From Socialist Worker Review, No. 69, October 1984.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
SEPTEMBER was supposed to be a big month for P.W. Botha, head of South Africa’s apartheid regime. Under his new constitution, the all-white parliament would be widened to include representatives of some black people, and would then elect a state president enjoying almost dictatorial powers – Botha himself.
All these things happened. But Botha’s enthronement was overshadowed by some of the most serious disturbances in the black townships since the Soweto uprising of 1976.
The riots have so far been centred in the Transvaal-PWV (Pretoria, Witwatersrand, Vereeniging) conurbation which forms the heart of South African industry, producing more than half the country’s gross national product. They began on 3 September in the township of Sharpeville, where South African police killed 69 black demonstrators in March 1960. The carnage this time has not been so great – 40 killed by mid-September, but the events have highlighted all the contradictions of Botha’s ‘reform’ strategy.
Botha has sought since becoming prime minister in September 1978 to modernise the apartheid system. One of the main premisses of apartheid, as expounded by H.F. Verwoerd, its chief architect and prime minister 1958-66, was that the black urban-population should be sent back to the various tribal ‘homelands’ from which they supposedly come.
This side of apartheid has been an abysmal failure. The expansion of South African capitalism since the early 1960s has increased its reliance on black workers. Consequently, the proportion of the African population living in urban areas rose from 31.8 percent in 1960 to 38.3 percent in 1980, and is expected to reach between 60 and 75 percent by the end of the century.
Botha and his advisers now accept that the urban black working class is here to stay. Their response, spelled out in the reports of the Wiehahn and Riekert commissions, has been to drive a wedge between the ‘section tenners’, blacks who have a right under the apartheid laws to live in the urban areas, and the rest, many of them migrant labourers, who do not, and can be dumped in one of the ‘homelands’ at a moment’s notice.
The idea has been to give the ‘section tenners’ greater mobility and economic privileges in order to encourage them to identify politically with the apartheid regime. Great efforts have been made to encourage the development of black business in the townships. The legalisation of black trade unions was aimed at the more settled and skilled black workers in the hope of incorporating them in the same sort of class collaborationist arrangements which bind white workers to capital and the state.
The new constitution has been part of the same package of ‘reforms’. Two minority black groups, the 2.7 million Coloureds (people of mixed race) and 870,000 Indians, were each given the right to elect a chamber of parliament. The all-white House of Assembly still holds the balance of power, allowing the ruling National Party to elect their man as state president.
The object was clearly to draw the Coloured and Indian middle classes into the political system as junior partners. The 21 million Africans were left out of the deal. The majority, living in the ‘homelands’, were expected to have a political say through gangsters like Chief Lennox Sebe, president of the ‘independent state’ of the Ciskei, whose police mowed down black bus boy-cotters in East London last year. The seven million urban Africans were given beefed up town and village councils to run their townships, and a cabinet committee was appointed to look into their ‘constitutional future’.
The whole business has now blown up in Botha’s face. The United Democratic Front (UDF), a broad alliance in which supporters of the banned African National Congress (ANC) play a leading role, was launched to combat the new constitution. Despite the detention of 43 (JDF activists just before the Coloured and Indian elections, their efforts paid off.
The elections, held at the end of August, were a disaster for Botha. Many of those entitled to vote didn’t bother to register. Of those who did, 70 percent of Coloureds and 80 percent of Indians stayed away. In the Cape Town area, where half of all Coloureds live, only 11 percent of registered electors voted. The effect of the 1976 and 1980 school boycotts, in which many young Coloureds clearly identified themselves as blacks rather than second-class whites, was evident. In rural parts of the Cape, Coloured farm labourers did vote in large numbers, thanks to the encouragement of their white bosses who bussed them to the polls.
Then the trouble spilled over to the African townships in the Vaal triangle – Sharpeville, Evaton, Sebokeng, Residensia, Bolpatong, and Lekoa. A variety of factors seems to have been responsible. One was agitation against the constitution – the riots-followed a week-long boycott by 120,000 black school-students. Another is the state of the economy, hit by a long drought which has been most severe in the Transvaal, and by the world recession. Real GNP fell by three percent last year. 56 percent of the residents of the Vaal townships are estimated to be ‘not economically active’.
The tightening of influx controls, which regulate the movement of Africans in and out of the urban areas, may also have played a part. Concessions to the ‘section tenners’ have been accompanied by tighter controls on the rest, with the aim ofreducingasmany as possible to the status of migrant labourers based in the ‘homelands’.
The Orderly Movement and Settlement of Black Persons Bill sought to reduce the number of section tenners, and make any ‘unauthorised person’ liable to arrest after spending more than 17 hours in an urban area. Although the Bill was eventually withdrawn, the number of pass law arrests, which fell from 381,858 in 1975-6 to 158,335 in 1980, rose again to 262,904 last year.
The regime is still engaged in ‘resettlement’, a policy which already wrecked the lives of over three million blacks. Perhaps significantly, the townships of the Vaal triangle are being subjected to large-scale removals. Sebokeng and Evaton, where some of the worse trouble took place, are due to receive half a million people in addition to their present population of 300,000. Among those due to be moved are the residents of nearby Bophelong.
Blacks involved in local government were among the rioters’ main targets. The deputy mayor of Sharpeville was hacked to death after he had shot two demonstrators. That section of the African middle class which has fallen in with Botha’s plans has a very narrow popular base – elections to the new town and village councils last November were widely boycotted, with barely one in ten voting in the main urban areas.
The Financial Times commented on 7 September:
‘A black proletariat is turning against a black establishment in a pattern which poses grave dangers for blacks ...who have “joined the system” in order to reform it from within.
‘It suggests that the government in South Africa may have to be a good deal more repressive in future than under the previous system where blacks were united in their opposition to white hegemony. The broadening of the base of government by consent...creates the clanger of polarisation on a class rather than a racial basis.’
It remains to be seen whether the riots will spread. Soweto, the vast black city outside Johannesburg where the 1976 uprising began, has been relatively quiet. But to develop into a genuine class struggle, the battle against apartheid will have to mobilise the collective economic strength which black workers increasingly possess in industry.
In this context, the strike by 40,000 black goldminers on 17 September is of truly historic importance. The African miners’ strike of 1946 was a watershed in modern South African history. Its demands, if implemented, would have turned the predominantly migrant workforce into a settled urban working class. Precisely for that reason it was crushed ruthlessly, and when the National Party came to power in 1948 a systematic attempt was made, through the policy of apartheid, to atomise the African working class, transforming them all into migrant workers.
Underlying this ruthless response was the central role played by gold in the South African economy even today. Gold accounts for half the value of South Africa’s exports, earning the foreign exchange needed to pay for the imported plant and equipment on which manufacturing industry still heavily depends. The profitability of gold mining in South Africa requires the large, cheap workforce of migrant labourers which the industry has used since the turn of the century.
Over the last decade the mining industry has suffered considerable labour difficulties. The impact of liberation struggles in the rest of the region forced the Chamber of Mines to replace its largely foreign workforce (from such countries as Botswana, Malawi and Mozambique) with South Africans, at the price of big wages rises (admittedly from an appallingly low base). Moreover, the black miners, kept together in all-male barracks attached their mines, have rioted violently on a number of occasions.
The most important mineowner, the giant Anglo American Corporation, has become much more sympathetic to the idea of a black miners’ union. Anglo’s interests stretch far beyond its base in gold mining: it owned 52.5 percent of the shares listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in 1982, and one of its arms, MINORCO, was the largest single foreign investor in the US. Anglo’s long-time boss, Harry Oppenheimer, is a supporter of Botha’s strategy of encouraging the development of a black labour aristocracy, and he has never concealed his desire to replace expensive white miners with cheap black ones in skilled jobs.
Anglo has taken the lead in encouraging the recently formed black National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), presumably in the hope that this will help stabilise its volatile migrant workforce. The NUM is affiliated to CUSA, a group of unions heavily influenced by the black consciousness movement the late Steve Biko formed in the early 1970s. Its leader, Cyril Ramaphosa, claims to represent 90,000 of South Africa’s half a million black coal and gold miners. The union has obtained recognition mainly in Anglo mines.
For the past few months the NUM has been in official dispute with the Chamber of Mines over the union’s demand for a 60 percent pay claim. Ramaphosa has consistently dragged his feet, which is hardly surprising, considering his dependence on Anglo’s good will. Three collieries came out on unofficial strike in July.
The Chamber’s refusal to concede even Ramaphosa’s moderated 25 percent claim forced him to call a national strike in mid-September, which received overwhelming support from the NUM rank and file. A last minute improved offer by the Chamber led to the strike call being rescinded, but not before 40,000 miners had walked out.
Seven of the eight mines affected belong to Anglo. Between them they account for quarter of South Africa’s gold output (Anglo has the lion’s share of the most productive mines). It may only be a coincidence that the strike took place on the same day that Release Mandela Committee issued a call for Soweto workers to stay at home in protest against the regime’s policies, but all the mines which came out are in or near the PWV riot areas.
The Chamber’s improved offer (two weeks’ wages’ holiday pay) may bring temporary peace to the mines, though the strike was followed by violent clashes between miners and riot police. But the development of trade union organisation the mines is an enormously important new factor in the situation. Already some 300,000 black workers, mainly in manufacturing industry, are members of independent unions. If the miners join them in significant numbers, the black working-class movement will have acquired the power to paralyse apartheid economy.
Last updated: 11.3.2012