South Africa at the Crossroads?

August 30, 2012 6:00 pm

They were scenes reminiscent of the infamous ‘Sharpeville Massacre’ at the height of the racist apartheid regime. The police murders of 34 striking miners, at the Lonmin platinum mining company at Marakan, revealed the true nature of the present South African government.

The promise of the historic ending of apartheid in 1994 lies in tatters. Instead of a racial apartheid, we have the continuance of an economic apartheid. The majority continue to live in the squalor of townships, with 40% unemployment, the AIDS epidemic, rising crime rates and one of the biggest wealth gaps in the world. But this tragedy did not drop from the sky. Poverty, class divisions and the crisis of a failed capitalist system have played a primary role in the devastating scenes relayed across the world on August 16. This industrial dispute was the latest in a long line of workers defending their livelihoods as the political and economic elites continue to enrich themselves.

The Apartheid State

A former colony of Britain, South Africa’s white minority rulers ruthlessly exploited its black population as a source of cheap labour in the lucrative mining and other industries. Massive profits encouraged foreign capital and multinational companies to invest in a low wage economy. Oppressive pass laws, restricting freedom of movement to disenfranchised black workers, and the imposition of poll taxes, ensured the continuation of a system based on racist laws.

Post 1945, war-weary European powers’ direct control over their colonies began to unravel, not least on the African continent. Nothing terrified the white rulers of South Africa more than the prospect of majority rule such as took place in the likes of Algeria and elsewhere. In the USA, the growth of the Civil Rights movement gave inspiration to many black liberation groups.

Freedom Charter

The main opposition group in South Africa was the African National Congress (ANC), founded in 1912, which was to join forces with the banned South African Communist Party (SACP).

The leadership of the ANC, which included Nelson Mandela, issued its own ‘Freedom Charter’ in 1955. Their historic mission, according to Mandela, was ‘to create the conditions for the rise of a prosperous non-European bourgeoisie’, namely a rich, black , capitalist middle class. Mandela was  the descendant of a chief of the Thembu tribe and became involved in politics as a law student at Fort Hare University. He joined the ANC and participated in their non-violent protest movement (inspired by Ghandi’s methods). It was the political dead-end of peaceful protest, easily ignored by the government or violently abused, as at the Sharpeville Massacre, that decided a frustrated Mandela to become head of the ANC’s military wing. It was his terrorist activities that led to his eventual 27 year long incarceration for which he became a cause celebre.

Having no traditional links to the labour movement, like other thwarted middle class revolutionaries, Mandela turned to the cul-de-sac of terrorism where a small group of activists believed violence could substitute for an organised mass movement. In reality, such bombing campaigns only give the state the excuse to introduce more repressive laws and infuriate the people that the terrorist was intending to ‘liberate’. As a result of another purge of the ANC, their leadership and activists were either forced into hiding, moved into exile or were imprisoned.

South African Communist Party

Founded in 1921, influenced by the 1917 Russian Revolution, the SACP made headway in recruiting many white workers in the mining industry. The bosses attempted to divide and rule black and white workers by relaxing the ‘colour bar’ in the mines to give supervisory roles to black miners. A call was made by SACP activists, introducing a class perspective, to unite against management. This led to  a successful recruitment drive to the party and forged eventual affiliation between the ANC and the SACP. Unsurprisingly, the SACP was also banned by the apartheid authorities and had to work clandestinely.

Soweto Uprising

A rising students’ movement grew from strength to strength in the early 1970s, initially based on conditions in education and ‘black consciousness’ in general. Its most prominent leader, Steve Biko, began to build links with black workers’ whose unions were not officially recognised. Biko was banned from making public speeches but his movement grew rapidly. By 1976, the government demanded that only Afrikaans or English should be spoken in schools. A massive strike broke out. In Soweto, on July 16, a 20,000-strong demonstration was fired on by police, killing around 700 schoolchildren. It was an incident that was to inflame further opposition against apartheid, compounded by the death in custody of the students’ leader, Biko, a year later.

Workers’ Unity

It was the willingness of the organised working class, represented by the trade unions, that was to deal with the deathly blows to apartheid as they came to the fore of the struggle. The accumulation of international sanctions, pariah status and economic conditions encouraged black and white workers to come together to form the most effective of union federations, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). Representing more than two million workers, COSATU was at the forefront of a wave of public sector wage strikes and a series of general strikes that were met with brutal reaction by the forces of an increasingly desperate state. Throughout much of the 1980s, the bloody struggle unfolded on our TV screens as the apartheid system pulled out all the stops to maintain its rule using methods such as removing people from the towns and cities, breaking strikes, assassinations, relying on murderous white extremist groups and dividing black sections against each other – such as using the Zulu ‘Inkhata Freedom Party’ under Chief Buthelezi.

When De Klerk came to power, he knew the game was up for white minority rule. He began to negotiate with Mandela to take the heat out of the revolt. He proposed Mandela’s release for a powershare with the ruling white National Party, with promised elections for South Africans of all races. 1994 saw the historic advent of black majority rule under the Tripartite Alliance of the ANC/SACP/COSATU.

Shift to the Right

However, the ideological changes of the international labour movement worldwide did not exclude the organised workers’ associations in South Africa. The move towards ‘monetarism’ in the 1970s/1980s, as a result of the 1973 oil crisis, that had aggravated a global economy already in recession, meant labour movement leaders offered little resistance or belief in a viable alternative. The fall of the stagnating ‘communist’ world further compounded the jettisoning of even the slightest semblance of a planned economy or nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy. Full blown capitalism seemed to be the ‘only game in town’ as many workers’ parties and their representatives recanted even the very word ‘socialism’.

Accordingly, many on the left began to believe in ‘managing’ capitalism better. Within a few years of the fall of ‘communism’, the short-lived triumphalism of the capitalists was revealed – the ERM recession in Europe, the ‘dot.com bubble’ burst across the Asian economies as Japan’s economy stalled, and, later still, the international banking crisis.

Crisis of Capitalism

The ANC/SACP/COSATU Tripartite Alliance has failed in its promise to provide for the needs of the people they represent. In June, 2006, South Africa’s biggest public sector strike took place as inflation began to bite. In 2007, 200,000 miners took strike action around issues of safety as 200 miners had died in the name of profits. In September, 2008, Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki was forced to resign, replaced by his rival, Jacob Zuma, as cracks appeared in the Tripartite Alliance.

The former anti-apartheid leadership has atrophied, having been sucked into government and lucrative administrative posts. Party hacks and union leaders sit on the company boards. Tellingly, former colleague of Mandela, Cyril Ramaphosa, once the leader of the NUM, owns 15% shares of Lonmin and sits on their board. It is unsurprising that the NUM is prepared to accept low wages and that workers are forming breakaway unions to represent their interests.

But, when the combined interests of the bosses’ union, the new political elite, big business and the capitalist system unite, they call in the men with the guns.

Only the next period will show whether the struggle will succeed on a higher level.

It’s not about race…it’s about class.

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  • Johnny S

    Excellent article and highly interesting to read – I know very little about this kind of stuff in South Africa so I’m glad someone has to knowledge to share it. Thanks 🙂

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