Issue 64 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Autumn 1994 Copyright © International Socialism
The defeat of apartheid in South Africa was one of the greatest achievements of the working class movement in decades. It was gained by the militant struggles of black workers which forced the white regime to the negotiating table. Those struggles were a challenge to racist stereotypes and equally to the idea that the methods of strikes and demonstrations are outdated and ineffective. The African National Congress's victory in the elections in April this year has opened a new chapter in the struggle. South African workers no longer face the institutionalised racism of apartheid. Instead they confront the 'normal' racism that capitalism has created throughout the world, and the poverty, bad housing, unemployment and low wages that the bosses' system imposes.
Millions of black people voted for the ANC because they believed it would deliver on its election slogan of 'Peace, jobs and freedom'. They have found very swiftly that, although they have won political rights, other more fundamental changes will require a fight using the same methods that were used to topple apartheid.
In the first three months after the election there was an explosion of struggle. Car workers, shop workers, traffic policemen, print workers, postal workers, court officials, health workers, municipal staff and dozens of other groups launched powerful strikes. Big demonstrations paraded through all the major cities. The strikers and protesters found that very little had changed. The police were still brutal and anti working class. They still used rubber bullets, teargas and dogs to break up pickets. Hundreds of trade unionists were arrested for daring to argue for solidarity outside strikebound workplaces.
A deeply challenging period has opened in South Africa and practically every day real activity demonstrates more truths about the nature of the state, the roots of racism and the power of the working class more forcefully than most of the millions of words that have been written about that struggle.
But to really understand what is happening now there are some books which are very useful. Looking at the history of South Africa and how apartheid developed shows that it is capitalism which has been the enemy of the black majority and where the power lies to defeat capitalism. Anyone inspired by the present battles will be interested in the working class and the trade unions--their history and their politics. The unions have been the crucial factor in the modern period. The central core of the battle against apartheid was the black working class. The state could torture and murder activists, it could infiltrate and repress community organisations, it could murder the guerillas sent to challenge its military might. But it could not destroy the unions or blunt their economic power.
Where the unions came from and how they were built are the subjects for several good books. Look at Dennis MacShane's Power!,1 Steve Friedman's Building Tomorrow Today2 and Jeremy Baskin's Striking Back, a history of COSATU,3 all of which have lots of useful information. Baskin leaves out some things and distorts others where the union leaders were opposed by the rank and file, but it is still a very helpful background. Friedman is right to say that the union movement has 'given powerless people a chance to yield power for the first time in their lives'.4 The modern union movement was born after a wave of strikes in 1973 centred on the area around Durban. Despite immense repression it grew, slowly, during the 1970s so that by the end of the decade it clearly posed a real potential threat to apartheid's rulers. They responded by calling for a professor to investigate the unions. His plan was an attempt to co-opt workers before their strength was too great:
The unions' potential strength meant they must be controlled--their present weakness means this should be done soon. It would, the report argued, be far healthier to allow the unions to register at an early stage. This would counter polarisation, ensure a more orderly process of bargaining and expose African unions more directly to South Africa's trade union traditions and the ensuing institutions thus inculcating a sense of responsibility to the free market.5
Rarely can a ruling class have been more wrong. As Baskin shows, the unions exploded from small organisations to major players during the 1980s. In 1982 they were able to hold their first political strike of the modern era--a half hour stoppage involving 100,000 workers in protest at the death in police custody of organiser Neil Aggett. By the mid-1980s their involvement in wider political issues meant that other groups felt confident to appeal to their strength. In 1984 a student organisation said:
The boycott weapon is not strong enough against our common enemy, the bosses and the government. Workers, we need your support and strength in the trade unions. We students are ready to help you struggle against the bosses in any way we can. But today we need your support.6
This involvement in political issues did not mean that the unions simply did what the nationalist organisations told them to. From the start the majority of people who built the unions argued for the need to do more than act simply as a prop to the ANC. They had seen what happened in Zimbabwe where a white minority regime was overthrown but workers still faced poverty and the repressive anti-union laws used by the previous government. When miners' union leader Cyril Ramaphosa opened the founding conference of the COSATU trade union federation he had to reflect that feeling:
If workers are to lead the struggle for liberation we have to win the confidence of other sections of society. But if we are to get into alliances with other progressive organisations, it must be on terms that are favourable to us as workers. When we do plunge into political activity we must make sure that the unions under COSATU have a strong shop floor base not only to take on the employers but the state as well. In the next few days we will be putting our heads together not only to make sure we reach Pretoria but to make a better life for us workers in this country. What we have to make clear is that a giant has risen and will confront all that stand in its way.7
Of course while nodding towards these sentiments the majority of union leaders have always argued for a tight alliance with the ANC. The second conference of COSATU adopted the ANC's Freedom Charter which was very far from being a socialist document. Most of the individual unions took the same path.
After the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the anti-apartheid organisations in 1990 the ANC saw many strikes and protests as 'destabilising' and unhelpful in coming to a negotiated settlement with the representatives of the National Party. The union leaders were vital in helping to argue for this line--although they also had to reflect the concerns of their members and were sometimes forced to call action even when the ANC was hesitant to do so.
It is the same situation today. The union leaders both urge faster and more fundamental change while doing their best to curtail the frequency and scale of open battle against the employers and the state. It is on this terrain and around these issues that the most important struggles will take place in the coming period. Again Baskin's book is a useful starting point. He writes:
The union movement is used to being labelled a disruptive force, and blamed for inflation, unemployment and a variety of other ills. Union leaders are accustomed to being called 'communists', 'terrorists' and 'agitators'. In the past unions have dismissed these charges, secure in the belief that they represented the interests of the great a majority of the population. The unions can expect to be accused of disruption even in the post-apartheid era. The charges will be packaged differently: There will be less talk of 'communists' and more of 'sabotaging national reconstruction'. The unions will have to take these allegations seriously, especially since they come from a popularly elected government. COSATU is attempting to face this challenge by developing a comprehensive programme for union involvement in social and economic reconstruction.8
The first two thirds of Baskin's analysis has proved spot on. It took Nelson Mandela just a few weeks to turn from praising the unions as crucial in the defeat of apartheid to castigating militants precisely for failing to make the shift from 'resistance to nation building'. The last third of Baskin's prediction has turned out quite differently. Certainly the trade union leaders have secured an input into the plans for reconstruction. Former general secretary of COSATU Jay Naidoo is a minister in the cabinet, charged with overseeing the implementation of the Reconstruction and Development Plan. Other ex-leaders of trade unions have found similar positions.
But the real concerns of the majority of workers have been ignored in favour of seeking alliances with domestic and international capital. Nelson Mandela has rammed home the message that 'scaring off foreign investors' is the greatest danger at present and that there is nothing worse than strikes to upset international capitalists. The first budget saw the ANC renege on its promise to remove VAT from basic goods. It also cut the major element of business taxation and left the rich almost untouched. There is much talk of housing expansion, but in practice the homeless still have only their shacks and the squatters face repression at least as vicious as during the apartheid era.
South Africa is now an explosive mix of heightened expectations, people who have felt their power and their ability to change society during the defeat of apartheid, and a strong trade union movement. But the trade union leaders will, just like their counterparts in the rest of the world, seek to limit the struggles to the boundaries imposed by capitalism and the market. Perhaps some of the most useful reading that anyone could do about South Africa at the moment would be to look at some of the classic Marxist accounts of reformism and the trade unions. One South African trade unionist I know recently described Cliff and Gluckstein's Marxism and the Trade Union Struggle9 as 'the best book to understand what's going on now even though it's mainly about another country 70 years ago'.
How does the union movement fit into the wider history of South Africa and what forces have emerged on the left? For a very basic introduction to the country's history look at something like Apartheid: the Facts10 or The Apartheid Handbook.11 These are just beginnings but give you a sense of the inhuman nature of racism in South Africa. Much of their material is also, thankfully, out of date. The 'homelands', the forced removals and the laws assigning people to racial groups have been banished to the museum of capitalism's atrocities. But we should not forget.
For a fuller treatment there are three 'classic' histories. They are J J and R E Simons's Class and Colour in South Africa 1850-1950,12 E Le Roux's Time Longer than Rope13 and Tom Lodge's Black Politics in South Africa since 1945.14 I think Lodge's is the best account of the later period. Simons's is more centred on the working class than Le Roux--but all of them are well worth a look.
At the centre of these histories is the ANC, and the authors, although very sympathetic to the ANC's political perspectives, cannot help but show some of its deficiencies. Simons and Simons make clear how timid the early ANC was:
The leaders of Congress were intellectuals and trade unionists, but the trade unionists were too weak to set the pace. The clergyman, lawyers, writers, teachers, clerks and chiefs who founded Congress or who decided its policies were constitutionalists who aspired to political equality within the framework of parliamentary government. Until the 1950s Congress was a radical liberal movement which never envisaged anything so far-reaching as the socialisation of the land, mines, factories and banks.15
The ANC was radicalised by the struggles of the 1950s--the bus boycotts of Evaton and Alexandra in the mid-1950s, the campaign against the destruction of Sophiatown, the women's struggles and the beginnings of intervention in trade unions. These battles increased the pressure from below from a new generation of activists for a less deferential organisation. One indication of that was the adoption of the Freedom Charter in 1955 which promised, in very general terms, to provide fundamental reform in the interests of workers and the oppressed. But Lodge makes it clear that the ANC's shift, although real, was limited:
In 1955, despite its increasing sensitivity to the preoccupations of the least privileged, and despite the increasing strength of its links with worker organisations, the ANC was not a movement strongly oriented towards the working class. The endorsement of the Freedom Charter reflected the changing character of the movement's leadership: in contrast to the previous decade it was younger, less affluent and more likely to be drawn from a legal, trade union or non-professional background than the politicians of the 1940s. But despite a more radical leadership the ANC was often slow and ineffective in its efforts to resist fresh infringements on existing freedoms and rights.16
This period also saw the emergence of an alternative reformist tradition to the ANC--the Africanist movement. They differed from the ANC leaders on two points--the role of whites and the relationship between leadership and spontaneity. Africanists believed that whites were allowed too great a role in the ANC, and they used as evidence the clauses in the Freedom Charter which guaranteed the rights and status of all 'national groups'. Without a clear statement of black leadership, they claimed, the psychological subservience of blacks would remain. Secondly, the Africanists claimed, the crucial role of an organisation was not to lead or direct the masses but simply to 'show the light' and let the masses find their own way. The Africanists, who split from the ANC to form the Pan-Africanist Congress in 1958, could often sound radical or even revolutionary. But in practice they have followed a very similar path to the ANC. If anything they have been less centred on the working class and its organisations.
For a detailed and interesting account of the battles before and during the Second World War, see Baruch Hirson's Yours for the Union, Class and Community Struggles in South Africa 1930-47.17 It gives a real sense of the fledgling attempts at union organisation and why they ultimately failed in this period despite heroic efforts. The 1960s were a low point of the South African struggle. After the banning of the ANC and the Communist Party and the arrest of many leading activists, the movement went into a deep lull. It seemed virtually impossible to hit back against such a well organised and ruthless opponent.
The Soweto rebellion of 16 June 1976, coming after the revival of the unions, showed that it was possible to fight. Two good books are Baruch Hirson's Year of Fire, Year of Ash. The Soweto Revolt18 and Denis Herbstein's White Man We Want To Talk To You.19 Hirson writes about the roots of the revolt in the growing anger among the pupils who were pushed though the school system that apartheid had developed. His is also one of the few books that looks in some detail at the Black Consciousness movement--although he still overplays the role of the ANC. Much of the impetus behind the Soweto revolt came from new organisations that had emerged during the doldrums of the 1960s: 'Its leaders spoke of black awareness and of black identity and this was a language that appealed particularly to students and intellectuals.'20
Herbstein's is a more journalistic account but what it lacks in theory it more than makes up for by conveying well the spirit of struggle. Despite the repression that followed the uprising Herbstein was far sighted enough to write that, 'After the 16 June 1976, only the most ostrich-like whites can still say that time is on their side. For the nationwide uprising constituted the first step on the long haul to black rule.'21 Nobody could read these accounts of great struggle without gaining a profound respect for the fighting power of the black workers and township residents who fought so courageously. They also prove that there is no tyranny which cannot be opposed and ultimately defeated if we use our strength.
One of the great debates on the South African left has been the precise nature of the relationship between capitalism and apartheid. The political implication was whether to form alliances with 'progressive' capitalists to destroy what was seen as a monstrously aberrant form of capitalism, or to centre on the struggles of workers against both apartheid and the bosses' system. The Marxist tradition has held that apartheid was not simply a monstrous system of racism. It had its own logic for a capitalist class which was seeking the best method to exploit South Africa's natural resources and its black workers. The full apartheid state was not established until after the 1948 election, but racial oppression has been a dominant feature in South Africa since the Dutch arrived in 1652.
There are a whole series of books and articles which were written in the 1970s to show that apartheid was indeed a product of capitalism rather than simply an irrational horror which could be cured by supporting a 'nice' capitalism. For those who want to delve deeper into South African history, these are interesting works although some of them are far from easy and assume quite a lot of knowledge.
Michael Williams's article 'An analysis of South African capitalism'22 and Martin Legassick's 'Capital accumulation and violence'23 might be in your local college library. They are now quite old but still exciting polemical writing. They insisted that the main struggle inside South Africa is between capital and labour and that this struggle would be the one that determined what happened in the future.
In the same vein a series of books showed that capitalism was the main feature of South African society from the late 19th century and that the traditional African societies had been destroyed. Look at Jeff Guy's The Destruction of the Zulu Kingdom24 and Duncan Innes's Anglo American and the Rise of South African Capitalism.25
The modern forms of racial discrimination emerged with the discovery of diamonds and gold and the need to recruit a vast black workforce to labour for very low wages in the hellish conditions of the mines. To drive African peasants from their land required decades of war, cruel laws and naked repression. It is process very well described in Vic Allen's The History of Black Mineworkers in South Africa.26 The strength of the book is its stress on the resistance by black people. In the early days of the 1860s and 1870s they simply walked away from the mine sites if they were not paid enough or if conditions became intolerable. To force them to work the employers and the state imposed taxes which had to be paid in cash, destroyed the agriculture which provided Africans with their basic needs and crushed independent African rulers.
Even this was not easy. Colonial rule was resisted fiercely and with some temporary successes. Far from melting away before the power of the Boers and the British, Africans frequently fought them to a standstill. The 'commonsense' notion that workers have no means of life except by working for a capitalist boss was imposed by a minimum of 20 years of war and by immense bloodshed. Vic Allen shows how resistance then continued in a new form in the strikes of 1913, 1918, 1920 and 1946 and discusses why the union was defeated.
A much, much more detailed study of part of this process is found in Noel Mostert's much praised Frontiers.27 It is a huge book which if it had been half as long would have been twice as good. It tells the history of the Xhosa people of the Eastern Cape who were defeated only after a century of war. No less than nine separate campaigns were necessary to subdue the Xhosas. Mostert has dredged up every possible detail and some of it is engrossing. But too often the meandering sentences lead nowhere--or into a semi mystical evocation of the 'African spirit'. You could not read this book without finding some fascinating insights. But it is far from a priority.
Allen's book is a much better introduction and so is Eddie Webster's Cast in a Racial Mould28 which looks at how the South African working class--black and white--was created. For a vivid account of conditions at the mines and the struggle to build unions, see Laurie Flynn's Studded with Diamonds and Paved with Gold.29
One of the most brutal and violent players in South Africa has been Chief Buthelezi's conservative Inkatha organisation. It has posed, fraudulently, as the defender of Zulu speakers' interests while butchering those among the majority of Zulus who dare to support the ANC or left forces. It has worked with the apartheid government to unleash a terrible township war and still has considerable power after its fixed win in the KwaZulu-Natal region in the recent elections. L Vail's The Creation of Tribalism in South Africa30 shows that the divisions which Buthelezi and the old government played upon are not rooted in centuries of ethnic conflict but were deliberately encouraged and deepened as instruments of policy to divide and rule the oppressed and exploited. As Baskin says:
To describe the Natal violence as 'black on black' is accurate only at the most superficial level. It ignores the role of the police and the army. It avoids detailing what is being fought for, and what is being opposed. Ultimately it is a deeply racist explanation implying that innate and savage violent tendencies among black people have caused the conflict.31
Mzala's Gatsha Buthelezi, Chief with a Double Agenda32 is good on the brutalities of Inkatha and the way Buthelezi has worked with apartheid. But it underestimates the way the ANC failed to confront, and even encouraged, Buthelezi at the start of his career. This failure and the constant compromises since have allowed Buthelezi to survive when all the other 'homeland' leaders were deposed. One of the greatest and potentially most dangerous compromises with murderers was to agree a crooked election result which gave Inkatha the majority in Natal, and allowed them several cabinet ministers. All the history of South Africa shows that cuddling closer to reactionary forces simply provokes more killing. When local ANC leaders objected to the deal in Natal they were told to shut up rather than encouraged to step up their struggles.
For the history and politics of the South African Communist Party, which was and remains a very significant player on the left and now boasts a clutch of cabinet ministers, see Simon Phillips's 'The South African Communist Party and the South African Working Class'33 in an earlier edition of this journal.
It will come as no surprise that I think the most useful way to understand South Africa is to read Alex Callinicos's books and articles. Reading South Africa between Reform and Revolution,34 a collection of writings over a decade, you can find particular stresses which were wrong in terms of immediate detail but the whole analysis is brilliantly sustained by its stress in three areas.
Firstly Alex always insisted on the need to centre the struggle on the working class. Their struggles were the only force which could guarantee the smashing of apartheid and their further victories are now required to bring genuine liberation. Secondly, the method of using mass struggle but focusing on negotiation and accommodation with the white state in order to remove apartheid has brought about significant change at the top but cannot offer a transformation for the black masses in their economic and social position. Alex wrote six years ago that if the ANC did come to power:
The African petty bourgeoisie would have a strong interest in ensuring that South African capitalism were as competitive as possible in the international arena, and in maintaining the flow of foreign exchange generated by gold exports. This would require appealing to 'discipline' and 'sacrifice' on the part of the working class, and if that were not forthcoming, attacking the workers' movement, as the Mugabe regime did in Zimbabwe in the early 1980s.35
Thirdly Alex has shown that it is perfectly possible both to argue for unconditional support for the ANC's struggles against apartheid and also to insist on going much further than the ANC's bourgeois politics and the need to build a genuinely revolutionary socialist workers' party:
The hope that socialism and nationalism can be reconciled under the ANC banner amounts to nothing less than an attempt to wish away the class struggle and the structural contradictions underpinning it. The nature of post-apartheid South Africa will indeed... depend on the 'actual correlation of class forces' at the time... But a 'favourable correlation' itself presupposes the political independence of the working class, which requires organisational expression in the shape of a revolutionary socialist party.36
Alex's Between Apartheid and Capitalism37 carries interviews with six leading figures on the South African left and in the trade union movement. It shows all the arguments that were current before the end of apartheid and remain relevant today. His short introduction sets out why President de Klerk was driven to seek a political settlement with the ANC. It exposes the government and Inkatha's responsibility for the political violence which saw thousands of people shot or hacked to death during the period of 'peaceful change' after 1990. The interviews are not only about South Africa but also take up the fundamental questions facing socialists after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Is some sort of market capitalism the only way forward? In the long term can capital and labour coexist amicably so that industry expands and the welfare of the masses improves? What do we mean by socialism and how can it be achieved? Devan Pillay, the editor of Work in Progress, says:
You can't talk about insurrection. Insurrection, I've come to believe, is a very dangerous concept in our time. It's loose and it's irresponsible. The left project is all about equipping ourselves theoretically and moving slowly and strategically in various arenas of struggle.38
Fortunately the workers, students and soldiers who launched an insurrection to destroy the Bophuthatswana 'homeland' before the 1994 elections, gain the right to vote and show a glimpse of what a revolution could be like, had a rather different vision of 'arenas of struggle'. Communist Party central committee member Jeremy Cronin admits, 'Although the October Revolution hasn't worked out as expected at all and reassessment is required, maybe there are other trajectories from October 1917 which we are still living out here in South Africa'.39
Alex insists throughout on the need for a socialist party, for evolution and for no reliance on other class forces. He bases himself on the tradition of 'militant abstentionism' by which he means workers' history of 'combining the development of strong workplace organisation with a refusal to take any responsibility for the management of South African capitalism'.40
One of those Alex interviews is Neville Alexander, a well known Marxist intellectual who has produced interesting work. After his release from imprisonment on Robben Island he wrote One Azania, One Nation41 on the national question and followed it with Sow the Wind42 and other works including The Language Question in South Africa.43 His latest collection, Some are more Equal than Others44 sums up his and the Workers Organisation for Socialist Action's position on current questions. These are undoubtedly interesting books which are well worth reading. They are an attempt to find an alternative to the ANC's version of national liberation and the Communist Party's vision of socialism. But they are marked by a failure to come to terms with what sort of society the Soviet Union was and the relationship between reform and revolution. Alexander virtually ignores the importance of the ANC's defeat of the National Party at the polls and has consistently argued that a military takeover is likely in the near future.
How can you find out about the struggles that are happening today and the contemporary debates on the left? Socialist Worker and Socialist Review carry frequent reports and analysis. The Socialist, the monthly paper of the International Socialists South Africa, the SWP's sister organisation, is also very useful. The Weekly Mail is a left liberal South African paper available on subscription. Work in Progress is a monthly magazine which carries lots of useful information about the trade union battles and the arguments about how to relate to the ANC and what sort of socialist party is necessary. South African Labour Bulletin is also good and gives a real flavour of the people and the discussions in trade union circles.
Finally, to jump media for a second, there are several films which are very good at conveying something of the reality of life under apartheid and the courage of those who battled against it. Mapantsula gives at least a glimpse of how life is really lived in the townships like Soweto and how the atmosphere of struggle drew in even the most unlikely people. There are heroes and villains, the cowards and the courageous, political people and people who care only about the next bottle of beer--and the film is all the more realistic for it. A Life Apart looks at the life and struggles of Ruth First, a Communist Party member. It is about both the viciousness of apartheid and also the nature of political commitment.
Cry Freedom is about the life and death of Steve Biko. Some critics accused the film of overplaying the role of Biko's white friend Donald Woods. But that is to miss the genuine power of the film and its total condemnation of apartheid. I was convinced of its strength during an afternoon showing in a near deserted cinema in Llanelli. Two 70 year olds who had originally entered to shelter from the rain were mesmerised almost from the first frames. At the end one turned to the other and said, 'Look at what they did to that poor black man. It's no wonder they fight, is it? I do hope they manage to win one day and get their own back.' Well, they did--and we all won with them. And they are still fighting.