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International Socialism, December 1975


Notes of the Month

Détente: Time is running out


From International Socialism, No. 84, December 1975, pp. 5–6.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Sally Kincaid.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


John Rogers writes:

Five policy moves have recently revealed the character of Southern African Detente. Two concern South Africa’s overt imperialism in Angola, one South Africa’s monetarist attempt to stave off the world crisis by devaluing the rand, and two South Africa’s versions of the social con-trick. Firstly, it is undoubtedly South African military muscle which is behind the new Angolan People’s Republic’s loss this month of Lobito, the porthead of the British-owned Benguela rail line. Lobito was captured by MPLA militiamen in a territorial consolidation prior to MPLA declaring the People’s Republic. Since the rival South Africa backed UNITA nationalist group controlled the central sections of the railway’s passage through Angola to Zambia, via Zaire, the previous Lobito outlet for 45 per cent of Zambia’s copper exports was closed. Copper accounts for 95 per cent of Zambia’s foreign exchange.

This cutting of the Kaunda regime’s Angola link to the sea can be seen as a major cause of Zambia’s act of silence over Angola, a policy which emerges as playing second fiddle to South Africa’s interventionist one. Zambia thus turns a blind eye to the joint mercenary column lead by elements of Zaire-American backed FNLA nationalists and UNITA, which, having taken the crucial southern Angolan port of Lobito, is advancing on the MPLA capital city Luanda.

At the same time Kaunda is faced with increased pressure to bully the Zimbabwean nationalists into a quick settlement with the Smith regime. A neo-colonial black Zimbabwe would allow Zambia to re-open the traditional copper outlet via South African ports.

South Africa’s Angola intervention may succeed in producing such dramatic Detente results, largely because all Southern African regimes, black or white, are finding that the response to the world crisis of their respective black workers is forcing them to ‘settle’ the Zimbabwean confrontation before ‘conflict’ spreads. In Zimbabwe itself 2,200 black workers have been laid off in Vorster’s infamous six months settlement period, not without strike protest and the exodus of many unemployed to the guerrilla camps.

Copperbelt mineworkers threatened with redundancies in Zambia have sparked off three widespread strike waves in the past months. The last in August erupted around the refusal of management at the large Ndola Copper Refinery to provide transport to and from work. Strikers spurned the illegality of downing tools in Zambia’s essential industries and threatened to fight bitterly against the regime’s July decree that: ‘all such workers as will be declared redundant should be drafted into the rural reconstruction programme and that workers so drafted will be helped to settle down on the land in their districts of origin’. The Zambian ruling class is here clearly imitating the well tried tactic of its South African counterpart. That is, the urban worker is only a temporary resident of his or her place of work. ‘Home’ is supposedly in a rural area.

South Africa’s own spectacularly ineffective anti-crisis measure has been to devalue the Rand by 17.9 per cent. The ostensible reason for the September decision was a soaring of the deficit in the trade balance to an annual rate of R1,700m by the first half of 1975. This has been accentuated by the fall, in the same period, of 20 per cent in the price of gold which has historically paid for a large measure of South Africa’s growth.

The London Financial Times, the day after, revealed the more ominous underlying preoccupation of the South African devaluers: ‘they obviously hope that this drastic measure will head off even more unsavoury domestic problems, notably substantial unemployment that would have hit the black population.’ Increased layoffs in the last month and the not unrelated spontaneous mass action of black workers in boycotting increased bus charges indicate that the monetary wizards have foundered.

The remarkable resilience of the workers’ boycott since it began in the South African industrial area of Newcastle at the end of September has resulted in 180 buses being taken off the road. Such a mass action has its historic precedents: ‘We don’t care where the money comes from, but it’s not going to come from us.’ That was the cry in 1957 of 50,000 residents of Johannesburg’s Alexandra black township, who walked 17½ miles to and from work for almost 3 months rather than pay increased fares. It was the cry heard in 1971 at strife-torn Gelrandale, outside Port Elizabeth, and echoed once more around East London during an eight-week bus boycott last year.

The Zambian and South African regimes labour transport crisis results directly from their attempts to segregate black workers’ homes at a safe distance from the combustible, work-place areas (‘white’ areas in South Africa and Black elite areas in Zambia). Their inability to actually finance such social engineering has rebounded in their faces.

At one level the nationalist Party Government has arrived at a type of social contract with its privileged white union constituency. Their members, if they don’t work directly for the plethora of state interventionist bureaucracies, tend to be in higher paid shop-floor supervisory jobs. There has not been much questioning from them of the usual ‘pull together’ ‘sacrifice’ talk but already the, otherwise racist, local union leaders are muttering about not taking further wage restraint lying down. So, just as elsewhere in the capitalist world, the Government has begun a multitude of little cuts in health, welfare and education programmes for the impoverished (black workers in this case). This is because such a large slice of government spending comprises salaries and wages of the well organised, and because it is difficult to halt the massive capital-intensive projects begun in the plentiful days of easy gold money.

At the ‘other’ level there has been an attempt to deal with the black working class in South Africa. A Nationalist Party government literally blanches at the idea of any contact, let alone contract, with increasingly organised black labour. Nevertheless there is a danger that inflation will so worsen the fixed level of starvation black wages that production itself will be threatened.

So we see the ex-Nazi Vorster orchestrating an internal debate with the black worker, encouraging them with the same blandness as European social democrats, to ‘participate’ in their own exploitation. The first flurry of sweet talking contact was made soon after employers realised that Apartheid had allowed them no way of channelling ‘leaders’ of the mass strike waves, that have smashed against the Apartheid edifice since 1973. Employers had no safe way of negotiating when inflation started to hit black workers’ guts so hard that they began to brave the guns of the police state which face strikers (140 mineworkers alone have died during industrial disputes in the last two years). In an attempt to undermine the growing African union movement the Government has moved to rationalise its alternative system of company committees. These are designed to ‘involve’ black workers in the inching up of their wages to the so-called Poverty Datum Level, below which starvation conditions have set in. At the end of October it was deemed wise to expand the localised company sponsored 1,969 liaison and 279 works committees said to ‘involve’ 613,000 black workers, to a coordinated national level of industry committees, the aim being to bureaucratise a number of picked black representatives. The ‘concession’ has been ignored by rank and file black workers’ leaders exactly because they know it was made as a result of the black unions despite all the harassment they have to surmount – now being able to claim a membership of 60,000 against 40,000 a year ago.

At a meeting of 150 black workers, shop stewards, and trade union officials in Durban in the last weekend of October a campaign was launched to collect 100,000 signatures in townships and factories on a petition calling for the recognition of black unions. Despite the Chartist connotations of such tactics they signify that blacks will fight. One speaker summed up the new black worker consciousness.

‘The employer brought a Labour Department official to my works to say there are no African trade unions in South Africa. But I told him: “You are a white man. I know what I want from a union. It is none of your business”.’

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