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Alex Callinicos

Southern Africa:
The Melting Pot

(March 1976)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.87, March/April 1976, pp.5-6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Alex Callinicos writes: Events move quickly in Africa. Little more than three months ago the armies of the Vorster regime in South Africa and their FNLA and Unita allies seemed to be on the verge of victory over the MPLA in Angola. Now (February 18) Vorster is desperately trying to find some way of avoiding confrontation between his troops drawn up along the border between Angola and Namibia and the armies of MPLA and of their Cuban allies.

The South African blitzkrieg against Luanda in October/November 1975 failed. MPLA then went on to wipe out FNLA’s strongholds in the north of Angola, following this up with an offensive in the south against the South Africans and Unita. When Unita began to crumble, the South Africans pulled out to the border area to defend their huge investments in the Cunene dam scheme. Faced with the prospect of taking on the MPLA army fresh from its victories over Unita and allied to the SWAPO guerrillas in Namibia, South Africa has decided to sue for peace.

The reasons behind this decision are political rather than military. A long-drawn out war along the Angola/Namibia border would spell disaster for what is left of Vorster’s policy of detente with black Africa. The Organisation of African Unity has recognised MPLA and most European states have followed.

The pressure on Vorster to settle is coming mainly from big business, who have the most to gain from detente, since it would open up to them the markets of black Africa (see A. Callinicos, Southern Africa: The Great Carve Up, IS 86). Moreover, South African businessmen, already faced with a grim economic situation in the wake of the world slump, are worried about the uncertainty created by the Angolan war and particularly by the prospect of even heavier defence spending. Defence spending is already at the rate of a billion rand a year, which, given the fall in the price of gold whose buoyancy has been a major source of capital for South African industry, is hitting both investment and living standards. Hence statements like the following by the Johannesburg Financial Mail, the South African equivalent of the Economist:

‘Our involvement (in Angola – AC) has been both a military miscalculation and a diplomatic disaster for which the country may have to pay a very high price indeed’ (January 30 1976).

MPLA will almost certainly give the South Africans the settlement they want. Eduardo Jose Dos Santos, their foreign minister, has already hinted at this in a recent interview with Le Monde. Even when the war was at its height they were extending feelers towards the West, for example, towards Gulf Oil (see A. Callinicos and P. Alexander, The Struggle for Angola, London 1976).

The MPLA leadership are eager to normalise their relations with the Western imperialist countries; continued war with South Africa might prevent this normalisation from taking place. There are also economic advantages in a settlement with Vorster – the Frelimo regime in Mozambique has been saved from near economic collapse only thanks to aid from South Africa (see Callinicos, op. cit.) and MPLA will need help in rebuilding an economy shattered by war.

Nonetheless South Africa has lost the war. The last time black people inflicted such a heavy defeat on the white rulers of South Africa was in 1879 at Isandhlwana when the British colonial army invading Zululand was destroyed by the impis of Cetawayo. This is the message that, is now spreading through the shantytowns, the all-male workers’ hostels, the farm and mine compounds into which the black working class of South Africa are herded by their white masters: black people can defeat the apartheid regime.

The shock waves of this defeat are sweeping throughout Southern Africa. South Africa’s chief allies against MPLA were Zaire and Zambia. It was their rulers who invited South Africa to invade in the first place. This has been confirmed by Savimbi, the leader of Unita, in an interview with Bill Coughlin, assistant to US Senator John Tunney:

‘In mid-October 1975 Savimbi asked President Mobutu, President Kaunda of Zambia and President Houphouet Boigny of the Ivory Coast to ask for secret assistance from South Africa.

‘This was done ... and shortly afterwards a South African armoured column moved rapidly up the west coast to Port Amboine about 100 miles south of Luanda’ (Guardian, February 16 1976).

‘MPLA’s victory could bring down two of détente’s most important backers, Mobutu in Zaire and Kaunda in Zambia’. Since that was written Kaunda has declared a state of emergency, closed down the university, arrested pro-MPLA lecturers and students, and introduced a budget doubling the price of mealie meal, the staple Zambian diet. As a result, the Zambian Council of Trade Unions has moved into opposition to the government. Mobutu has his own problems, what with an economy stagnant thanks to the fall in the price of copper, an inflation rate of 50 per cent and an army he cannot afford to pay. James Callaghan’s recent speech warning MPLA’s Cuban allies to keep out of Angola’s neighbours, particularly Zambia and Zaire, reflects Western capital’s fears for these regimes.

The new flashpoint in Southern Africa will probably be Zimbabwe (Rhodesia). The talks between the Smith regime and the pro-détente faction of the African National Council, headed by Joshua Nkomo, have reached deadlock over Smith’s refusal to accept the idea of even a transition to majority rule in the next few years. Meanwhile a new guerrilla offensive has been launched by the external wing of ANC.

The crucial issue as far as Zimbabwe is concerned is the attitude of the black governments. Over the last few months the leaders of Tanzania and Mozambique, Nyerere and Machel, have made clear their disillusionment with détente and have called for a resumption of armed struggle under a new re-unified nationalist leadership. Kaunda’s recent speech in which he said that there would have to be a bloodbath before Zimbabwe were liberated seems to confirm reports that he has lined up with Machel and Nyerere. The object of such a war would be limited: to force Smith and Vorster to concede majority rule in Zimbabwe. The aspirations of Zimbabwe’s people would be subordinated to the black governments’ desire to eliminate the major stumbling block to ‘normal’ relations with South Africa. Thus the Zimbabwean guerrillas in ‘training’ in Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique have in fact over the last year been disarmed and interned. If they fight, they will do so on the orders of the black governments.

Renewed war in Zimbabwe will pose a major dilemma for Vorster. The Smith regime, faced with economic stagnation, rising black unemployment and shortages of skilled white manpower, cannot survive a prolonged war alone. As part of détente, the South African troops in Zimbabwe were withdrawn abruptly in August 1975. Sending the troops back to prop up the white settlers in Zimbabwe would put paid to détente in the immediate future. It might not even save the whites, in the light of the Angolan example. On the other hand, Vorster’s own base among lower middle-class and working-class whites might rebel at the sight of their kith and kin in Zimbabwe being thrown to the wolves. Already Vorster has tried to cover his exposed right flank by bringing Andries Treurnicht, the leading opponent of détente in the ruling National Party, into the Government. Will that be enough?

MPLA’s victory has thrown Southern Africa into the melting pot. None of the region’s rulers, black of white, can rest easy in the fact of their defeat. They know that the only people to profit from this defeat will be their own workers and peasants. The spectre of communism, of the genuine revolutionary working-class variety, is now haunting Southern Africa.

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