The Spark

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

South Africa:
Desmond Tutu, Apostle of the Transition Preserving the Bourgeoisie

Jan 3, 2022

Translated from Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle), the newspaper of the revolutionary workers’ group active in France.

The death of South Africa’s Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu was accompanied by an avalanche of praise from all the world’s leaders. They truly have reason to be grateful to him.

The apartheid regime, officially established in 1950, codified the longstanding system of segregation and discrimination against black, mixed-race, and East Indian people there. The racist system was the institutional counterpart of ferocious exploitation. By the 1970s it met with mass protest mainly by South Africa’s big and powerful working class, which the racist government answered with fierce repression. In the mid-1980s, in an atmosphere of civil war, the South African working class was showing its revolutionary potential in the fight against apartheid—and more generally against capitalist exploitation.

The energy, tenacity, and resistance shown by South African black workers could have become contagious beyond the country’s borders. But even though the working class played the leading role in the struggle, the black petty bourgeoisie which also suffered from the racism of the apartheid regime placed itself at the head of the movement. They were eager to abolish apartheid without attacking the system of exploitation. In addition to the African National Congress (ANC) led by Nelson Mandela, a person like Desmond Tutu—already a bishop by that time—thus was able to play a leading political role.

Tutu represented and became a spokesman of the Unified Democratic Front founded in 1983—a legally allowed, broad coalition of unions, associations, and religious groups in which the banned ANC played the main leading role. Tutu denounced the regime and called for help from Western leaders whom apartheid had never bothered so long as it did not make them fear a social explosion.

Tutu implored the white authorities to start negotiations to end the system of apartheid. And while the prisons were crammed full and the police shot protestors on sight, his pacifist sermons and appeals for non-violence were intended to stymie the risk that the poor masses would organize, defend themselves with guns in hand, and become conscious of their own strength. During the 1970s, especially ferocious government chief John Vorster resorted to Desmond Tutu as a moderator who opposed all violence. Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, which brought him international recognition. Ronald Reagan received him in the White House. The Anglican Church appointed him archbishop in 1986. In fact, the great powers, and first and foremost the U.S., worried about the situation in South Africa and the threat the mobilization of the poor masses posed. The great powers wanted to prepare for the end of the apartheid regime. They understood that men like Mandela and Tutu could be of use to them.

Negotiations between the South African regime and the ANC for the gradual abolition of apartheid began in 1986, first secretly and then openly. The crowning achievement was the 1994 election of Mandela as president. On the official level, everything changed. From then on, black and white people were equal before the law. But in fact, the revolt against apartheid allowed a section of the black petty bourgeoisie to rise to positions of authority—often alongside former torturers. The domination of the bourgeoisie was preserved, and the revolutionary threat was averted.

Tutu then chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, charged from 1996 to 2003 with investigating the crimes and political abuses of the South African regime. In exchange for confessions by torturers, the commission gave them amnesty.

Tutu’s role shouldn’t be exaggerated. Mandela’s ANC and the South African Communist Party played a much more critical role in this political process. But Tutu, as preacher of non-violence against the rich and reconciliation with executioners, was one of the political tools in defusing the social bomb that South Africa had become.

This is his main merit for defenders of bourgeois society, and that is what earns him so much tribute from them today.