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South Africa: contours of a counter-revolution?

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South Africa begins its long countdown to next April’s elections. The ANC hope to focus all black hopes on this process. Meanwhile, the right continue to exact concessions by their violent response. Lesley Day outlines the dangers facing the black proletariat.

Despite the murder of top ANC and South African Communist Party (SACP) leader Chris Hani on 10 April and continuing murderous provocations by the far right and Inkatha, the negotiations between Nelson Mandela and F W de Klerk are still on course. De Klerk has emphasised that multi-racial elections and the subsequent installation of an interim power sharing executive based on the proportions of the vote received will go ahead on 27 April 1994.

Details of a map of a nine province post-apartheid state have already been released by a special commission.1 The proposals suggest that the new South Africa should have a German-style federal constitution.

All the provinces—like the German Länder—should have their own legislature, prime minister and cabinet. The federal government would be correspondingly weaker. Whilst the ANC and the SACP still says they favour a unitary system there are signs that it is willing to be flexible on this too.

All this shows that a “democratic” counter-revolution is in an advanced stage of planning. It would be a counter-revolution because it would rob the masses of the real content of their long struggle against apartheid and its predecessors. It would rob the black population of the land, the fabulous natural resources, condemning them to super-exploitation in the mines, fields and factories for generations to come. Even if the last legal remnants of apartheid went, even if a model European or North American style democracy were a real possibility, if the white capitalists and landowners are allowed to keep the fruits of their past plunder then there is no hope of really ending racism and social inequality.

The greatest threat to these “democratic” counter-revolutionary plans, unfortunately, lies at the moment in the forces of “undemocratic” counter-revolution, Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party, Andries Treuernicht’s Conservatives, the hardline generals and police chiefs and the fascist AWB. These forces have simply carried on with De Klerk’s old strategy, which he renounced when he reached agreement with Mandela on the interim government.

It amounts to covert support by the police for the rampages of the Inkatha murder gangs in the townships. Its purpose is to prop up Inkatha and to undermine the ANC-led popular movement and frighten the latter into conceding a constitutional system which would preserve the power and privileges of the whites and their bantustan stooges.

A virtual war is raging in Natal between the South African police and Inkatha impis on the one side and the ANC “comrades” on the other.

In 1992, over 3,000 people were killed in political violence in South Africa, almost all of them black. In 1993 the total looks set to be even higher. In the first five days of July over ninety deaths were recorded in townships around Johannesburg. August was marked by a series of bloody attacks by the racist police on ANC strongholds.

The virtually unopposed attack by the fascist AWB on the location of the negotiations between the government and the ANC on 25 June shows that important sections of the racist far right and of the state apparatus are in collusion. They are willing enough to take South Africa down the road of all out war rather than give up their power and privileges. The question is: are they able to do it?

In fact the “white far right” has been progressively weakened over the last year. The referendum of spring 1992 gave De Klerk a mandate for the reform programme and marked a watershed for the diehard reactionaries. Since then the mainstream Conservative Party politicians have accommodated to the constitutional talks.

The fascists of the AWB, together with their mass base in the white petit bourgeoisie (especially the small and medium farmers), have meanwhile turned towards the reactionary-utopian aim of carving out a Boer homeland.

Nevertheless, their influence within the security forces and ex-members of government and security circles means they do still constitute a real threat, graphically illustrated by the assassination of Hani, the AWB attack on the negotiations and the formation of a “Committee of Generals”.

This reactionary cabal could provide a focus for direct military rule should there be a complete breakdown of the National Party/ANC deal, should De Klerk resign and should the masses be demobilised by their leadership.

But these are big “ifs”. It is more probable that the right will simply provide a source of destabilisation, scare tactics and pressure on the talks to force more and more undemocratic concessions from the ANC leaders.

The far right is more and more coming to rely on its alliance with Buthelezi and Inkatha. With mass support and a material base in the Natal/KwaZulu state machine, the Inkatha feels betrayed by its former sponsors, De Klerk and the National Party (NP).

Now that the South African imperialist bourgeoisie has accepted that it must share power with the ANC, Inkatha has begun to be an encumbrance. But the white reactionaries who are joining Inkatha in substantial numbers see it as a way of creating a powerful anti-ANC/Cosatu block that may be able to carve up the country reserving the best portions for themselves.

However, despite its greater access to arms, Inkatha has been unable to drive out the pro-ANC/COSATU leadership within the township communities and workplaces even inside its own strongholds. It now appears to be losing support amongst the Zulu population.

But it still has mass support and the ability to generate bloody chaos. Buthelezi in turn uses this as leverage to extort further concessions from De Klerk and Mandela. What he wants is either a confederal constitution or independence for KwaZulu/Natal.

An agreement by the ANC and the National Party to any federal constitution agreeable to Inkatha would entrench the “right” to privileges of the whites and their homeland stooges. It would preserve their control over the land, natural resources and the means of production.

Revolutionaries, together with all working class and township militants, need to mobilise now against the policy of constitutional concessions prior to elections which the ANC embarked on in November of last year.

Despite the clear existence of a pre-revolutionary situation in South Africa, as shown by the deep economic crisis,2 the divisions in the ruling class and the unwillingness of the masses to continue in the old way,3 the crucial subjective element—a revolutionary leadership—is still lacking. For the moment, the leaders of the ANC and COSATU are able to obstruct and sabotage the revolutionary initiative of the masses, despite the terrible provocations of the right.

The roots of this betrayal lie in the twin failures of the apartheid system and of the leadership of its main opponent, the black proletariat. In the 1980s apartheid became a fetter on South African imperialism which it was unable to break for political reasons—the reliance of the National Party on white working class and petit bourgeois support on the one hand, and the growth of working class militancy, along with revolutionary nationalist and socialist ideas on the other.

By the end of the 1980s important changes had occurred which broke this deadlock: the aftermath of the revolutionary situation of 1986 which left the working class defeated but not smashed, the crisis of Stalinism and accommodation between Moscow and the western imperialists, the weakness of South African imperialism in southern Africa necessitating a change of policy, and the continuing decline of the South African economy.

Those capitalists who favoured a controlled democratic reform were able to put in place a National Party leadership committed to this policy. Meanwhile the ANC, together with its Stalinist partner the South African Communist Party (SACP), had tightened its grip on the mass opposition movement.

The essence of the agreement which is being developed between the ANC and the imperialists is that the “democratic” reform of apartheid will be no such thing. Under the influence of the SACP, which occupies vital positions within the ANC leadership, the movement has dropped its commitments to thoroughgoing democracy or to imminent social change, limiting itself to a mild reformism which will not threaten the imperialists.

Despite the enormous prestige that Chris Hani had amongst the masses, he had no substantial differences with Mandela or Cyril Ramaphosa’s present course of action. His occasional criticisms were no more than was necessary to retain his hold on the masses. His Stalinism committed him totally to the defence of capitalism and the ANC road of compromise with the white racists. That is why the Financial Times could say:

“Mr Hani was the undisputed leader of the township youth, of the unemployed and angry youth. No other leader of the ANC could present compromise as victories with such ease; no other leader could argue for peace by presenting it as a kind of struggle—in short rallying radicalised youth behind the project of a negotiated solution. That is what makes Hani’s death such a tragedy.” 4

In their estimate of those workers leaders who are willing to compromise and surrender, our class enemy has an unerring instinct. This is because it is the instinct of self-preservation. South African workers would do well to heed it.

Despite the continued repression, despite the ANC’s 1992 walkout of Codesa, they have always returned to the negotiating table bearing new concessions. The ANC uses “mass action” as a safety valve to reduce the pressure of their critical rank and file.

At the same time it is a way of pressurising De Klerk. The masses are thus used as a stage army. The ANC has abandoned the fight for a sovereign constituent assembly and for a majority-rule government. It has abandoned the slogans for the natural wealth of the country to pass into the hands of the majority.

The national unity government that they have accepted will lock them into preserving white capitalist wealth in the mines, factories, and the land. Similarly, if the first majority elected parliament does assemble it will not have decisive power. That will remain with the thoroughly racist and imperialist armed forces, which will resist any attempt to purge them.

The talk of “merging” MK, the ANC’s armed wing, with the standing army is a thinly disguised way of achieving the dissolution of any independent armed forces that might have any loyalty to the masses in the new South Africa. The domestic and foreign multinationals will get some extra policemen to safeguard their investments.

The ANC’s desire to ensure that it profits from the creation of a multi-racial South African imperialism has led to it taking important steps in transforming itself from a self-styled revolutionary nationalist movement into a bourgeois political party.

Its leadership is now able to decide policies independently of any links to Moscow, another confidence-building factor for the imperialists.

The ANC now commands substantial support from the emerging black bourgeoisie as well as the new middle class. However, it retains the character of what Trotsky called a “party of the popular front” because of the continuing presence in it of the SACP, and most of leaders and many of the members of the huge trade union federation COSATU. Cyril Ramaphosa is its secretary general and effectively second in command. This presence of the workers’ leaders allows the ANC to discipline and control the proletariat—the main role it will play for capitalism in any future power-sharing government.

The Financial Times as well as observing the pliancy of the ANC leaders has observed, not without irony, the ANC journey from “Marxism” to shamefaced Monetarism:

“Seldom can a liberation movement have been through such a fundamental political learning process as the African National Congress has undergone in the three years since Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Seldom can an opposition party have shed so much ideological baggage or been so confronted with the limits of its power before taking office—and in no area more than that of economic policy.” 5

The ANC over a year ago threw out its pledges to nationalise the decisive sectors of the economy. It claims that in a post-apartheid South Africa a mixed economy which encouraged foreign investment would be a catalyst for economic development in the entire region. This includes a prior act of submission to the monetarist gods, the IMF and the World Bank.

The ANC’s chief economist, Tito Mboweni, has said “We want their overall stamp of approval, the kind of working relationship that will send a signal to private investors that we are pursuing policies that are not unsustainable”. 6

ANC spokesmen have freely accepted that there can be no substantial increase in the state budget and have picked up the Thatcherite language about “not throwing money at the problems”. The immediate task of any new bourgeois government would be to attack the working class.

The IMF and the World Bank are already demanding a massive austerity and privatisation programme as the price for re-integration into the world finance and investment system. The Finance Ministry itself envisages massive cuts in state spending, a wage freeze and further tax increases.

Yet to give the masses any of the things they have fought so long and hard for—a decent health and education service, decent housing, new jobs, equal wages with whites, a solution to the land question—will all require money to be thrown at them, the billions upon billions expropriated from the masses over generations. A post-settlement administration will experience a massive “crisis of expectations” which will have to be contained by a combination of political and, if necessary, military means.

There is rank and file distrust of the negotiations. This can be seen and heard at Mandela’s rallies when he talks to the masses like a cross elderly school teacher whose pupils are getting restive. When he tells them that they must compromise and make sacrifices thousands respond—“Enough is enough!”.

But Mandela has a stock answer: “If you don’t want this policy, if you don’t want me as your leader, then tell me and I will go”. The helpless, frustrated silence which greets this indicates that at present there is no opposition strong enough to mount a serious challenge to him and channel the anger felt by workers and youth.

The leadership of COSATU has also been able to contain militancy and is now committed to a social contract with the new government. This has been facilitated by a relentless increase in bureaucratisation and the political domination of COSATU by the SACP and social democratic reformists.

The left Stalinists such as Harry Gwala (and the Youth League leadership), together with the left fakers around Winnie Mandela, have not mounted a sustained opposition. She may strike a chord with remarks about the ANC leaders’ eagerness to get into a bed with silk sheets with the white racists but her own reputation precludes her becoming a serious or principled alternative. After each retreat by the ANC leadership they have acquiesced and failed to lead an open opposition.

The forces with any mass following outside the ANC present no fundamental alternative to it either. The PAC’s majority leadership is committed to the process of managed transition and has taken its place at the table of negotiations. Its use left rhetoric—“one settler, one bullet”—has enabled the PAC to attract some radical youth and retain a limited base in the workers’ movement (in Nactu and some community organisations).

Its armed wing may be under the control of the external PAC rather than the internal leadership, but its thoroughly bourgeois nationalist politics make it incapable of providing a revolutionary alternative given that the room for manoeuvre for such nationalism is now extremely narrow.

Amongst the small propaganda groups of the “Trotskyist” left there is not much clarity. In particular there is a strong tendency to shy away from the hard task of intransigent political opposition to the ANC and its popular frontist strategy.

The Marxist Workers Tendency (MWT) has remained committed to its strategic orientation to the ANC. It continues to express “support for a majority rule ANC government with power firmly in its hands, offering to accommodate genuine representatives of minority groups”.7 It seeks to act as semi-reformist advisers to the ANC.

Its key demands on such a government are for “public ownership of the major industries and banks, under democratic workers’ control, proper houses for all, decent education for our children”. This programme, the programme of the Freedom Charter, is a reformist one, for all the fact that the ANC has now abandoned it. The MWT give no warning to the masses that any ANC government would be a bourgeois government and with today’s leaders it would be a pro-IMF one to boot. If we add to this, as MWT suggests, representatives of the white minority and its bourgeois parties it would only be black majority rule under the same white dominated capitalist system.

After his assassination the MWT politically identified itself with Chris Hani, despite his Stalinism and his total support for the present sell-out deal. It said of him that he was “a militant revolutionary” that he was “feared by the bosses” and that they pledged themselves “to fight for his ideals”.8

MWT try to dress up Hani as a closet supporter of permanent revolution since: “He recognised that our struggle for genuine liberation would not be complete until we have achieved socialism.” 9

This is nothing more than the usual Stalinists refrain, “democracy now and socialism sometime in the future perhaps”. In short, the MWT refuses to call for a break with the ANC popular front or to fight openly for the creation of a revolutionary socialist party, at best hinting at the need to “unite the forces of the left”.

Qina Msebensi (QM), the organ of Comrades for a Workers’ Government, the South African section of the LTT, stands clearly to the left of the MWT. It raises the revolutionary slogans of workers’ councils and armed defence squads, a revolutionary constituent assembly, the overthrow of apartheid capitalist tyranny and a workers’ government.

It has drawn up a programme of action embodying these demands. But there remain elements of serious confusion in its slogans. Its call for a “revolutionary interim government” deliberately confuses the call for a revolutionary workers’ government with the ANC’s interim government proposals.

Why is an interim government needed at all? Before elections to a constituent assembly any provisional government would be an instrument of delay, compromise and democratic counter-revolution. Interim to what? What class character would this government have? Is the ANC to be in it? And COSATU too?

QM also continues to place demands on the ANC as if it was a reformist workers’ party. They call on the ANC to “organise the masses to take power”, and want to extend critical electoral support to the ANC, including its bourgeois elements, in the full knowledge of the economic attacks that will rain down on the black toilers by such a government.

QM refers to the ANC leaders as petit bourgeois reformists. But it is not a workers’ party or even a radical anti-imperialist petit bourgeois movement. The ANC is a popular front; it is a class collaborationist bloc between workers’ organisations and bourgeois nationalists in which the latter call the tune.

The correct class tactics would be to call on the leaders of the workers’ organisations, COSATU and the SACP, to break with their bourgeois strategy designed to meet the needs of a pro-IMF black neo-liberal bourgeoisie and their white capitalist allies. They should mobilise the masses for the immediate and unconditional calling of elections for a sovereign constituent assembly and take up the struggle for a workers’ government.

Despite the acute crisis of leadership the greatest danger to the plans of the imperialists and the ANC remains the power of the black proletariat. As the elections loom and the campaign of violence against the black community grows, the need for a working class answer to the crisis will become ever more pressing.

What should it be? It must start from the consciousness of the masses today and show the way to the achievement of their fundamental needs via the creation of a revolutionary workers’ government.

At the moment the overwhelming mood of the masses is for a thoroughly democratic destruction of the apartheid regime. The way to stop all attempts to frustrate the democratic aspirations of the masses by backstage deals and concessions to the racists is to call for immediate elections to a fully sovereign Constituent Assembly, elected by universal direct and secret suffrage of all over the age of 16 and those under 16 who are in full time work, with no literacy qualifications. There must be a truly nationwide proportional representation with no undemocratic threshold percentages for the representation of parties.

To make such an election process reflect the will of the majority, it is essential to break the white racist and capitalist monopoly of the armed forces and the media. Otherwise it will be used to harass, intimidate and deceive the masses. Township and workers’ organisations must establish control over the media to enable the voice of the workers, the unemployed, housewives and the rural poor to be heard.

The electoral campaign and the vote should be supervised by the unions and the township organisations. These organisations should make it clear that they will support only candidates from the workers’ organisations who agree to be answerable (that is, recallable) by their electors.

Should elections to a constituent assembly take place they will provide the working class with the opportunity to prevent the sell-out. The precondition for this is that it can vote for candidates who oppose the sell-out.

To this end revolutionaries themselves should stand as many candidates as they are able to. In addition, they should fight for an electoral bloc of all working class organisations opposed to the sell-out and demand at the same time that the SACP, COSATU, at local and national levels, break from the ANC and join this bloc.

If the influence of the centrist, Stalinist and trade union organisations means that no working class electoral opposition exists to the sell out we would call for a critical vote only for candidates of the workers’ organisations, in the first place, SACP or COSATU candidates chosen by, and in some way accountable to, their unions.

If the electoral system or the nature of the electoral bloc make even this impossible we would be forced to call on workers to actively abstain, to spoil their ballot papers or vote blank.

Should the elections turn out to be directly to a new legislature on a common voters’ roll then it would be equally impossible to call for a vote for the ANC. A vote for the ANC is a vote for an undisguised bourgeois government. Again if revolutionaries were themselves unable to stand as candidates we would call for a vote to the workers’ organisations and their candidates and call on them break from the ANC.

Only the complete dissolution of the bantustans, the overthrow of their reactionary collaborationist regimes and their complete re-integration into South Africa can ensure that there are anything approaching democratic elections to a constituent assembly. Revolutionaries must oppose any privileges for any “nationality”—white or black, and any autonomies or secessions that are designed to preserve or to achieve them.

Above all, any claim to “self-determination” for, or secession by, the white racists must be fought to the end. The entire population must vote freely and equally for an assembly that has full powers to arrange the state forms as the masses wish. After the total overthrow of white racist power, the smashing of its apparatus of repression and that of its bantustan stooges, then and only then, would it be correct for revolutionaries to defend the right of any of the formerly oppressed nationalities to self-determination, to autonomy and even to secession.

The purpose of defending this right is to undermine any remaining reactionaries of the Inkatha type who tried to terrify sections of the Zulus or other ethnic groups, claiming that they were going to be dominated by the Xhosas. Ethnic or “tribal” oppression in other African states over the last forty years shows that these fears are not simply the product of the bantustan leaders lie machine. But revolutionaries should in no way advocate separation or the creation of mini-“national states”. The economy of South Africa and above all the labour movement has gone a long way to unifying the workers of the various ethno-linguistic groups. The working class needs this precious unity to press on to the expropriation of the capitalist corporations and the white farmers.

Any constituent assembly could only carry out a progressive role if it rejected the reform of white-dominated South African imperialism and aimed at the revolutionary destruction of the white bourgeoisie’s monopoly of the land, mines, factories and businesses. To accomplish this would require a revolutionary workers’ government at the head of the armed masses.

This cannot be achieved by elections alone, let alone by an interim government—with or without the white racists. The imperialist state must be smashed and replaced by the power of workers’ councils. These councils are not only the organs of workers power, they are needed right now to mobilise mass action up to and including an indefinite general strike to force immediate elections to a sovereign constituent assembly.

The workers’ and community organisations must now organise a mass, trained and disciplined workers’ militia that must arm itself by any means necessary. Once armed the millions strong black proletariat of the mines and factories and the townships can and must struggle to establish their own class power, the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The most pressing task for the working class in South Africa is the building of a revolutionary workers’ party which could rally opposition to the class collaborationist policies of the COSATU and SACP leadership and demand that the workers’ leaders break from the ANC

South Africa is the major power in the entire southern part of the continent. It is the only imperialist power on the continent. Thanks to Pretoria’s imperialist policy over decades, in Namibia, Angola and Mozambique there is economic devastation, famine and countless numbers of refugees.

Racist South Africa armed the reactionary UNITA and RENAMO forces. South African workers must fight now for the withdrawal of all South African troops, advisers and covert operations organisers in the region and for the expropriation of the all the South African European and US multinationals in the region. They should extend critical support to the FRELIMO and MPLA bourgeois regimes as long as they resist the pro-imperialist guerillas.

The working class of the entire region, in alliance with the poor peasantry, should develop organs of their own class power, both councils and militias. The South African proletariat must aid the workers of the region to create their own revolutionary class parties and fight for a Socialist Federation of Southern Africa.

1 The ANC would prefer a tenth province consisting of the Transkei, Ciskei, east Griqua land and the East London region
2 In 1990 and 1991 South African GDP dropped by 0.5% and 0.9%. In 1992 the fall was 2.1% and projections for the “recovery” year 1993 are 0.0%. Inflation ran at 14.4%, 15.3% and 13.9% respectively, and is projected to be 11.3% in the same years. Industrial production fell by 3% per annum in 1991 and 1992. Unemployment is staggeringly high—in 1991 42.6% of the potentially economically active population. Even if the economy were to attain a growth rate of 4.5% p.a. it would continue to rise. In fact over the last few years it has averaged 1.3% (all figures quoted in Financial Times, 11 June 1993
3 The mass action campaign launched by the ANC and Cosatu in January 1992, the subsequent breakdown of the Codesa talks, the police-Inkatha response with the Boipatong massacre led, on 3 and 4 August, to the largest stay-away in South African history. Likewise the massive general strike on 14 April after Chris Hani’s assassination involved some 2.5 million people. There can be no doubt of the masses desire for a revolutionary change in their dreadful conditions and an end to bloody repression.
4 Financial Times, 13 April 1993
5 Financial Times, 11 June 1993
6 Ibid
7 Congress Militant, April 1993
8 Ibid
9 Ibid