SA election battles get underway

Posted on July 12, 2022


(First published in City Press, Sunday, August 10)

At first sight the sudden demise of the New Frame publication, a major conference of the Defend our Democracy (DoD) group and the ongoing crisis at Eskom have nothing in common apart from having made it into the news over the past week. Yet all are very much part of the jockeying for power ahead of South Africa’s 2024 elections.

Eskom or, rather, what the future may hold for this national power hub, is at the epicentre because electricity is a critical factor in all our lives. And, as the labour movement has traditionally maintained, it is too important to be a vehicle for private profit: it should operate for the public good.

But that simple fact about what the priority of the power producer should be, let alone how this should be achieved, seems to have been largely lost amid swirls of rumour and bitterness peppered by conspiracy theories. It seems true that government incompetence and corruption, compounded by similar behaviour at managerial level, bears most responsibility for bringing the utility to the verge of collapse.

Unions and union members may or may not have been involved in the malfeasance, but it appears they were, at the least, silent onlookers as the power system was driven to the point of destruction. They are now — if the recent wage talks and settlement are any indication — still acting as if the usual boss/worker relationship exists, rather than realising that they are central to a national emergency — and one that spells potentially even more harm, especially to the sellers of labour.

Different tactics are called for because what happens to and at Eskom has not only economic but also major political implications. And here there appear to be at least four broad agendas in play by various groups and individuals, that often overlap.

In the first place there are those who would like to see Eskom make way for private sector power generation and distribution. Included here is the Rainbow group headed by Patrice Motsepe, who happens to be the brother-in-law of President Cyril Ramaphosa, a fact that is manna for conspiracy theorists.

Then there are those who would have Eskom weakened to allow a nuclear option, perhaps from Russia or even aid from China The fossil fuels/gas exploration lobby is also still active along with political groups promising transformation and future stability, some of which may wish to see greater instability in order to further weaken the existing government.

So what happens at Eskom is crucial and much too important to be left solely to government and appointed bureaucracies. Organised workers and the communities from which they come, should now sit up and “smell the coffee”: in other words, face reality, however unpleasant, then take, and demand, suitable action .

Understanding reality, especially at turbulent times such as this, requires looking closely at the background, history and claims of those individuals and groups professing to support human — and worker — rights and democracy. These, all too often promote, and try to enforce, narrow, sectarian interests. and can react harshly when balked.

This appears to have been an important factor behind the sudden closure of New Frame where, without warning on Friday last week, it was announced that “the funder” had turned off the tap. Retrenchment packages for 28 journalists are currently under discussion. Journalists, it appears, could not be relied on to constantly toe a dictated ideological line.

The “funder” — seemingly the piper who called the ideological tune — was wealthy and controversial IT tycoon and self proclaimed socialist, Neville — “Roy” — Singham a US citizen of Sri Lankan and Cuban background. He is now apparently resident in China, and he and National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) general secretary Irvin Jim first mooted a “pan-African media hub” in Johannesburg in 2017 to counter “the hegemony of the bourgeois media”.

In 2018, under the stewardship of academic, Richard Pithouse, New Frame emerged — and journalists soon discovered that there were certain topics that were off limits, among them criticism of China and Russia. It was also known that Singham was financing the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party that featured Jim’s picture on its 2019 general election posters.

The SRWP was promoted as a party of “socialist unity”, but although Numsa alone at that stage had more than 300,000 members, the party garnered just 24,349 votes. However, the “socialist unity” project, apparently involving elements in the SA Communist Party, still seems underway, despite official denials.

With the ANC clearly in desperate straits, massively rising inflation and general disillusionment, a united or popular socialist front is seen as a real prospect for future power. However, this does seem heavily orientated toward what economist Richard Wolff and others acknowledge as state capitalism, the fusion of the state with capital, China being the best example.

This would be anathema to many on almost all positions on the political spectrum and certainly to those who still cling to the image of a pre-Jacob Zuma past where Thabo Mbeki held sway and mythical probity dominated. Here is the core of the DoD that appears to have been established as the rescue vessel for the badly holed and sinking ship of state commanded by the current ANC. Mbeki features here, as does his long-time colleague, Essop Pahad, backed by the likes of Rev Frank Chikane and Fazel Randera.

Significantly present among the groups invited to the DoD conference, was Abahlali baseMjondolo, the large, democratic, grassroots movement generally ignored by the mainstream. Abahlali was earlier heavily wooed by Pithouse and — to their credit — New Frame journalists were among the few who consistently covered developments involving this growing informal settlement movement.

But most resented —and occasionally resisted — the price of maintaining such coverage. Because, in order to provide a voice to the many frequently ignored and voiceless in society, they were exposed to ideologically censorship. It was this that apparently led to the resignation of one of the best known New Frame journalists, Darryl Accone., who left the day before the shutdown.

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