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Alex Callinicos

South Africa’s Urban Struggle

(December 1987)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 104, December 1987.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

South Africa: Time of Agony, Time of Destiny
Martin Murray
Verso £9.95*

Crossroads: The Politics of Reform and Repression 1976-1986
Josette Cole
Ravan £6.95*

Pass Controls and the Urban African Proletariat
Doug Hindson
Ravan £7.95*

Ravan books obtainable in Britain from Third World Publications, 151 Stratford Rd, Birmingham B11 1RD

IT IS now some three years since South Africa’s townships exploded in the greatest black urban uprising the country has yet seen. Martin Murray’s book is intended to provide an overall analysis of developments to date. How well does it succeed?

Murray sets the present crises against the background of South Africa as a particular capitalist social formation suffering deep structural contradictions. Here he draws on the mass of very good, primarily South African, Marxist scholarship which has, over the past fifteen years, transformed our understanding of that society. Although Murray adds his own nuances to the story here and there, fundamentally what he offers is a synthesis of earlier work.

He also gives a detailed account, based very largely on secondary, journalistic sources of the course of the recent struggle, tracing its roots in the unfolding crisis of the 1970s and early 1980s. He talks of the Soweto rising of 1976, the rebirth of black trade unions, P.W. Botha’s “reform” strategy and so on, and taking the story up to the imposition of a nation-wide state of emergency in June 1986.

The result is, undoubtedly, the best general book on contemporary South Africa currently available. Nevertheless, it suffers from certain major flaws.

One has to do with the political judgements Murray makes. He is refreshingly free from the tendency uncritically to follow the African National Congress typical of most radical writers on South Africa. If anything, he tends to the opposite extreme. He portrays the ANC-aligned United Democratic Front’s main rival for the allegiance of the black townships, the National Forum, as a revolutionary socialist, anti-capitalist current.

This is a grave mistake. Most of the National Forum’s supporters are black nationalists whose main difference with the ANC–UDF is that they believe that whites should play no part in their struggle. Murray is led astray by the fact that the National Forum has sometimes given a platform to a much smaller group of Marxists around the Cape Action League, who do have a genuine class analysis of South Africa, but who don’t represent the movement as a whole.

The book’s other main weakness lies in its structure. Although Murray claims that he takes “a chronological and narrative approach to the unfolding drama”, in fact successive chapters take up different themes which they proceed to illustrate in great, not to say excessive detail. There’s little sense of the dynamic of the struggle since 1984.

Consequently, the book gives no inkling of the fact that the June 1986 emergency represented a major turning-point at which the ruling class seized the initiative and was able to force the popular resistance onto the defensive. This severe reverse was evident at the time, and is now recognised even by ANC sympathisers who denied its existence then.

One of the main testing grounds for the state offensive was provided by the camp at Crossroads near Cape Town. Founded in the mid-1970s, the camp had been able to resist a series of attempts by the authorities to close it down. But in May–June 1986 an alliance between the security forces and black vigilantes – the witdoeke – succeeded in forcing 70,000 squatters from their homes. Since then similar coalitions have been active elsewhere, even in the UDF strongholds of the Eastern Cape.

Josette Cole, a white activist at Crossroads, has written a fascinating book about this defeat showing how the regime profited from the emergence of a layer of “community leaders” at Crossroads, who built up privileges and wealth based on the money they extracted from the camp residents. It was these men (they consolidated their power by breaking the women’s organisation which had coordinated resistance in the early years) who were behind the witdoeke.

Cole’s analysis confirms that class is absolutely central to understanding the crisis in South Africa. Doug Hindson’s study of pass controls implies the same, although it is much more academic in form, originating as it does in his doctoral thesis.

Control over the movement of black workers is a central feature of apartheid. Earlier Marxist writers – above all Harold Wolpe – have argued that the pass laws served to provide South African capitalism with a cheap labour force by confining black workers to the status of migrant labourers tied to the rural “Homelands”.

Hindson, a lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand, argues that this “cheap labour thesis” expresses only a partial truth. Whatever the intentions of the governments who erected and perfected the pass laws, an urban African working class has been a feature of South Africa at least since the First World War.

Pass controls have served to regulate this class, and in particular to stratify it, dividing it between a comparatively well-paid minority with the right to reside in an urban area, the so-called section tenners, and a majority without these rights.

Since the 1970s, however, this system has been in increasing crisis, as the black urban population expands. Hindson has estimated elsewhere that if you take into account what he calls “displaced” and “disguised” urbanisation – for example, the blacks who commute daily to work in the cities from “rural” squatter camps – some two thirds of all Africans are effectively part of the urban population.

The significance of this analysis should be obvious. It underlines the fact that the outcome of the struggle in South Africa will be settled in the cities, and that it will be determined by the huge black working class which capitalism has created and apartheid merely regulated.

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