An emancipatory politics for today: Resistance & Prefiguring the future in the present

By Dominic Brown

In post-Apartheid South Africa, we see the deepening of the social and economic ills facing our society including, growing inequality, unemployment and an ecological crisis in the form of droughts and floods. These multifaceted, interconnected crises reinforce and exacerbate each other leading to the unraveling of our social fabric. This phenomenon is not unique to South Africa.


Whilst we see the deepening of the crisis facing civilisation, we also see the re-emergence of a crisis in capitalism, this is not new. However, Samir Amin and others argue that unlike previous capitalist crises, this time there is no way for capitalism to continue as it has in the past by mutating in order to extricate itself from its current impasse. Istvan Meszaros attributes this to the current crisis being a structural one, unlike previous conjunctural crises. This is because unlike previous crises, the ecological question in the epoch of the anthropocene means that any attempt by capital to extricate itself from this crisis, with its inherent insatiable need for expansion and overproduction to maximise profits will result in humanity’s total destruction. This necessitates urgent and radical change.


Unfortunately, the inner logic of capitalism means that it will do whatever it can to prolong its rule. Therefore, in order to move away from the current paradigm demands the building of a counter power that can counterpose the hegemony of capital. Building a counter power in the context of increasing concentration of corporate and financial power will require the development of a new emancipatory politics.


New Politics?

On the Left, there is nothing as old, as talking about new politics. The talk mostly bears very little real change in content or form. In order to move beyond this needs creative thinking, experimentation and a disregard for the fear of failure. In experimenting, we should be adopting multiple strategies that can work in conjunction with each other in order to move from where we are now to new ways of living.


This implies the need to support the rebuilding of independent, dynamic, strong popular movements across a pluralism of terrains, including in education and youth, the workplace and amongst the unemployed, urban and rural, arts and culture, as well as sport. In doing so it is essential that we build patiently, with an emphasis on building peoples’ power from below.


Included in these strategies should be ways of resisting oppression and exploitation, as well as attempts at building different forms of living in the present and in a sense, prefiguring the world we want, in the now. At the same time its important to recognise that qualitative changes in production and the intensification of automation has resulted in a change in the agents that can bring about radical change today.


Changing Agents

One of the main developments over the past four decades is the increased precariatisation of people in society. Underlying this is growing unemployment, but also increased casualisation of work. These dynamics in turn have important implications for social struggles against the power of capital. Seen from the perspective of the totality, these struggles do not only take place within the realm of production where workers are pitched against bosses, but it also extends to struggles in other spheres including struggles for remunicipalisation, for the expansion of the commons and in support of indigenous peoples standing up against extractivist transnational corporations. These are all examples of new forms of struggles and of new agents of change. Moving beyond a traditional understanding of the levers of change and decentring the role of the nation state.


Re-municipalism towards Radicalising Democracy

One of the ways to dismantle the power of the nation state is to look toward re-municipalism. Re-municipalism is the fight to reclaim services in order fulfill a public good, particularly at local/ municipal government level. This is important in South Africa, where in the past, many services were delivered by our municipalities. The increased privatisation of these services has meant the deterioration of service delivery and massive job losses given the rise of outsourced work instead, ultimately negatively impacting working class communities who cannot afford to turn to the private sector. Re-municipalising can roll-back many of these attacks on the standard of living in poor communities.


At the same time, over time, re-municipalism has the power to  democratise by dismantling the state’s top-down approach to delivering basic needs to its people. This is critical because when delivering services is left to the nation-state alone, it breeds patronage and corruption. The big state also enables the concentration of capital by mega corporations and thereby reduces states capacity to address citizens’ demands. Re-municipalism is therefore critical in that it changes our understanding of the role of the nation-state.


The fight for remunicipalism decentralises the power, by transferring it to local levels of government. It also promotes direct popular control of society by its citizens through achieving and sustaining a true democracy in municipal assemblies. Face-to-face assemblies of people that come together to formulate public policy on a basis that underscores the principle of each according to their needs. This empowers citizens towards a more radical participatory democracy.


I would like to suggest that vibrant and radical participatory democracy is sacrosanct and would be a fundamental pillar in bringing about real socio-economic change for social justice. Therefore, in building new, we need to safeguard ourselves from the development of a big historical figure, who often find themselves to be above reproach.


Re-municipalism is also important because in removing the state as the main focus of our efforts to change the world, we start looking toward other sites of entry and change.


However, re-municipalism cannot be the only strategy for change. The state will still have an important role to play in addressing major inequality, as well as climate change, issues far too large for local government to do on its own in a just way. Therefore, we cannot ignore the nation state in its entirety but rather, we should be building within the state, outside the state and beyond the state and in doing so hollowing out the state over time.


Tragedy of the commodity, increasing the commons

Re-municipalism promotes the rolling back of the private sector to the public. This is critical in the context of a world that has become increasingly commodified as a result of the growing power of corporations, in what has essentially become the tragedy of the commodity.


The tragedy of the commodity is where nature and the fruits of nature are considered to be a free gift, rather than a tangible part of wealth. This is inherent in a system of production organised around producing for exchange, and the insatiable need to accumulate unabated. This creates and deepens a rift between the way production is organised and the universal ecological metabolism and ultimately results in the depletion of our natural resources, including human beings. In forging a new political practice, it is essential to radically break from a productivist mentality, where the more we produce and the more we accumulate is a measure of wealth and development.


One of the ways  to do this is to reclaim the commons in the fight against increased privatisation so that our resources serve the collective interest of nature of which people are a part. In our efforts to do this, we will be able to decentralise and democratise our natural resources toward decommodifying nature. This is an important step in restoring the harmony between people and our natural environment, and the ecological metabolism of the world. Under these conditions the quality of all life will be improved, increasing the possibility for humans and the world in which we live in to flourish.


These are long term struggles. Given growing unemployment, hunger and the deepening of alienation requires us to develop and struggle for alternatives in the here and now. Demanding urgent radical reforms in key areas that can dramatically alleviate the plight of the oppressed classes towards longer term struggles. Included in this is the need for a just transition from fossil fuels to socially-owned renewable energy, the development of consumer-producer cooperatives, the push for a social wage including a universal basic income grant and intensifying the fight for food sovereignty, etc. These initiatives are also important in changing the forms of ownership in society, transferring it from the individual to social ownership; putting the control over production in the hands of the collective.


The roadmap to Change: False Dichotomies

In charting the way forward it is critical that new social formations are able to develop and entrench new methods of social and political organisation at multiple levels including building movements of social resistance as well as establishing ways of contesting and attaining power today – the latter means that we cannot ignore the role of electoral politics. Real change in the 21st century will require a number of factors, including an electoral vehicle. Elections are not an end itself but should be seen as an integral part in the rebuilding strategy. Particularly in a South African context where there is still belief in going to the polls.


An essential element of party work would be to facilitate the creative and productive inclusion of citizens who are not party members. In so doing, strengthening links between the party and grassroots organisation. The idea is that the party should support and encourage grassroots mobilisation and participation, not in a way that promotes a reciprocal relation between support for the party and social reforms but instead by creating space for grassroots movements to shape parties political programme. More fundamentally radical change will require pressure from below, that starts somewhere and spreads globally.


The problem is that this pressure from below cannot be some horizontal structure because even though this appears to be very democratic, the problem is that it dispenses with any form of accountability, because at the end of the day no one is prepared to take responsibility for a decision that they did not make. Moreover, this kind of structure is limited, in its ability to coordinate systematic and tactical actions on a much broader scale towards its strategic objectives.


This does not mean we need a vanguard. In looking forward, we should also look back. An example of the kind of movement that can inspire us today is the 1905 Revolution and the formation of soviet councils. The soviet councils brought together different sections of Russian society: peasants, soldiers and workers. Today, the building of alliances between workers and the unemployed is critical.


The attack on labour and the right to strike, coupled with increasing business unionism has simultaneously weakened trade unions, whilst also creating extremely hierarchical and bureaucratic structures. Given this, some want to throw the baby out with the bathwater and abandon organising workers altogether. In my view this is a fundamental mistake, instead of giving up on trade unions, its important to support the transformation of trade unions towards a social unionism that connects the struggles of the workplace to the struggles of the community.


In conclusion:


  1. The left is in retreat, many hard fought gains have been rolled back. The balance of forces is not in our favour. Climate change is a major threat and we are one and a half minutes to midnight, the moment when our time runs up. To turn the tide will require a continuous effort, over a consistent period of time. There are no shortcuts, but at the same time given climate change and the immense pressure on working class we require urgent concomitant action.


  1. The collective task of developing new perspectives still lies ahead. No one can claim to have all the answers. Therefore, we should avoid sectarianism at all costs. We should welcome a pluralism of views and perspectives within a framework of emancipatory, anti-capitalist politics, as long as the perspectives do not mitigate against the liberation of the oppressed classes. Allow a hundred flowers to bloom and a thousand schools of thought to flourish.


  1. Renewing the left project for a long-revolution will be a massive task. This can be exhausting, so the question would be how to ensure that the rebuilding of an emancipatory project is creative, fun and espouses radical notions of love and happiness.


  1. All of this requires sustained activist development. This includes political education that assists in building a critical mass of conscious, confident, capable and effective layer of activists who can take forward the massive task that lie ahead, toward advancing revolutionary politics today. In our practice, we need to think about what we can do today to shift the balance of forces, in laying the basis for taking struggle further in the next 5, 10 and 15 years. Thereby, opening up the space to do what may seem too radical or impossible now. Echoing Harnecker, an emancipatory politics today has to be about making the impossible, possible.

Marx and the “International”

By Vishwas Satgar

KARL MARX was an intrepid traveller in the European context in the mid-19th century. Don’t imagine the bearded one moving around with a roller suitcase, tourist guides and staying at fancy hotels. Marx, the “red mole,” travelled around a tumultuous Europe out of political choice but also because of the strong-arm of ruling-class repression.

The frontiers of struggle and revolution were what kept Marx on the move. His “seditious” missives against aristocratic, religious and bourgeois classes and commitment to revolution earned him infamy amongst ruling classes in Europe. Marx was forced to leave various countries due to legal prohibitions issued by the Prussian Empire, the King of Belgium and the French authorities.

This article is not about Marx’s biographical adventures and escapades, which in themselves reveal a great deal about his commitment to internationalism. Rather, this contribution is about how Marx thought about and acted the “international.” How was the international part of Marx’s theory and practice?

It is also about how Marx’s ideas have travelled to South Africa through internationalism, and the contribution South African Marxism has made to anti-racism, including its support for building a powerful anti-apartheid movement.

The third theme in this article is on the current conjuncture and necessity for a renewed internationalism. Finally, this article concludes with possible directions and challenges for 21st century internationalism.

Marx and the “International”

For some international relations thinkers, Marx’s work does not have much to offer in terms of thinking and understanding the international.(1)

That is to say, because Marx’s political and ideological formation happened in a post-Napoleonic era in transition from the Holy Alliance to the concert of Europe, which secured a relative peace for “a hundred years” (1815-1914), the lived experience of Marx’s world supposedly occluded an understanding of international relations.

This is based on a superficial reading of Marx’s work and his praxis as a revolutionary. Anybody reading The Communist Manifesto and Capital would recognize the international character of capitalist expansion.

In the Manifesto it is the materiality of capitalism, the role of the bourgeoisie, class struggle and the historical agency of the working class that remakes the world. In Capital the self-expanding value of capital is crucial for its expansionary tendencies.

Moreover, the original form of accumulating capital through primitive accumulation entailed a historical role for mercantile capitalism, in terms of slavery, conquest and trade within international relations. Some theorists also read Marx as furnishing his own understanding of imperialism and the importance for class solidarity in the imperial centers of capitalism and with anti-colonial struggles.(2)

Now, Marx was thinking and writing in the context of a Eurocentric milieu of 19th century Europe. White supremacist thinking was also expressed in the Enlightenment, including Hegel’s conception of world history, ethnographic accounts of the colonial, and the vaunting of scientific racism linked to 19th century imperialism.

Of course we must be cautious in thinking with Marx, so we don’t get infected by some of this distasteful racist thinking. But let us not make the mistake of reducing Marx to a racist or a Eurocentric thinker, as Edward Said does in Orientalism.

Said is wrong. Marx was not a white supremacist. As several readings of Marx have pointed out there is a triple epistemological rupture with Eurocentricism in Marx’s thought.(3)

The first relates to Marx’s break with a linear conception of capitalist modernity and the idea that Western capitalism is the terminus of all non-Western societies. Informing this break is Marx’s appreciation of the deleterious impacts of colonialism and his own active opposition to slavery.(4)

Marx was a fervent abolitionist of slavery; he recognized how colonialism divided the working class, as in the case of Ireland; and regarding India he came to appreciate the complex relationship between the colonizer and colonized, particularly the agency of the oppressed.(5)

His second break with Eurocentricism relates to Marx’s appreciation that the Western transition from feudalism to capitalism could not be universalized. Initially, attempting to think Asia within this framework led to a realization, as more evidence became available, that Asia has its own distinct social structures, which would shape its transition from pre-capitalist relations.

The third epistemological rupture relates to the transition beyond capitalism. In this regard a lot has been written on Marx’s exchange with Vera Zasulich on the Russian Road to socialism and rural social relations, in which he recognizes the Russian commune (mir) as a potential part of the transition.(6)

This affirming of a multilinear approach to socialism, through various pathways based on national histories, cultures and social practices, becomes even more apparent when reading Marx through his own understanding of ecological relations and the limits of productivism.

Universal Working-Class Role

Marx’s connection to international relations also emerges in his discussion of the universal role of the working class as the subject of history and as central to the revolutionary transformation from capitalism.

Such a conception of the working class is present in the Communist Manifesto, and in the centrality he gives to the sale of labor power in his conception of the labor theory of value and his conception of exploitation in Capital.

At the same time, Marx lived out his commitment to the working-class and international struggle in various ways. These included his association with clandestine worker groups in France including the League of the Just (from 1843); his links with the Chartist movement in England (1845) and then again deepened through writings for the Chartist newspapers (1851-1862); his co-organizing the Communist Correspondence Committee in Brussels (1846) to unite socialists and politically engaged workers in various countries; his joining the League of the Just on their invitation (1847) and assisting them to organize and develop an open revolutionary program which resulted in them changing their name to the Communist League, embracing the slogan “Working Men of All Countries Unite” and adopting The Communist Manifesto (1848).

His education work amongst workers’ groups included delivering lectures on political economy (published as Wage Labour and Capital). His support of the German Revolution of 1848 through publishing the Neue Rheinische Zeitung provided a platform to call for a unified German state, rally support for workers and peasants’ struggles and support national liberation struggles in other countries.

Between 1851-62 Marx contributed journalistic articles to the New York Daily Tribune on various struggles, international affairs and political economy developments.

Finally Marx’s involvement in the creation of the International Working Men’s Association (1864), the First International, enabled him to foreground various international developments, influence the creation of the social democratic party in Germany, contest the destructive role of anarchists and foreground the importance of the Paris Commune.

The Encounter with South Africa

Marx the anti-racist found his way into the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa through various number of interlocutors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This included the work of the socialist and anti-imperialist feminist Olive Schreiner, expatriate workers from Europe, the Communist Party of South Africa, Trotskyist groups, and revolutionary nationalists.

Marxism played a crucial role in developing the theoretical and analytical tools to understand the relationship between capitalism and racial oppression. Much later, women’s oppression was added to the roster of oppression and the vast corpus of South African Marxism.

Three influential theories, articulation of modes of production developed by Harold Wolpe, “colonialism of a special type” put forward by the South African Community Party, and “racial capitalism” developed by Trotskyists (e.g. Neville Alexander) all contributed to resistance in South Africa.

Each of these theories have a lineage that can be traced back to Marx. Wolpe’s articulation of modes of production and the Trotskyist versions of “racial capitalism” draw from and innovate on Marx’s historical materialism and conception of primitive accumulation as it relates to pre-capitalist relations in the transition to capitalism.

The SACP’s “colonialism of a special type” involved a structural class analysis of monopoly capitalism and a critique of a colonial social formation in which colonizer and colonized shared a common spatial reality. Again, these theoretical ideas connected back to Marx’s understanding of class, racial oppression and his critique of colonialism.

All the theories mentioned are not direct derivatives from Marx, but definitely elaborate aspects in his theory of capitalism, historical materialist framework and political writings.

Marx’s abolitionist stance against slavery, for instance, was very similar to anti-apartheid activism. More precisely it was similar to the anti-apartheid movement that developed in various parts of the world, cutting across Cold War fault-lines, to rally resistance in streets, outside embassies, for sanctions, providing aid to national liberation movements and including battle grounds as in Angola.

The anti-apartheid movement made a crucial contribution to isolating the pariah Afrikaner nationalist regime, and to the end of apartheid. As an internationalist movement, the anti-apartheid movement was an important precursor to the more recent anti-globalization movement-of-movements. Its experience, history and lessons for renewing a 21st century internationalism are crucial.

Neoliberal Crisis and Resistance

Today’s world has endured over three decades of neoliberalism, which has engendered a crisis-ridden global political economy. Financial liberalization, conjoined to the inherent instability of globalized finance, has destabilized a number of economies in the global south.

Around 2007-8 the global financial crisis finally reached the heartlands of capitalism. Instead of learning lessons from this general and systemic crisis, global ruling classes are still committed to financialized accumulation. Trump, like Obama, has not reined in finance. The crises of neoliberalism have not ended the neoliberal regime as a class project.

Instead the conjunctural crisis of neoliberalism, grounded in a systemic contradiction of worsening inequality, is now converging with other dangerous systemic contradictions like the climate crisis and the hollowing out of market democracies.

A new fascist menace is rising in the world. Religious fundamentalism, ethno-nationalism, racist border regimes, climate denialism and authoritarian approaches to globalized market economies are emerging. This ideological disposition is being expressed in various combinations, with different emphases, in Trump’s White House, Brazil, India, Turkey, Russia and several countries in Europe.

The global left has not been able to resist hegemonic neoliberalism effectively. Today, neoliberalism is becoming neo-fascist-like in response to its own crises and domestic conditions. Global capitalism is experiencing a conjunctural and a set of systemic crises, yet resistance is episodic, defensive and even being preemptively crushed.

This poses serious challenges for the renewal of 21st century internationalism. National struggles are weaker and vulnerable without international solidarity.

Where to for Internationalism?

The classical inheritance Marx has left us on the centrality of the international in left politics is something we should learn from critically, while being informed by contemporary conditions.

In the global cycles of resistance, against the neoliberal class project, the World Social Forum was a crucial space for convergence. WSF presented a critique of plutocratic class power — expressed through the elites’ World Economic Forum —  offering a self-reflexive space for the new global left, enabling solidarity-based sharing of anti-systemic perspectives, inciting a 21st century emancipatory imagination, and provided a platform for confrontations with the IMF-World Bank-WTO and other globalizing forces.

However, the World Social Forum did not become a strategic center for the global left, nor did it develop a programmatic approach to global resistance. Institutionalizing left power, in a democratic manner, has eluded the WSF. It just might be that the WSF has exhausted its historic role.

This question requires further debate and clarification amongst the global left. Samir Amin, the leading Marxist thinker from Africa, made it a central priority before his passing to call for a New International of Workers and Peoples.(7)

Feeling strongly that the WSF had “slowed down,” Amin centered his call on the crisis-ridden nature of contemporary capitalism including ecological destruction, its “soft totalitarianism” which can easily become a hard totalitarianism, and the failure of existing left forces in national spaces, particularly the global north, to resist contemporary imperialism.

His call for an inaugural meeting of a New International of Workers and Peoples was aimed at anti-capitalist activists, movements, parties, networks and unions from all continents. It envisaged a convergence that would build a democratic organization and critically learn the lessons of historical internationalism.

In short, based on his analysis of the “Autumn phase” of capitalism, Samir Amin believed in the necessity of the “Peoples Spring” informed by a socialist perspective. This is another possible way forward.

At the same time, various social forces on the ground are seeking to build transnational solidarities that can feed into a renewal of internationalism, from below, and through a new strategic politics.

A number of examples stand out on the global terrain of struggle: Campaigning for food sovereignty pathways, inaugurated by La Via Campesina, through various national and continental alliances. Climate jobs, energy sovereignty and just transition campaigning by unions and red-green alliances in various countries. Transnational campaigning platforms for dismantling the power of transnational corporations and for national and global regulation.

There are global union struggles: The International Transport Workers Federation, effectively organizing support for workers across national borders to take on the exploitative, low cost, Ryanair. Indigenous peoples’ resistance to carbon extraction, the destruction of eco-systems and more.

In this context, I firmly agree with Marx on the need for anti-capitalist internationalism but also with Samir Amin on the imperative of building a New International of Workers and Peoples in the 21st century, if we are to survive a rising eco-fascist and ecocidal global capitalism.

We rallied courageous human solidarity against apartheid and its imperial allies. We can do it again, from below and in a democratic manner, before it is too late.


  1. See Vendulka Kubalkova and Albert Cruickshank, 1989, Marxism and International Relations, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Lucia Pradella, “Imperialism and Capitalist Development in Marx’s Capital,” Historical Materialism 21.2 (2013) 117–147.
  3. In this regard see Gilbert Achcar (2013) Marxism, Orientalism, Cosmopolitanism Chicago: Haymarket Books, in which he deals with Marx’s epistemological evolution. Also see Kevin B. Anderson (2010) Marx At The Margins — On Nationalism, Ethnicity and Non-Western Societies for an excellent analysis of what I call the making of Marx’s anti-racism.
  4. See Robin Blackburn (2011), Marx and Lincoln — An Unfinished Revolution. London and New York: Verso Books. As this text confirms, Marx had a more radical position than Lincoln on the rights and freedoms of African Americans.
  5. I agree with Pranav Jani in recognizing that Marx developed a deeper appreciation of India beyond his descriptive commentary on the role of the bourgeoisie. See Jani’s “Karl Marx, Eurocentrism, and the 1857 Revolt in British India” in Crystal Bartolovich and Neil Lazarus (2002) Marxism, Modernity and Postcolonial Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  6. See Teodor Shanin (1983) Late Marx and the Russian Road — Marx and the Peripheries of Capitalism. New York: Monthly Review Press.
  7. Samir Amin wrote up his analysis and argument, titled “It is imperative to reconstruct the International of Workers and Peoples,” in 2017 and put out an email call on 24 June 2018, titled “Letter of Intent for an Inaugural Meeting of the International of Workers and Peoples.”

No Short Cuts For a Deep Just Transition: Towards a Climate Justice Charter for South Africa

By Vishwas Satgar, Jane Cherry, Courtney Morgan and Aaisha Domingo


The purpose of this article is to make clear that the fight for a deep just transition is a crucial part of the working-class struggle. This article also highlights some examples and tools which two organisations are using to strengthen solidarity within civil society. In particular, we focus on the Co-operative and Policy Alternative Centre (COPAC) and the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign’s (SAFSCs) Climate Justice Charter process for South Africa. Both these organisations, through their grassroots-driven activism, recognise the need to urgently build systemic alternatives and solidarity between progressive civil society actors, movements, trade unions and other working class formations. The time to build alternatives and alliances is necessary now more than ever in the face of worsening climate crisis-linked shocks and extreme weather events, which are and will continue to hit the poor and the working class the hardest.

The deep roots of the Climate Crisis

The climate crisis is affecting every sphere of life and its effects are beginning to worsen. The world is recording the hottest temperatures on record for the past three years.  Extreme weather events like Hurricanes in the America’s, wild fires across Europe, typhoons in Asia, flooding in India, droughts on our continent, including South Africa stand out. Sea levels are also rising, placing many low-lying communities, populous coastal cities and island states in jeopardy.

Climate change is the result of a 150 years of carbon (coal, oil and gas) driven industrialisation. The rich industrial countries owe the world a climate debt. China and India are also now on this carbon treadmill. All the science is telling us that if we want to stop a 2 degree celsius overshoot, we have to stop extracting carbon now. If we breach 2 degrees celsius, run away global warming is a likely outcome. This will undermine the conditions that sustain life on planet earth, for humans and other life forms. We are currently at over 1 degree celsius increase since pre- the industrial revolution and are already experiencing the impacts of catastrophic climate change. South Africa, as a water scare country, will have more regular and longer droughts in a climate driven world.

For the past 20 years the United Nations has not provided transformative solutions for the climate crisis. Instead, market solutions like carbon markets, carbon off-sets, geo-engineering and expensive nuclear have been promoted. The US has refused a regulated approach to bringing down carbon emissions. Instead, it has stalled, obstructed, delayed, weakened and has now undermined the multi-lateral approach to climate change. After 20 years of failed multi-lateral negotiations that world is sitting with an ineffective ‘Paris Climate Agreement’.Today the US under Trump is poised to eclipse Russia and Saudi Arabia as the main producer of fossil fuels in the world. This gives license to more fracking, tar sands and carbon extraction. Currently, carbon still dominates the global energy mix and renewables are not taking off, according the International Energy Agency. A sector like globalised agriculture contributes about 40% of global carbon emissions and is also not part of the decarbonising conversation. Petro states, carbon capital, finance capital,  imperial power and the failed UN system are causing the climate crisis and are driving us into the age of the Anthropecene in which capitalism is endangering planetary conditions that sustain life.

Who will be Affected?

Climate change marries social and climate inequality. This means climate shocks like droughts have greater impacts on the working class and poor. For example, the recent drought in Cape Town had a severe impact on the natural environment, but its economic impacts were felt by workers. One of the economic impacts was that food prices went up significantly because of how the droughts affected crop growth, making some basic food items such as bread unaffordable for many working class families. Farm workers were also affected by the drought, because instead of using water saving techniques, and cutting back in other ways, in the interest of profit, many farm owners fired and evicted their farm workers. Water costs also went up to police consumption through Day Zero while the rich bought water, developed boreholes or they went on holiday. In the case of farmers (who control most of South Africa’s water) they held on to most of what they had.

The food and water crises, especially the ones seen in Cape Town recently were made worse by privatisation and mismanagement. With these failures, and in the face of the climate crisis, food and water resources will become even more scarce, therefore making it even more expensive and less readily available to the most vulnerable. Work will also become increasingly precarious. This means that climate justice is an important aspect of the working class struggle, and it is imperative that trade unions take this up and champion this cause. Climate justice is at its core, a working-class struggle.

The energy sector in South Africa is also facing a major crisis. The major mining houses have now reinvented themselves as global corporations. Along with the collapse of commodity prices these corporations are pushing major restructuring efforts, with tens of thousands of jobs being lost. In addition, South Africa’s current energy policy commits to a carbon-intensive future. The shift to a decarbonised and climate justice path will not be the outcome of polite lobbying of government ministers and policy makers. To achieve this, we must form a new working class led political bloc drawn from organised labour; community-based social movements representing the unemployed; community organisations; environmental justice organisations; and the new intellectuals of the radicalising student movement. Trade unions will play a critical role in this. Climate change will most negatively affect the poor, and workers. This means that trade unions (at least their members) will have the most to lose by ignoring climate change.

Below we introduce two organisations in South Africa who are strengthening the building blocks of this new political bloc as they develop tools and processes to train and mobilise communities around climate justice struggles towards a deep just transition.

 The Solution: A Deep Just Transition

The Co-operative and Policy Alternative (COPAC) and the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign (SAFSC) are championing grassroots driven approaches to address the climate crises and promote a deep just transition in South Africa. COPAC was established in 1999 as a grassroots development NGO. COPAC has identified the food, water and climate crises as three of the most important challenges of our time. In response to the systemic nature of these crises, COPAC believes that the only sustainable way forward is for us to advance systemic solutions towards a deep just transition.

A deep just transition involves a complete break from fossil fuels, and a transition to a low or zero carbon society done in a manner that limits the negative impact on workers and communities. Further, the deep just transition isn’t only about energy and climate jobs, but it is about food, transport, water and all major social systems. For COPAC, the deep just transition is about sustaining life now and into the future.

But how can a deep just transition be achieved? What are these systemic solutions? Drawing from COPAC’s experience in the development sector for 19 years, coupled with international examples and theory, it has realised that a deep just transition must come from below by a people-led push for alternatives. Examples of this include food, seed, water  and energy sovereignty, the solidarity economy, indigenous knowledge systems, socially owned renewable energy, and climate jobs. COPAC’s recent endeavours actively promote two of these alternatives, namely food sovereignty pathways and water sovereignty, as discussed below.

Grassroots-led Alternatives: Food and Water Sovereignty

In 2014, COPAC, together with the Foundation for Human Rights and other grassroots NGOs, hosted inter-provincial dialogues on the right to food. Out of these dialogues the idea of a food sovereignty campaign was established, one that would provide a platform to unite movements, sectors, communities and organisations championing food sovereignty. This platform was realised in early 2015 with the launch of the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign (SAFSC), as a loose alliance.

Despite limited resources of member organisations, SAFSC has had a notable impact in the food sovereignty sphere in South Africa as it has initiated a number of activities at national and local levels. It hosted a hunger tribunal (2015), national bread march and drought speak out (2016), drafted a People’s Food Sovereignty Act and launched it at a people’s parliament (2017), engaged government departments with the Act (2017) and hosted national and local activist schools (2015-2018). The drought, its links to climate change and its disproportinate impacts on workers and the poor have been central to these campaign interventions. Hence the SAFSC is now championing food sovereignty pathways to feed communities, villages, towns and cities, in this new phase of its activism.

In March 2018 COPAC coordinated a dialogue with parliament, SAFSC and local water activists on the water crisis and People’s Food Sovereignty Act in Cape Town. This engagement was guided by two grassroots tools developed by COPAC and SAFSC, namely the Act and an activist guide on water sovereignty. In addition, dialogues were kicked off in Mitchell’s Plein, Elsies River and Rylands with local activists and community organisations.

Grassroots activist tools are one of the key ways that COPAC seeks to promote popular education and activist training in communities. These tools encourage deeper understanding about the systemic nature of the various crises we face. They also seek to combine progressive ideas from international examples with local struggles and solutions. Building grassroots capacities to overcome these crises is one key step towards a deep just transition.

One notable tool is COPAC’s activist guide on water sovereignty, entitled ‘Building People’s Power for Water Sovereignty.’ The purpose of the guide is to democratise knowledge on water so that people can be empowered to become water activists who can work in their communities to build sustainable local solutions to the crisis. COPAC aims to go further with this tool and process and reach beyond local formations to build alliances and momentum for a grassroots-driven climate justice charter process, as discussed below.

The people’s climate justice charter process: Building momentum and alliances with civil society for a just transition

What started out as a water charter process is now about a climate justice charter for South Africa, given the connections between climate, energy, water, food, production, consumption and finance that has emerged in numerous dialogues. In coming months a participatory process  will evolve through a series of dialogues across South Africa. It will also be a grassroots-led process that will provide a platform for input from environmental justice organisations, grassroots movements, affected communities, working class organisations, unions and citizens using social media. The Charter will be launched at a people’s assembly in 2019. Through this process, COPAC and SAFSC aim to build a strong red-green alliance for climate justice in South Africa that can transform the state into a climate emergency state and create the space for systemic transformation from below.

No shortcuts towards a deep just transition

It is clear that solutions to the climate, food and water crisis cannot come from the current capitalist system. There are in fact no short cuts. More climate shocks mean more misery for the working class and the poor. COPAC and SAFSC believe that it is imperative that progressive civil society works together to form a new working class led political bloc. The climate-crisis-induced water and food crises affect us all and the struggle should be first and foremost the struggle of the poor and working classes. COPAC and SAFSC recognise this and invite input from all organisations, unions and working-class formations to join them in this long, difficult, but life-sustaining  journey towards a deep just transition. Without mobilising united working class and popular power, the climate crisis will destroy South Africa. We need to act now.

The People’s Food Sovereignty Act and water activist tool can be accessed at


Vishwas Satgar is the Board Chairperson of COPAC, Jane Cherry is a COPAC Organiser, Aaisha Domingo and Courtney Morgan are in-turns at COPAC. All are South African Food Sovereignty Campaign activists.


By Natalya Dinat

ANC, South Africa and the world in crisis, where to?

I will be focusing on the crises in healthcare as a facet of the capitalist crisis. Characterised by the commodification of health care services,  a result is poor quality, inefficient, expensive and often inappropriate health care.   Firstly, I will provide some examples of how increasing marketisation has adversely affected health outcomes. Then I will ask whether an equitable healthcare system is possible in a market driven environment and can current ANC policy take us there, if healthcare remains a for-profit commodity.

Healthcare is a key area for struggle, since everyone is directly and immediately affected, also because it has an obvious link with food and water safety and sovereignty; climate and environmental crises; gender equity; and adequate housing. I will end by inviting a discussion on the need for a rigorous Marxist analysis of healthcare terrain to guide a response on a way forward for an equitable health service.


Commodification of healthcare

In recent times healthcare has emerged as an area where mega profits may be made for little risk.   Mckee and Stickler argue that the healthcare industry has taken a cue from the military-industrial complex. They describe the formation of the military-industrial complex as  “…A powerful coalition of general and chief executives talking up the threat from the then Soviet Union exaggerating the so called  missile gap and seeing threats where none existed.  The goal was not to protect the USA, but to transfer vast sums of money from the federal budget to the coffers of the corporations and ultimately to those generals”. They go on to show that “this model has been emulated widely. For example, the security- industrial complex” – where corporations like G4S are beneficiaries of billions of dollars and euros on ineffective airport security, Olympic security and prison security.

Mckee et al, find that healthcare goals have been redefined by moving priorities away from those most in  need, such as those with infectious diseases, (TB, malaria), away from the ageing  with chronic diseases and away from  the mentally ill toward those who’re essentially well.

In South Africa, a stark example is in the private sector where there is an upward of 85% Caesarian section rate.  A surgical operation which when performed for healthy pregnancies carries a 2.3-4.8x increased risk of death of the mother, and a significantly increased morbidity for mother and child (including increased blood loss, wound infection, post- partum depression, failed breast feeding – and its sequelae).  The World Health Organisation recommends a CS rate of 10-15% in a healthy population. They state that upward of that can only incur more harm.  Although detrimental to the health of women, the 85% CS rates does produce more profit for the medical industrial complex than vaginal deliveries.

Market driven healthcare misdirects research priorities and resources. For example, pharmaceutical companies spend more on marketing than on research, and more on diseases of the wealthy than diseases which kill poor people.  Redefining normal is another marketing ploy, for example,  The recent redefinition of  “normal” surrogate markers of lipid (cholesterol), has increased the sale of cholesterol lowering drugs, but not deaths from heart disease,  also a  recent attempt to change the normal for  vitamin D levels has made an ‘epidemic of vitamin D deficiency’ .

The sugar industry together with the  US government (via  the all- powerful lobbies) have hidden research findings on sugar and promoted poorly conducted research blaming  fats as the cause of  heart disease. An increase in sugar intake has resulted in a rise in obesity, type two diabetes and heart disease. Over-prescribing antibiotics has led to the emergence of multi- drug resistant infections.

The proponents of market deregulation are turning their attention tothe health medical industry as their next opportunity to make a huge profit, and they will use all means to defend this obscene profit, by blaming the individual for their own health problems, as in 1850s the poor were told that they were of low morals and lazy, and that is why they remain poor.  By keeping people sick, weak and in debt they are less likely to assert their democratic rights and also the democratic spaces close down.


Low and middle income people suffer

The poorer households pay disproportionally more for health care. Lower income earners or the unemployed are also more sick and more frequently sick than wealthier incomes.  Those with medical aids are also affected as they often face a co-payment pay for useless, expensive imaging tests, and non-proven treatments.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), (2014) the total amount spent on healthcare in SA wasn’t very different to other countries:

SA: 8.8% of the country’s GDP;

UK: 9.12%of the country’s GDP.

However the differences become apparent when looking at the ratio of private spending on health versus government spending.

Private spending is 51.76% of the total amount spent in 16% of the population.

Government spending is 48.24% (including funding of public hospitals and government medical workers);

Medical aids account for 82.8% of private healthcare spending.

This is a stark contrast to countries like the UK.

83.14% of medical spending comes from government;

Only 16.86% is spent by private citizens;

Medical aids only make up 20.41% of private spending on healthcare.

I would argue that no matter how well regulated the medical industrial complex is, it cannot serve two masters, whose needs are often in conflict with one another.  It cannot serve the health of the individual and population, and at the same time make super profits. The BBC reported in 2016 “outrage” when Forbes reported on enormous profits made by the pharmaceutical industry.

Last year, US Pfizer, the world’s largest drug company by pharmaceutical revenue, made an eye-watering 42% profit margin.  Pharmaceutical companies have the largest profit margin of all industries.

Stakes are very high in this area, with powerful political lobbies prepared to go to extreme lengths to protect this cash cow. It may explain why many battles in this arena seem to have David and Goliath characteristics. But history shows us that workers in particular, once organised, have won significant advances.


Is a ‘good’ healthcare policy in the current funding framework in SA enough to withstand effects of commodification?


The horrors heard during the Life Esidemeni Public Arbitration hearings is a stark but unsurprising example what can happen in healthcare.  Policy, the PFMA, even well-meaning Boards, and other fail-safe measures became inadequate when up against the lure of profits and the need to serve two masters.

Whilst Chief Justice Moseneke’s findings are important and need to be implemented, as are those of the  Health Ombudsman and the Premier of Gauteng’s task team.  Can they adequatelyprevent such a disaster?  Should we be fighting for more?  Even in the UK, profit motive is largely understood to be behind the Grenfell fire murders.

A health report commissioned from another time and place found that loss of lives, are not the result of a few rotten apples, but will happen again and again as long as healthcare is commodified,  the findings ask:

‘and what of an army of well-trained civil servants… the law existed, the civil servants were there – and the people died in their thousands from starvation and disease’

These words were written by Virchow in his report in the Typhus epidemic in Upper Silesia in 1848.  Virchow is widely regarded as an early proponent of social medicine.

He states  “I later had no qualms in making known these conclusions… they can be summarised briefly in three words: full and unlimited democracy” [1]


 Healthcare services to mobilise communities

It would be useful to examine whether provision of various worker/ community led healthcare services contributed to the strengthening of the left/ or national health services. The example of Tredegar in Wales was in some ways the progenitor of the NHS.  In the late 19th century, workers began to form their own medical societies. The most successful of which was in Wales, in a mining town – the Tredegar Workmen’s Medical Aid Society.  By 1945 they had clinics, dental care, a hospital, and 23,800 members of a population of 24,000. Paid for by contributions based on income, care was free to men, women and children at the point of delivery. Aneurin Bevan, a miner and a socialist, was intimately involved in the project and so it heavily influenced the formation of the NHS when Bevan was minister for health the Attlee’s Labour government.

In the 1970s in California the Black Panther Party started free clinics in communities. Inspired by the Freedom Charter they declared:



We believe that the government must provide, free of charge, for the people, health facilities which will not only treat our illnesses, most of which have come about as a result of our oppression, but which will also develop preventive medical programs to guarantee our future survival.

The clinics were successful in that they filled a gap for neglected diseases prevalent in those communities, such as sickle cell anaemia. They were able to recruit and raise political awareness in the community, but not to go any further. Comparing ideological stances of the two examples above perhaps give us pause for thought for today.


 The struggle for a national health service in UK

Prior to 1946, in Britain, healthcare was provided for by churches and charities. Opposition to the NHS was led by the British Medical Association, a conservative organisation which had lifted the status of some barbers and physicians from below an apprentice to a professional class.  They were closely allied to the emerging capitalist class and had systematically hounded women with folk knowledge and knowledge of midwifery, making it illegal for them to continue their practices.  Bevan was forced to make compromises;  the GPs refused to be employed and  were privately contracted in.  The starting price tag was twice that originally envisaged, but within 10 years, being sick was not a source of worry for working class men and women.  However, in 1980’s under Thatcher’s free market onslaught, the NHS started to be sold off to Biscuit manufacturers and record company moguls. Once again vast sums of money were being transferred from state coffers to private hands, on  an almost risk free enterprise.  These Government/confectionary  bosses  then find that there is no money (i.e. no profit) to pay for the elderly, dying but will pay for expensive treatments of diabetes of too much sugar found in biscuits. The Left was not able to fight these changes after the systematic destruction of the trade unions by Thatcher and later Blair, but now a new Labour manifesto promises to return the NHS to its former state-owned glory.

A common misperception is that the much admired universal healthcare and free education just occurred naturally within a capitalist system in the Scandinavian countries.  The truth is that only after bitter fought battles by strong trade unions and socialist parties had insisted on equitable healthcare (in Finland from  as early as 1909),  that  healthcare system was won, through labour strikes, street battles and a strong parliamentary left. To succeed in the fight for healthcare,  requires a robust ideological stance, and the stomach for hard  political organisational work.


Possibilities for South Africa

Healthcare is an ideal rallying point for “the Left” in South Africa.  It affects everyone; is linked to jobs; housing; food and water access and to direct experiences in climate change.  It may be possible to unite the Left (spectrum of ideologies) for a national health system, free at the point of access and universal coverage.  Is de-commodifying health care possible in a capitalist economic framework via parliamentary reform?  It has been done in bankrupt postwar Britain, in post war torn poverty stricken USSR, in Cuba despite economic blockade.  It cannot be unaffordable if the profit factor has been removed.   The current ideological vacuum and lack of mobilisation in this area, has been filled by Parties like the EFF, who have made equitable healthcare their rallying call for 2018 which will be heard and understood by many South Africans. It is important to counter this populist approach.

The NHI project in South Africa, has not been the answer thus far because:

  • It does not decommodify healthcare provision. As evidenced by the ideas of running ‘pilot clinics’ to show how it works.  It is essentially a financing mechanism, so a pilot clinic cannot demonstrate any outcomes.
  • inadequate support from its own authors, the ANC, or the left when it is attacked by medical industry (SAMA, Pharma, and other ‘experts’ on health)
  • it already has capitulated on issues of contracting out GPs
  • the lines of accountability and areas of responsibility on Government are confusing and inaccurate – between national and provincial health authorities, provincial government, between technical HODs and political heads.  This serves private health interests, since more profit is to be made in the confusion, but is antipathetic to a system of universal health care.  So perhaps a first campaign can be linked to that and directly linked to the outcomes at Life Esidemeni.
  • does not align with the NDP, or other government plans.



Virchow concluded, in his report in 1848, what he labeled radical political recommendations,   Polish as an official language, democratic self government, separation of church and state, and the creation of grassroots agricultural cooperatives. He says that capital and labour must at least have equal rights and the living force must not be subservient to non-living capital.

As Contemporary Marxists, we need to locate the contemporary issues in Marxist theory. Today- I would like to see a left analysis of  the causes of Life-Esidimeni, the listeriosis outbreak, high CS rates in the private sector and inadequate access to CS in the public sector.

History shows us that consistently it is the trade unions, poor, socialist parties who have fought the battles in and out of parliament for free equitable health care.

Profits may be OK for  the cosmetic industry and automotive and other industries, but health,education housing, transport, food, water and energy should not be subjected to the unregulated market.


Author: Natalya Dinat grew up in London, as a child of political exiles, so experienced first hand the NHS in the 60’s and the beginning of its demise in the 70’s. She is, by training a Medical doctor, trained in the USSR, as an  ANC  cadre (1984-1991),  Specialised in OBGYN and worked at Wits and Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital,  left the state sector in 2011 and was  in private practice until last year. Her unit, through Wits has received grants from  Pharmaceutical companies and local and international  AID organisations  to conduct research, mostly HIV, women’s health, public health and clinical trials and end of life care.




[1] Excepted from Virchow RC collected essays on Public health and epidemiology 1848 Vol 1 Rather LJ  ed, Boston Mass, Science History Publications; 1985;204-319