the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist
“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx
Jun 30, 1980
Southern Africa has been the scene of some political shifts in recent years. In the mid-1970s, the people of Angola and Mozambique won their struggle for independence from Portuguese colonialism. Most recently, the guerrilla struggle against the Rhodesian regime of Ian Smith ended with the agreement which set up elections leading to the new regime of former guerrilla leader Robert Mugabe.
The Republic of South Africa sits in the middle of this new political map, appearing as a relic of an earlier era. The apartheid regime seems out of place, as if it had somehow gotten an extension on its life expectancy. It is a reminder of the old colonialism, a seeming embarrassment to imperialism which has accepted these new nationalist regimes in the region.
Imperialism has changed its approach in Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and many other places around the world. Is imperialism now going to change its policy towards South Africa?
Apartheid, although it had in fact existed a long time, was institutionalized as the official policy of the South African government following the election victory in 1948 of the Nationalist Party, a party which had sympathized with Hitler and Mussolini. The Nationalist Party based itself on the petty bourgeois and working class Afrikaans population, a sizeable minority of the South African population.
“Apartheid” means literally “apart-hood” and is often referred to by its advocates as a policy of “separate development” of people in various designated racial categories. Actually, it is a system by which the colonial minority has enforced its exploitation and oppression over the mass of the African population. What this means is the lack of any political rights for the black and colored populations. The regime set up a complete segregation of South African society, enforced by a heavily armed police state. This has meant, for example, educational and health care systems with per capita expenditures on education about one-tenth for the Africans what it is for the whites; or a “job reservation” system which excludes African workers from skilled jobs. The wages of workers of European descent are typically 10 to 20 times those of African workers.
Apartheid has also meant rigid control of where African people live and travel. The “pass laws” require all Africans to carry identification papers at all times. Failure to do so can mean loss of employment and banishment to the so-called “homelands.”
Such a system of thorough oppression of the black majority can only be enforced by the most brutal military and police state methods. Indeed, South Africa can be described as a nation of concentration camps.
Certainly a system like this is an embarrassment to U.S. imperialism. After all, its support to the apartheid regime certainly creates some problems for its diplomacy elsewhere in Africa and around the world; and it is also a political handicap for imperialism in relation to black people in the U.S.
It is why the American politicians have made many statements against apartheid, apparently condemning the South African regime. Their demagogy was perhaps at a peak when President Carter was using Andrew Young as a spokesman for U.S. policy in Africa. In one case, Young even said that the South African government was “illegitimate.” Even though the American politicians don’t usually go so far, they speak now of the need for reform. And particularly since the Soweto uprising of June, 1976, even the government leaders of South Africa have spoken of this possibility.
For a short while the South African Prime Minister Botha was presenting himself as an advocate of reform. And he has implemented some changes. There have been minor changes in the pass laws, but they still restrict the right of the African population to go into most areas of the country. Some of the African workers have been granted the legal right to organize labor unions, but with great restrictions on their activities. Many workers, including the hundreds of thousands who work in the mines, are still excluded from legal union activity altogether.
The “homelands” or “bantustans” have been pointed to as the most significant signs of reform. Supposedly they are the basis for an “autonomous development” of the different African population groups. In reality, the homelands are an extension of apartheid. The apartheid regime has “reserved” 13 per cent of the most worthless land in South Africa for the African people. The regime has assigned each African to a tribal category, often completely arbitrarily. The people will be isolated from the centers of the economy and divided, the regime may even hope, against each other. Those who remain employed will continue to live in the segregated suburban shanty towns like Soweto. The intention is to remove eventually the entire African population, except those employed in industrial centers, to the “homelands” in order to reduce the risk of another rebellion like in Soweto.
In reality, a system such as apartheid must be destroyed by the struggles of the oppressed people themselves. It cannot be reformed out of existence, and this is not being done today.
In fact, the real policy of imperialism is not reform, but continued investment and continued political support to the apartheid regime. In 1976, Carter said, “Economic development, investment commitment and the use of economic leverage against what is, after all, a government system of repression within South Africa, seems to me the only way to achieve racial justice there.” In short, he defined the U.S. policy toward apartheid as “business as usual.” What he did not mention was that this business as usual could be defended only by continuing the repressiveness of the apartheid regime. Of course, less than one year after Carter made this statement, the U.S. (along with Britain and France) vetoed a U.N. resolution calling for a military and economic blockade against the apartheid regime. More recently, there has been substantial evidence that U.S. government officials have helped U.S. corporations organize supposedly prohibited arms sales to South Africa.
The imperialists have very substantial reasons to continue to support the apartheid regime. South Africa is of some special importance to U.S. imperialism. Certainly the imperialists have billions of dollars invested in industry in South Africa. It is the first reason why they want order and stability, which, so far, the regime has given them.
But, in addition, there is the mining of precious metals and minerals, particularly gold. South Africa is by far the most important reliable source of gold for U.S. imperialism. About half the world’s gold comes from South Africa. A large part of the remainder is mined in the Soviet Union. Maintaining a reliable gold supply is crucial to imperialism in its efforts to sustain a stable system of international trade. As long as the apartheid regime can continue to deliver gold regularly, the imperialists have an interest to keep apartheid in place. In addition, with the apartheid regime, unlike many of the nationalist regimes, the U.S. has a guarantee that it has a direct control over the gold.
South Africa also plays a military role for imperialism in southern Africa comparable to the role played by Israel in the Middle East. In the first place, it can be used against the peoples of the other African countries, when their own governments are not able to keep order. But it can also be used against the other nationalist regimes themselves if they try to take too much distance from imperialism. The South African state is a gun pointed at all the peoples and all the governments of southern Africa. As long as it can provide some assurance of stability, outside of its borders as well as within them, the apartheid regime can expect the support of imperialism.
Imperialism is not yet ready to change the apartheid regime. It has no reason to change its policy toward apartheid unless apartheid can no longer control the struggle of the people of the region against their oppression. And there has not yet been a struggle of the African people in South Africa sufficiently strong to destroy this regime or to force imperialism itself to dismantle it.
When an oppressive regime no longer meets the needs of imperialism, imperialism could decide to abandon it and seek new ways to rule in that part of the world. When the guerrilla struggle in Zimbabwe seemed on the brink of victory, imperialism maneuvered a negotiated settlement under its watchful eyes.
Maybe imperialism could change its policy in South Africa, but it will not do this because it is a friend of the African peoples. In fact, right now, imperialism acts openly as their enemy. What has already been gained, even though it’s very little, depended not at all on Andrew Young and his friendly words; it depended on the determination of the young people in the streets of Soweto. If, in the future, imperialism changes its open hostility, it will be only because the African people have struggled to resolve the situation themselves; it will be only a recognition, after the fact, by imperialism of what the African people have won for themselves.