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South Africa: Between reform and revolution?

(September 1985)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 79, September 1985, pp. 13–17.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The wave of black township risings which began a year ago, on 3 September 1984, has created an unprecedented crisis for the apartheid regime. Socialist Worker Review looks at the options facing the regime, and the forces challenging it.

IS SOUTH Africa entering a revolutionary situation? Lenin said that a revolution happens when the ruling class can’t go on in the old way, and the masses won’t. By this criterion the question of revolution is at least posed in South Africa today.

The last time the regime was forced to impose a state of emergency was after the Sharpeville massacre in March 1960. But it faces a far more dangerous challenge now than it did a quarter of a century ago.

The township revolt which began, again in Sharpeville twelve months ago, has now spread throughout the country. Two developments in August confirmed this. Riots erupted in Durban. The area has been quiet over the past decade largely thanks to the political machine of Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, ruler of KwaZulu Homeland, which incorporates most of the city’s black townships. A curfew was imposed in Soweto, hitherto quiescent since the great 1976–77 uprising.

However, what qualitatively distinguishes the present situation from 1960 is the strength and militancy of the black working class, increasingly organised in the independent unions. The two main union federations, FOSATU and CUSA, participated in a two day stay-away by 800,000 black workers in the Transvaal last November.

By the time this Review appears an even more significant event may have occurred. The black National Union of Mineworkers is threatening to call out its 200,000 members on strike in support of a pay claim. If the strike comes off it will be in far more favourable circumstances for the black miners than their last great strike in 1946, which was fairly easily crushed by the state. So the mass movement in South Africa has reached unprecedented proportions.

WHAT about the other side of the equation, the state of the ruling class? President P.W. Botha’s speech to the Natal Congress of the ruling National Party on 15 August was highly revealing.

The speech received huge advance publicity, largely thanks to the promises by Foreign Minister Pik Botha to western governments and journalists that it would announce major reforms.

From this point of view it was a damp squib. Botha stuck to generalities, but firmly ruled out majority rule, continued to endorse the policy of conceding ‘independence’ to the tribal Bantustan regimes, and refused to release Nelson Mandela. What was striking about Botha’s speech was its defensiveness. There was no ringing defence of apartheid, no pretence that it is a viable way of running South Africa. Botha conceded that the swelling numbers of urban blacks have no representation in the present political system, and that ‘a solution will have to be found for their legitimate rights’.

The regime no longer believes in the ideology of ‘separate development’ which has guided its policies for the past 37 years. It is forced therefore to offer reforms, however inadequate, if only to stave off the threat of revolution.

This situation – mass revolts, ruling class disarray – reflects the deep-seated structural crisis of South African capitalism. South Africa has failed to become a significant exporter of manufactured goods.

Its relation to the world economy remains that of a producer of primary commodities (above all, gold) while it depends on the western bloc for the capital and technology without which its industries could not survive. At a time of acute trade rivalries, South African firms are under increasing pressure from foreign competitors. This explains the flow of capital, both local and western, out of the country.

At the same time, capitalism in South Africa is increasingly reliant on a black working class which can no longer be confined to the lowest paid, least skilled jobs best performed by migrant labourers. Even in the mining industry, heart of the migrant labour system, blacks are moving into jobs hitherto monopolised by whites. The legal colour bar banning them from skilled work in the mines is being abolished, while some owners have moved towards employing a settled workforce housed with their families rather than all male compounds.

The greatly strengthened objective position of the black working class is the fundamental cause of the upsurge which began with the Durban mass strikes of 1973 and has now attained such a colossal scale. The crucial question is how much room for manoeuvre the regime has in dealing with this very acute crisis.

The ruling class in South Africa retain one decisive advantage, succinctly stated recently by the Economist:

‘The whites have the guns, the blacks do not; and Mr Botha’s army and police force, though they have a growing black component, will not turn their guns on the big white chief.’

Although some townships, especially in the ultra-militant Eastern Cape, may have become effectively ‘no-go areas’ for the security forces, the white monopoly of armed force has not been seriously dented.

A sobering fact which every opponent of apartheid should remember is that South African capital has proportionately a much larger popular base than virtually any other ruling class in the world. The five million middle and working class whites’ huge material privileges are inseparable from white supremacy. Apart from the massive private ownership of arms by whites, all adult male whites are closely integrated into the South African Defence Force. The state therefore has considerable repressive resources which it has scarcely mobilised.

The regime’s military strength means that in all likelihood it will ride out the present crisis. But even much greater doses of repression will only buy Botha a limited amount of time.

The Soweto uprising was finally broken by mass arrests and bannings which smashed the black consciousness movement in November 1977. Within less than three years a new wave of strikes and school boycotts erupted, to be followed after an interlude by the struggles of the past year. Repression alone cannot save the regime.

THIS explains all the talk of reforms. While the tempo of change has become much faster as a result of the township risings, P W Botha has made the ‘modernisation’ of the regime his main policy plank ever since he became leader of the National Party in September 1978. What is at stake in the various concessions touted around in ruling South African circles?

The migrant labour system at the core of apartheid evolved at the end of the last century to provide the gold mines with the ultra-cheap workforce their profitability required. Apartheid proper, introduced by the Nationalists after 1948, was a response to the emergence of a militant urban African working class during the Second World War.

The entire black proletariat was to be reduced to the status of migrant labourers with no citizenship rights in the ‘white’ areas which made up nearly 77 percent of South Africa. The creation of black ‘states’ in the remaining 13 percent – the Homelands or Bantustans – provided a spurious rationale for this set up. Urban Africans would be citizens of their respective Homelands, even if they had never set eyes on them.

The struggles of the mid-1970s blew this system to bits. The Durban strikes and the Soweto uprising showed that the urban black working class could not be treated as ‘temporary sojourners’ in white South Africa. As one government commission acknowledged: ‘Black workers are a permanent part of the South African economy.’ Botha sought to evolve a strategy based on recognition of this fact.

A variety of concessions were made to-urban blacks, notably the legalisation of African trade unions. The aim was to divide the urban proletariat between the section tenners’ – the usually better paid and more skilled workers with the right to live in ‘white’ cities – and the mass of unskilled migrant workers. Influx control – the system buttressed by the pass laws which controls Africans’ movements – was tightened up.

At the same time a number of political concessions were made to the black middle class. The minority Coloured and Indian communities were each given their own chamber of parliament and ministerial posts. Africans (73 percent of the population) were not offered any share in central government. However, new town councils with increased powers to run the black townships were set up. The general thrust of Botha’s reforms was to preserve white supremacy while incorporating privileged layers of middle class blacks and labour aristocrats,

This strategy is now largely in ruins. It is now acknowledged, even by Botha, that urban blacks have somehow to be incorporated within the political system. The question is how to do this without threatening the survival of capitalism in South Africa. More specifically, the institutions of white rule have served to create a low wage economy. The economic crisis places enormous pressure to reduce labour costs even further. To what extent can capital secure the cheap labour it needs without the apartheid institutions?

ONE major issue is influx control. The basis of current policy is the 1979 Riekert report, which argued that ‘control over the rate of urbanisation is, m the light of circumstances in South Africa, an absolutely essential social security measure’. The pass laws have been used to keep unemployed and underemployed in the Bantustans, which have functioned in practice as dumping grounds for ‘superfluous’ Africans.

One wing of the ruling class now wants to scrap influx control. It is identified with the Urban Foundation, headed by two key capitalists, Harry Oppenheimer and Anton Rupert. The Foundation’s researchers estimate the pass laws would only reduce the urban black population projected for the year 2000 by two million, a relatively marginal amount Why antagonise both the black masses and foreign opinion by holding onto a set-up which no longer makes that much economic difference?

The bulk of South African capital still takes a much more cautious line. But big business is united in demanding reforms from the government. The two main employers’ organisations issued a joint statement after Botha’s speech, expressing regret that ‘at this time of crisis, the state president ... was not more specific in pointing the nation more positively in the direction of reform and national reconstruction’. Adverse reaction to the speech by both local and western capital pushed the rand down at one point to the all time low of 38.5 US cents.

The sticking point for all wings of the ruling class remains African majority rule. They fear that black rule will mean the dismantlement of capitalism. Professor Jan Lombard, a leading Afrikaner intellectual and key government adviser recently appointed Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank, spelled it out:

‘If an unqualified one-man one-vote election was held today in the Republic, a non-white leader with a communistic programme would probably attain an overall majority on a pledge to confiscate and redistribute the property of the privileged classes.’

What alternative is there to such an unpleasant outcome? Here the ruling class seem generally agreed in advocating a federal system which would respect what Botha calls ‘the multicultural and polyethnic nature of South Africa’s population’.

A recent article in the excellent South African Labour Bulletin argues:

‘... regionalisation-federalism ... could provide the basis for a long-term strategic offensive aimed at reconstituting the relations of exploitation and domination in South Africa.’

Already government planners have redrawn the country into eight ‘development regions’ which are soon due to replace the four provinces into which the country has been divided since Union in 1910.

These regions reflect the socio-economic patterns which have developed since the late 1960s. ‘White’ metropolitan areas have tended to draw specific Bantustans into their labour markets, with a rapid growth in the number of ‘commuters’, i.e. blacks living in Homelands who go to work daily in a ‘white’ area. The result is, the SALB article argues, ‘the formation of regional proletariats’.

These developments provide the basis for multiracial regional governments incorporating, alongside white politicians and administrators, black Homeland bosses and urban petty bourgeois politicians. Jan Lombard advocated such a solution for Natal back in 1980, winning the support of both Buthelezi and the local sugar planters. What seems now to be envisaged is a generalisation of this ‘KwaNatal’ set-up, but with control over the state apparatus nationally still in white hands.

This sort of federal solution could only work with the cooperation of far more significant black leaders than have yet been prepared to collaborate with Botha. At the very minimum it would require the involvement of Buthelezi, very much a national figure thanks to his Zulu political movement Inkatha ye Sizwe. He endorsed a ‘KwaNatal’ in 1982, but the political situation has changed dramatically since then.

Buthelezi has no desire to share the fate of the black mayors and town councillors burned to death as quislings. His price will be a high one, in all likelihood a share in the central government.

Even then Buthelezi is too shrewd a politician to accept a settlement which would allow him, like Bishop Muzorewa in Zimbabwe, to be outflanked from the left, pilloried as a black stooge. Already he is under pressure from young township militants – the Durban riots appear to have been sparked off by clashes between supporters of Inkatha and the UDF.

THIS raises the question of the African National Congress. There is considerable support in the ruling class for including the ANC in negotiations – an issue posed by the demands for Mandela’s release. Tony Bloom of Premier group put it succinctly when he wrote in the Financial Mail: ‘There is an historical inevitability about talking to the ANC – it is not a question of if, but rather when.’ The likelihood that the regime will eventually be forced to negotiate with the ANC poses the question of whether or not South African capital might not be able to co-exist with majority rule. The ANC is no more radical an organisation than ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe. Could there not be a South African version of the 1979 Lancaster House settlement which ended the Zimbabwean war?

The Marxist Workers’ Tendency, a group of Militant supporters expelled from the ANC, are absolutely emphatic that this is impossible. In a closely argued document, South African Perspectives: Workers’ Revolution or Racial Civil War, they declare: ‘We cannot conceive of conditions which would permit the creation of an ANC government on a bourgeois basis.’

The reasoning behind this analysis centres on two factors. First, the depth of the economic crisis means that the material basis for a peaceful transition to majority rule does not exist. Secondly, the interests of capital in South Africa, as elsewhere, depends ultimately on the repressive state apparatus, which is in this case inseparable from white supremacy. Thus the ruling class:

‘... are caught on the horns of a contradiction from which there is no escape ...

‘Because of the challenge of the black proletariat from below, the ruling class have to try to reform the state system; they have to try to change the state itself. But they cannot afford to weaken the repressive power of the state in the face of this black challenge.

‘To the limited extent that they can “blacken” the state forces, they render the state potentially unreliable to them; and at the same time this drives to disaffection the reliable white forces they have.

‘With everything in turmoil around them, they have no choice but to keep the snarling wolf-hounds of the white state apparatus in readiness for action, and again and again unleash their ferocity against the people.’

This analysis is undoubtedly a cogent one. It captures quite well the zig-zags described, not just by Botha, but by Anglo-American, whose bosses one minute are calling for reforms, the next minute calling in the police to break strikes. Nevertheless, the MWT’s assertion that majority rule is impossible on a bourgeois basis is far too unconditional. It is worth remembering that ten years ago the entire European revolutionary left argued that there could be no peaceful and capitalist ‘rupture’ with the Francoist dictatorship in Spain. We argued for precisely the same reasons that are now given out in South Africa’s case, namely the economic crisis and the dependence of the bourgeoisie on the reactionary ‘bunker’ controlling the army and police. We were wrong.

The past few years have also seen the establishment of bourgeois parliamentary regimes across large portions of Latin America (Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay), at precisely the time when the debt crisis and IMF-imposed austerity programmes were immiserising hundreds of millions of people.

These examples underline the importance of not trying to read off political developments directly from the economic situation. Politics played the decisive role in all these successful transitions to something at least approximating bourgeois democracy.

The success of, for example, the Spanish bourgeoisie’s liquidation of Francoism depended on two factors: a governmental team with the necessary skill and room for manoeuvre; and an opposition dominated by reformist parties who were able to short circuit working class [resistance].

Are there counterparts present in contemporary South Africa? The ANC is considered in a separate article: suffice it to say that nothing in its politics or leading personnel rules out its participating in a settlement which would save South Africa for capitalism. To suggest, as the MWT do, that the logic of the situation will somehow drive the ANC to make a socialist revolution is to capitulate to the sort of vulgar Marxism for which the overthrow of capitalism is predetermined.

It doesn’t follow that a Zimbabwean-style solution is certain, or even likely. The fact that the repressive power of the state depends on the white population does impose distinct limits to the ruling class’s room for manoeuvre.

In the short term it has imposed on the regime the policy of piecemeal reform combined with large scale repression that has become Botha’s hallmark.

The National Party depends for its parliamentary majority on the votes of the white working class and petty bourgeoisie. Botha, a veteran of 50 years of Afrikaner politics, must well remember the fate of the party’s founder, General J.B.M. Hertzog, who was outflanked on the right when he threw in with Jan Smuts’ South Africa Party, the representatives of English-speaking capital. Ex-cabinet minister Andries Treuernicht and his breakaway Conservative Party are waiting in the wings for swelling white popular reaction to allow them to do to Botha what the Nationalists did to Hertzog.

The belligerence of Botha’s Durban speech, its reassertion of Afrikanerdom’s contempt for world opinion and opposition to black rule, were undoubtedly very much for domestic white consumption. It is difficult for the regime to offer more than limited changes at any one time, even if this alienates even the most reactionary black leaders.

The pressure of the white electorate on the regime has contributed to a longer-term tendency to detach the state apparatus from any sort of parliamentary control. The new constitution, with its enormous concentration of power in the hands of an executive state president, has encouraged speculation that Botha is driving towards a Bonapartist regime in which he can balance between black and white masses, enforcing a programme of reforms from above.

BUT THERE are limits to this process. One of Botha’s main bases of support is the military. Between 1966 and 1978 he was Minister of Defence. Since 1978 the State Security Council has largely replaced the cabinet as the key decision-making body.

Nevertheless, Botha and his generals could not impose black rule on South Africa through military dictatorship even supposing they wanted to, for the simple reason that their repressive forces are and will remain predominantly white. Any white political split which disorganised the armed forces would be catastrophic for capital, since it would give the black masses the opportunity to unleash a genuinely revolutionary situation.

The roads before both the ruling class and the black proletariat are, therefore, neither of them straight ones. The white state’s monopoly of force will buy the regime time to pursue reforms. But at the same time, concessions which do not involve seeking a political accommodation with the main forces of the black resistance, above all the ANC, with all the difficulties which this involves, will not stabilise the situation.

It follows that, even though the regime will in all probability survive the present crisis, the respite will only be temporary. The immense problems involved in detaching capitalism in South Africa from apartheid put socialist revolution on the agenda in an exceptionally direct way. The need for a revolutionary party which could provide the political leadership in the struggle for state power is very urgent.

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