The Spark

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

South Africa:
Which Role for the Black Working Class?

Nov 30, 1984

At the end of the summer, we saw a new wave of struggles in South Africa. The fights were begun by young people, primarily the high school students, in the African townships. A black student boycott has been in progress in the townships near Pretoria since January, demanding representation on student councils, no age restriction on enrollment in the university, and an end to corporal punishment.

The boycott took on new meaning and expanded in September, spreading to other townships, and to some universities, including up to two hundred thousand students, at its peak. The expanded boycott was a response to the constitutional reforms and elections setting up a new tricameral legislature with Indian and so-called Colored participation. There was also considerable opposition to this plan in these two communities, with protests and a lower than 30 per cent turnout of eligible voters in the elections. It seemed that the maneuver by the regime to widen its social bases of support really backfired.

At the same time, a wave of anger swept through the townships, involving hundreds of thousands of people, protesting over 15 per cent rate hikes and increases in electric rates and sales taxes. Protests began in the Transvaal, spread to Soweto, other Johannesburg townships and then to those near Pretoria.

There were protest meetings, demonstrations, and stay-at-home work boycotts. Angry crowds burned down government buildings and police stations and businesses. People fought pitched battles with police. Black businesses and the homes of black officials and police were also burned, and a number of black officials themselves were attacked and some were even killed. There were several bombings in and around Johannesburg.

In September, there was also a strike by African gold miners led by the NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) when 40,000 miners refused to go to work, demanding wage increases and union rights.

The South African regime responded with rubber bullets, dogs, whips, hoses, and tear gas. Officially 80 Africans have been killed and hundreds wounded, by the figures are no doubt underestimated. Thousands have been arrested. The government banned indoor meetings and even funerals. But in spite of the banning and brute force, the young African people continued their fight and even turned the funerals into new protests against the regime.

In many townships, the protests and rioting forced a rollback of the rent increases. The miners won a 16.3 per cent wage and benefit increase. The government agreed to allow student councils starting in 1985, and rescinded the age limit for the universities.

It’s not the first time that we’ve seen such a struggle against the apartheid regime. In the 1950s and 1960s there were defiance campaigns against the extension of the pass laws, racial segregation and for political rights. In Sharpeville in 1960, this led to a demonstration of 5,000 people and a resulting massacre by the police that touched off months of protests by the black population. The government declared a state of emergency, banned all political meetings, banned the leaders and the main anti-apartheid organizations, the ANC (African National Congress) and the PAC (Pan Africanist Congress). This ended any possibility of legal protest and forced the movement underground. The accompanying repression killed hundreds and wounded thousands.

In June 1976, the young people of Soweto erupted in a rebellion that began as a protest against the use of the Afrikaner language in the schools, but turned into a generalized protest against apartheid that lasted for several months. At least 600 people were killed, mostly young. Since the Soweto events, there have been sporadic protests in the intervening years.

It seems as if the South African regime is more afraid this time of the potential of this latest movement to turn into a further explosion. At any rate, it has mobilized a greater force against the movement than it did before. In the beginning of October, the regime announced that it would bring the army out to support the police in the townships. It also is preparing to expand its civilian police force by 45 per cent, up to 68,000. On October 23, seven thousand army troops and police sealed off several townships near Johannesburg, made a house-to-house search and arrested over 350 people. There is speculation that this is just the first of such searches.

What Role for the African Workers?

All classes of the black population are opposed to the apartheid regime: from the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie – businessmen, doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists, churchmen – to the working class, to the high school and university students. But although the working class is physically present in the struggles, in the streets and above all in the strikes, it doesn’t appear politically. Neither in the past, nor today, has it built its own political organizations. And so it can only appear as one part of the nationalist movement following behind the nationalist organizations. In such a circumstance, that is the absence of a political expression of the working class, the leadership of the movement can only be the political representatives of the bourgeoisie, or even the petty bourgeoisie, which finally comes down to the same thing.

Today, the anti-apartheid movement may not yet have a single leader, but the only political forces who are competing for the leadership are different representatives of the black petty bourgeoisie: from recent Nobel Prize winner Bishop Tutu, of the South African Council of Churches, to the ANC, to the leaders of the different student movements. None of their goals go beyond the overthrow of apartheid, and the creation of a South Africa more independent of imperialism.

This does not mean that the working class has not organized its forces, that it did not fight militantly. After World War I, the black workers began to organize unions and show their potential strength. There were strikes and demonstrations that were viciously repressed, but still the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union, the major African union, by 1927 had built up a union of 100,000 miners in Johannesburg. Not only was there union organization; the black workers had a political organization, or at least the embryo of one, in the Communist Party. But after 1928 the C.P. turned the workers towards the goal of the creation of an independent black state and away from a working class perspective. The C.P. became the link between the workers and the ANC.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the working class organized industrial unions in the Transvaal, Johannesburg and Capetown areas. With World War II, black employment was expanded still further, giving the black workers new possibilities. In 1940 and 1941, there were new struggles; in 1943 and again in 1945, workers in Alexandria township engaged in two successful boycotts against increased transportation costs. In spit of brutal repression, the workers continued to organize. The miners reorganized their union. Again more African workers joined the Communist Party. In 1946, there was a major showdown between the African workers and the government. A hundred thousand miners went on strike and it was savagely attacked. They called for a general strike and received some support from Indians, but not from white or Colored workers. Twelve were killed and thousands injured. Fifty-two union leaders were jailed and the miners union was completely destroyed again.

It was against this background of working class struggle, together with the anti-colonial upsurge in much of post-World War II Africa, that the apartheid system was instituted, reserving all political power for the whites. With the election of the Nationalist Party in 1948, the government moved to set up the structure of racial segregation while simultaneously attacking the unions, trying to stop the activity and break the militancy of the whole working class. It used state regulation and racial divisions to play off one section of the working class against the others. The state was to take over collective bargaining, and control all union activities. The payment made to the white workers in exchange was the privileges which came to them as the result of apartheid.

In 1948, the regime abolished unemployment payments to African workers. In 1950, it passed the Suppression of Communism Act, which gave the Ministry of Justice the power to decide if a leader or member of a union was a communist, and therefore subject to being banned. By 1955, fifty-six union leaders had been removed in this way. In 1951, the Native Labour Act prohibited African members in white and Colored unions and established separate procedures for African workers. It abolished African unions and forbid Africans to strike. In 1956, it passed the Industrial Conciliation Act which extended segregation in the workforce even further.

Still the protests continued. The African workers participated in the protest movements. Mass strikes and stay-at-home boycotts were an adjunct to the defiance campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s. During Soweto, there was a general strike that paralysed half of Johannesburg, and there were other strikes with up to 90 per cent support among some sections of the workers.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the African workers were becoming increasingly organized. Union membership jumped 150 per cent between 1980 and 1982. In this same period, the workers engaged in a series of militant strikes around unionist demands. In 1972-73, there were strikes by black dockworkers, textile workers, and miners. In the 1980s, there were militant strikes among Johannesburg’s municipal workers, meatworkers, auto workers, asbestos workers and gold miners. In August of 1981, two hundred thousand African workers stopped work for half an hour to honor Neil Aggett, a trade union leader killed in police detention. And 1982 saw the highest number of strikes in 20 years. In the last months, the African workers have engaged in both a trade union fight in the gold mines, and in the township protests.

The Contradiction: A Large, Important Working Class in an Underdeveloped Country

Given the nature of the South African regime, its links to imperialism, and the way it has organized society, it seems impossible to imagine that apartheid can be overthrown without the participation of the working class.

South Africa has the characteristics of both an underdeveloped country and an advanced industrial one, with the most primitive and modern aspects side by side. A large part of the African population, landless and unemployed, forced onto bantustan reservations, existing on a diet of maize, live like the other poor peoples of the underdeveloped countries. On the other hand, South Africa has a large urban population in over 13 large concentrations, the most important in Africa, with a big development of modern industry. Its resources and products for export include, as is traditional in an underdeveloped country, primary products such as gold, diamonds, coal, platinum, and uranium among others; but it also produces iron, steel and ferro-alloys. Until recently, with the severe drought, South Africa was a billion dollar a year exporter of agricultural products, produced with the most advanced agricultural techniques and equipment.

In fact, South Africa is also a part of the imperialist world, not only its military outpost, but its economic extension. Given the superexploitation of the African workers which has accompanied apartheid, over 350 U.S. corporations have their subsidiaries there, and over 125 U.S. banks have made loans to the government and to private individuals. In addition, Britain, West Germany, Japan and France have enormous investments there. One of the consequences of this is that South Africa has a large and developed working class. And 85 per cent of the working class is African, representing millions of workers. The African working class plays a crucial role in the economy and thus it always has the potential to have an important weight in South African society.

Petty Bourgeois Nationalism vs. Proletarian Internationalism

The working class can be involved in the fight against apartheid in two very different ways. It can participate in the struggles, in the streets, and even in its strikes, behind the political representatives of another class, the petty bourgeois nationalists. In this case we know very well what the results will be if it succeeds. It will reproduce the same kind of independent black state which exists throughout Africa. Certainly the destruction of the racist white regime would mean the end of one kind of oppression for the black people of South Africa, but if the regime that replaces it is composed of petty bourgeois nationalists, the black workers will have replaced white exploiters with black ones.

The other alternative is that the African workers could participate in this fight conscious of themselves as a class, with their own organizations, behind their own political leaders. The African working class can defend at one and the same time the interests of the movement against apartheid and its own interests. If the working class participates in the struggle in this way it will not weaken the anti-apartheid fight but on the contrary will strengthen it. The working class has all the same reasons for struggling against apartheid as the rest of the black population, with no reservations or limits. But a fight led by the working class against apartheid could also end exploitation altogether.

Because the working class fights under an internationalist banner, and has no interests opposed to the workers of the other countries – in this sense, it is the opposite of the nationalist petty bourgeoisie – it is able to link its fights to those of workers in other countries. Such a fight by the black working class of South Africa could both inspire the fights and gather support from the working class and the poor of the whole of the African continent. It could signal a new struggle by the African masses against their exploitation, against imperialism, and also against their own rulers. And such struggles could reinforce the struggles of the African people in South Africa against apartheid.

The potential of the black working class of South Africa to inspire a struggle and to win support would not be limited to the underdeveloped countries of Africa. Because of the situation of black workers in the U.S., still today, such a struggle could also find support from black workers in the heartland of imperialism – the U.S., the main support of the apartheid regime.

All this assumes of course that the black working class enters the fight conscious of its own interests, its special position in society, conscious of its possibilities, and of its responsibilities. But to do this it also needs its own organizations, a revolutionary party, a revolutionary leadership, to give it the best change to succeed. It needs to be linked to a world proletarian revolutionary movement and international party. In this sense the South African working class faces the same problem confronting the working class of the whole world today.