Menu Close

South Africa: Gambling with a reshuffled deck

Share This Article:

Graphic: Timothy Alexander / African News Agency (ANA)

By Trevor Ngwane

President Cyril Ramaphosa might have played his last hand when he reshuffled his Cabinet recently. While he did not have a great set of cards to begin with, many commentators were dismayed by the utter lack of skill he displayed in the amateurish and uninspired manner he played his cards. The only people who had anything positive to say about his game were arguably sycophants and flatterers with hidden agendas. Indeed, even those sympathetic to his cause were scathing about what they regarded as a missed opportunity for him and the ANC he leads.

“Understanding that just over one year remains in the term of this 6th administration, these changes are not about overhauling the National Executive,” explained Ramaphosa in a somewhat self-deprecating manner that missed the significance of the occasion. Hello, only one year remains for the ANC government to redeem itself before the 2024 elections which coincide with 30 years of democracy. There will be thorough assessments by observers and voters of its track record at the helm of the country. The Cabinet reshuffle happened amid rolling power failures, rising unemployment, rampant corruption, horrendous gender-based violence, and many social ills that beset our young democracy. Is there any hope that things can improve in the next year or so under ANC stewardship?

The new Minister of Electricity, Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, appeared to grasp the gravity of the situation when he said, “we are at ground zero”, referring to the devastation caused by the energy crisis. Cynics wonder aloud whether for each of South Africa’s major problems it will be necessary to create ministries. Nevertheless, anything that promises to alleviate load shedding and its disruptions of daily life including economic activity, education, health care, transport, water provision, food security, and so on, will undoubtedly be given a chance to prove itself even if it feels like grasping at straws. But it is a bit of a stretch even for the greatest optimist to believe that the same party that created the problem will somehow develop the ability to solve it.

Some doubting Thomases wonder aloud why we need a minister of electricity when we have a minister of public enterprises and a minister of mining resources and energy; one would expect them to solve the energy crisis between themselves if they were competent in their jobs. A Cabinet reshuffle is an opportunity to replace ministers who are sleeping on the job and inject new energy to better serve the people. Gwede Mantashe, the Minister of Mining Resources and Energy, disparagingly called the minister of electricity, a “project manager” suggesting that his mandate was technical rather than political. However, Mantashe might be totally missing the point. A closer look at the energy crisis suggests that it might be a symptom of what Antonio Gramsci called an “organic crisis”, that is, it is a problem that arises out of “uncurable structural contradictions” involving the economy and politics of a society.

Theoretically, the provision of energy in South Africa during the days of colonialism and apartheid is best understood as part of the “minerals-energy complex” whereby a symbiotic relationship developed between mining capital and Eskom as a state-owned enterprise run by successive racist governments.

On the one hand, the mines provided Eskom with coal to produce electricity; on the other hand, Eskom supplied mining capital with low-priced electricity they needed for their operations. This sweetheart deal extended to the white farms and later to manufacturing, thus fuelling the industrialisation of the South African economy. However, all this was happening at the expense of black people and the environment.

Historically, the dompas, influx control, the migrant labour system, land dispossession, political disenfranchisement, and other racist laws and mechanisms were used to suppress black labour and keep wages as low as possible. Racial oppression and capitalist exploitation fed on and reinforced one another, thus making the mines and the white farms more profitable and economically viable than they would otherwise have been. In other words, at the heart of racial capitalism was the minerals-energy complex – cheap black labour and cheap energy for white capital. These economic and political arrangements were fundamentally challenged by the anti-apartheid struggle, the national liberation movement, and the rise of the black trade union movement.

The mandate of the ANC government of national liberation was to challenge the logic of racial capitalism and to eradicate the oppression and exploitation it engendered. Instead, on assuming power, the ANC leadership capitulated to South African white capital and agreed to the continuation of key components of the racial capitalist system, namely, the protection of private property and the continued exploitation of black cheap labour. The stolen land and wealth remained in the hands of the white capitalist class.

The minerals-energy complex continued albeit increasingly financialised and notably destructive of the environment and the climate.

The global capitalist system is in crisis despite its triumphalism following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist Bloc. In 2008, there was a global economic meltdown, followed by the economic disruptions of the pandemic and recently the consequences of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine. The South African economy is subjected to the various crises of capitalism under the watch of the ANC capitalist government. It is in this context that the energy crisis, high cost of living, unemployment, and other socio-economic challenges make people’s lives miserable.

There are specific ways in which the ANC government makes matters worse. Ramaphosa and the ANC have chosen an economic policy that favours the rich and punishes the poor. Instead of fighting to create a better life for all, they have opted for self-enrichment and the formation of a black bourgeoisie. No one in the ANC top leadership, Ramaphosa and the so-called “Radical Economic Transformation forces”, is prepared to challenge the power of capital. There is no serious plan to address the roots of the country’s various crises especially as they affect the ANC’s traditional constituency, the black working class and the poor. The timid Cabinet reshuffle is a clear indication of this. Come 2024, the ANC must meet its Waterloo at the ballot box.

*Trevor Ngwane is the director of the Centre for Sociological Research and Practice, University of Johannesburg.