Written: 1981 / 82.
First Published: September 1982.
Source: Published by the Workers Socialist League.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Sean Robertson for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
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Five years ago, the South African capitalist state tried to drown the awakening movement of workers and youth in blood. But the hundreds of murders at the hands of the state did nothing to destroy the underlying militancy and determination of the working class. The initial state response was met not by a retreat, but by an escalation of struggle. First the youth in other parts of the country and then the workers added their strength to me action which had developed in Soweto.
Helicopters, armoured cars, tear gas, mobilisation of sections of the army, indiscriminate shooting by the police – none of this could defeat an emerging class movement. The class stepped back from total confrontation because it could see no clear way forward, and because it was given no clear way forward by the reformists and Stalinists of the ANC. These leaders could not keep up with events, let alone lead them. There followed a lull in struggle, as the class assessed and assimilated its experience, looked at the lessons of the last phase of struggle, gathered its forces and prepared for the next.
Once again workers began to move into action, now on more specific demands relating to day-to-day grievances. Strikes spread from one part of the country to the next, from one group of workers to the next. Almost every single strike triggered off a response amongst other workers in the same area or industry. The motor workers, textile workers, miners, municipal workers, transport workers, media workers, power workers, food and canning workers – these and others have all taken action, despite repeated arrests, non-stop police intimidation and victimisation by employers, despite prohibitions on almost every single meeting and the fact that every single strike which has occurred has been illegal.Growth of the unions
Union membership has grown enormously, more than doubling in a year. The vast majority of workers are not unionised, but millions more look to the unions for a way forward. Even where workers are not formally organised, struggle after struggle has shown a level of informal organisation which extends through vast sections of the class. Several employers have formally recognised unions, often being forced to in the course of strikes. Whether the unions have formal recognition or not, the employers and the government have been forced to recognise the living reality of the workers’ organisation. Strike after strike has forced wage increases – sometimes as much as 100%. As the confidence of workers grows, wage demands are being made which reflect workers’ needs. For the capitalists, who have relied on massive repression to provide them with cheap labour, these demands sometimes involve increases of 500% or more. Even on the issue of the Pass Laws, absolutely central to state control over workers, concessions have been forced through workers’ collective action (Crossroads).
Widespread action from the schools has forced a massive increase in government spending. United action from students and workers has forced the transfer of officials, changes in the syllabus, withdrawal of exam fee increases. Strikers have forced improvements in working conditions. The threat of mass action has repeatedly forced the government, its stooges and employers to hold back bus fare increases (Soweto).
Of course in this phase of struggle there have been setbacks and specific defeats. But so great has been the forward drive of the class that nothing the government or bosses have done has been able to contain demands, and force workers back. None of the gains made in struggle has been enough to meet workers’ needs. And the working class is saying that in action. A few days after one strike had forced a 60% increase in one car plant, workers were voting in favour of striking for more. In one factory, workers won a strike for higher overtime rates. A few months later, they were on strike against compulsory overtime. Students have forced school principals to withdraw disciplinary action against militants, and then have taken action to demand the removal of those principals. From this period of struggle the working class is standing more confident, more militant and more organised than ever before.
This growing class movement has at each stage thrown the ruling class into deeper division and political crisis. And now the fall in the price of gold has laid bare the full extent of a deepening economic crisis. The ruling class has no option – it must lash out in an attempt to claw back every gain won by the workers, smash the strength of the working class, and force workers to pay the full price of the capitalist crisis. The state lashes out from its own position of confusion and division, but this makes the blows nonetheless real and nonetheless powerful. The last few months have seen a significant increase in the level of repression-the arrest of union leaders, the arrest of strikers, massive police and army pass law raids, the firebombing of union buildings.Real allies for black workers
The stage is set for the inevitable deepening and escalation of conflict. The state is forced to launch political, physical and economic attacks against workers. The working class is determined not only to defend what it has, and what it has gained, but also to carry those gains forward. In that struggle, the South African workers will need the programme and perspective of Marxism. And they will need, increasingly urgently, international working class solidarity. The lackeys and stooges of imperialism who do not blink an eyelid in ordering their own troops to mow down striking workers are happy to pose as the allies of South African workers and make stirring attacks on apartheid at the OAU. Trade union bureaucrats who each day knife the workers they represent in the back are quick to denounce apartheid. The Stalinists who prop up decaying imperialism with their policies of peaceful co-existence and class collaboration attack apartheid. Sections of the capitalist class who grow rich each day off the exploitation and oppression of workers make speeches in which they criticise the way that exploitation is organised in South Africa. Even the imperialist backers of the bosses’ apartheid regime claim to be anti-apartheid. But if it is ever to be carried through to victory, the struggle of the black workers and oppressed people in South Africa must be developed as the workers struggle for power. No-one who exploits or oppresses workers anywhere can ever be the real ally of the black workers of South Africa. Their real struggle is to destroy all oppression and exploitation, not reorganise it.
Unlike the Stalinists and the reformists, the TILC does not approach questions of the class struggle by seeking ‘progressive’ capitalist governments with which to ally ourselves. Nor do we seek to develop class struggle through debates and speeches at the UN. At every point, we base ourselves on the independent interests and strength of the only force which can successfully lead the struggle against apartheid – the revolutionary force of the working class.
Despite imperialist backing for a halt of arms supplies to the South African regime, arms are still being supplied. It is only through working class action to black supplies of arms and related materials that this supply can be stopped. Only through the struggle to open the books, and against all secret diplomacy can the realities of imperialist connivance with their ally in South Africa be uncovered, and laid before the working class, so that effective arms blacking can be implemented.Strikes and blacking
The TILC will build and support the symbolic protest actions which are regularly called, seeking at every point to locate these within the labour movement. We recognise in them an important arena for education and agitation. In addition, such demonstrations of solidarity can boost the morale of South African workers and combat the constant attempts by the state to create a sense of isolation amongst those workers. But we also recognise the persistent attempts by the reformists and bureaucrats, for whom any independent action by workers is a potential threat, to turn symbolic acts into a substitute for further, and more decisive solidarity action. In no way will TILC allow the feeling of solidarity felt amongst many militants and workers with South African workers to be trapped in a dead-end of merely symbolic acts. Much, much more is necessary. And much, much more is possible. We will take into such mobilisations and demonstrations the perspective of Trotskyism. We will seek to deepen and develop the hatred for apartheid into an understanding and hatred for the class basis on which it arises and is maintained. We seek to orientate those involved in such demonstrations to the working class, to take up the struggle for the most effective solidarity action – working class action.
Supporting strikes and blacking action are weapons which the working class internationally can wield, and must be mobilised and led to wield. The South African ruling class is inextricably entwined in international finance capital. Again and again there are strikes in factories in South Africa which are subsidiaries of companies based in the imperialist countries. The biggest South African companies all have investment in other countries. South African owned Anglo American is the biggest single foreign investor in the US. There are many major international companies which invest in South Africa. The goal of the TILC will be to mobilise class solidarity action which can add real material weight to the specific struggles of workers in South Africa. For this to be effective, it demands the struggle to open the books, to investigate the direct and indirect links of every company with South Africa. In that way, whenever a struggle emerges at a company in South Africa, the basis has been laid for immediate and effective supporting blacking or strike action. This requires too the building of direct workplace to workplace links, so that workers can be directly informed of the demands, needs and action of their South African class brothers and sisters. Too often has such information been swallowed up in tortuous bureaucratic processes and manoeuvres. In seeking to promote such links, by the labour movement, the TILC will emphasise and take into account the immediate security problems facing South African workers and their organisations, where any direct appeal for support from inside South Africa is illegal and subject to massive penalties.
We take up these tasks as part of our overall goal of building a class movement which can force the nationalisation, under workers’ control, of each company trading with South Africa. In this way, we take up the struggle to bring all aspects of international economic links with South Africa under the control of the working class – the only class whose power and control can ever serve the interests of South African workers.
The struggle of South African workers is part of the world struggle of all workers against all forms of capitalist exploitation and oppression. The imperialist system, of which the black workers of South Africa are such oppressed victims, is a world system. Every blow struck at the international capitalist class enemy is a blow struck for the inter-national workers’ victory. The greatest blow that could ever be struck by workers anywhere to aid the South African revolution is the defeat of the capitalist class enemy and the workers’ seizure of power. That is the task to which the TILC is committed.