Issue 181 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review


Historic compromises

In South Africa, Palestine and Ireland political positions which seemed frozen for years have begun to melt in the past year. But what do the changes add up to? Alex Callinicos, Mike Simons and Judith Orr report
No change in South Afica's squatter camps
No change in South Afica's squatter camps

South Africa

The world seemed to stand still when South Africa went to the polls in April. Tens of millions of black people voted for the first time in their country's history. Their action, and the victory of the African National Congress under Nelson Mandela to which it led, seemed to be the culmination of decades of bitter struggle against apartheid. It was all the more remarkable as Mandela himself had spent nearly 27 years languishing in jail, finally released by the apartheid regime in February 1990.

Voting for the ANC was far more than a symbolic act. For the black masses it was an affirmation of the demands that had driven forward the decisive battles of the 1980s--for jobs, housing, education, in sum, for a better life.

The most striking thing about the nine months since the election is how few and tiny the steps the new ANC government has taken towards realising these demands. ANC leaders seek to justify the slow pace of change by arguing that they came to power as a result of a compromise with the established order, and that consequently they have little room for manoeuvre.

It is true that, in line with the constitution agreed between the ANC and the apartheid regime, Mandela presides over a coalition government including representatives of the old order. One of his deputy presidents is FW de Klerk, leader of the National Party, the party of apartheid. The home affairs minister is Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, leader of the tribalist Inkatha Freedom Party, who wants to stop democratic local elections taking place in his KwaZulu fiefdom.

But the restraints imposed by the coalition are not sufficient to explain the government's lacklustre performance. It was ANC MPs who voted huge salaries for themselves and even larger ones for government ministers. It was left to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu to denounce this 'gravy train'.

Meanwhile, down below, in the townships and squatter camps very little has changed. One of the most burning issues is housing. Yet the ANC dominated national and provincial governments have still to launch the massive house building programme promised at the election. One of the few concrete steps was taken recently by Joe Slovo, housing minister and leader of the South African Communist Party. He signed a deal with the banks and building societies designed to make it easier for blacks to obtain mortgages. In exchange he promised that the state would take responsibility for evicting mortgage defaulters.

This agreement is part of a government assault on what it calls the 'culture of boycotts'. During the 1980s massive boycotts of rates, rents, and electricity bills developed in the townships as part of the struggle against the regime. Far from attitudes changing under the new government, the number of boycotters has actually risen since April!

One of the most defiant groups are ex-combatants belonging to the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK). They are supposed to be integrated into the new South African National Defence Force. Recently the former commander of MK, Joe Modise, now minister of defence, dismissed 2,000 of his men and women for protesting against the conditions under which they are being integrated.

Meanwhile a series of investigations into government hit squads under de Klerk serve as a reminder that the security forces remain, despite a few ANC figures at the top, essentially those who so brutally defended apartheid.

Elsewhere in the government there are more dubious plans for South Africa's new international role. One NP minister, Dawie de Williers, wants to set aside a 'sub-region' where imported toxic waste can be dumped. The state weapons company Armscor has a similar plan to earn foreign exchange by offering a remote part of the Northern Cape as a bomb disposal site.

ANC supporters have attacked these proposals. But they follow from the logic of the general policy being pursued by the government--namely seeking to make South Africa a competitive unit of the world market. As the fine print on the much touted Reconstruction and Development Programme--centrepiece of the ANC's promised reforms--begins to appear, the continuity between this government's economic thinking and that of its NP predecessor becomes more striking.

One of the best known socialists in the government, former trade union leader Alec Erwin, has struck a pose as deputy finance minister little different from a Tory chief secretary to the treasury eager to cut public spending.

The biggest threat to these policies comes from the ANC's most important support base, the unions. The initial strike wave after the elections was snuffed out eventually, thanks to the efforts of the COSATU leadership. The federation's congress reaffirmed its commitment to a partnership with the government and big business. But more recently there have been some militant strikes, for example by bus drivers in Johannesburg and municipal workers in Cape Town.

These struggles serve as a reminder that the ANC came to office thanks to the emergence in the 1980s of a powerful independent workers' movement. That movement has, however, been held back by its commitment to the politics of negotiation and compromise. Those politics are, however, likely to come under increasing pressure as the ANC becomes subject to the test of government.

Those who want to realise the hopes raised in April will have to look elsewhere--to those such as the SWP's fast growing sister organisation, the International Socialists of South Africa, who are seeking not a compromise with the old order, but its overthrow.


The killing of Islamic fundamentalist activists outside a mosque in Gaza by Yasser Arafat's Palestinian police brought home how much Arafat is being used to control his own people.

A year of peace in the Middle East has brought Nobel Peace Prizes for Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. It has produced a spectacular economic boom in Israel. Israeli politicians and business leaders are now looking forward to a massive expansion of trade into previously closed Arab and African markets.

Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, was also awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, but few ordinary Palestinians have seen any benefit from the autonomy treaty signed a year ago. Arafat's declaration that the agreements were the first step to the creation of a Palestinian state looks increasingly like a pipe dream.

The deal which Arafat signed created the grandly titled Palestine National Authority but more Palestinians live in territories policed by Israel than in the areas of Palestinian autonomy. Israel has been slow to implement the limited transfer of power agreed with Arafat--effectively giving the PLO the powers of a local councll in the Gaza strip and West Bank town of Jericho.

Meanwhile the US, European Union, Japan and the oil rich Gulf states have been even slower in handing over aid. The Palestinian National Authority was promised £1,500 million aid over the next five years. In the first 'year of peace' just £140 million has been delivered. That is enough to pay the new PLO police and civil service but not to make any improvements to the appalling conditions.

Unemployment in Gaza, one of the most overcrowded and impoverished areas of the world, is running at 50 percent. Life is made worse because the Israeli authorities repeatedly seal off the strip, stopping thousands of Palestinian labourers earning their living in Israel.

Autonomy has failed to deliver material gains to the Palestinians and it has delivered little else either. Israel still holds 5,000 Palestinian prisoners, jailed during the Intifada uprising. The Israeli cabinet recently agreed to formally sanction the use of 'physical force'--torture during the interrogation of suspects.

Rabin and Peres have not disarmed Israeli settlers in Gaza and the West Bank despite the horrific massacre in a Hebron mosque by settler Baruch Goldstein. There has been no move to dismantle settlements. Indeed, the two year old ban on building new homes for settlers on the West Bank has been quietly lifted.

Inevitably Palestinian doubts about the accord have turned into deep disillusion. This has found expression in growing support for the fundamentalist groups Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad.

During the 1980s the Israeli authorities actively promoted Hamas as an alternative to the 'terrorist' PLO. Now, stung by spectacular Hamas attacks, the Israelis are demanding that Yasser Arafat's PLO police destroy the organisation.

Contrary to the image portrayed by Israeli leaders and repeated by the world's media, Hamas members are not a bunch of mindless killers, nor are they or their supporters homogenous. The organisation is split. Its more pragmatic leaders want influence within the Palestine National Authority. In effect, this means recognising Israel. They have been prepared to order military action to force the Israeli authorities and the PLO to give it a slice of power. However, each success by the military wing strengthens those within Hamas calling for total rejection of Arafat's deal with Israel.

The Israeli newspaper Haretz summed up the process:

In the last year Hamas has killed the chief of Israel's undercover operations in Gaza and a military chief of the West Bank. It organised a series of bombings after the Hebron mosque massacre, forcing Arafat and the PLO to offer Hamas places on the Palestine National Authority. When the Israeli authorities banned Hamas from running in elections the response was October's massive bus bomb which killed 23 in the capital Tel Aviv.

Each military success brings Hamas more support, but that support has little to do with a massive upsurge in religious sentiment. It is simply a comment on the fact that Arafat has conceded too much and delivered too little.

Arafat's response has been to bow to Israeli pressure and turn his police on Hamas supporters. It has hardly been a year of peace in Palestine and peace is unlikely to break out in the future.


Road block?
Road block?

Some of the most lasting images of 1994 will be of Gerry Adams being feted by the Irish government and being wined and dined by the rich and powerful of the United States. The man who was interned without trial by the British is now happy to sit at the negotiating table with representatives of Britain. The compromise that will result will most certainly fall a long way short of the united Ireland that has been the goal of the IRA and Sinn Fein since partition.

Adams claims that the IRA ceasefire is a sign of the strength of their side, saying the struggle for civil rights had started with marches from Coalisland to Dungannon but now it was going to the gates of the White House in Washington.

Sinn Fein's shift is about more than dressing up in the now familiar expensive suits. It is a direct result of the realisation that the military struggle on which Sinn Fein has based its strategy over 20 years, was going nowhere.

It is also significant that the past year has seen 7,000 people at a rally for peace called by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in Belfast and, amongst other strikes, the walkout by 4,000 mostly Protestant shipyard workers in protest at the sectarian killing of a Catholic workmate. The prospect of still more years of the military struggle has clearly been increasingly rejected by the mass of ordinary people.

When the IRA ceasefire was announced, the celebrations showed that for many working class Catholics also, the relief that their sacrifices seemed at an end overcame anxieties about how little if anything they'd won.

Now--after the initial euphoria--there is more questioning of what Sinn Fein has actually gained. The answer is simple--not a lot.

There are still 30,000 armed men walking the streets and though they have swopped their hard hats for berets and left their flak jackets at home, there can hardly be much comfort in that.

There is no amnesty for prisoners jailed for political offences and no sign of one in the near future. Attempts by the Irish government to release Republican prisoners were met with a barrage of Loyalist criticism and have been abandoned. The massive fortresses which loom over the Catholic ghettoes in the North are still manned, with cameras spying into people's homes. Talk of a 'peace dividend', money saved on security going instead to creating much needed jobs, has not gone beyond vague assurances that both the US and Britain will help with investment.

The right of each community to police themselves is central to talks and is also claimed as a victory. Sinn Fein has proved its credentials in towns such as Derry where they have been happily working alongside the middle class SDLP for some time. Any attempt to uphold a radical face has long since been ditched in favour of being seen as being fit to share power. Those looking forward to getting the hated RUC out of their areas should note that the IRA's punishments of drug takers and joy riders and the smashing up of raves shows that they have no qualms about being tough on their own community.

There is now no pretence from the Republicans that Protestant workers have any common cause with Catholics, as the idea of two separate communities with their own culture and different interests becomes common currency. But if Sinn Fein are happy to see ordinary Protestants being represented by a bunch of middle class reactionary bigots, not all Protestants are. When a community worker from the Shankill recently phoned a radio programme on Radio Ulster about the need for a Loyalist working class party, more people phoned in response than ever in the programme's history.

The new Unionist parties that now claim to talk for Protestant workers can offer nothing but a crude rehash of the sectarian policies that the main Unionist parties have been spouting for years. Major's plans to now talk to Loyalist gunmen as well as Sinn Fein only reinforces the idea of two tribes with different agendas.

Loyalism can offer nothing to workers. It is the politics of uniting across class--everyone from a shipyard fitter to his boss through even to the queen.

The crisis which blew up in the South last month also demonstrates how fed up Southern workers are with the corrupt Fianna Fail government and its friends in the Catholic church. The pan-nationalist politics of Gerry Adams have got nothing to say to these workers. In fact Adams rallied to support Albert Reynolds, the now departed Irish prime minister who was a main architect of the peace deal.

The calling of the ceasefires means that socialists have a unique opportunity in future months to point to an alternative tradition in the Irish working class. It is a tradition with a long history that is ignored by both Republican and Loyalist leaders. They appear content to accept sectarian divisions just at the time when it is possible to challenge them.

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