How was the South African apartheid regime brought down? In this article, a participant in the struggle for black liberation in South Africa and Marxist organiser at the time recounts this history, drawing on its lessons for today.
By Paul Moorhouse, Socialist Alternative Scotland
In the early 1990s, the apartheid regime, led by the racist National Party (NP) was forced to release Nelson Mandela from prison, unban the African National Congress (ANC) and negotiate for black majority rule.
It is frequently argued that this took place either because of sanctions and diplomatic pressure on the part of capitalist powers, or by the bombing campaigns of Mkhonto We Sizwe (MK-‘Spear of the Nation’) the African National Congress (ANC)’s armed wing.
In reality, the regime was only forced to make these concessions after two decades of mass struggle by workers and youth inside South Africa. This revolutionary uprising of the black working class majority meant it was no longer possible for the capitalist class to continue ruling by armed repression, resting solely on the social and economic privilege of a white minority.
In part, this was due to demographic change. Black African population growth meant that whites declined from 20% of the population in 1946 to 13% in 1990. But, fundamentally, change was forced on the NP by the black working class majority building powerful political and industrial organisations of struggle, through which they established and exercised their economic and social power to resist class exploitation and national oppression.
Roots of apartheid
In the early 1970s, racial discrimination dominated every corner of society. In the workplace, most skilled jobs were ‘reserved’ by law for whites, or in exceptional cases, ‘coloured’ or Asian workers. Segregation was legally enforced in every area of life – from housing and education, all the way to access to beaches and even park benches.
The ANC and other black political parties were banned. It was illegal to publish – even to possess – images of Mandela. Black trade unions were illegal and the segregationist Group Areas Act meant that ‘non-whites’ had no right to live, or even travel in urban areas without an official ‘pass’. All this was violently enforced by armed white police, backed up by the spies and torturers of the Orwellian ‘BOSS’ (Bureau of State Security).
Job reservation, pass-laws, Group Areas (enforced white and black zones), and the migrant labour system locked black, especially African, workers into insecure low paid, unskilled jobs perpetuating a racialised system of cheap labour and super-exploitation.
All of this was in fact developed by British imperialism, who viciously colonised the continent to plunder South Africa’s gold and other mineral wealth conquered in the Anglo-Boer wars (1899-1902). After the 1922 Rand Rebellion by white mineworkers, the colonial authorities went further in setting out to divide and police the workforce along racial lines.
Revolt of the black working class
In capitalism’s boom following World War II, the centre of gravity of South Africa’s economy moved from extractive industries towards manufacturing. This made the ruling class increasingly dependent on resident, skilled, and semi-skilled (rather than migrant and unskilled) black labour. Facing an inflationary economic crisis, workers sensed their power and exercised it to defend their interests.
In 1973, 10,000 workers in the textile, chemical and other industries in Durban took illegal strike action, winning wage rises in the majority of cases. The NP government was forced to legalise strikes by black workers, but trade unions remained illegal. Nonetheless black workers began building independent democratic unions, and by 1979, when finally granted a degree of legality, the newly formed Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) had 54,000 members.
Meanwhile in June 1976, hundreds of thousands of youth in the township of Soweto staged an uprising, which grew out of a schools’ boycotting protesting forced instruction in Afrikaans (the language of those whites most associated with the NP and apartheid). Although bloodily repressed, with hundreds of demonstrators killed by police, this established a tradition of youth struggle including extended boycotts, revolutionary youth organisations, and organised burning of schools which persisted, with ebbs and flows, for two decades. The youth movement drew strength from the growing power of the trade unions, as did community struggles.
Countless battles underlined this, such as a decade’s resistance by the Crossroads community of 60,000 ‘illegal squatters’ to state and armed vigilantes’ efforts to uproot their homes outside Cape Town. By 1985, the strategically important National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) alone had 110,000 members. At the end of that year, most unions came together to form the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), numbering nearly half a million workers.
At COSATU’s founding congress its president, NUM member Elijah Barayi, declared: “We give President Botha six months to abolish the pass laws, which stop us from working where we want to. If he doesn’t, we will take all the passes of the black people and burn them.” Faced with this deadline, these laws magically disappeared from the statute book.
Increasingly youth, community, and workers’ organisations linked the fight against racism and poverty to the need for socialist change. A popular slogan from the movement at the time was “apartheid and capitalism: two sides of the same bloody coin”.
Barayi told the congress “COSATU is going to govern this country”. Workers were building a movement with the potential to do just that. In many communities, there were elements of what Marxists call ‘dual power’, where a new power resting on the working class majority exists uneasily alongside the capitalist state.
Alexandra (a township outside Johannesburg) fell into the hands of the Alexandra Action Committee (AAC), chaired by the metal workers’ leader Moses Mayekiso. The AAC organised community defence against the state (digging trenches across the roads to stop armoured personnel carriers entering the township) and rent strikes through a network of democratic yard committees. Police spies (‘imipimpi’ in Zulu) were flushed out of communities using the ‘necklace’ punishment administered by people’s courts: those convicted had a car tyre filled with petrol hung round their neck and set alight. This was undoubtedly grim, but was a necessary method given the fate that would await activists if they were seized by the state.
Revolution and counter-revolution
The movement’s growth was not even halted by a four-year ‘State of Emergency’ from June 1986, during the first year of which 26,000 people (including Barayi and Mayekiso) were detained without trial. COSATU more than tripled its membership during the Emergency. Political general strikes took place at least once a year between 1985 and 1994, with two million – roughly one in three – workers participating by 1990.
However, to overthrow apartheid and capitalism, the revolutionary movement needed to break the power of the state. What pointed the way forward was a revolt by thousands of rank and file (overwhelmingly, but not exclusively) black officers joining the Police and Prison Civil Rights Union, formed after a ‘coloured’ lieutenant Gregory Rockman exposed the shooting of demonstrators in 1989.
However, the core of the state remained exclusively white. It would have been possible to have fragmented this too, especially by making a class appeal to at least neutralise war-weary working class white conscripts constituting the bulk of the army. But they, and even more 50,000 odd hardened white professional police, would not break ranks so long as workers and youth confronted armoured personnel carriers and automatic weapons armed only with stones, petrol bombs and necklaces.
The movement desperately needed to be properly armed under the leadership of democratically accountable structures directing struggles in the workplaces and townships. This became all the more urgent as the state began building and arming a so-called ‘third force’ of black vigilantes, especially the ‘Inkatha Freedom Party’ of the Puppet Chief Minister of the Zulu ‘homeland’ Gatsha Buthelezi.
Members of the Marxist Workers Tendency (MWT) of the ANC (forerunners of the ISA’s section in South Africa today, the Workers and Socialist Party) organised armed self-defence. One of these Marxists, Philemon Mauku, from Alexandra, arrested in possession of two AK-47s, was sentenced to three years imprisonment and led a hunger strike in jail. Ivin Malaza, an East Rand mineworker’s leader was murdered organising (eventually successful) resistance by his members to Inkatha gangsters.
Tragically, however, the armouries painstakingly assembled by our comrades and others were insufficient for the task. The masses were consistently out-gunned by the forces of reaction. 800 were slaughtered by Inkatha from July to September 1990 in the Transvaal alone. Workers expressed frustration when exiled ANC leaders failed to deploy their tens of thousands of trained and well-armed guerrillas to the frontline. Even units inside the country were kept isolated from the movement, tasked with bombing raids on police stations and economic targets (often unionised workplaces).
Following Mandela’s February 1990 release, negotiations began between the ANC and the state, worsening the situation. ANC armed units were stood down whilst the forces of reaction stepped up their attacks. The low-point was perhaps the June 1992 massacre of 45 residents of Boipatong in the Vaal Triangle by Inkatha thugs. After this, the ANC withdrew from constitutional talks but gave no response. When at a memorial rally of 20,000, Mandela was confronted with placards demanding “give us guns!”
ANC inaction followed inevitably from the process they had entered into: negotiating a ‘transfer of power’ within the framework of capitalism. Apartheid and world capitalism were determined to hang on to the essence of power at all costs. Nelson Mandela might be handed the keys to the Presidential house, but arming the workers, or allowing control of South Africa’s wealth to pass to those who create it was never on the agenda. The Marxist Workers Tendency explained at the time: “The ANC leaders are in the process of embracing the ruling class and delivering working-class blacks to capitalism. They are increasingly separating themselves from the working class.”
The struggle continues
Unable to break the power of COSATU, the apartheid regime, backed by the imperialist powers, reached a deal with their leaders over the heads of the masses, to preserve the very system on which their exploitation and oppression rested.
This was assisted by the unique geopolitical situation of the early 1990s. The collapse of the USSR and other Stalinist regimes appeared to support arguments that there was no alternative to capitalism. The power of imperialism appeared irresistible to leaders unable to grasp the impossibility of achieving liberation without placing the power of the working masses at the heart of the movement.
Similar weaknesses limited campaigns to isolate the regime economically. South African workers appealed for support of workers internationally, rejecting arguments that this would harm the black majority. Elijah Baryi explained to the COSATU’s congress that bosses “tell us they are against disinvestment because the black people would starve, but black people have been starving here since the first white settlers arrived in 1652.”
It was naive, however, to expect big business to place the interests of oppressed workers before their profits. Capitalist states will also only impose sanctions in their own imperialist interests. When they do so, the rich ruling elite in the subject states invariably buy their way out of the impact, forcing deprivation, even starvation, on the majority of the population. This occurred in Saddam’s Iraq and is being repeated in Putin’s Russia, which in both cases actually strengthened the standing of both regimes. Imperialist sanctions cannot be an effective method that solidarity movements rely on for this reason.
All too often, the campaign for solidarity was left to consumer boycotts by individuals. Whilst these instinctive acts of solidarity were morally correct and served to demonstrate and even increase international solidarity, on their own they were not at all sufficient to isolate the regime. What was needed was a worker-led campaign to isolate apartheid, including industrial action to halt trade and solidarity action linking rank and file workers internationally.
While the ANC leadership avoided this strategy at all costs, the Marxist Workers Tendency organised a tour of South Africa’s minefield by a striking British miner, Roy Jones, in 1984. Had this tactic been taken up by unions world-wide it could decisively have increased the tempo and volume of the South African workers’ struggle.
By tamely following the rules of imperialist diplomacy, rather than mobilising the strength of the mass movement to overthrow capitalism, President Mandela and his successors perpetuated the exploitation and oppression of the people, whose struggle propelled them to these empty positions of ‘power’.
The ANC in South Africa today presides over growing impoverishment for the black majority. ANC ministers may be able to purchase mansions in Morningside’s leafy ‘millionaires row’, but two miles the other side of the M1 highway, 60% of Alexandra workers are unemployed (double 1994 levels).
The depth of ANC betrayal was revealed on August 16 2012, when the South African Police Service shot dead 34 striking workers at the Marikana platinum mine. The inquiry into the massacre revealed that the current ANC President, Cyril Ramaphosa, then a director of Lonmin, British multinational owners of the mine, lobbied ministers demanding that action was taken against “these criminals”.
Until 1991, Ramaphosa was the founding General Secretary of the NUM. Now, as director of one of the SA’s biggest mining companies, he incited the murder of striking miners. The workers movement in South Africa needs to reject the rule of the ANC and build its own party to complete the struggle abandoned half-way in 1994.