms 99% and 1%. But after the state counterattacked in late 2011, Occupy groups failed to develop strategies beyond attempted re-occupations, solidarity campaigns and service work. Additionally, while Occupy’s power lay in its elegantly simple class critique, internal fissures erupted across the country between radical and liberals and over identity politics. The former led to splits over whether to work within the political system or build utopian models outside of it. Debates over identity politics often led to internal struggles that alienated many participants. These self-inflicted blows were compounded by Occupy’s disregard for strategy or even organization. Not surprisingly, liberal outfits, unions, community groups and workers centers picked up the banner of inequality. One exception is climate-justice organizing, which has attracted post-Occupy activists to its radical grassroots bent. But it’s also sundered by a class analysis, similar to what happened in South Africa. Radicals argue for an anti-capitalist strategy as it’s the main culprit in global warming, while those who call themselves realists contend system change is a luxury as the collapse of civilization is nigh, so we should pursue green solutions compatible with capitalism.
Marx notes Black Consciousness adopted a class analysis after Soweto to provide common values of resistance, and it could help build mass organization by overcoming an individualistic approach to fighting oppression. Many Occupiers went the other way, from collective politics to individualism by fixating on the abstractions of identity – fighting “privilege” – rather than the material effects of oppression linked to identity. Consequently, Occupy, as a movement, missed an opportunity to organize low-wage workers, who are disproportionately people of color and female. Just like the ANC attracted youth after the anarchic Soweto Uprising was quashed, unions have used their resources and organizational structure to attract Occupy activists looking to continue the fight against the 1%. Members of socialist and anarchist organizations have joined the campaigns as well, enabling them to collectively analyze strategies and debate and implement plans to radicalize the low-wage worker movement. But Occupiers rarely join as part of a group engaging in collective strategizing. Additionally, liberals and unions use dumbed-down class analysis for partisan or instrumental ends, instead of wielding class as a strategic tool to forge different social relations. During the 2012 election, they stole Occupy’s thunder by tarring Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch one percenter, playing a big role in the re-election of Obama, who has dutifully managed the interests of the 1%.
In South Africa, movements learn from history and their mistakes. When a brutal crackdown in the mid-’80s cooled mass rebellion that was destabilizing South Africa, activists did not blame the state. They took repression as a given, and instead criticized the United Democratic Front for what they saw as a lack of militancy. With Occupy, however, many still cling to the myth that police ended the movement despite copious evidence it disintegrated because of internal conflicts and strategic missteps like futile re-occupations. More recently, South Africa’s largest union, the National Union of Metalworkers, announced it was cutting funding to the ANC and would not back it in the 2014 elections. Outlining a strategy that would be unimaginable coming from an American labor leader, NUMSA plans to form a “new United Front that will coordinate struggles in the workplace and in communities, in a way similar to the United Democratic Front of the 1980s,” and launch a new labor party by 2015.
The South Africa of today was forged in the 1980s. Compromises made by the UDF, such as delaying economic restructuring and enforcing top-down leadership and the dominance of the ANC, left the liberation movement ill-prepared to counter the coming neoliberal regime. The ANC lost nerve on the international stage after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ronnie Kasrils, a storied leader of both the ANC and the South African Communist Party, is one of many who argues signing on to the IMF’s neoliberal program was a “Faustian Pact.” Kasrils says “the balance of power was with the ANC, and conditions were favorable for more radical change at the negotiating table than we ultimately accepted.”
The 99% Mayor in 1% Clothing
Under de Blasio, modest reforms are possible including strengthening a flawed paid sick leave act, boosting the minimum wage for those employed in city-subsidized projects and extending it to more than 600 workers a year covered by a 2012 bill, and creating a municipal ID to help undocumented immigrants access services. But this is tinkering at the edges, and wish lists are barely more ambitious. The Nation calls for implementing de Blasio’s proposal to tax the wealthy to fund universal pre-K. It’s a fine idea, which requires the approval of the state legislature, but it won’t begin to “reverse” the dramatic widening of the income gap, unless one has a timeline of 20 years to evaluate results.
Tellingly, de Blasio has steered clear of proposals to redistribute wealth downward instead of up. He’s been silent on the plan by his primary opponent, City Comptroller John Liu, to increase the citywide minimum wage to $11.50 an hour, raise $15 billion in new revenue through progressive fiscal and tax policy, and build 100,000 units of affordable housing in four years. De Blasio’s strategy is to be a better manager of neoliberalism to generate a little more tax revenue that can be spread around. He will replay the Obama era on a smaller stage. As soon as he surrenders to the rich and powerful, his liberal defenders will attack critics for being naïve about the power of the markets and the reality of governing a city with 448,000 government employees and a budget of $50 billion, which is greater than the GDP of 110 nations. However, the argument that his hands are tied contradicts declarations that “just about everything [is] at stake in de Blasio’s mayoralty.”
Supporters assume de Blasio can wrest concessions from the rich without any leverage over them. He won’t challenge the class apartheid suffocating most New Yorkers. He won’t be a reverse Bloomberg, re-engineering the city to make it the playground of workers instead of the gilded elite. Even if the overt racial profiling is rolled back, it will be replaced with class profiling of the homeless, panhandlers and street vendors that is defined by race, which is what Bratton did as Los Angeles police chief a decade ago. If de Blasio installs Bratton with minimal opposition progressives will embolden him to pursue Wall Street’s agenda, which is why it’s positive thatopposition has emerged to Bratton, led by parents whose children were killed by the NYPD during his previous tenure as police chief.
Without organized opposition, De Blasio’s policies will not alter the 46 percent of city residents in or on the cusp of poverty or alleviate the extreme housing crisis that ranges from hedge funds and investors buying 70 percent of homes in Brooklyn to extended families of a dozen or more stuffed into two-bedroom apartments in my tenement building to the Lower Manhattan “human kennel,” where men pay $300 a month to live in squalid “chicken-wire cages” smaller than a jail cell. Any more social welfare is welcome, of course, but if de Blasio won’t commit to even an $11.50 an hour minimum wage, how will he address inequality? The wealth divide in the city is so extreme a household with two full-time workers earning $15 an hour would find its entire pre-tax income consumed by the average rent of $3,800 in Manhattan. And Brooklyn’s not far behind, with an average rent of more than $3,000.
If liberals drew the unambiguous conclusion from their arguments that real power lies in the markets, with the corporate-owned media, with think tanks and universities endowed by the wealthy, then they would be calling for massive street protests to counter the full-court press Wall Street is placing on de Blasio.
Now, nurturing an uprising is far from simple or even likely, but we do live an era where they are increasingly common because the political center is so slavishly devoted to capital. In the United States alone, since 1999, there’s been the global justice movement, the anti-Iraq War movement, the immigrant May Day general strike and Occupy Wall Street. If there are any illusions, it’s among the liberals who expect dramatic change from a de Blasio administration while they tell the left and workers to be quiet.
They would do well to remember the words of O.R. Tiro, who was killed by a letter bomb in 1974, two years after telling his fellow South African university students, “The price of freedom is blood, toil and tears . . . History has taught us that a group in power has never voluntarily relinquished its position. It has always been forced to do so.”