From International Socialism (1st series), No.6, Autumn 1961

Source: Revolutionary History.
Proofread: Anoma Cartwright (April 2008).

South Africa: Once Again on the Stay-at-Home

Socialist League of Africa

We are giving nothing away when we say that the Socialist League of Africa is a revolutionary socialist organization orientated on class struggle. It publishes Spark, the first underground newspaper in South Africa.

There can be little doubt that the stay-at-home, called for May 29, 30 and 31 failed. Even objective observers who supported the strike call have stated unequivocally that the stay-at-home failed.

Of course it was not as bad as the South African Broadcasting Corporation reports would like us to believe – they claimed at one stage that 91 percent of Johannesburg’s labour force was at work; nor can we accept the reports of the daily newspapers who grossly underestimated or were ignorant of the responses in some areas. It took several days before we were able to gauge the response from all areas, and Nelson Mandela, spokesman for the committee that called the strike stated at the end of the first day that the strike had failed.

As far as we can estimate about 40 percent of the Johannesburg labour force stayed at home (there is no way of determining the number of domestic servants or occasional workers involved). And Johannesburg, contrary to expectations, had the biggest response. Some industries (e.g. laundries) that have a long tradition of militant workers action, closed down completely. On the other hand it is hard to gauge the full response of the workers, as many industries, fearing a successful strike closed of their own accord and are now working overtime to make up for those days. This complicates our attempt at arriving at a satisfactory picture.

The next most significant figure is that of the Coloured peoples of the Cape. Between 30 and 40 percent stayed away in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. And there is of course the important complete stay-away from lectures by the students of Fort Hare.

But we must be honest ... There was very little response in Durban and Pietermaritzburg. Equally little in Pretoria or on the Witwatersrand. Africans of the Eastern and Western Cape went to work, and even where there was some response on Monday, the response declined radically by Tuesday, and where industry worked on Wednesday most of the workers had returned. As for the rural areas there has been no indication of stoppages.

A large number of Indian businesses closed, but as this is usually taken as being an indication of sympathy, rather than as being of primary importance we will not investigate this factor further.

Why then this failure?

There are many reasons that go to explain this affair, and we will tabulate the most important below. But it must be stated at the outset that this campaign could never have succeeded.

In 1958, the Congress Alliance called a stay-at-home for 3 days which was to reach its climax on the day of the general election. Some said at the time, much to the annoyance of the Congress of Democrats leadership and others that the strike could not succeed, that the African could not be called upon to intervene in parliamentary affairs that did not affect him appreciably. The African is far too wary to enter battle, when victory can only lead to a United Party’s victory. Verwoerd must go – but not in order to be replaced by Graaf. After the events we were assured by T. Makawane in a review article that the strike failed ... because we had not realised that many of the Africans desired a UP victory. Certainly conditions are not identical in 1961, but it is in general true that the African population will not respond to situations which do not directly concern their interests as they see them. S. Uys, in a review in the Sunday Times maintains that the concept was too sophisticated. We don’t like his choice of the word sophisticated – because we believe that far more sophisticated ideas are understood by the African peoples. However he has made the point we think that the Africanists put far more bluntly and crudely – namely that they are not interested in ‘white politics’. It is not that the African will only respond to bread and butter politics, but that he can see little reason for intervening in events where little or nothing can be achieved, and where the methods proposed are suspect as we will see below.

When this particular campaign was called, there was little or no organization in the townships. The banning of the African National Congress and Pan African Congress (PAC) had not yet been overcome. Whatever underground there might be is understandably weak, poorly organized and without close contact with any effective leadership. One area in Johannesburg that once claimed several hundred active members can now count only 15-20 members. And so, although there were 25 or more full-time organizers in the field, they could not hope to do more than make the most superficial contact in the few weeks before the campaign. The necessary follow ups, the daily contacts, the deep penetration to every house were not possible. A handful of organizers plus all the leaflets in the world is no substitute in this kind of campaign for a large active branch in every area. For that matter of course we have to doubt the effectiveness of the much praised M-plan activity in Port Elizabeth because the response there was lower than in Johannesburg. As for country districts, we do not know whether there were any organizers who met the areas though we do know that since the banning little or no attempt has been made to restart groups. At any rate there was no response.

We must add to this the fact that the ex-ANC decided to go it alone. Offers of help from some sources were either spurned or handled with contempt. The leadership had an exaggerated idea of their following, and an inflated concept of their strength. It is true that the PAC walked out of the committee that called the Maritzburg conference, and also true that members of the Liberal Party did the same. We are not convinced that actions of the remaining members that precipitated some of these walkouts can be condoned, but whatever the truth behind these events, this initial weakening meant only one thing – that allies had to be won for the organizing that was needed. As we indicated this was not done, and some offers of help were bureaucratically spurned.

In examining the failure one of the major reasons advanced refers to police terror and intimidation. We are frankly tired of this excuse. It has been used now for the past few failures, and is always produced after the event. Surely we have to be political simpletons not to take this into account in planning campaigns? We would have thought after this theory of intimidation was offered to account (in part) for the ’58 failure that we could preplan with this knowledge, And even more now, with the growing efficiency of the police and army, this factor must be accounted for before the events and not produced as an excuse on the aftermath of a failure.

Also let it be said that this campaign received remarkable press publicity that will not necessarily be repeated. In planning for the future we dare not lose sight of the weapons the state is preparing. We can not afford to repeat our experience of this year, in which 10,000 people were arrested, untold numbers disillusioned, hundreds rendered unemployed by victimization, students sent home etc., etc., besides trials to follow – all to be told with hindsight that we now need new tactics.

But of course that is precisely the point. New tactics must be employed. In a discussion article issued after Sharpeville (Ten Years of The Stay-at-Home – issued by the Socialist League of Africa), it was pointed out that the efficacy of the tactic was grossly exaggerated, and that its value was far lower than claimed by the liberatory movement. We don’t wish to repeat here the arguments of that document, for it must be obvious that the General Strike can only succeed when it is the stepping stone to further action that will challenge the state directly. It is indeed a powerful organizing weapon and if handled correctly it can be very valuable. But this method can not be used if the state is prepared to bring out the entire armed forces every time it is proposed – especially when none of the armed forces can be won over to our side at this stage of events. We live in a police state and cannot use tactics prepared in other countries under totally different conditions. We believe that many workers have realised this far in advance of their leaders.

More than one worker has said ‘tell us what to do, but do not ask us to stay at home.’ This is probably the main factor behind the failure. The worker is prepared to struggle. If organized he can be an effective force. He will be prepared to take strike action under appropriate conditions but the present call to strike was for demands that were unreal to the situation. It offered only sacrifice, and sacrifice with no returns. The worker was placed in the position where pay would be lost, jobs were in jeopardy, shooting was possible – and against this there were no possible returns. At the end of the strike, there might well be a moral victory, but in actuality there would be nothing concrete to show for all the heroism the worker could produce. ‘Tell us what to do, but do not ask us to stay at home’

We have stressed the negative side because we do not want to cover up on events that must be described as a major defeat. Most particularly as there is now a call for non-cooperation. Surely we can not call on people to undertake another fight so soon after defeat. Organization must if anything be even worse now than before May 29. Disillusionment has spread and time is needed for recovery. For that reason we must not gloss over the defeat, or else we will embark on new adventurism that will only sap the people.

And yet of course there was a positive side to the campaign. The entire country seethed with excitement (though not as after Sharpeville). The panic of the State, with Bills rushed through parliament with indecent haste, mobilization; bans on meetings; capital fall in dramatic fashion; panic selling of houses; collapse in share markets. All this because of a threat that could not be backed up. How much more will happen when threats are translated into reality?

The pressing issue now is to translate talk of new tactics into reality. This demands entirely new organizational structures as well as new ideas. The effectiveness of working this out will determine our future political development and must be vigorously pursued now. The entire problem now, is what forces there are available for this new direction.


Last up dated on 3.5.2008