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International Socialism, November 1977


Notes of the Month

South Africa

Vorster’s clampdown


From International Socialism (1st series), No.103, November 1977, pp.2-3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


On the morning of 19 October the Vorster regime moved to crush the black resistance in South Africa. The main organisations of the black consciousness movement were banned, their leaders detained or placed under house arrest and the largest selling black newspaper, The World, closed down.

One factor in the regime’s decision was undoubtedly the aftermath of the death under torture of Steve Biko, the principal leader of the black consciousness movement. The murder was probably not the result of a government decision, but the action of secret policemen on the spot. However, the wave of anger among blacks affected even sections of the white establishment, the liberal English-speaking Rand Daily Mail and other papers joining in the clamour against the Minister of Justice and Police, Jimmy Kruger. One aim of bannings was undoubtedly to kill the anti-Kruger campaign.

However, the bannings also reflected a fundamental decision by the regime to defy the new American policy in Southern Africa. Since the Carter administration took office in Washington last January it has been pressing Vorster to give urban blacks a new deal. These pressures have found their support even within the ruling Nationalist Party.

Vorster’s decision to call a general election on 30 November was undoubtedly an attempt to paper over the divisions within the ruling bloc between the verkamptes (the reactionary defenders of traditional apartheid) and the verligtes (the ‘enlightened’ advocates of concessions to urban blacks). The aim was to use the issue of American meddling in South Africa’s affairs to unite most whites behind Vorster’s leadership. He expressed this very clearly when he dissolved the all-white Parliament in September:

‘What I am asking the electorate to do is to say that they agree with my standpoint that no one country has the right to meddle in the affairs of another country, or to prescribe to another country how it should run its affairs.’

Yet there were straws in the wind which suggested that Vorster was still prepared to collaborate with the Western powers. It was reported that Pretoria was putting pressure on the Smith regime to support the Anglo-American proposals for a settlement in Zimbabwe. Moreover, the South Africans continued to collaborate with the Western governments’ efforts to involve the South-West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) in a neo-colonial solution to the Namibian crisis. And M.C. Botha, Minister of Bantu Administration and Development and one of the leading verkamptes in the Cabinet, announced his retirement.

These indicators proved to be misleading. The arrests and bannings are a direct slap in the face for Washington. Perhaps the fundamental reason for the decision is this. The thrust of Vorster’s strategy since 1974 has been to end the state of armed confrontation with black Africa by liquidating the Namibian and Zimbabwean problems through the transfer of power to ‘moderate’ black governments (‘detente’) while seeking within South Africa itself to incorporate the African petty bourgeoisie into the political system through a number of concessions (‘domestic détente’ – independence for the ‘homelands’, limited rights for urban blacks, etc.)

To this extent, there was a convergence of interest between Vorster and the Western capitalist bloc, the latter eager to see an important chunk of their investments and raw materials supply stabilised. However, there is a limit beyond which the regime is not prepared to go. Any concessions within South Africa could not threaten the white monopoly of political power. The ruling bloc in South Africa is an alliance of Afrikaner capitalists with the white working class. Both groups’ interests are closely tied up with the Nationalist Party’s control of the state apparatus. The Afrikaner bourgeoisie has benefited directly from Nationalist patronage and from close links with the ‘parastatal’ nationalised firms which dominate major sectors of the economy. The white working class, on the other hand, depends on apartheid measures like job reservation for the privileges it enjoys. Any measures which undermined white power would directly affect the interests of these groups.


Even the Afrikaner bourgeoisie has in recent years been prepared to countenance political rights for urban blacks providing the overall hegemony of the present ruling bloc was not challenged. However, it has become clear since the Soweto uprising that increasingly what is at issue is black majority rule. The confidence and militancy shown by urban Africans since June last year has served notice to South Africa’s rulers that their days are numbered.

The American strategy has been based on a gamble – that the interests of Western capitalism both in Southern Africa itself and in Africa as a whole would be best served by a policy designed to make much larger concessions to black demands than Vorster has been prepared to countenance. When he met Vorster in Vienna last May Vice-President Mondale demanded ‘equal participation’ for blacks and spelled out that this meant one man one vote. The calculation apparently is that the best way to stave off revolution in South Africa is to bring the potential leaders of that revolution – the black consciousness movement – into government. If the Western imperialist countries were seen to be backing such a policy then black leaders in South Africa would be prepared to work with the multinationals. So the US ambassador joined thousands of black mourners at Steve Biko’s funeral.


The problem is that such a policy would involve the displacement of the ruling bloc in South Africa and dismantlement of the state apparatus, which was built to administer apartheid. It therefore united the Nationalist Party behind Vorster in opposition to Washington. The leading liberals in the South African cabinet, Piet Koormhoof and Pik Botha, have publicly supported the bannings. It also raised doubts even among representatives of ‘liberal’ white opinion, like Harry Oppenheimer of the Anglo-America mining empire, and resistance from Western firms with investments in South Africa. West German employers, who have been pouring money into South Africa recently, told the Bonn government that they would ignore the new EEC guidelines for Western companies employing black workers in South Africa. Undoubtedly these views are echoed in the head offices of British multinationals, with their massive interests in South Africa, and in the Tory party leadership, which has been markedly unsympathetic to the Anglo-America initiative in Zimbabwe (see H. Young, Southern Africa and the Tory buffoons, Sunday Times, 23 October 1977).

The breach with Washington will increase the likelihood of economic sanctions against South Africa. A number of proposals had been mooted – oil sanctions, a mandatory UN arms embargo, a ban on investment – but before 19 October the US had been content to leave the matter at the level of hints and indirect threats. Carter and his ambassador to the UN, Andrew Young, are long-standing believers that foreign investment is a force for progress in South Africa. Now they have come out in favour of arms sanctions, to show that they mean business, both for Pretoria’s benefit and for the benefit of countries like Nigeria which are increasingly important areas for Western trade and investment.

South Africa is, in any case, largely self-sufficient in this sphere, having developed its own arms industry. This is one aspect of a general drive at reducing the South African economy’s vulnerability to sanctions. Huge stockpiles of oil have been accumulated and a massive project (Sasol II) aimed at extracting oil from coal is under way. The last budget was aimed at financing the ever-expanding military machine by increasing industry’s tax burden, rather then relying as in the past on a dwindling flow of foreign capital. The Nationalist Party appears ready to defy Western imperialism if necessary.

The real test, however, will be the effect of the repression on the black resistance itself. It is too early to tell, although the 27,000 black students boycotting secondary schools in the townships were joined by primary school students in protest against the bannings. The black youth movement has up to now shown incredible resilience in face of intense state repression. There is no sign that it is defeated yet.

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