It has been a long fortnight for South Africa, which has unmistakably shown all the flaws and fallacies of its post-apartheid ‘rainbow nation’, along with the weaknesses of a non-racialist society deeply riddled with economic and social asymmetries. More importantly, it has shown that capitalism cannot conclude compromises with the excluded and exploited, and that investors have a strong ally. The armed interventions to stop the protests directed against the actions of private enterprises and private capital demonstrate, in fact, the functional role that legitimate(d) violence plays in supporting and defending private accumulation, even if that means that the state is shooting its own citizens.
In the case of the Lonmin’s mine, rather than hearing the desperate requests of workers who in some cases are paid less than 400 euro per month, and rather than imposing its authority over the third biggest platinum producer in the world, with an annual revenue in 2011 of 1,992 million U.S. dollars, the government has charged its rifles with live ammunitions, and clearly demonstrated what hierarchy it is keen to follow. But this time bullets could not be enough to silence the anger of the people.
While civil society has mobilized (as always) with some protests and manifestations in the major centres of South Africa, the violence of the state’s action seems to have triggered the desperation and dissatisfaction of the people, starting from the poorest of the poorest. In the last week, in fact, more and more miners all over the country have abandoned the darkness of the underground tunnels to express their dissent against unbearable work conditions and exploitative salary, and the centre of Pretoria, the administrative capital, has been transformed in an urban battle ground. Here, almost one thousand protestors have been rallying in the streets of the Central Business District asking for the recognition of the right to continue the daily activity that provides them with a living, and not to be subjected to expensive regulations. As a response, the city centre has been immediately shut down, the city almost paralyzed, and policemen deployed on the ground. Once again, rifles and bullets (although still in their rubber version) have been deployed in the name of legality.
The circumstances underlying the new conflict are emblematic in their simplicity, and reinforce the argument about the power relationship between state, market and society. In the last months, the local municipality of Thswane (Pretoria) has decided to clear the streets of any vendor without an official licence, and to clean up the commercial areas of Marabastad and Belle Ombre Plaza so to favour its economic growth by means of registration, formalization and rigid regulation. In particular, vendors have been required to buy monthly trading licences for R 150 (15 euro), limit their operation to office hours, and to trade only in designed areas. What appears as an attempt to organize municipal commerce, clearly has a dire impact on people who are often living with few euro per day, whose only income derives from their street business, and who, in many cases, have travelled to the city in order to sustain their family outside. The passage from informality to formality, which is affirmed in a way which evokes De Soto and his phantasmic mystery, will clearly leave many behind, and exclude even more people who are already alienated.
While the victims of the forced closures, evictions and destruction of goods had been suffering without major protests, the recent events outside the Lonmin’s mine appear to have regenerated people’s consciousness about the role that they occupy in the government’s economic and social policies. The people are starting realizing that they have no place in the economic path that capitalism and private investments have traced for their country since many years before 1994. And, more importantly, those who did not possess the means to jump on the capitalist wagon and have been left behind, are now facing the truth that the government is not there to help them, but to drive the convoy even faster.
Rather than a case of racial discrimination or of pseudo-apartheid violence, in fact, the two cases demonstrate that the official end of apartheid has had no real impact on the economic choices of South Africa, and that the exploitation of people and natural resources, as much as the promotion of exclusionary private investments, can only be guaranteed with the deployment of legitimate violence. Listening to the people, the promises of black empowerment, of a bottom-up renaissance of South Africa and of a post-apartheid country where everyone would have obtained equal opportunities, appear like a broken dream, and the state is perceived as too compromised with private interests, too scared of the macro-economic consequences, and too entrapped in the glittering paradigm of modernity to take any alternative step.
In conclusion, there are at least three reasons why we should look at the current situation in South Africa with concern and, in some sense, as a laboratory for future struggle against the inequality of capitalism. First of all, it provides a clear evidence of the central role that state sovereignty plays in the consolidation of capitalism and in the reproduction of a system based on exploitation and exclusion. Legitimate violence is exercised whenever the people are rebelling to improve their life conditions or to maintain the minimum that they have, because shareholders and future investors cannot accept to share the pie. Secondly, the riots and protests are making evident that the racial discrimination was closely linked to the creation of a system of economic segregation which is far from being overturned. In particular, if we look at who is protesting, we realize that the 1994 has not represented a move forward for the South African black community, which is still economically segregated and subordinated to the interests of the capital, this latter being constituted, as during apartheid, by the mainly non-black.
Thirdly, and more importantly, the fact that the current protest are no more directed only toward the investors, but against the executive power in its quality as representative of the community, could finally bring back on the table the responsibility of the state as protector of its citizens and, in particular, of the most vulnerable. The moment has arrived, I claim, to realize the fundamental role that sovereignty is playing in guaranteeing private exploitation and accumulation, not only in deploying legitimate violence as in the two cases under analysis, but also by adapting national legal orders to the needs of the few and to the detriment of the many. The moment has come for the 99% of the global population to realize that there cannot be private abuses without public connivance, and to reclaim the use of sovereignty to create a system of legality which involves people rather than letting policemen shooting on them.
The case of the garmnents industry in Bangladesh provides an example of a striking parallel to the mining industry of South Africa. While much lauded for being the single greatest source of foreign exchange, for providing much needed employment, and even for empowering women, the shady politics of this industry is a sad reminder that the pattern of exploitation of the worker in a capitalist trap is a common international trait. Examples of this exploitation are the minimalist wage, reducing workers to sub-human lifestyles, the looming threat of factory closure as a weapon to break the backs of workers whenever they protest, even the cases of sudden and mysterious fires where workers die for want of adequate safety measures and urgent rescues, and lastly, the deployment of an industrial police and industrial detective force, that spies on the activist worker, leading to ominous killings. This last is information that the newspapers refuse to publish but that labour leaders have informed us in direct meetings. The paradigm of “development” needs to be now considered much more critically, and not unquestioningly as it has been during the last 50 years. What is the definition of development? is it an amount of NNP that benefits the capirtalist? And the State? Who gains…yes… but also, who suffers from this development: who has to migrate to the city, leaving behind roots and hearth and home? How is this urban -centred development beneficial to the villager? Or even to the urban-dweller, resulting as it does in congestion and general deterioration in life-styles, by pollution, over-crowding, and an increasingly competitive job-market? How is the increasing demand for more and more and more…. compensate for the sad decline in the flavour of our vegetables and fruit, for the having to consume GM crop, for the use of chemical fertilizer and pesticide in food, leading to organ failure and fancy-hospital-centred middle-aged deaths, which is now becoming so fashionable? There is no end to questions, to parallels across countries, to the one common body of a Medusa with many heads.