Lessons from the fight against Apartheid in South Africa

Understanding the history of the fight against Apartheid can help explain why black poverty still persists today, argues Paddy Gibson

Twenty years on from Nelson Mandela’s historic release from Apartheid’s prisons, the overwhelming majority of black South Africans still languish in poverty.

South Africa is the most unequal country on earth. Poverty has increased in urban areas since 1993. At least two-fifths of the workforce is unemployed—a rate higher than in the Apartheid era.

The defeat of Apartheid was a massive blow against black oppression. It was driven by the mobilisation of millions of black workers and township residents. It was an inspiring movement, and contained so much promise for overthrowing the system that created these horrible conditions.

But the history of South Africa since the overthrow of Apartheid illustrates why capitalism itself has to go.

The roots of Apartheid

South Africa was formed in 1910. The regime was white, but overwhelmingly the population was black. Cheap black labour was needed for economic prosperity. Apartheid emerged as a way to control this labour.

Hundreds of thousands of blacks entered a growing manufacturing labour force through the 1930s and 40s. The South African Board of Trade and Industries wrote in 1945:

“The detribalisation of large numbers of Natives congregated in amorphous masses in large industrial centres is a matter which no government can view with equanimity. Unless handled with great foresight and skill these masses of detribalised Natives can very easily develop into a menace rather than a constructive factor in industry.”

Apartheid was formally established in 1948, with the election of the National Party to government. All South Africans were officially divided into three categories; white, black (African) or coloured (mixed race). All public and economic life was regulated by the segregation of these groups.

A new labour bureau was established to control black workers. Officially, all blacks were considered “citizens” of one of the Bantustans—small reserves within the rural areas of the country—rather than of South Africa. Tenancy in urban areas remained totally reliant on the discretion of the bureau. Blacks were banned from taking strike action or forming unions.

Resistance to Apartheid

These conditions inspired resistance in many forms. Nelson Mandela was a founding member of the “Youth League” of the African National Congress (ANC) in 1943. They were influenced by the militant wave of nationalist, anti-colonial struggles sweeping the world. Similar to many of these struggles, leading youth league members tended to come from the educated, privileged sections of the black community.

Black oppression placed serious barriers in the way of improvements of the social conditions and economic development of their communities, and they were outraged by the extreme hardship faced by the black masses.

They could not ignore the power of black workers, who periodically exploded in resistance. In 1946 the African Mineworkers Union initiated powerful strikes against the system of migrant labour. They were brutally repressed.

For Marxists, the development of workers’ power provides the basis for a fundamental transformation of society. But the ANC saw workers’ struggle only as one of many tactics. They sought to unite all classes in South Africa in the struggle for national liberation.

The 1955 Freedom Charter, still formally adhered to by the ANC today, expressed these contradictions. It says, “the people shall govern… the people shall share in the country’s wealth” and calls for “nationalisation of the mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry”. But Mandela immediately ruled out a socialist reading of this clause, saying, “the break-up of these monopolies will open fresh fields for the development of a prosperous, non-European bourgeois class”.

At Sharpeville on 21 March 1960, police opened fire on a mass demonstration of workers refusing to carry their passbooks—required identification for all blacks. They killed 69 people. Thousands were jailed in the aftermath of the massacre. The ANC was banned. Its leading cadres went into hiding and the movement went into retreat as the regime declared a state of emergency.

So the ANC looked to the strategy of guerilla war, which was striking major blows against colonial powers from Vietnam to Algeria.

But these were mainly peasant societies. In an increasingly urbanised and industrialised South Africa, this tactic was futile. Much of the organisation’s energy was focused on the development of Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), the military wing of the ANC.

Following a spate of MK bombings, Mandela and other ANC leaders were arrested and jailed.

The storm breaks

In 1973, a wave of spontaneous strikes, involving more than 60,000 black workers, shook the Durban-Pinetown area. They forced significant concessions from the Apartheid regime. Only 0.2 per cent of the strikers were prosecuted, wages were increased and new legislation was introduced removing the ban on black strikes. This political victory came as the global economy boomed, which improved the position of the black working class.

In the mid-70s black unions expanded rapidly, representing 70,000 members by 1977. From 1970-75, African wages rose by 6.6 per cent, compared to 1 per cent for white workers, a redistribution of wealth unprecedented in South African history.

This growing strength underpinned the re-emergence of mass political struggle against Apartheid itself. In June 1976, thousands of students joined demonstrations in the black township of Soweto in protest against learning in Afrikaans, the language of the Apartheid regime.

Students drew inspiration from their striking parents and the recent victories of black liberation struggles in Angola and Mozambique.

Police opened fire and murdered more than 500 students. A revolt spread immediately across South Africa, from the streets into the factories. 1976 saw three “stay-aways”— political general strikes. They were met with savage repression—mass detentions and a ban on “black consciousness” organisations. The public record shows 700 blacks were killed by October 1977.

The populist politics of the ANC had little to offer the uprising and the brave students leaders at its head lacked experience. Many thousands went into exile, often across the borders to join the ranks of MK guerillas. No political force existed that could systematically co-ordinate the potential power of the workers movement with the fighting taking place on the streets.

Between reform and revolution

The onset of global recession drove both the growing politicisation of the workers’ movement and the brief lull in struggle during the late 1970s.

From 1975, the Apartheid regime, facing stunted economic growth, became less willing to grant wage demands and turned increasingly to repression.

In 1980, a new cycle of township rebellion began, centred on the Cape. The Apartheid regime was scrambling to tweak its regime of exploitation and relieve some pressure. A section of black workers in urban areas were granted permanent tenancy and reprieve from the “passbook” system. In a similar vein Indians and Coloured people were granted their own chamber of parliament and ministerial positions and new town councils were established, with greater “autonomy” over black areas.

Black trade union membership trebled from 220,000 in 1980 to 670,000 in 1983 as bitter fights raged over wages and increasing unemployment. In 1982, 100 miners were killed and thousands more deported in a major wave of riots and strikes.

The workers movement was constantly gripped by debates over strategy. The dominant faction in the union federation COSATU, which included the Stalinist South African Communist Party (SACP), were known as the “populists”. They argued for subordination of industrial struggle to the political leadership of the ANC. They proposed a mechanical “two stages” theory of revolution lifted from Stalinism. They believed that the authoritarian political system of Apartheid was stifling the economic development of South Africa as a whole. They argued that the material foundations for socialism would only come after a period of parliamentary democracy and “black capitalism”.

The second major faction, known as the “workerists”, articulated a syndicalist perspective. They placed a primary emphasis on questions of class and the need for independent trade union organisation.

Despite these divisions over strategy, both the rising power of the workers movement and growing township revolt propelled South Africa’s leading trade unionists towards unity. Between 1984-86 the scale of struggle was so great that large sections of South Africa become literally ungovernable. Township streets were under the control of militant black youth.

There were four general strikes in 1984, 22 in 1985 and 26 in 1986. A general strike on May Day in 1986 involved 1.5 million workers.

In response to this upsurge, the regime declared a state of emergency. 26,000 people were arrested between 1985-87. The power of “Bantustan” leaders, who had developed a strong material interest in Apartheid, was also mobilised to crush grass-roots power.

Buthelezi, the Chief Minister of the KwaZulu Bantustan, fought anti-Apartheid militants for control of the streets, slaughtering more than 200 people to put down an uprising in Alexandria in February 1986. Another 662 people died in Pietemaritzburg in 1987 as a result of the fighting.

The tensions over strategy reflected the contradictory consciousness of workers across South Africa. On the one hand, people were increasingly feeling their own power in struggle and beginning to imagine the possibility of seizing control of their workplaces and fundamentally restructuring society. On the other, many workers had a political allegiance to the ANC who were focused on the transition to formal equality and parliamentary democracy within the confines of capitalism.

The defeat of a major National Union of Mineworkers strike in 1987 came with a broader victory for the “state of emergency”. More than 60,000 mine workers were sacked. Mass incarceration had forced township militants off the streets.

While they had done brilliant work on the trade union front, syndicalist leaders refused to build any political alternative that could provide revolutionary leadership to the movement. Millions of workers had moved into open confrontation with the Apartheid state but had neither the politics nor the organisation to harness the insurrectionary sentiment and seize power.

In this political void, much of the syndicalist leadership was pulled in behind the ANC strategy of alliances with “progressive” bourgeois forces and a negotiated transition. COSATU officially adopted the Freedom Charter in 1987 and increasingly began to put out joint statements with the ANC calling for negotiations with the regime.

Mandela actually initiated such negotiations at the height of the uprising in 1985. While undergoing treatment in hospital, Mandela very publicly refused an offer to be released from prison on the condition that he renounce violence—but began secret talks with Justice Minister Coetsee.

By 1987, the Apartheid regime had regained control of the streets and workplaces. But it had been sufficiently rattled to realise that Apartheid could not continue indefinitely. The decision to release Mandela happened alongside public commitments to political restructuring.

The transition from Apartheid

Over the ensuing period, the leadership of the ANC, COSATU and the South African Communist Party (SACP) worked overtime to convince white capitalists they were capable of taking over the political reigns and becoming responsible managers of South Africa.

This process was far from smooth. Conservative forces in South African politics attempted to stifle the transition. And the black masses consistently renewed mobilisation, taking the transition into their own hands and demanding it deliver an end to crippling oppression.

1992-3 saw a return to the streets as negotiations broke down. In August of 1992, a four million strong general strike crippled the country. In April 1993, general strikes again broke out in response to the assassination of the left-wing General Secretary of the SACP Chris Hani. Mandela appeared on television calling for calm—the ANC leadership had no control over the street fighting and stop work actions.

Here was a power capable, not just of toppling Apartheid, but of seizing the wealth held by white capitalists and putting it to work for the black majority. But the ANC were terrified of losing the support for transition amongst the white ruling class. And the leaders of the SACP and COSATU kept insisting that socialism would have to wait until some distant future.

The ANC abandoned all former commitments to nationalisation. They began talking about “redistribution of wealth through growth” —not from rich to poor, or from white to black. Through 1993, COSATU began to be incorporated into state economic planning boards, sitting alongside corporate leaders and publicly supporting the need for wage restraint to support economic growth. In the lead up to the 1994 elections, 68 out of South Africa’s top 100 businessmen backed Mandela’s campaign for President.

In South Africa’s first democratic elections, held in May 1994, the ANC received 63 per cent of the vote. But despite the jubilation that greeted this historic victory, the commitment of the ANC to running South African capitalism brought it into conflict with the black masses almost immediately.

The ANC government savagely repressed nurses and municipal workers striking for higher wages in 1995—using the same police units and same weaponry as the Apartheid regime.

Some public spending programs gestured towards the ANC’s former promises of economic equality. Perhaps one of the most significant of these was the delivery of free health care to all infants. A reconstruction and development program promised 125,000 houses in the first year of the ANC government—but delivered less than 11,000.

Overwhelmingly it was the politics of neo-liberalism, the same policies being implemented by ruling classes around the world, which came to characterise the approach of the ANC. They implemented massive cuts to company tax, waves of privatisation and attacks on union rights.

A strategy of “black empowerment”, lifted from the Mugabe dictatorship in Zimbabwe, was employed in an attempt to change the face of economic power. A number of big companies recruited blacks into the boardrooms. A handful of powerful black enterprises, incubated by the state, have become major players within the ruling class.

But white settler and foreign capital still control more than 80 per cent of South Africa’s economy. A tiny minority of blacks may have joined the ruling class in their opulent suburbs. But these still sit alongside massive squalid slums inhabited by the black majority. This extreme class segregation is a product of capitalism and a characteristic of all former colonial societies, no matter the colour of the regime.

South Africa today

Despite the betrayals of the ANC leadership, the spirit of the anti-Apartheid struggle has remained very much alive. Privatisation has been fought both with mass strikes and direct action at the township level. For example, a massive community-union campaign defeated attempts to patent AIDS medication over 1999-2003.

In the 21st century, South Africa has registered the highest level of protest actions per person in the world. And in recent years, splits have emerged in the ANC between leadership figures continuing to preach wage restraint and “redistribution through growth” and grassroots militants furious at worsening poverty.

In 2007, more than a million public sector workers undertook weeks of strike action against wage restraint and led the biggest general strike since the end of Apartheid. More mass strikes in mid-2009 provided the background to the ousting of president Mbeki for Jacob Zuma, who had promised to break with neo-liberalism. COSATU and the SACP have began discussions about breaking their tri-partite alliance with the ANC—the bedrock of post-Apartheid rule.

These are promising signs. But the lesson of these last two decades is that black oppression and crippling poverty cannot be reformed away—they lie at the heart of South African capitalism. Strong political organisation is needed to take the explosive struggles of the exploited black majority beyond reformism and nationalism—towards revolution.

By Paddy Gibson


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