Published by the League for a Revolutionary Communist International (Predecessor organization of the Revolutionary Communist International Tendency, RCIT), in: Trotskyist International No. 19 (January-April 1996)
South Africa’s Government of National Unity (GNU) has been in office for nearly two years. Mandela has been treated virtually as a living saint by the national and international capitalist class for achieving a “peaceful and responsible transition” from white rule to majority rule. Politicians, from Margaret Thatcher to Fidel Castro, have flocked from overseas to see the newborn multi-racial South Africa and bless it in its cradle.
Marxists must penetrate the dense cloud of incense being burned before the image of Nelson Mandela.
The world bourgeoisie is grateful to him for having avoided or rather aborted a revolution in South Africa, in which the black masses, and above all the super-exploited black proletariat, might have laid hands on their investments and on the vast natural riches of the country.
Nevertheless, it would be the height of folly to pretend that “nothing has happened”, that developments over the last three years are all an illusion, that things remain the same.
On one level, change is dramatic and real. Widespread formal democratic rights are now accorded to all South Africans. All vestiges of legal apartheid have gone. The National Party, the sole ruling party for decades, is now a minority party in government.
Local elections which took place in November 1995 saw another overwhelming victory for the ANC, and local councils are now in place joining townships and suburbs. Former trade union leaders are now government ministers. TV and radio are no longer white preserves. School segregation is unlawful and there are more and more black students on the university campuses. South African sport is back in the international arena.
To those who are satisfied with legal equality and are in a position to utilise it to improve their own social position, all this will seem miraculous enough. They will be happy to heed calls for a halt to disruptive mass struggles, to decry the “utopian” expectations of the workers and the unemployed youth of the townships.
To those, however, who saw these democratic rights as a weapon to solve the real underlying questions of poverty and exploitation, such gains will seem only a small first step.
It is scarcely any surprise that a democracy which stops at the gates of private ownership of the land, the factories, the mines, will offer little to the millions whose labour creates the profits of the tiny minority which owns them. Trotskyists always warned that this would be the case.
The leadership of the anti-apartheid struggle, the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), always argued that a stage of bourgeois democracy would be necessary. At the same time they painted this stage in rosy colours as a period when the monopolies and the multinationals would be nationalised and small businesses and social welfare flourish.
In contrast, Trotskyists warned that this “democratic stage”, if it was allowed to take hold, would turn out to be a “democratic counterrevolution”. The burning economic and social needs for which the masses had given their lives would be withheld, whilst a section of the black middle classes would be co-opted into the ruling class.
Those who fostered illusions in the ANC or the SACP are facing brutal disillusion. Those who considered the SACP a particularly radical Stalinist party capable of making a socialist revolution, or who thought that the “objective process” would force Mandela and Slovo to go much further than they wished have been exposed as apologists for the agents of democratic counterrevolution.
But there are others on the left facing disillusion: those who said that bourgeois democracy was impossible in South Africa, who said that capitalism and apartheid were inseparable and if one fell so would the other. This pseudo-radical theory—wrongly confused with Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution—has also been proved completely wrong.
Once again the key question has proven to be: who leads the working class and on what programme? The LRCI, which warned that all forms of reliance either on the ANC/SACP or on the “revolutionary process” would lead to impasse and the establishment of a black bourgeois regime, has been completely vindicated.
In 1986 we argued that while a negotiated settlement was an unlikely perspective given the reactionary mass base of the National and Conservative Parties:
“this does not mean that given a huge and successful upheaval, ‘reform from above’ may not be offered as the only way of swindling the black masses out of the full fruits of their own sacrifices and in order to preserve capitalism.”1
Exactly as the LRCI predicted, South African capitalism has been able to survive the dismantling of apartheid.
The white ruling class, backed by international imperialism, averted revolution by a controlled process of reform.
The guaranteed governmental coalition allowed the incorporation of the leadership of the ANC into the ruling class as well as the government. Now the great corporations are working overtime to shape the “new masters” into their obedient servants. It is this process that workers must recognise and discover the means to fight, if they are not to be swindled out of their elementary demands: jobs, decent wages, quality housing, schools, hospitals, and access to the best farming land for the rural workers.
Foreign capital is flowing back into South Africa. Some 80% of the US firms who disinvested in the 1980s have now returned; Ford, for instance, has bought back into its former subsidiary, Samcor.2 The institutions of economic autarky are gradually being dismantled. The financial Rand was abolished last year without fuss and other trade barriers are gradually being reduced and removed. The economy is growing again, 2.3% in 1994 and an estimated 3.5% for 1995.3
Naturally, the reins of industry and finance still remain largely in white hands—one estimate last year put the total Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) capitalisation at R835b, of which R4b was held by ten black controlled companies.4 Nevertheless, the layer of black bourgeois is growing. Holding companies such as New Africa Investments, Real Africa Holdings and the ANC-linked Thebe Investment Corporation are a route for black capitalist growth.
This goes alongside the practice known as “unbundling”, where companies, led by the big conglomerates deliberately parcel up and sell off companies to black investors.
Foreign capital too has been searching for black partners in joint ventures. Pepsi Cola found a partner in Egoli Beverages, backed by African-Americans such as Whitney Houston and Johnny Cochrane in partnership with local black investors5. McDonalds awarded their first South African franchise to a young black entrepreneur.
More visible than the slow growth of black capital is the “gravy train” of parliamentary and ministerial privilege and public appointments—creating, according to concerned commentators in the South African Communist Party, “a new ANC political stratum” of tens of thousands of former cadre.6 For the most part these will form a new element of the middle class, able to move into the better suburbs and schools. Not all, perhaps, will be as blatant as Eugen Nyati, a financial whizz kid hired to root out inefficiency in provincial government, but caught paying himself $250,000 for two months work!
If there are benefits for a few, what accrues to the many? South Africa’s political settlement was bought with the promise of real improvements in the lives of the masses. Removing apartheid’s repression has gained a breathing space but, for the majority of the black population, there have been few tangible improvements.
Education was just one area of huge difference under apartheid. At the end of 1994, 94% of white school leavers had matriculated and only 48% of black leavers.7 Segregation may now be officially over but proportionately more is still spent on white education. In “white” schools classes are smaller, teachers are fully trained and facilities incomparably better.
And those black school leavers will find that little more than 5% of them will find work. Official unemployment runs at 33% but most authorities estimate the true figure at nearer 50%. There has been no appreciable dent in these figures. Over 13 million people are still without proper homes8 and an estimated 1.7 million households are land hungry.9
Unsurprisingly, in these circumstances crime continues to rise. South Africa heads the world league table for murder and rape. Thefts add to the myriad of problems of township living for the black majority. Privileged white South Africa retreats even further behind the walls of the many new luxury fortress housing complexes in the suburbs.
For those in work, wages have risen on average 11% last year, partly as a result of continued trade union strength, giving a modest real wage increase for some. But for many workers in the public sector, including low paid teachers, nurses and administrators, rises were pegged below inflation.
The Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), tabled by the ANC prior to the 1994 elections and now the official policy of the GNU, set out to make some tangible improvements in living standards. In comparison with the needs of the majority of South Africans its goals were modest—for instance it promises the redistribution “through the market” of only 30% of arable land in a country where 67,000 farmers own 86% of all farm land. But the GNU is facing problems even delivering on these promises. The former housing minister, the late Joe Slovo, declared that 1995 would be the “year of delivery”. In fact the RDP delivered less than 11,000 state funded houses in 1995 compared to the promised 200,000 a year!
The problem for the ANC—and in the long term it is an insoluble one—is to meet the needs of the South African masses while staying within the bounds set by South African and international capitalism. The debate within the GNU and the constituent parts of the Congress Alliance—the ANC, the SACP and the trade union federation, COSATU—revolves around finding a successful strategy within this framework.
South African imperialist capital grew in a system dependent on enforced cheap labour, gold revenues and a high degree of autarchy and protection. This allowed industrial growth but resulted in a low productivity economy compared to other middle ranking nations. The economy developed with a strong state sector and a high degree of monopolisation; four giant conglomerates still control close on 80% of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.
Even with the removal of the political factors which exacerbated its problems, such an economy could not survive in the modern imperialist world.
International and national big business has a predictable solution; South Africa has to compete internationally and attract foreign investment. It must above all raise the productivity of labour. Currently, South African car workers earn less than their Mexican counterparts, but Mexican assembly turns out comparable cars in less than half the time.10
Their solution demands high levels of investment, “restructuring” and training. The RDP, they argue, can only be afforded on the back of growth that would follow such a policy.
For the capitalists, this means holding down public sector debt and encouraging the free market. This might then allow growth at the 5-7% necessary to see a fall in unemployment. “Such a golden scenario”, argued the British Financial Times, “might not be achievable without a showdown with the unions to give job creation priority over rises in real wages”.11
This seems the familiar tune of the neo-liberals—fiscal discipline combined with attacks on the working class and encouragement of export-led growth. Big business has more sense than to embrace an immediate Thatcherite agenda in South Africa.
The ANC came to power on the back of an enormous mass struggle. The deal with the white ruling class was sold to ANC supporters by promising its followers reform and tangible material benefits. The trade unions remain powerful and militant.
Thus in the run up to the 1994 General Election and even more so in its wake, there were many converts to the RDP in boardrooms and amongst civil servants.
But the ANC leadership is showing itself increasingly open to these right wing arguments. Nelson Mandela came out of prison in 1990 talking about nationalisation being a central plank of the ANC’s policy. This was quickly dumped with the formation of the GNU. Now all the talk is about “restructuring” or privatising sections of state industry. In January 1996 the government announced that Telkom, South African Airways and Autonet were all candidates for partial privatisation, an announcement that sparked a series of stoppages, blockades and pickets by COSATU members in the parastatals.
Stalinism defends lack of results
Increasingly, both government ministers and business backers are talking up a South African version of the “stakeholder society”.
The apparent conversion to the RDP demanded a rethink on the part of those on the left, especially the SACP, who saw the RDP as the main rallying cry for the “popular forces” ranged against “our strategic enemies” (the National Party and big business).
The SACP was crucial in ensuring working class support for both the political settlement and for the Alliance of the ANC, SACP and COSATU which contested the 1994 election on a common list. The Party ensured that the struggle for socialism was redefined to mean “an engagement with the present South Africa, in order to consolidate, defend and advance democratic transformation”12 Any talk of smashing the capitalist state was now the preserve of the “ultra-left”.
In the run-up to the 1994 General Election, SACP leaders were busy consolidating the primacy of their newly revised positions within the party and the trade union leadership. While in 1991 delegates to the SACP 8th Congress were able to defeat a proposed slogan of “Forward to Democratic Socialism”,13 by 1993 its Strategy Congress committed itself to “a non party centred” approach.
Party ideologues such as Jeremy Cronin worked overtime to explain the problems with Bolshevism and “external ruptures” (revolutions!). Cronin argued that what was needed was “not a transfer of power but a transformation of power”. He and COSATU leader Langa Zita saw this as advancing socialism “in the interstices of the present system” using the mass organisations and institutions like a peoples’ development bank.14 Central to this transformation was the RDP. So when the “strategic opponents” began to embrace this policy the RDP itself became “a site for struggle” with neo-liberalism.
The SACP members and ex-COSATU leaders who are now in government have embraced working within “the present system” only too readily. Alec Erwin, the deputy Finance Minister, says that he cannot quite get used to the idea that he now meets the governor of the Reserve Bank “to discuss not how to revive the economy but how to stop it overheating”.15 Jay Naidoo, former head of COSATU, responsible for implementing the RDP, earns plaudits from the financial press for his “fiscal responsibility”.
While some SACP members are being “responsible” ministers and refusing to demand the resources to implement the RDP, others are spending cash in embarrassing ways.
Chief amongst these is undoubtedly Ronnie Kasrils who has embraced his Cabinet role as deputy arms minister with such enthusiasm that he is now widely known as a “hawk” for the armed services and defence industry. Kasrils caused a storm last year by demanding four new corvettes for the South African navy arguing that while there was “no credible threat on the horizon” the world is in turmoil.
Kasrils and Erwin came under fire at the SACP Congress in April for “singing the same song as the bourgeois” as one delegate put it.16 But the Party leadership could only obsequiously thank the comrade minister for attending and debating these points, saying that he “paid our party the highest compliment”. Indeed elements both within the SACP and COSATU have been arguing for separate caucuses for the parliamentarians to spare them the embarrassment of having to face criticism or accountability from their organisations.
The SACP thus has to steer an uneasy course. Its official aim is now to seek the “socialisation of the economy”—a left-sounding but evasive phrase which can cover everything from the British Labour Party’s “stakeholder society”, through to the nationalisation so long promised to South African trade union militants. The Party officially opposes the “Malaysian model” now being advanced in some government circles, which encourages Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and black private firms to participate in social provision.
It rightly points out that this will be a recipe for further differentiation within the black community. But it has no coherent programme for marshalling the kind of resources needed for even moderate social provision.
The SACP protests at dependence on foreign capital—but has no alternative but a national model of capitalist growth. At the same time newly elected deputy leader Blade Nzimande says the party should fight to prevent the RDP becoming a “terrain of capital accumulation”, ignoring the fact that the RDP was, from its inception, a programme designed to assist the country’s capitalist development.
Marshalling the resources needed to meet the needs of the masses means seizing those resources—and mobilising the South African masses against the system as a whole. But for the SACP, the power achieved through the GNU is to be merely “supplemented with the popular power of the people”.17 The fundamentally class collaborationist policy advocated by the SACP over a long period in the workers’ movement has given rise to illusions in a recycled form of corporatism—a Swedish or German model of social partnership without the welfare state to go with it.
The nature of this “partnership” can be seen in the results of the long battle over the Labour Relations Bill. After mass mobilisations and strikes last June, a compromise was achieved by COSATU negotiators and the employers’ forum.
The Bill allows the right to strike, although hedging this with certain conditions. Employers lose the right to lock out but are allowed to bring in scab labour. There are several requirements for pre-strike ballots and arbitration. The unions were cheated of their demand for compulsory centralised bargaining.
Workplace Forums are now enshrined in law as well as being encouraged in national settlements. Like any participation scheme, these will encourage incorporation of union representatives and the stringing out of negotiations. The SACP’s strategy continues to tie the South African working class to an alliance with bourgeois forces. Thus it is true to its Stalinist nature even as it evolves towards Social Democracy. But is there an effective alternative being advanced on the left?
A left alternative?
One alternative is that advanced by the Socialist Workers Organisation, linked to the British SWP. Having supported the ANC in the national elections in 1994, the SWO now makes excuses for their failure to address the needs of the workers by suggesting that the ANC is the prisoner of the white ruling class inside the GNU.
“In this government the bosses are relying on De Klerk’s National Party and Inkatha to hold back any change that may interfere with their aim of gaining maximum profits out of working people. They want to block the ANC from having a full say in the running of the country”.18
This is wrong. Even before the election, let alone several months into the GNU’s term, it should have been clear to any socialist that the ANC itself was the chosen vehicle for the stabilisation of bourgeois rule in South Africa.
Of course, National Party politicians continue to defend the interests of big capital and the wider white constituency, ensuring pay outs to retiring civil servants and preserving “continuity” wherever possible in government departments and the armed forces. Certainly De Klerk and his cohorts have tried to sabotage the Truth Commission–eventually shoring up their own position by letting Magnus Malan take the rap for the murderous alliance with the IFP in the last years of apartheid.
But the mainstream, pro-capitalist policies of the GNU have been promoted assiduously by ANC politicians.
By January 1995 some of this was beginning to sink in for the SWO:
“The ANC is still a broad church. But it is now seeking to rescue capitalism”.19
We might ask: when in the history of the ANC has it had anything other than a programme for a bourgeois-democratic transition—that is, rescuing capitalism from the proletarian revolution?
What conclusions does Socialist Worker draw from these developments? Seemingly none. Its policy for the November 1995 local elections involved calling on workers to vote ANC “in order to defend the reforms we have won from the system.”20.
The issue of Socialist Worker just before the election led on a frontpage headline “Who is to Blame?” listing the dramatic material differences between white and black in South Africa today. It answered its own question with the slogan “Vote ANC to kick out De Klerk . . . build the socialist alternative”. The clear, but false implication being that an ANC led government without DeKlerk would actually tackle these differences. 21
Even if the ANC was a reformist workers’ party like the British Labour Party, this would be a wrong position. Such leaders, to the extent that they do defend or extend reforms, do so only when forced to do so by actual or threatened working class action. Revolutionaries call for a vote for them in order to put them to the exposure of office, to deprive them of the luxury of impotent opposition.
But the ANC is not a bourgeois workers party. It has different historical roots and a different role. It developed into a popular front of bourgeois and petit bourgeois nationalist organisations with the SACP and, more recently, the leaders of the trade unions. It was, in short, a class collaborationist bloc between opposed classes. As such it could only be formed on the programme of its most conservative component.
This meant the strategic subordination of the working class to the bourgeoisie, or rather to the latter’s petty bourgeois agents. Once the working class had lifted its leaders to power, the workers’ mass struggle was surplus to requirements.
The ANC has evolved from a popular front, struggling against apartheid, to become the main party exercising power for the South African imperialist bourgeoisie.
It is a party which performs the vital function of tying the powerful COSATU unions and the township organisations to the bourgeosie—for all the differences of terrain and tradition it is in essence a bourgeois party. There are many such parties that maintain a “special relationship” to the trade unions: the Justicialist (Peronist) Party in Argentina and even the Democratic Party in the USA.
The truth is that the ANC is absolutely tied to big business not only by policy but materially as well. At the end of 1995, President Mandela’s office confirmed that Taiwan made a £6 million donation to the ANC in 1993. There are strong rumours that the GNU’s disgraceful behaviour over the case of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Nigerian dissidents was influenced by a £2.6 million donation to election funds from the Abacha regime.22 Morocco is another African government to have swelled ANC coffers.
At home, the ANC has been substantially funded—to the tune of an estimated R20m—in the pre-election period. One reported donor was Raymond Ackerman, supermarket chain owner, and subsequent “victim” of a militant strike in 1994. Mandela protested at this strike against “people who have been assisting us . . . without funds we would not have won the election”.23
Congress Militant (CM), allied to Militant Labour in Britain, has traditionally justified its support for the ANC on the grounds that it could be transformed into a socialist party. As we argued before24, this was a muddleheaded application of a method that was wrong even when applied to the British Labour Party. In the run up to the 1994 election, the position was being stretched to its limit, with Congress Militant suggesting the likelihood of a split in the ANC. The formation of a Workers Party, they told us, would be “premature”.
It went on being premature through to the middle of 1995. Congress Militant gave a more careful justification for its support than Socialist Worker, citing especially the threat posed by the IFP in KwaZulu Natal and the manoeuvres of National Party politicians in local government. But most striking is its tendency to tail the consciousness of the masses rather than give a lead:
“Should the ANC choose the side of the capitalist class, a change within the attitude of the masses will surely follow”.25
The declaration of a Workers Party was however still “premature”. But by June 1995, CM was calling for the debate on the Workers Party to be revived. A “battle for the soul of the ANC” was going on in which “the bourgeoisie is gaining the upper hand”.26
By the time of the local elections, CM acknowledged that it was “necessary for Marxists to re-evaluate the support given to the ANC. It is no longer possible to merely call for an ANC victory. The anti-working class policies adopted by the ANC increasingly place it in the hands of the ruling class.”27
This turn was connected with events in Britain. Militant Labour had left the Labour Party declaring it dead for reform and well on the way to being a bourgeois party.
Throughout Europe, Militant’s international co-thinkers suddenly also discovered that the social democracies, in which many of them had been working for years, were irreformable, even entirely bourgeois, parties.
However in South Africa there was still “no alternative” in place to vote for, so Congress Militant once again called for a vote for the ANC.
Socialists who called for a break with the bourgeoisie before the 1994 election might be forgiven for saying that there would have been more of a chance of constructing a viable working class alternative if other “Marxists” had done the same.
Germ of opposition
Despite the confusion on the left, despite the “longest honeymoon in history”, the South African working class continues to demonstrate its resilience. In the townships it resisted giving up the rent and rate boycotts, insisting on evidence of improvements. Militants protested when ANC leaders imposed candidates in place of local activists in the local elections and in several cases boycotted the official candidates.
On the industrial front the rash of post election strikes took the 1994 strike figures to well over 2 million days lost again, but the figures are expected to be well down for 1995.
In a number of important industries, key agreements have been struck like the three year deal in the auto industry which trade real wage increases for the lower paid and training opportunities, for a guarantee of industrial peace.
Workers mobilised in large numbers for the campaign over the Labour Relations Bill, especially in the Gauteng area, expressed their disgust at the outcome.
An angry meeting of the area COSATU shop stewards committee, in the wake of the deal, denounced it as a “miserable compromise”, declaring “there is a tendency for democracy to be undermined and replaced with bureaucracy”.28 Delegates attacked the employment minister, Tito Mboweni, and questioned the alliance of COSATU with the government.
The last few months of 1995 saw increased unrest in the public sector as the government tried to stop wage increases and protests over conditions.
Striking nurses found themselves denounced by the President himself. Municipal workers belonging to SAMWU which organises some of the lowest paid workers in South Africa, also found themselves denounced as “third force elements” (that is, agents of the white racists) when they struck for higher wages against the new municipal authorities. Tokyo Sexwale, leader of Guateng Province and ANC executive member, called for striking workers to be jailed!
This revival of struggle indicates the possibilities ahead.
The magnificent tradition of militancy and workers’ democracy which created the final crisis of apartheid in the 1970s and 1980s—before the ANC/SACP established its stranglehold—is there to be revived, providing the black nationalist, economistic and syndicalist illusions of those days are not revived with it.
The traditions of “worker control”, of shop steward democracy, of the mass general strike (the “stay aways”), of workers as the vanguard of the township struggles—all need to be transformed into a revolutionary political strategy for workers’ power in South Africa.
Where is South Africa going?
The potential for a break with the bourgeois forces is clearly emerging. But this needs leadership and a clear programme. The working class needs its own party, not one tied to the bourgeoisie.
The main party of bourgeois rule is no longer the National Party but the ANC itself.
Workers should demand that COSATU and the SACP break the alliance. They should demand that MPs from these organisations break the parliamentary pact and make themselves accountable to the working class.
Every trade union conference in 1996 must declare a break from the Alliance and demand that a COSATU Congress does the same.
What sort of “mass workers’ party” does the South Africa need?
It certainly does not need a British-style Labour Party or even a Brazilian-style Workers’ Party. In such parties the trade union bureaucrats, parliamentary deputies, municipal councillors predominate and tie the party into exactly the same type of pro-capitalist policies as the ANC is pursuing today. Mere organisational independence—even a central role for the TU leaders—will not assure that the party is really the instrument of the working class for its own emancipation.
South African workers need to create a working class party founded on a revolutionary programme, one which directs the struggles of the working masses to a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state and installing a democratic planned economy.
Only this can end the South African proletariat‘s agonising history of oppression and exploitation.
This demands an organisation of fearless fighters for this perspective, willing and able to learn the lessons both of history and of the world working class movement today. We need a genuine Trotskyist organisation which overcomes national isolation, which is itself a legacy of apartheid and the Stalinist, black nationalist and centrist confusion of the last twenty years and more.
1. Permanent Revolution No4 June 1986 “Apartheid: From Resistance to Revolution” p10
2. Economist 13/5/95.
3.Financial Times 21/11/95.
4. Financial Times 2/5/95.
6. SACP CC statement June 1994.
7. Economist 21/1/95.
8. New Internationalist March 1995.
9. Mayibuye September 1995.
10. Financial Times, 21/1/95.
12. SACP CC Statement on the Socialist Conference African Communist 139/140.
13. African Communist 141
14. Jeremy Cronin, “Bolshevism and the socialist tradition”, African Communist 136.
15. Economist 13/5/95.
16. South African Labour Bulletin 19/2 May 1995.
17. African Communist 136.
18. Socialist Worker 18 September 1994.
19. Socialist Worker 18 January 1995.
20. Socialist Worker 6 September 1995.
21. Socialist Worker 1 November 1995.
22 Guardian 8 December 1995.
23. Neville Alexander, Workers Voice March 1995.
24. “Waiting for the inevitable; Congress Militant and the ANC”, Trotskyist International 13/14, April 1994.
25. Congress Militant Cosatu Congress Special September 1994.
26. Congress Militant 17.
27. Congress Militant 18, October 1995.
28. South African Labor Bulletin 19/4 September 1995.