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Soweto Resists ANC Privatization Moves

by Walter Turner: Interview with Trevor NgwaneAfrica Today
August 18th, 2004

Ten years after the first democratic elections in South Africa brought the African National Congress to power, critics claim that privatization and neoliberal economic policies have usurped the promise of democracy. Trevor Ngwane, head of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee and member of the Anti-Privitization Forum, tells Walter Turner about the ANC shift from the South African Freedom Charter to accepting World Bank prescriptions for development.

Walter Turner: In 1999 the ANC-led government began a policy of privatization directed at both water and electricity services. In Soweto as in other areas of south Africa the response has been organization against the privatization of electricity and water and a questioning analysis about the direction of government policy. Joining Africa today to analyze the issues of privatization electricity and water is Trevor Ngwane chairperson of the Soweto electricity crisis committee and is a member of the South Africa privatization Forum.
Related Story:

ANC Privatizations Fail to Deliver in South Africa


Walter Turner:
Give us a sketch of your impressions of the last ten years in South Africa; a capsule evaluation of where things have gone well and not so well.


Trevor Ngwane:
We managed to get rid of apartheid, at least formally, in terms of removing the racial foundation of legislation. Secondly we won the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom to organize collectively for mass activism organizing unions, meetings and thing like that.

But what has been bad is that the rich have been getting richer and the poor poorer in the past ten years. This is according to all social and economic indicators, both by government and non-governmental organizations.

The other thing that is more serious for the working class is that the power of the rich--the capitalists and big business--has been strengthened. What has happened in South Africa is--instead of the old ruling classes being replaced by a true people's government, a democracy-- the old ruling class has been reinforced by elements from the peoples camp. So we find that the top leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) leadership, the top leaders of Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the top leaders of the communist party are all in the government or in the private sector running some big corporations. Now, some of them for the first time are owned by black people, but the bottom line is that the ruling class has not been shaken. Rather, it has been reinforced by elements from our own ranks.

So this is the problem in South Africa. This makes me pessimistic about getting rid of this phenomenom where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It looks like this trend will continue.

Walter Turner: There were two economic programs that were considered during the 90s. The first was the reconstruction and development program, RDP aimed at creating jobs and transferring wealth to the poor and the second was the GEAR program. Can you give us a capsule description of each.

Trevor Ngwane: At one point, about a year or two after 1994 when we got our independence, even a 5 year old would talk about the RDP as it was popularly known. Thatís because the RDP was the program of transformation. It was the economic and social agenda of the ANC. In fact, it was the election platform of the ANC which allowed it to win an overwhelming victory in the first democratic elections. It was a redistributive economic program. Its most popular refrain or slogan was: People-driven and people-centered development.

It emphasized that henceforth all development in South Africa must work to remove the legacy of apartheid, to redress the decades of neglect of black people, of the working class and to restore the peoples dignity.

The RDP for example set specific targets around social issues such as housing, not only a specific percentage of the national budget butt also a definite target on the number of houses built. In health care it set targets for free healthcare within the following 5 to 10 years.

In education it set targets to get rid of illiteracy. Education was to be free for all up to a certain level. It set certain targets for job creation. And so on and so forth. Basically it was a redistributive strategy based on Keynesian economics. It was put together through a popular process of discussion involving the unions the civic associations and most of the mass democratic movement organizations of the time.

The GEAR program, on the other hand, was put together a team of 8 experts including 2 officials of the World Bank and 6 professors of economics and basically, it is a neoliberal program. It prioritizes growth, first we must have growth and only then can we talk about redistribution.

It set certain targets such as reduction of inflation. It reversed the principle of people-driven development by saying that the private sector, that is big business, was to be empowered to make profits and through a process of trickle down. the poor would benefit. So the GEAR policy was a total reversal and abandonment of RDP.

Walter Turner: Talk to us about the connection between the process of privatization and when it got implemented and the founding of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee.

Trevor Ngwane: GEAR policy was implemented in 1996. Soon after that the government started moving toward privatization, preparing state companies such as ESKOM, the electricity provider; TELKOM, telecommunications, the arms industry and the transport sector for privatization.

For example if you look at electricity, there was an immediate increase in the price of electricity for domestic users. The government logic was that in order to attract investors to buy ESKOM, the electricity company needed to make a profit-- a return on investment.

A very strict regime of cost recovery was implemented. In Soweto, the biggest black working class township in South Africa cutoffs of electricity were made as part of recouping debt and making sure people paid for their use of electricity.

At one point ESKOM was cutting off houses at 20,000 houses per month out of 150,000 houses in Soweto. About 70% owed on their electricity bills. Soweto was going to become a dark city.

The cutoffs were inhumane and cruel. Some people got cut off for years. Staying without light, using wood from the forest and things like that. Through bribery, some of the ESKOM employees would reconnect for a price, and also if you would plead poverty an pay half you would be reconnected but within 3-6 months they would be back in arrears. So this situation was intolerable.

It was at that time we formed the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee. It united the whole of Soweto around one platform against electricity cutoffs. Its popular slogan was: Electricity is a right nor a privilege. It also invoked the promise of the RDP that people should have access to electricity.

One of the methods of enforcing its demands was the famous "Operation Khanyisa" Khanyisa is the Zulu word for "to light" or "to connect the light." So when ESKOM cut off the electricity to a residents house residents would reconnect themselves. What the committee did, was to get volunteers from the youth, women and unemployed men and train them in reconnecting electricity. This was a very popular and successful campaign. Eventually it led to the government having to stop the program of cutoffs in Soweto.

Walter Turner: How broad is this movement responding to privatizing of electricity, water education and even health care and education?

Trevor Ngwane: The movement is broad but it is admittedly still a movement of a minority. It is mostly in the three big cities, Capetown, Durban and Johannesburg. In the smaller towns the you get people fighting against cutoffs, but people are more demoralized. Even in Soweto we had to struggle very hard to get people to join. Many people are still living in the twilight and honeymoon period of national liberation. They still have hope and belief in the ANC government. Many of them are kind of confused. and not sure how to respond.

Walter Turner: The same situation has occurred with water. Is that correct?

Trevor Ngwane: Once we made them stop the cutoffs of electricity they came with a device called "prepaid meter" You have to pay for your electricity and water before you get it. In order to pave the way for privatization they are installing these throughout South Africa. They are trying this in Soweto but we are fighting them. The consequences of this policy can be very extreme.

For example, about 2 years ago these meters were installed in a poor area in Zululand KwaZulu-Natal, a province, and as a consequence there was a cholera outbreak--cholera is a water borne disease. More than 200 people died because of the installation of prepaid water meters.

Walter Turner: You have the distinction of being kicked out of the ANC and COSATU. What happened?

Trevor Ngwane: My late father was a staunch member of the ANC. So this is also something I got in my family. The top leadership of the ANC shifted to the right. They abandoned policies that millions of south Africans had been fighting for and believed that once we got our independence those policies would be implemented. One famous document is the Freedom Charter it says things such as: "The people shall govern. The wealth of the country shall be shared among those who work it. There shall be housing security and comfort. The doors of learning and cultures shall be opened."

When the ANC shifted to the right and adopted World Bank neoliberal and privatization policies it was an abandonment of the Freedom Charter. So when I and a few others stood up and said this was wrong then we were expelled.

Walter Turner: What is the solution to privatization? What is the solution to the abandonment of the key policies people fought for?

Trevor Ngwane: What we need in South Africa, indeed in the whole world, what we need is participatory democracy. We need is people-centered government, people-driven government. What we don't need is 5 yearly voting where it's up to the politicians to do what they like.

We need policies which respond to the needs of the people. One of our demands is free basic services for all . Electricity, water, housing, health care, and education. Every citizen should be given these things irrespective of whether they are rich or poor. I think that would go a long way in solving these problems in South Africa.

Walter Turner: How are these concerns you are raising in South Africa being addressed by the international anti-globalization movement? Are you connected with organizations across the world?

Trevor Ngwane: We feel that we are very much part of the anti-globalization movement, the anti-capitalist movement, the movement of the world social forums, the European social forum. Also we are connected to other movements such as the Zapatistas in Mexico and the movement in Argentina. We have tried to send our comrades to the great meetings like the world social forum. In fact, we are convening the Southern Africa social forum and we are busy encouraging all countries in Africa to form countrywide forums where social movements, non-governmental organizations and decent individuals fighting for social justice can link up and join hands and fight for a system which prioritizes the needs of people the over and above profits.

Walter Turner: Do you see a way of taking back some of the goals and promises lost by the elected government over the last decade?

Trevor Ngwane: The only way forward is for ordinary people to join hands to stand up and fight for their rights. To form organizations such as the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, the landless peoples movement, the Jubilee South Africa and similar social movements that already exist. This should happen not only in South Africa but throughout the world.

The problem is not just the ANC. The problem is imperialism. People like George W. Bush work through international financial institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF, the World Trade Organization to pressure governments in Africa and Asia to follow neo-liberal anti-poor policies.

It is important for us to join hands also with people in the USA. Our comrades in the USA should campaign against the US government putting pressure on poorer countries to abandon the interests of their own people and work to make the big corporations richer.

For more on the anti-privatization struggles in South Africa visit the Anti-Privatization Forum:http://www.apf.org.za


Trevor Ngwane:
was elected councilor for Pimville in Soweto in 1995 on an African National Congress ticket. He was expelled from the ANC in 1999 when he publicly disagreed with a plan to privatize municipal services. He then became very active in the anti-capitalist movement and help found the Anti-Privatisation Forum and
the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee.

Walter Turner is the host of Africa Today at KPFA.org and Professor of History and Chairperson of the Social Sciences Department at the College of Marin in Kentfield.