The Johannesburg Inferno – Working Class must unite

The inferno that claimed the lives of 77 people, the majority burnt beyond recognition, is one of the worst indictments not just against the City of Johannesburg (CoJ), but the ANC government itself. 12 of the deceased were children. This was an accident waiting to happen. The CoJ has been warned for years about a possible health and safety catastrophe. This building, owned by the CoJ, is one of 57 hijacked it had been warned about. Instead, the CoJ mothballed a task team to clean them up as coalition partners fought for control of budgets to enrich themselves.

All residents, the working class in particular, are simultaneously suffering from the crass incompetence and corruption crippling the city. The coalition was cobbled together because not a single party secured an outright majority in the 2021 local government elections. This political gang bypassed their individual rejection as unfit to govern, to impose themselves on the electorate collectively to do what they could not individually – loot and plunder.

Since the 2021 local government elections Joburg residents have been reduced to spectators of the despicable horse-trading for senior positions that has seen the so-called world class African city change mayors eight times. It is led at the moment by the homophobic Al—Jama-ah, a party with no more than 1% support which has seen it fit to nominate not one, but two incompetents successively, the current with a cloud of corruption allegations around his head.

Housing – a countrywide disaster

This is by no means a Joburg disaster – it is countrywide. The massive housing backlog that drove the desperate and the poor to seek shelter in derelict hijacked buildings where they are extorted for the privilege to have a roof over their heads, stood at 2.5m countrywide in 2022 and growing. Shack fires, destroying lives and livelihoods are regular occurrences across the surroundings of SA’s major cities.

With only 2 500 houses built of the last two years, it will take over 100 years to overcome the 500 000 backlog. Yet Joburg receives over 130 000 new residents annually through internal migration from e.g Kwa Zulu Natal and the Eastern Cape – one of the country’s poorest and most corrupt provinces, as well as the poor from neighbouring countries ravaged by their corrupt elites propped up by the ANC government. All of them are seeking a chance to escape destitution.

According to Ndifuna Ukwazi, by the City of Cape town’s own admission in its Municipal Spatial Development Framework, it will take more than 70 years to eradicate Cape Town’s current housing backlog. For decades, residents in Mzondi Street, Dunoon, Cape Town have been living in an environment that is a breeding ground for rats, mosquitos, and other disease-carrying pests.

The April 2022 Kwa Zulu Natal floods swept across the coastal zone in one of the worst natural disasters in SA’s recorded history. At least 459 people were killed, and 4 000 homes destroyed. Flood relief was instead pillaged by government connected criminal syndicates. Then premier Sihle Zikalala directed water tankers to his personal residence. Housing, and road repairs are lagging far behind. Residents in Ntuzuma suspect the water pump station, still in disrepair after an explosion months ago, was deliberately damaged so tenderpreneurs could win the repair contract.

ANC government’s neo-liberal policies at root of problem

The disasters engulfing the country are rooted in the ANC government’s commitment to capitalism – the system they conspired with the dying apartheid regime, big business, and imperialism to preserve at the Codesa negotiations. Mandela explained in his 1956 article In our Lifetime, written to repudiate claims that the Freedom Charter adopted in 1955, was a blue print for socialism. The ANC’s aim was not to create a socialist society in which, he outlined, the means of production, distribution and exchange are owned by the working class and production is for the satisfaction of social need not private profit. The aim was to create the conditions for a prosperous non-European bourgeoisie (a rich black capitalist class) so that free enterprise ie capitalism, could flourish as never before.

On that basis the ANC was destined to betray the expectations of the masses. But the imposition of the neo-liberal Gear policy in 1996 brought that betrayal forward. It accelerated the massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. Today 10% own 84% of the wealth in income and assets. The bottom 50% have negative wealth. Gear’s eye-watering social spending cuts have created the disaster of inequality, mass unemployment and inequality.

Nothing illustrates with greater repugnance the ANC government’s class character and its anti-working class post-apartheid socio-economic policies than the scapegoating of the poor, inflaming of xenophobic tensions, and demonisation opposition to government’s actions. Ndifuna Ukwazi’s affordable housing campaign has been slandered as hijacking buildings; the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI) accused of preventing evictions. SERI had to close its offices temporarily in the face of death threats and staff members being followed. Police and ANC councillors have for years now persecuted and murdered Abahlali Base Mjondolo activists struggling for land and housing.

The housing backlog is but one face of the disastrous social and economic capitalist crisis. Every aspect of governance at every level has been flooded by corruption, paralysed by incompetence, and service delivery crippled in health, education, water, sewage and electricity. The working class is being asked to pay for the capitalist crisis that continues since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. The combination of the greed for self-enrichment by both the predominantly white and emerging black capitalist class reinforces the crisis.

Treasury has announced 25% planned cuts in government spending. Corporate tax was cut from 52% towards apartheid’s end to 26% today supposedly to encourage capitalists to create jobs. Instead private fixed investment is at its lowest level since 1994. To close the self-recreated budget deficit, the government borrows R14bn a week. Interest repayments alone take up 20% of the total budget. Capital flight as well as R400bn in annual illicit capital flows see billions taken out of SA.

For a mass workers party on a socialist programme

The working class has staged countless protests over poor services. But they have done so in isolation from each other. We need unity to prevent another 2008 xenophobic pogrom that claimed 63 lives, 21 of them South African. We need unity in the education sector, the workplace, in working class communities but above all on the political plane. The ANC has forfeited the right to govern.

Only big business is acting seriously with millions being donated to right wing racist and xenophobic parties as the DM reveals from the IEC August Political Funding report. As the ANC faces the possibility of losing its outright majority in 2024 for the first time, the capitalists are preparing to prop it up with these parties forming a pro-capitalist coalition.

The first step in this unity was taken by the Saftu-led 2018 Working Class Summit where 1000 de0legates representing 47 community, youth and trade unions formations adopted a declaration to establish a mass workers party on a socialist programme. The WCS must reconvene urgently.

  • For a mass decent house building programme
  • For rent control for affordable housing
  • No to scapegoating of the poor
  • No to xenophobia – build united migrant and local community structures
  • Reject austerity, privatisation and social spending cuts
  • Fill all public sector vacancies
  • Scrap the tender system – insource all services
  • Nationalise the economy’s commanding heights under workers control and management
  • For mass socialist civic, student trade union federations
  • For a mass workers party on a socialist programme