One of the most powerful texts ever written, The Communist Manifesto, opens with a very instructive statement: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”. This statement still holds and will probably hold for another century or so. Almost all the nations in the world have to contend with this sad reality, the reality of class struggles and associated ramifications. In the same vein, or even more pressing, is the challenge confronting most nations to effectively redistribute wealth and expand human capabilities — as per calls from various scholars and activists.

Debates continue in an attempt to find solutions to the class question and on how to bring about effective human development. Just to clarify, because the concept of “human development” can imply different things to different people, in this context, human development implies expansion of human capabilities — as explained by Amartya Sen. Within a human development paradigm, human rights are not only about political freedoms but also about social and economic freedoms that expand human capabilities and choices. This could be a useful way of examining “human progress” and human progress is much broader and bigger than human development. The analysis of human progress has to, among other things, juxtapose the winners against the losers over a particular period of time.

The question of how South Africa is doing in its pursuit of effective human development has become more critical as the country increasingly witnesses the so-called service-delivery protests — the renewed “class struggles”. The main question is: who are the winners and who are the losers in the democratic dispensation? In other words, could it be that the losers are resorting to what many term service-delivery protests as an indication that social and economic exclusion have not been sufficiently addressed?

Antonio Gramsci, in one of his instructive essays on communism, opined that “workers and peasants are the two driving forces of the proletarian revolution … they are the revolution’s irreducible element, they represent the backbone of the revolution. For them communism represents civilisation: it stands for the system of historical conditions in which they will acquire a personality, a dignity, a culture, and through which they will become a spirit creating progress and beauty”. Many others have argued for a better economic system than the one which presently predominates globally. The matter of revolution has oft-times been linked to redistribution of wealth and it remains a question that nations must address — this is more so for nations such as South Africa where inequality and poverty remain at intolerable levels.

The indubitable fact of South Africa is that the democratic government, since it came into office, has designed many policies and programmes to address social and economic exclusion in South Africa. In addition, the country has undergone relatively significant reforms — institutional and otherwise — that aim at including the excluded. For example, many policies and programmes — even laws — have been implemented to redress the situation of children, youth, women, the elderly and people with disabilities.

In fact, it is widely accepted that South Africa’s democracy is founded on one of the noblest constitutions in the world. It is therefore in this regard that the rights of children, women, and so on are protected and their plight is under the spotlight — this is the hallmark of the democratic South Africa! In relation to children, women and so on, numerous legal and policy instruments are in place to give effect to the imperatives of the Constitution: the Children’s Act, the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, the National Policy Framework for Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality, the National Policy for the Advancement and Coordination of Children’s Rights in South Africa, the Employment Empowerment Act, the Integrated National Disability Strategy White Paper, the National Youth Policy etc. Also worth highlighting is that Section 152 (1) of the Constitution requires that the government, among other things, ensures the involvement of communities and community organisations in policy formulation, programme design and implementation.

No matter what the debates are, it seems agreed that the government has implemented many programmes that were meant to address the plight of those who were socially and economically excluded in South Africa — the social protection system is one of those programmes that has tried to address the plight of women, children, people with disabilities and the elderly. However, it seems that a lot still needs to be done or things need to be done better. For instance, in spite of all the youth-related policy frameworks, it is estimated — according to the Centre for Development and Enterprise — that the youth make up 75% of those unemployed. Mortality — both maternal and children — remains very high and this is a major human-rights issue over and above a matter of quality of life. Similarly, rape cases are still high and rape counselling services appear to be missing. In addition, the harassment of particularly young women who are perceived to not conform to the values of some sectors of society is equally disturbing while they also generally stand the risk of being persecuted and ostracised by society during rape cases. Related to this is the difficulty women face, especially those living in the rural areas, in accessing and benefiting from the justice system.

With regards to people with disabilities, the World Health Organisation estimates that between 2.2% and 2.6 % of learners in any school system have disabilities or impairments. There are 380 special schools in South Africa that accommodate about 64 200 learners. This suggests that about 70% of children with disabilities or about 280 000 learners of school-going age, do not attend school. The challenges faced by the elderly are also equally, if not more, disturbing. In essence, women, children, people with disabilities, the youth and the elderly are disproportionately affected by poverty and other ills. They are also disproportionately affected by the poor quality of service delivery. As such, better interventions are needed. Also requiring urgent attention is the possibly inadvertent exclusion of farm dwellers and the Khoi communities.

Therefore, although some inroads are being made and some mileage gained regarding specific issues affecting children and so on, success is minimal. It is in this context that the so-called service-delivery protests need to be analysed. The weaknesses in addressing matters of youth development as an example could be a pressure point and is a ticking time bomb. It has been observed that most of “protesters” are young men — implying that society has not succeeded in institutionalising the young women and men. The young people are both our future and our future is in their hands. Strangely, they appear to be the main losers of the democratic dispensation so far. The education system fails them. Our communities fail them. The labour market fails them. We all fail them.

The challenge of the so-called service-delivery protests, just like violent crime, requires all of us to think hard about what has become of our young democracy. It would seem that the whole of society has a responsibility to address this challenge. Without getting into rhetorical debates about who or which institution caused the problem, among other things, the government needs to ensure that Section 152(1) of our Constitution is realised, communities need self-governance mechanisms, the private sector has to take pragmatic steps to address youth unemployment etc. The issue that needs to be addressed with more rigor and vigour is the inclusion of the excluded.

For now, the class struggles that young Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels analysed appear to continue unabated, though perhaps in a different form. Maybe the young men are trying to find the civilisation that “stands for the system of historical conditions in which they will acquire a personality, a dignity, a culture and through which they will become a spirit creating progress and beauty”. Let us join them in making this important dream a reality.


  • Vusi Gumede worked for the South African government in various capacities and in different departments for 12 years. He has been an academic since 2010. He has held various professorships, fellowships and editorships in and outside South Africa. He is currently a Dean for the Faculty of Economics, Development and Business Sciences at the University of Mpumalanga in South Africa. He holds various qualifications, including a PhD in Economics that he completed in 2003 at the University of Natal. He has published 15 books and over 50 journal articles and book chapters. He has supervised to completion over 20 Masters and Doctoral students as well as undertaken various research projects for institutions in and outside South Africa. He serves in various committees, including the Presidential Economic Advisory Council in South Africa, the International Advisory Board of the Southern African Institute for Policy and Research, the National Council of the South African Association of Political Studies and the Pan-African Federalist Movement.


Vusi Gumede

Vusi Gumede worked for the South African government in various capacities and in different departments for 12 years. He has been an academic since 2010. He has held various professorships, fellowships...

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