Published by Workers Power (Britain) and the Movement for a Revolutionary Communist International (Predecessor organization of the Revolutionary Communist International Tendency, RCIT), in: South Africa Special: Apartheid: from Resistance to Revolution (Permanent Revolution No. 4), 1986
Sue Thomas outlines what kind of solidarity movement that we need to support the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa
An immense responsibility now lies with the British labour movement to impose a really effective workers’ boycott. Britain is South Africa’s third largest trading partner. British firms make up 40 45% of foreign investment in South Africa. However strong In its own right, the murderous Pretoria regime cannot survive without the continued export of minerals and foodstuffs. It relies on imports of key components and on the financial support of the big banks and multi national corporations such as Barclays, Dunlops (B.T.R.), Tube Investments and Rowntrees.
The undoubted groundswell of support for solidarity and against British backing of apartheid adds all the more urgency to the question of what sort of solidarity action the labour movement should be conducting. The traditional answer from the national Anti Apartheid Movement has been to push for cutting bisiness links, and to pressure for government sanctions combined with sports, consumer and cultural boycotts. Its policies have been tailored to suit its ’Broad Church’ approach of attempting to appeal to all progressive’ sections of the community.
This strategy is wrong on a number of counts. Firstly in its reliance on the government to take action. The determination of the Thatcher Government to avoid even the mildest of measures as agreed at the Commonwealth Conference shows just how fruitless it is to concentrate on such calls for sanctions. Yet the 1985 TUC’s resolution on apartheid concluded:
"Congress instructs the General Council to urge the British Government to apply sanctions against South Africa and calls all unions to consider ways in which they can usefully oppose the South African regime". The first instinct of the TUC is to ask the Government, and when it comes to action, the terms are typically evasive.
Of course, it is possible that the growing solidarity movement will force Thatcher to take further measures after the Commonwealth’s investigatory team of ’wise men’ report. But what would the purpose of such sanctions be for Thatcher and her friends? They would be used to encourage cosmetic changes within apartheid rather than its overthrow. Any reforms would be designed to allow profit making to continue. Why else appoint a director of Standard Chartered bank (the biggest banking concern after Barclays with South African interests) to be the British ’wise man’? Anthony Barber can be relied on to uphold the interests of international capital.
The second dangerous aspect of the sanctions campaign has been its disinvestment strategy. Of course, at the present critical juncture, with Pretoria fighting for its life, all such measures which hit the South African economy serve to weaken the regime. This has been recognised In the recent statements of the black and non racial South African trade unions including the new federation COSATU, its predecessor F’OSATU, and the black consciousness trade unions. The trade unions were previously
critical of a strategy of disinvestment where this meant firms one by one closing down and dismantling their factories. This would mean a gradual weakening of the black working class. It is for this very reason that we oppose any long term strategy of disinvestment especially as it relies on the ’morality’ of the capitalists
But direct action by trade unionists against firms with major interests in South Africa is of a different order. It demonstrates working class solidarity and a recognition of the need for concerted and massive action against the regime in 1986. However militants must be on their guard and ready to oppose each and every chauvinistic and reactionary argument that is raised in favour of action against firms with South African Investment and a boycott of imports. Sometimes It is argued that trade unions should support investment at home and import controls in order to bolster British industry. That is an argument against all overseas investment and all foreign goods, not just South African ones It suggests that British workers have a comamon interest with British bosses against fellow workers in foreign countries.
In fact the bosses know better. They happily move investment and orders from country to country in order to maximise profits. The way to fight theta is by building International working class solidarity. Our argument for workers’ action against apartheid is motivated by the need for that solidarity, not by chauvinism. When the racist regime is overthrown, and workers in South Africa appeal for help in building their new society, we shall be for all possible aid to them. We will be for exports from Britain of what they need and for imports of what they produce.
Thatcher’s intransigence and the urgency of the situation in South Africa prompted Oliver Tambo (ANC President) to issue a call, in October 1985, for ’Peoples Sanctions’. In line with this, the plans for action in 1986 issued by the AAM lay Increased stress on the need for direct action. But the term ’Peoples Sanctions’ is misleading. It Is not true that all sections of the ’people’ have an interest in helping the solidarity movement.
The ruling class have an interest in preserving capitalism in South Africa. The working class, on the other hand, has an enormous objective Interest In seeing the downfall of apartheid and the capitalist system that produced it. Solidarity activity should be aimed at winning Workers’ Sanctions. Of course this might frighten off some of the middle class supporters of the anti apartheid struggle the Churches, the liberals. But effective action should never be sacrificed to win these unreliable ’friends’.
The most effective form of workers’ sanction is the trade union boycott. It can be argued for, imposed and defended collectively. And very significantly, It can be lifted when workers in South Africa request that and not before. It cannot he turned on and off at the behest of the bosses and investors.
Other forms of activity being proposed in the trade union movement should be supported but not as a substitute for the workers’ boycott. Disinvestment (or ’divesting’) of trade union and council funds is a gesture of solidarity and the discussion can be used to educate the membership.
Other activities have mobilised considerable energy but remain based on the actions of isolated individuals and can never deliver the necessary blows to the apartheid regime. This applies to consumer boycotts and campaigns for picketing stores. Campaigners for a workers’ boycott should stress that such activity depends on workers acting mdlvidualy and on the dedication of activists to keep up the pressure. It can never be as effective as a real workers boycott. That Is why shopworkers should be approached to join the action themselves, following the lead given by Dunnes workers in Dublin.
But doesn’t the workers’ boycott put some sections of workers jobs at risk? After all, the Dunnes strikers are still striking for their jobs. The answer must be to build a massive and well organised campaign in which as many sections of the movement as possible are directly involved and all sections are committed to taking action to defend any workers sacked because they Imposed the boycott. This is possible to achieve given a clear lead, education and preparation. The response to the attack on trade unionism at GCHQ showed the depth of commitment amongst British workers to defending hard won rights. A serious and concerted campaign which explained the issues in South Africa should be mounted.
Such a campaign means confronting racism at home as well as 6,000 miles away. It means exposing and fighting to put an end to British trade unionism’s dereliction of its duty in the fight against racism.
Joint committees should be organised at every level of the movement to organise action. The action of Southampton dockers who stopped a shipment of machinery for the arms industry was successful because, not only were there links at national level through Maritime Unions Against Apartheid, but dockers’ shop stewards were involved.
Already in a number of areas, solidarity committees have been set up to encourage and co ordinate trade union action. In Birmingham and Coventry, committees exist with the backing of the Trades Council and the AAM. These must be spread and made real delegate bodies. Local demonstrations can be a focus for launching actiori. Youth and the black communities should be drawn into this campaign.
The labour movement must give practical not just verbal assistance to those in struggle against the Apartheid State in South Africa. Regular financial aid from the trade unions to those campaigns for the release of all political activists and trade unionists should be built. Mass protests
against the repression are needed as well as sympathy strike action, particularly in those companies with subsidiaries in South Africa.
WHAT’S IT GOT TO DO WITH US?
Frequently in trade union branches and workplaces when
the need for solidarity is raised, the question comes well,
what has it got to do with us? Everything Workers dare
not take a nationalistic view of this. If workers in Britain
ignore the struggles in South Africa, or South Korea, or Brazil they put their own jobs at risk. British capitalists would rather invest in a low wage country like South Africa than Britain. In turn cheap imports from these countries flood back into Britain. To compete, workers in Britain are forced to work harder for less. This is how the capitalists use low waged countries to depress wages internationally.
It therefore makes sense for British workers to support the struggles of workers in low wage and oppressive countries like South Africa. Failure to do so serves to undermine our own jobs here. Hence workers’ internationalism is a vital necessity.
Secondly racism is used to turn white workers against black workers. Racism means workers end up fighting each other instead of the bosses. In Britain this racist division has led to many strikes being lost. A failure by British workers to defend black workers in South Africa will only encourage the bosses to intensify this division here.
Thirdly, a defeat for the apartheid state will mean a defeat as well for one of its largest backers, British imperialism. It will weaken the British boss class and make it easier for British workers to take them on.
Finally, British workers must not view South Africa as something completely unique. South Africa may be the only society where capitalist exploitation and racial oppression
take the particularly intense form of apartheid; but it is not the only society which practices systematic racism and divides the working class against itself. It is not the only society where workers’ picket lines are attacked, their union rights denied and their communities put under siege. It is not the only society where young people are harassed, made homeless and can only look forward to a jobless future.
These features may be sharper In South Africa, but they exist here too, and are growing. As our rulers find their profits under threat, their attacks will increase. Thatcher’s dream is our nightmare and South African society confronts workers everywhere with what that nightmare means. Its overthrow will mark a new stage in the battle against capitalism worldwide.