The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

South Africa:
Apartheid Is Dead, but Capitalist Exploitation Is Alive and Well

Jul 30, 1994

Apartheid belongs to history. For three months now, Nelson Mandela has been president of South Africa, its first black president ever. The majority of his government's ministers come from the ANC (African National Congress). But his government of "national unity" has, in addition, six ministers from the NP (National Party), the party which established apartheid and then led the apartheid regime for 46 years; Frederik De Klerk, the last president of the former regime, is the vice-president of the new one. The new government also includes three ministers from the Inkatha Freedom Party – including its leader Buthelezi – which for years carried on a fight against the ANC in Natal and Transvaal, a real war which left thousands upon thousands dead. This war is, apparently or at least temporarily, stopped; as is the other war, the one waged by the racist extreme right with murders of activists, bombings and random shootings. Commentators say that it is demoralized because it could not prevent Mandela from taking over.

And yet, apparently, there is unrest today in South Africa – coming from the working class: that is, from those who had remained quiet during the previous three or four years, those whom every party involved in bringing about the change in the regime – the ANC, the NP, the South African bourgeoisie, the big capitalist companies which are settled in the country, the imperialist governments – were watching carefully for any possible reaction. The New York Times of July 23, reporting on several strikes, noted that "in the six months surrounding the April elections, South Africa has lost 1.2 million days of workers' time to strikes, up from 700,000 in the same period last year."

Of course, the fact that workers strike does not mean they have lost confidence in Mandela and the ANC, nor even that they are beginning to have doubts about the new government. But it does mean that, at least, they believe that, no matter how favorable the new government might be to the poor, they have to intervene themselves and fight on their own if they want to change the situation left to them by decades of apartheid.

These strikes show something else: that while apartheid has disappeared, and with it a monstrous and inhuman oppression; exploitation has not, nor have the exploiters. Mandela took office, but the capitalists kept their capital accumulated off of apartheid, their banks, their mines and their factories. It is all this privately owned wealth which indicates who holds the real power. And so long as the exploiters continue to control South Africa, there cannot be real freedom for the proletarian masses.

Although the big majority of the South African workers probably do not yet see this, the victory of the ANC and Mandela is not synonymous with the victory of the poor and the workers.

Racial Capitalism and Super-Exploitation

Apartheid was not just a system imposed by reactionary settlers and poor whites in an attempt to protect their privileges at the expense of the African majority. The crazy system of racial classification, which became more and more complicated and so even more and more crazy; the denial of all rights to non-whites; the concentration of the so-called coloreds and Asians in special areas; the deportation of the Africans to far away bantustans, deprived of South African citizenship, and thus turned into immigrants in their own country – all this had another aim and other consequences. It put a workforce without any rights at the disposal of the South African capitalists, big and small. Above all, this workforce had no right to organize in trade unions: that was reserved for white workers only. This workforce, living under the constant threat of being deported, was obliged to accept any condition the bosses wanted to impose.

This benefitted not only the farmers, who were still the main base of the National Party when it took power in 1948, but also the capitalists. In the rural areas, the condition of the black workers on the farms was close to serfdom. In industry, wages of black workers were kept unbelievably low: in 1966, in the construction industry, their wages were only 20% of the white workers' wages; in the mines – where the condition of the black workers, held quasi prisoners in the compounds during their contract period, was very close to slavery – their wages were less than 6% of the white workers' wages.

From the viewpoint of the capitalists, this system worked. Or at least, it worked until the working class and the poor masses entered the road of rebellion.

This super-exploitation transformed a country still largely underdeveloped into an industrialized country, the first real economic power in Africa. According to Martin Murray, in South Africa, Time of Agony, Time of Destiny, "On the eve of World War II, agricultural production and mining constituted the twin mainstays of capital accumulation, contributing more to national income than manufacturing and commerce combined. [In other words, the situation of South Africa was at that time close to the situation typical of the colonial or semi-colonial countries]. By 1975 the relationship had been reversed: manufacturing and commercial capital reached a point where they contributed almost half the national income and twice as much as mining and agriculture combined."

South Africa, during the period of apartheid, became the only really industrialized country on a continent which imperialism's plundering has prevented from developing. Today, it produces 90% of Africa's steel, 45% of its autos, 60% of its electricity, 40% of all minerals, tires, textiles and plastics. Even in agriculture, South Africa remains the main economic African power. Murray indicated that in the mid-1980s, it possessed nearly 45% of the tractors in Africa, and produced roughly one-third of all the continent's corn, while it caught about 30 per cent of Africa's total tonnage of fish.

No wonder that South Africa was an attractive place for the big imperialist powers: the U.S., Japan and Europe. At least until official disinvestment began – and probably after that also, but, of course, no figures for this are available – one half of all imperialist investment in Africa went to South Africa. Today, with the new regime, companies from the imperialist countries are very open about how eager they are to come back and invest again in South Africa. This stands in complete contrast with their attitude vis-a-vis the rest of Africa, from where they tend to withdraw the little capital they had invested before.

Of course, these foreign investments contributed to transforming South Africa into an industrialized country ... but above all, they allowed the imperialist trusts to take advantage of the super-exploitation of the black workers and to share in the benefits of apartheid.

A Powerful Working Class

One consequence of apartheid was to reinforce the class it was aimed at oppressing and subjugating. The more that apartheid made super-exploitation possible, the more the capitalists thrived; and so the more they expanded their factories and their economy, and therefore the more they had to hire workers and increase the workforce.

The regime could accumulate rules and laws; it could impose passes; it could increase the police and government offices – all in order to control the African people. But it had to let more and more of those Africans who had been deported to the bantustans come back, legally or illegally, to the big cities; it had to let them huddle in the townships around the big cities and the industrial areas. This accumulating of an African workforce was in the interest of the bourgeoisie, and apartheid could not go against this interest, whatever contradictions might be created for the regime.

By 1970, blacks were already the majority in all the large metropolitan areas, despite apartheid's original and official goal of reserving the cities for white people. Thus were created many urban agglomerations with millions of people: Durban, Capetown, Johannesburg, Pretoria, etc... Today out of 42 million people, 60% are said to be urban, and this is certainly underestimated. Nobody knows the number of inhabitants of the immense shantytowns around the big cities. With a large number of those living in the townships there illegally, few people respond to the census taker, when one even bothers to come by.

By 1981, four million people were estimated to be working in the so-called "modern sector" of the economy. (This figure, also, certainly underestimated, by several millions, the number of workers.)

And the immense majority of this workforce was black. Parallel to the increase of the working class as a whole, there has been another phenomenon: the shrinking, at least relative, of the section of the working class which is white.

In order to divide the working class and tie its white section to the bosses and the racist regime, apartheid had pretended to reserve some categories of jobs – mainly the skilled ones, but not only – for white workers. With the development of the economy, and the need for many more workers, this was less and less possible. One after another, the categories of jobs reserved to whites were occupied by blacks, first unofficially and then officially. White people were more and more found only in the jobs of foremen or guards, or kept in some sections of the state-owned sector, the post-office or railways for example, in jobs which often had no other justification than to employ the poor whites, who remained a base for the regime.

While growing, the South African working class was becoming, not only in its majority, but even essentially black.

The Upsurge against Apartheid

It was the working class which started the upsurge which was to lead to the end of apartheid. And it was the working class which maintained the momentum of a movement which lasted during twenty years of very tough and cruel fights.

A harsh repression had met the anti-apartheid struggles, mainly led by the ANC, during the late 1950s and early '60s. Mass demonstrations, particularly against the pass laws, were crushed by the police and the army, resulting in hundreds of deaths. The attempts by the ANC, the PAC (PanAfricanist Congress) or the SACP (the Communist Party of South Africa) to wage a military struggle were not more successful. Many leaders and activists were killed or at least imprisoned, as was Mandela himself. In the late '60s, the apartheid regime, which was one of the most dictatorial police regimes in the world, seemed all powerful. The oppressed seemed without any possibility to shake it, their organizations dismantled, their activists dead, in jail or in exile.

It was the fights of the working class which launched a new period of struggles. In 1973, a wave of strikes shook the country. The workers had neither rights nor organizations. The black workers' unions were not yet even embryonic. But between January and March of 1973 there were 160 strikes, affecting 146 companies and involving 61,000 workers. During the '60s, the total number of strikers had never reached more than 10,000 in a single year.

But from that point on, the working class did not stop its struggle, even though this struggle went through ups and downs. During the years from '73 until '76, the number of African workers who went on strike never declined below 30,000. This was the atmosphere in 1976, when the riots burst out. It was the students and the youth who led the confrontations with the police, which resulted in hundreds more dead. But this explosion occurred within the framework of a reawakening working class movement. The workers who joined the fight of the youth, in the streets of Soweto or other places, and who participated in stayaways which at times paralyzed some regions or even the whole country, gave the movement its full extension.

The class struggle continued during the next years, despite the repression. It was even during these years, the late '70s, that the first breaches were made in legal apartheid, imposed by the fights of the working class. Little by little, the rights of the black workers, as workers, were recognized. Their unions were accepted, first in practice, then legally. Facing an irresistible movement of organizing and strikes, the capitalists decided they had no choice; and the apartheid regime was forced to accept what the capitalists decided. After a new peak in the wave of strikes in 1980, recognition of the unions, which went on multiplying, was a fait accompli. By 1983 they could claim a membership of one million people. By 1985 when a large part of them regrouped to form a confederation, COSATU, this figure was far bypassed.

The working class was about to take part, and to play a major role, in the movement of 1984-85. This was the general rebellion which brought the South African bourgeoisie and imperialism to decide to look for ways to get rid of apartheid. Once more, the youth appeared to be the spearhead of the quasi-insurrections which at times drove the police and the army out of the townships. But the strength of the movement came from the participation by the entire population, and first of all by the workers, in the confrontations with the police and the army, in the demonstrations, boycotts and fights of all sorts which occurred over the next two to three years throughout the country. The participation of the working class made it possible for the many stayaways and general strikes which paralysed the country or some of its regions to be organized.

Moreover during all this turmoil the working class continued to struggle for its own goals, in ways specific to its own class position. And these struggles were not just a minor part of the general movement of the whole population against apartheid. Says Murray, "in 1984, excluding the three political stayaways launched between September and November, an estimated 500,000 labor-days were lost due to strikes, more than in any previous year in South African history and nearly three times the number in 1982, the previous highwater mark." And the figure for 1985 was still higher.

Eventually repression put a momentary end to this general upsurge. But the bourgeoisie knew that it had to put a definitive end to apartheid unless it wanted to take the risk that the next general explosion might bring down not only apartheid, but the whole capitalist society in South Africa. From 1985 on, representatives of the capitalist class and of the government carried on regular discussion with the ANC about the changes that needed to be made and the way the bourgeoisie wanted them to be made. In the meantime some of the apartheid regulations, such as the system of passes, were abandoned. Little by little, official segregation of public places, transportation, etc. was being eliminated.

During the next few years, while a state of emergency and the detention of thousands of activists more or less imposed calm in the townships, the working class was nonetheless able to continue its fight. There were some long and bitter strikes during which workers violently opposed the police; some of them were killed. In 1987, there was such a strike of the railways, for example. There were also some general strikes, like the one of June '88 against proposed new anti-labor legislation. These struggles were proof that the working class did not let itself be disarmed, despite the repression; and they only served to convince the capitalists that apartheid had definitely become more costly than profitable. The political establishment, including the NP politicians responsible for apartheid, had no other choice than to accept the fact that the time had come to get rid of apartheid.

Deprived of the Victory

The working class had taken an essential part in the overthrow of apartheid. But it has no share in the power of the new regime.

So far, this regime is exactly what the ruling class wanted when it decided that apartheid had outlived its usefulness. South Africa is rid of its openly racist laws; black people have the same formal rights as white people and full citizenship; there are black people at every level of the government, and there probably will be more in the future ... but the real class interests of the bourgeoisie have not been touched.

The bourgeoisie has been able to manage these sweeping changes so far without big social consequences thanks to the ANC and Mandela who agreed to cooperate fully with De Klerk and the apartheid government in order to pass from the old regime to the new. After freeing Mandela from prison, the bourgeoisie nonetheless took four more years before they let elections be held which brought Mandela in as the new president. They wanted Mandela to prove himself to them. They had to be sure that he was not only willing but also able to maintain social peace. Effectively, during these four years, he succeeded in keeping the poor black masses calm – people who had every reason to want revenge for centuries of racist oppression, or at least to want an immediate improvement in their living conditions. Moreover, he was able to keep them under control when the police, the far-right and Inkatha waged a real war against the ANC and the masses who supported it. When Chris Hani, one of the most popular ANC and SACP leaders and head of the ANC's armed wing, was assassinated by right-wing terrorists, Mandela was instrumental in channeling the anger of the ANC supporters who threatened to take to the streets. By preventing the explosion, Mandela won his place as a statesman – for the white ruling class.

By agreeing to go slowly – to have a long period of four years of negotiation and transition before taking over, to have another period of five years during which the power at every level will be shared between the ANC and the NP – the ANC also got the time it needed to dampen the expectations of the black masses who were hoping that the end of apartheid would mean a rapid change in their own situation. Today, Mandela is the head of the South African State, which is still the same bourgeois state in service of the same bourgeoisie, just as it was before 1990. So far, the black masses seem to have accepted this.

But this result could be achieved only because the working class never tried to take the leadership of the struggle, even though it played the major part in it. It has no party of its own. At the political level, it has always had to leave the leadership to others, mainly the ANC. And the ANC has always been a bourgeois party, as it has now made perfectly clear.

The furthest the working class went in building its own organization was to create large and powerful unions. Doing that from scratch, in the circumstances of apartheid, was already an incredible feat. During the last two decades, we have seen nothing like that, except in a very few countries: other than in South Africa, only in Brazil, Poland and Korea.

But these unions were not the tool which would have let the working class play a political role. Perhaps because they were too unionist and turned their back on politics; perhaps because the leaders of these unions, SACP or ANC militants themselves, abdicated the political leadership of the movement to bourgeois politicians, that is, people who are the representatives of the enemy class. The fact that these politicians spoke militantly before – when being in opposition meant they were confined to jail, exile or clandestinity – did not make them less bourgeois in their aims.

The SACP, the South African Communist Party, is the only big political organization which could propose to the working class to compete for the power. It seems to have kept links with the working class as with the poor people in general, and it even, generation after generation, continued to find devoted activists among them. But having merged for decades with the ANC, even if did not completely disappear inside it, the SACP's only policy is the ANC's policy. Its main leaders, starting with Joe Slovo, the head of the party, are part of the leadership of the ANC. In other words, they are bourgeois politicians exactly the same as the other leaders of the ANC. Today they are ministers in the same bourgeois government.

When it rallied to the ANC, the SACP justified this with the classic Stalinist theory of stages: apartheid had first to be overthrown in South Africa before capitalism could be. Thus, the working class had to support bourgeois democrats, not try to compete with them for the lead of the struggle against apartheid.

Today, after this anti-apartheid struggle has succeeded, we see the result of such a policy. The bourgeois democrats are in power, thanks to the struggles and the sacrifices of the working class, and capitalism is strengthened and no closer to being overthrown, nor more vulnerable. Today, these same bourgeois democrats are ready to use the power they hold to block the working class if it wants to pursue the class struggle for its own aims.

The grocery clerks on strike in Johannesburg discovered this last week when, invading the grocery stores, they were chased by police officers with snarling dogs and rubber bullets. Exactly the same as what happened under the apartheid regime. True, the police are, at least partly, the same police as before. But they are police now under the orders of Mandela's government.

Was an opportunity missed for the working class to take power in the process of overthrowing apartheid? It's impossible to know, since there was no real attempt by the working class to take the political lead of the masses' struggle. But what is sure is that an opportunity for the working class to try was missed.

This leaves the South African working class after the end of apartheid in essentially the same situation it was in before, and with the most important basic tasks still left to accomplish: first of all, it has to build its own party. What makes the situation more difficult today is that the ANC and Mandela are in power, but the majority of the poor black masses probably do not realize that the ANC and Mandela do not represent their interests. This situation may be only temporary, and not even very long lasting. But the problem that lies ahead is what conclusions the working class will draw when it comes to realize what Mandela and the ANC are: will this realization, after the decades of struggles and mobilization, bring only demoralization and demobilization?

If that turns out to be the case, all we will be able to do is record the fact that in South Africa, as in so many other places, an opportunity was missed. And this missed opportunity will have been much more dramatic: given the importance of South Africa, it will have been a missed opportunity not only for the South African proletariat, but for the working class of the entire world.

But, of course, that remains to be seen. With the South African working class remaining active and mobilized today, nothing has yet been written definitively.