What is the status of the South African state’s War on Poverty (WoP)? We don’t really know, because it is one of the most clandestine operations in SA history, with status reports kept confidential by a floundering army in rapid retreat from the front. Initially, the WoP appeared as a major national project. Early hubris characterised the wa r, as happens in most, with victory claimed even before then-president Thabo Mbeki officially launched it in his February 2008 State of the Nation speech. Five months earlier, Trevor Manuel bragged to Parliament that South Africans in poverty “dropped steadily from 52.1 percent in 1999 to 47 percent in 2004 and to 43.2 percent by March this year”.
In August 2008, a national “war room on poverty” was established in the office of Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Something akin to a “total strategy”, to borrow a 1970s phrase, was meant to include low-intensity warfare techniques such as: welfare grants (old-age pensions, child and disability grants) and short-term Extended Public Works Projects jobs (usually no more than six months in duration) as well as high-profile shock-and-awe tactics, such as delivery of water to schools. In late 2009, President Kgalema Motlanthe unveiled a special weapon: self-help. Instead of soldier-bureaucrats doing the fighting, winn ing the WoP would be outsourced to the masses.
The government’s BuaNews reported that Motlanthe “is of the opinion that such an approach will force people to help themselves out of poverty”. But would the people “help themselves” (and the state) in the WoP, or instead continue to harbour the enemy in their houses? Would the masses fight dependency, or instead continue nurturing a psychological thug deep within their hearts, minds and homesteads? Frankly, not enough is known about WoP to answer these questions. Those leading South Africa’s WoP established a secret society, as can be discerned by checking the WoP’s empty website or requesting research information directly from the webmaster.
British management consultant, Ian Houvet, a WoP mercenary who runs the site when not working for Barclays and Vodafone UK, replied to me, “I am afraid the WoP website is for government officials associated with the WoP only and therefore access cannot be granted. ” The problem goes deeper than a secrecy fetish. Unlike the apartheid era “Wham” (winning hearts and minds) strategy, when Pretoria maintained a lasting commitment to “oil spots” and other pacification strategies during the War on Black People, there really isn’t enough action on the current WoP front to merit journalistic interest. WoP reporting ceased nearly entirely this year, aside from unreliable SABC and BuaNews journalists hopelessly embedded among bureaucrats and politicians. With WoP off the media radar screen, the only information we have about the state’s infiltration of enemy ranks with the new self-help artillery are filtered dispatches by civil servants.
Yet, although genuine battles by the poor against the state were raging across the country, the next official sitting of the WoP was only in April, when General Motlanthe returned to rally troops and inspect weaponry at Ground Zero, the Eastern Cape’s Lubala village, where the f irst shots in the WoP were fired in 2008.
There, confessed Eastern Cape Premier Noxolo Kiviet, “lack of co-ordination and integration of government services” meant that “only 30 percent of the households surveyed received all the services needed”.
Those services were bravely aimed to hit the enemy hard, but were obviously too few to defeat poverty on home turf: seedlings and fencing “in more than 19 households”, water and sanitation for Lubala Primary School and water tanks for 15 households; and “about 15 young people have been trained in areas such as first aid, chainsaw operator, health and safety, personal finance and accounting”.
Useful as these incursions were in the tiny Protected Village of Lubala, the rest of the country was in flames. Poverty was clearly winning the WoP. Of course, in any such war, troops will be lost to friendly fire, such as seemingly ubiquitous “service delivery protests” – many initiated by members of the ruling party – that turn the state’s attention from attacking poverty to attacking the poor themselves.
The poor, in turn, reacted by blocking roads, burning down state buildings and attacking councillors in townships ranging from small Mpumalanga dorpies in the mountainous east, to the big-city ghettos and highways on the plains of the Western Cape. Poverty was by now bunkered in and heavily fortified. From time to time the enemy would emerge in the form of toyi-toying youth, who could manoeuvre with seeming ease around desperately outnumbered local police.
Amid thousands of battles, one this year was especially illustrative. A police Casspir entered the township of Ogies, Mpumalanga, on the auspicious date of March 21, and found itself surrounded by poverty. According to police spokesman Leonard Hlathi, the Casspir was “irreparably damaged” after being “outrageously attacked” when ambushed. A SAPA reporter explained the tank trap: “an improvised spike strip to puncture its tyres. Th ree of the heavy vehicle’s puncture-proof tyres were blown out when it drove over the spikes, that were camouflaged with branches.”
Petrol bombs followed. “Nothing working remained in the vehicle,” said Hlathi. “Only the steel hull remained.” Thankfully, police personnel escaped, but did wound the enemy (with live ammunition) as they shot their way out of the trenches.
The proximate cause was familiar enough, desertion: “The Ogies protest started on Thursday, when a march was held to hand over a memorandum to representatives of the provincial government. It is alleged the authorities did not turn up as requested. The people went on rampage, barricading the roads with burning tyres and burning down property.” Back in the War Room that weekend, the WoP must have appeared as a fully-fledged class war, unwinnable under the country’s prevailing economic conditions, given the motley coalition of power brokers in the alliance and the continuing vice-like grip of uncompr omising, neoliberal Treasury and Reserve Bank officials.
A million jobs had been lost over the prior year, and the macro-economic “recovery” was accompanied by further job-shedding. The poor were advancing relentlessly, and the WoP looked as bogged down as US troops in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Pretoria’s forces were obviously confused and confounded, their anti-poverty strategies, like Maginot lines, easily broken through by a clever enemy.
On this shaky new terrain, trickle-down grants were simply not good enough to stem the broken dikes. Poverty – and especially the poor themselves – fought back tirelessly, with sticks, stones and petrol bombs, retreating into the shack settlements and township alleyways before sallying forth for yet more outrageous attacks.
Finally, state strategy took a new turn. Three days after Ogies, Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform Gugile Nkwinti dropped a bombshell: the WoP would be relocated to his department . Apparently the generals had decided that one of their fronts, towns and cities, had become too dangerous. After all, a January report of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development prepared by Cape Town academics declared that in recent years, “poverty incidence barely changed in rural areas, while it increased in urban areas”. Thus a crucial component of the new plan is, apparently, retreat.
But a tough question must be asked: is the War on Rural Poverty’s new leader fighting fit for a counterinsurgency against peasant guerrillas? Nkwinti’s most recent audit reveals resource abuse comparable to the US Pentagon and Halliburton in Iraq: “A total of 5.9 million hectares had been redistributed since the end of apartheid, but 90% of that land was not productive.” According to Nkwinti, there is a clear reason his money is going to waste: the beneficiaries’ own inability to “continue producing effectively and optimally on the land”. The poor obviously want ed to remain poor.
As a result, the counteroffensive would require a new tactic: financial starvation of the desperate landless. According to a recent WoP dispatch, Nkwinti’s department “failed to pay R3.4bn in post-settlement grants to beneficiaries of land reform, with potentially damning consequences”. Then, suddenly, in June, in the wake of the silent surrender on the urban front and the rural fiscal squeeze, another disaster emerged in the countryside: the colonel directing the troops apparently walked off the job. Nkwinti’s director-general, Thozi Gwanya, resigned. But in secret, like the WoP itself.
Aside from WoP saboteurs in the DA who issued a press release about a mysterious, allegedly damning auditor-general’s report, no one else breathed a word about this traitorous act. Days later, the alleged departure was denied, described as a “malicious” report by Nkwinti’s department. Yet, within four days, Gwanya was finally acknowledged as a genuine casu alty. The battlefield carnage was now too close to home. Just as Pretoria lost its previous war, against Cubans on the outskirts of the Angolan city of Cuito Cuanavale in 1988, it was impossible to disguise the bodybags of high-profile WoP warriors (then it was younger white men, now older ANC politicians).
Two of South Africa’s supreme WoP leaders, respectively, were fired and went Absent With Out Leave: Mbeki and Mlambo-Ngcuka. Motlanthe may yet get more SABC coverage, but where a fighting spirit is required – among generals like Nkwinti, colonels like Gwanya and especially ordinary bureaucrat-grunts – it has obviously fizzled. Pretoria’s last-gasp strategy, even if dangerously short-term and lacking the bread that comes with the old Roman circus (and we know what happened to that empire), was to place 32 squads of mostly imported football players across the country and simultaneously introduce millions of Chinese-made vuvuzelas, as a quaint but at least briefly ef fective distraction.
However, actually winning the WoP does seem utterly impossible, given the balance of forces, the leadership, the chosen weaponry and the economic terrain upon which the battle rages. So it’s probably best for Pretoria to not even talk about this struggle any more. The War Room is best isolated within the state’s least effective ministry, and the secret dispatches can continue being left off the web. If Pretoria is lucky, no one will notice. Then, if one scenario plays out – a quiet state surrender in the WoP – history can finally begin.
Initiatives that might genuinely move South Africa to a post-class-apartheid society can get under way. Service protests can move from chaotic, self-destructive and sometimes xenophobic ruptures, to a national movement of poor and working-class residents. Trade unionists, community activists, immigrants, environmentalists, feminists, gays/lesbians and all the other oppressed can finally unite. That would me an, however, that the Poor would be victorious in the WoP, a scenario too ghastly for Pretoria to contemplate, but surely a better outcome than the present quagmire.
Bond, director of the UKZN Centre for Civil Society, is co-editor of a forthcoming book, Zuma’s Own Goal: Losing South Africa’s War on Poverty.