Brent Meersman
Brent Meersman

Occupy Tshwane: behold the bourgeois revolution

You might think an ‘Occupy Movement’ would find fertile ground in a land as brutally unequal as South Africa, not to mention an economy virtually hostage to monopoly capital.

Yet Occupy is primarily driven by an educated, salaried middle class, which has now found itself rapidly sinking into either economic ruin or, horror of horrors, proletarianisation.

Given South Africa’s oceans of poverty, members of our middle class feel rich and buoyant by comparison. But many who think they are the 1% in this country are not. The top 1% in South Africa actually excludes 90% of taxpayers. Many taxpayers are not doing well financially at all. However, at least a third of the country’s taxpayers are significantly ahead of the remaining 96% of the population.

Perhaps then in the South African context, the slogan should be: “We are the 96%”. But I suspect, if means are tested, this would exclude most of the young people who have been attracted to Occupy –South Africa, –Johannesburg, –Chapman’s Peak etc. They could rename the movement “Occupy Yourself”.

“Apartheid beneficiaries” who feel threatened by those who believe “let’s get more from whitey”, would rather not protest too loudly. After all, compared to the lives around them, what do they have to complain about? If they protest, they are likely to be accused of co-opting “genuine” struggles.

Similarly, those previously prejudiced by apartheid who have subsequently netted spectacular money (the boards of parastatals, ticket holders for sinecure seating on the gravy train, politicians etc), who are members of the actual 1%, make for more obscure targets than the luminous tycoons of Wall Street. Your South African MP has a monthly payslip of R65 000; such “privileged workers” are earning well above most suburbanites.

In 2004, at an address given by Ben Turok — the SACP-ANC MP — I asked if he thought BEE beneficiaries would act any differently from apartheid’s capitalists. He said we’d wait and see. I think we have now seen. They don’t.

The Occupy movement of South Africa has captured the imagination of very few; less than 3 000 “likes” on Facebook. Their interest seems to be on the environment (Occupy COP17 had a good showing) and keeping in touch with global developments in Western democracies; a sort of bulletin board protest movement, really.

Occupy is simply the wrong paradigm for South Africa. The tragic confusion over whether Occupy Rondebosch Common was an exercise in the democratic right to protest or a land grab illustrates this. Our class war is still too convulsed by the racial legacy of apartheid to create a wider solidarity against the ideological basis of our economic system.

But even at the risk of ridicule, our middle class would be wrong to shut up. Let’s face it, they’re getting screwed from many sides, and it isn’t helping the country or the poor either.

Capitalism in South Africa has become globalised, deindustrialised, undergone a frightening transformation to financialisation, and is just as advanced in its accumulation strategy as it is in the United States. Whereas the US has its military-industrial complex, South Africa has its mining-energy complex [our Halliburton].

Many in the salaried middle class, believe it or not, are struggling to maintain. Many are worried about their children’s future. According to Minister Trevor Manuel, consumers have already spent all of next year’s earnings in debt. To top it all, they are seeing their pensions evaporating in the world’s economic meltdown.

The second highest growth of intra-group inequality has occurred among those classified by researches as “white”. Already between 1975 and 1996, the Gini co-efficient for “whites” had gone from 0.36 to 0.5, a trend which has surely continued.

Members of the middle class face soaring medical costs. They are gouged by our telecommunication giants; gouged by Eskom (our national energy ‘futility’) using consumers to fund its capital projects and subsidise multi-national companies such as smelters. They pay the highest bank charges in the world. They pay almost twice as much for their motor vehicles as they ought to (a way of subsidising the industry for export), while at the same time seeing billions of their taxes go to luxury car manufacturers through the IDC.

During the apartheid regime, the middle class staggered under a heavy tax burden thanks to high inflation and the phenomenon known as “bracket creep”. Today, they are still heavily taxed and there isn’t much more to squeeze out of them. Property rates and service charges have skyrocketed (admittedly from being among the cheapest in the world). Tax revenue stands at 27.7% of GDP, one of the ten highest in the world. Meanwhile, the corporations pay far lower rates than individuals do, less than they did under apartheid.

But unlike the poor, the middle class has the means to make its complaint known. There have been talks of a tax revolt. There have already been ratepayers’ revolts. Recent “shareholder activism” in the private sector has been an interesting development. But mostly, they express themselves in the media and through civil society.

The reaction to this by many in government is to cast civil society as lobby groups with suspect agendas and sinister funding, who are anti-majority rule -– in other words, “defenders of white privilege” disguised as upholders of human rights or the constitution.

These ideologists (who seem to see the solution to everything in a centralised Über-state) do make some valid points, but they tend to allude to a few ready-made targets such as Afriforum and the Free Market Foundation, while ignoring the dozens of crisis committees, collective and grassroots movements who are “gatvol”.

There are many glaring weaknesses in this proposal that civil society must subordinate its voice to the state. Not least that the most secretively funded bodies in the Republic are political parties, including the ruling one. Nor has the state been immune from double-speak, advancing vested interests, and promoting sinister agendas within its own ranks. Nor do they mention the factionalised, undemocratic, political power playing within the state, which has nothing to do with its majority mandate or the will of the people, but is instead about pleasing the party bosses. They also conveniently ignore the excessive repressive power exercised by the state (Andries Tatane et al), while civil society has no such brutish force.

Civil society plays a vital role. Solidarity across the income divide has happened in the past, such as with the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) for one. Then there are, of course, the pro bono civil society lawyers and professionals, and the volunteers and funders of NGOs. The TAC did everything possible to work through government channels, but was rebuffed on patently irrational grounds. The plight of African immigrants in the country was another case of civil society coming to the rescue because government dragged its feet, having little interest in human beings that couldn’t vote for it.

Often President Mandela would break away from his security personnel to wander over to protestors he’d spotted and ask what was going on. We don’t see our blue-light brigades doing that any more. Instead, attempts to rig the Secrecy Bill public consultations have been the latest outrage. If the state, especially local councils, were responsive, there would be less “popcorn protests” born of desperation and utter frustration.

Challenges to our politicians are met with a retreat into a mindset that belongs with the previous nationalist party in charge: “zero tolerance” and “shoot to kill”, militarisation of the police, enlarging the powers of traditional leaders, blaming the media, lamenting the judiciary, calling activists foreign provocateurs, suing cartoonists, etcetera. Apartheid déjà vu: instead of the “swart gevaar”, we now have a “wit gevaar” lurking somewhere, plotting to “reinstall white supremacy”.

What the country needs is a profound structural break with its authoritarian past. What is playing out is the tension between arrogant officials with a conservative, narrow, statist mindset, and a social democratic constitution with all its demands for transparency, genuine public participation, noisy free speech, and the rational demand that government officials actually apply their minds.

So what should the bourgeois ‘revolutionary’ pursue? Here is a suggested list of democratic demands for Occupy Tshwane. These demands are in the interests of every citizen, no matter what financial position:

1. The proportional representation system must give way to a constituency-based democracy with direct accountability by elected representatives to the electorate and not to the party bosses.

2. Political party funding must not only be made public but also needs to be tightly regulated. It is now the running sore in the body politic.

3. Political appointments (many, but not all cadre deployments) and the political protection of incompetents must cease. The state needs to build a competent, impartial, accountable civil service if it wants to have any hope of implementing even a fraction of its ambitious plans in the New Growth Path and the National Development Plan.

4. Far more public participation is needed at a local level, as close to the communities as possible and as envisioned by the constitution, not in the current way that leads to toilets without walls. It is the government’s responsibility to give the poor and disempowered a proper hearing, as opposed to simply claiming its legitimacy through electoralism.

5. A basic income grant that affirms the citizenship and dignity of the poor and the jobless to replace the current muddle of grants, and the enormously wasteful and bureaucratically intensive practice of means testing. The present paternalistic grant system, which humiliates its recipients, carries the powerful subtext demanding gratitude from its recipients to the ANC. (Grants have done far more to reduce inequality than BEE or BBBEE ever did.)

6. No media tribunal. It is a “cure” that will kill the patient. A radically free press is a keystone of democracy.

7. Much better protection for whistleblowers. Despite our legislation, this remains a problem.

8. Last, but far from least, the securocratic Protection of State Information Bill needs serious revising.

This is not just wishful lefty-liberal idealism. It is the only way — as framed by the constitution — that government policy can be targeted properly, implemented with consent, monitored, evaluated and have a hope of succeeding. The only plausible reason for refusing is to safeguard the power and the ill-gotten gains of our very own 1%.

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