Mzwanele Mayekiso’s Township Politics

Against the Current, No. 66, January/February 1997

Julie Klinker

Review of Township Politics:
Civic Struggles for a New South Africa
by Mzwanele Mayekiso
New York: Monthly Review Press, 1996, $30 cloth, $18 paper.

IN APRIL 1994, some on the left cautiously held out hope that with the victorious election of Nelson Mandela and the ANC, South Africa could become an environment for the path to socialism, based on the its long history of mass democratic movements and the reform program defined in the original Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP). The document chiseled out in the early 1990s by the ANC, COSATU and SANCO, was designed to meet the basic needs of the majority of South Africans.

By mid-1995, however, it was clear that the new ANC-led South African government had fully embraced the virtues of a market economy, the RDP was all but dead, and the daily living and working conditions of the majority of South Africans had changed very little–and were not about to any time soon.

These dashed hopes are perhaps the best reason to read Mzwanele Mayekiso’s Township Politics: Civic Struggles for a New South Africa. Given the inadequate media coverage of the new South Africa, it is easy to forget about the ordinary citizens who were always the strength of the anti-apartheid struggle. The author reminds us where South Africa’s strength lies:

“[It] is with the ordinary citizens of our cities, towns, and villages that I rest my greatest hopes and expectations. Their role in South Africa and elsewhere has been inspiring, and it is in the whole rather than in the sum of the actions of a few leaders that change is accomplished.” (15)

A veteran insider of the civic movement, South Africa’s popular community organizations, Mayekiso pins his hopes for a transformation to socialism on the continuing organization of an independent working-class civil society. He is able to take a critical look backward at the civic movement of the 1980s and early 1990s, giving the reader a sense of the power that rested in the hands of the people during this crucial period of the anti-apartheid struggle against capitalism.

Mayekiso acknowledges the dangers in the trend towards increasingly independent institutions of civil society, namely, playing into the hands of imperialist development agencies and foreign ministries to shrink the size and scope of third world governments and force community organizations to take up state responsibilities with inadequate resources. But he is able to see beyond this danger and provide a vision for the future of the civic movement:

“What is needed to combat this powerful trend is a far more class-conscious perspective on civil society, one that highlights those strategies and instruments of the working class that are crucial to social, political, and economic progress. Thus in my analysis, our struggle against apartheid flows directly into our struggle against capitalist exploitation. South Africa’s liberation movement was, after all, made up of activists convinced that we were fighting for national, gender, and class emancipation.” (12)

Mayekiso gives the reader an insider’s look at the concrete tactics and strategies of the apartheid-era civic movement, honestly outlining the
challenges and contradictions the movement faced and must face in a new time. He argues that the township civic continues to be a relevant social movement model.

“Civics, after all, emerged not because of apartheid or the Black Local Authorities.  They emerged because of the daily struggles of residents who, even in a democratic society, will continue to need civics to represent their interests on socioeconomic (and hence political) issues in a nonpartisan way.” (13)

From Transkei to Alexandra Activist

Sharing his experience as a township activist, Mayekiso gives the reader an historical context in which to understand the civic movement, some practical lessons and–perhaps most importantly–hope for the future of such an urban social movement.

Mayekiso begins his insider account by giving the reader a brief, but useful, look at his own background, admitting that it is impossible for him to be purely objective in his discussion of the civic movement as many other commentators attempt to be.

The author shares the formative experiences that led him from being a rural student leader in his Transkei homeland to an urban community activist in the township of Alexandra: his upbringing in a poor, migrant worker family; his academic failings and early underground student organizing; his introduction to the labor movement under the tutelage of his brother, NUMSA leader Moses Mayekiso; his civic involvement during the most tumultuous period of apartheid; his three-year imprisonment.

The author explores his personal growth and discovery of “what it means to be a proletariat” and outlines his understanding between labor and community struggles. In so doing, Mayekiso provides the reader with insight into the ideologies of the civic movement in a way that an outside is unable to do.

Having provided this personal background, Mayekiso then gives the reader an anecdotal and analytical account of the concrete experiences, tactics and lessons of the civic movement. He outlines the development of an “independent working-class civil society.”

This terminology was a point of much debate in the transitional period leading up to the April 1994 election and continues to be debated in the post-apartheid period. But Mayekiso’s meaning of independent working-class civil society comes directly out of what was understood to be the purpose of the progressive Alexandra civic movement.

“But the notion that we in Alexandra had been developing since the mid-1980s–of mass-democratic, independent, non-party-political instruments belonging to poor and working-class people, carrying out advocacy campaigns, playing a watchdog role, and helping to proactively guide township development (all hinted at in the phrase working-class civil society)–soon became dominant across the civic movement.” (142)

Despite the many conflicts, tensions and ideological differences within the civic movement (by 1990, represented by the umbrella organization of SANCO), Mayekiso concludes that there rested within the movement a commitment “to the next stage of national struggle,” and the possibility of moving society “beyond simply national liberation and into socialism.” (152)

With some detail, Mayekiso takes us through the organizing activities of the Alexandra Action Committee (AAC), reformulated as the Alexandra Civic Organization (ACO) by 1990. He describes and analyzes its oppositional stance against competing civic associations manipulated by apartheid’s puppet leaders, its canvassing of opinions and discussions of issues, the formations of yard committees and street meetings, workshops and boycotts, the development of political activism and consciousness that was class-oriented and non-racial.

“The goal was to have workers understand their role within the community, leading the political struggles against apartheid and capitalism, but working hand-in-glove with other community formations on housing, education, transport, health and the like.” (56)

Creating A Culture of Non-Payment?

With popular democracy underway, brutal repression followed, including the author’s own imprisonment on charges of treason, sedition and subversion from June 1986 to April 1989 (part of the apartheid regimes efforts to rid the anti-apartheid and civic movements of their best leaders). The AAC, however, responded to the repression and violence, taking on a more aggressive role in community development to counter the apartheid government’s “Winning Hearts and Minds” (WHAM) strategies and leading the masses in the period of “ungovernability” and the advent of “organs of peoples power.”

The call from the United Democratic Front (at the time, a surrogate for the banned ANC) to “make South Africa ungovernable” fit well with existing township attitudes. “It accurately reflected the mood, and the activities, already underway in the townships. Successful politicians make calls that derive from the realities on the ground, not from some utopian idea of how to conduct politics.” (67)

That the AAC/ACO understood this and reflected it at its height of activism in the ’80s and ’90s, that it translated this understanding into the construction of “organs of peoples power” and that it maintains this belief in a very difficult post-apartheid transition period–all these are perhaps the most hopeful and instructional element in the book.

Mayekiso responds to several commentators who have criticized the civic movement. One such criticism is that civics created an atmosphere of ungovernability and a “culture of non-payment” which persists today to the detriment of the communities. Mayekiso responds:

“Here it is critical to understand that community organizations used rent boycotts and consumer boycotts not only for political purposes, but also to offset declining income levels in townships during a time of rising rent and service charges. The strategy, in other words, is both one of ungovernability, and a cry for economic justice . . . . It is no wonder, therefore, that in cases such as Soweto, where there was no noticeable change in living conditions during the early 1990s, the rent and service boycott continued long after several Soweto Civic attempts to call it off.  Struggle strengthened not only the survival strategies of ordinary residents, but also our vision of a future society free of apartheid and socioeconomic despair.  This principle is deeply ingrained, not as a ‘culture of non-payment,’ as it may appear on the surface, but through the grassroots constituents of a social movement demanding decent living conditions as a human right.

“This remains true today.  Like the Soweto Civic, the Alexandra Civic and nearly all other civics have had problems in the new environment, but we are regaining our influence over day-to-day affairs. The reason for our persistence, in contrast to many international urban movements which fade after a short period, is that the apartheid state failed to crush our political and economic program: the struggle to transform society through consciousness-raising, economic empowerment, participation, and control of community planning, strengthening of civil society, and democratization of government.” (98)

That the civic movement of the 1980s and early 1990s was successful in
creating this grassroots consciousness and mass-based activism may be debatable (and Mayekiso allows ample space for such arguments), but the insider Mayekiso makes a good case for its viability.

The author also lays out honestly and clearly the challenges faced by the post-apartheid civic movement. The most obvious of these are: 1) how to move “from protest to development” in an environment increasingly hostile to “people-centered” development and friendly to “market-centered” development, 2) how to maintain a non-partisan role faced with increasing pressure to play party politics, i.e. align with the ANC, and 3) how to keep the masses mobilized.

Acknowledging the ANC commitment to a mixed economy as early as 1990 along with other pressures (domestic business, Inkatha, the National Party, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, etc.) that would likely move the new government away from its progressive traditions, ACO and SANCO began preparing for these challenges well before April 1994:

“Examples from Africa and elsewhere told us that simply because nationalist organizations like the ANC are apparently progressive today does not mean they will remain so. The fact that there are, within the ANC, numerous class forces is a reason in itself for strengthening independent organs of working-class civil society. Class struggle will continue long into the post-apartheid era. As early as 1990, the ANC was committed to a so-called mixed economy, a code phrase for business as usual. Indeed, if that meant supporting private property rights, then there would necessarily be conflict with the working class.” (148)

By 1990, ACO was actively working against bureaucratic, top-down development plans, often administered by the puppet Alex Council. In place of minimally decent housing, for example, there were efforts to privatize housing, displacing thousands of shack-dwellers and creating a class of landlords. That meant programs to provide new “site-and-service” plots (at best, a shack and free-standing toilet). Educating people about privatization and housing in political terms and forming the Shack-dwellers Coordinating Committee to fight off relocation led to some successes for the ACO. Mayekiso again relates with detail the strategies and tools employed in the struggle for community-controlled development, shedding light on lessons learned even in the unsuccessful struggles.

In 1995, as Mayekiso is finishing Township Politics, he is “heartened” that “the RDP recognized institutions of civil society as crucial implementing agents for development” and that official policy seemed to make a commitment to providing capacity-building assistance from the state. But in 1996, the ANC is distancing itself from this commitment to people-centered development, ever more enthusiastically espousing the virtues of the market economy. ACO and SANCO will need to recall the lessons learned from earlier struggles of the civic movement if a path to socialism is, indeed, to be found.

The future of South Africa is unfolding and remains unclear. Although current indicators give cause for concern that South Africa may be lost forever to the forces of a global market economy, Mayekiso gives us an historical context in which to place the country’s present civic and labor movement. He concludes by offering a broader proposal:

“The most important lesson of the pages I have written so far does not concern development and democracy in Alexandra, the township social movement, national politics, or even the prospects for socialism in South Africa. I believe that what we have learned over the last decade or so in the civic movement can inform the future of global progressive politics, which I firmly believe rests upon democratic organizing and mass mobilization from within working-class civil society.” (281)

ATC 66, January-February 1997