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Alex Callinicos

South Africa: power to the people?

(April 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 174, April 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

This month’s historic elections mark the end of an era of struggle in South Africa. Alex Callinicos looks at the shift in the ruling party

Recent history has seen many abrupt and dramatic political reversals. But few have been as spectacular as the transformation South Africa has undergone. In less than five years the ruling National Party has moved from forcibly defending apartheid, the system of racial domination it perfected during its four decades in power, to participating in elections based on one person one vote. As a result of the constitutional settlement agreed by the NP and the African National Congress, these two organisations, for many years literally at war with one another, will serve together in government.

What made the NP, under the leadership of F.W. de Klerk, make this leap into the dark? Fundamentally, it was the deep crisis in South African society which confronted de Klerk when he took over the state presidency in August 1989. On the one hand, the great township risings of 1984–86 had shown that the black majority were no longer prepared to live under apartheid. The state of emergency imposed by de Klerk’s predecessor, P.W. Botha, in June 1986 only bought the regime a little time. By 1989 mass organisation and militancy were reviving.

Underlying the risings of the mid-1980s – and those before them in 1976 and 1980 – was a structural change in the South African economy. As blacks moved increasingly into skilled blue collar and white collar jobs, their collective power as workers grew. The independent trade unions – organised mainly through the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) – were a crucial component in the struggles of the mid-1980s and were the main factor in sustaining black resistance during the state of emergency.

On the other hand, the political crisis prompted international capital to pass a vote of no confidence in South Africa. A disastrous speech by Botha rejecting negotiations with the ANC in August 1985 precipitated the large scale flight of capital. South Africa was unable to raise the foreign loans needed to finance anything more than the most miserable growth rate. After taking office de Klerk quickly grasped that the only way to attract foreign investors back to South Africa was to achieve a political settlement with the ANC, the dominant force in the black resistance.

Such a deal would mean dismantling apartheid and conceding one person one vote. But de Klerk hoped that by seizing the initiative and taking advantage of a relatively strong bargaining hand – at the end of the 1980s the balance of military power was still overwhelmingly in the regime’s favour – he could achieve a compromise favourable to white big business, his most important backers.

So de Klerk took the world – and the ANC – by surprise in February 1990 by unbanning the main resistance organisations and freeing Nelson Mandela. In subsequent negotiations the NP pressed for a constitution which would limit the power of the majority in a democratically elected parliament by devolving most responsibilities to the provinces under a federal system, and by requiring a permanent coalition government of the main parties. Meanwhile, de Klerk at the very least turned a blind eye to the reign of terror of Inkatha and its security force allies in the townships – a campaign which conveniently put the ANC on the defensive and weakened its local organisations.

Did this strategy work? Yes and no. De Klerk undoubtedly overplayed his hand, allowing the first round of multi-party talks to collapse in May 1992 because of his demands for a white veto. Meanwhile, the violence in the townships caused a backlash among the black majority. The turning point came in April 1993 when Chris Hani, the leader of the South African Communist Party and a hero among ANC militants, was assassinated by the white extreme right.

The huge explosion of popular anger that followed demonstrated both the extent of the ANC’s support and its indispensable role in controlling that anger. Hani’s murder, says Patti Waldmeir of the Financial Times, ‘permanently tilt[ed] ... the balance of power in the ANC’s favour.’ De Klerk was forced to accept a constitutional settlement which on the whole did not give the entrenched guarantees of white power and privilege for which the NP had been pressing.

At the same time one reason why white big business is fairly relaxed about the absence of these guarantees is that they don’t seem necessary. Since February 1990 Mandela and the rest of the ANC leadership have gone out of their way to reassure local and foreign capital that they do not intend to make any radical social and economic changes. A survey of 100 top business leaders published in the Johannesburg Weekly Mail and Guardian last December, which showed that 68 percent backed Mandela as their first choice for president, suggests that this exercise has been successful.

Moreover, developments since the outline constitution was agreed in November 1993 seemed to work in the NP’s favour. The Freedom Alliance – a motley coalition of the white extreme right and various homeland leaders – decided to boycott April’s elections. Behind this strategy was the barely concealed threat of violence – by the fascists of the Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB), possibly by military sympathisers of General Constand Viljoen, leader of the Afrikaner Volksfront (AVF) and former chief of the South African Defence Force, and above all by supporters of the Zulu tribalist Inkatha Freedom Party.

Opinion polls suggested that Inkatha had minority support even in Natal where most Zulu speaking Africans live. Nevertheless, Inkatha has a formidable mass organisation built up with the help of the security forces and backed by the state apparatus of the KwaZulu homeland which is controlled by the Inkatha leader Gatsha Buthelezi. In the months before the elections there were numerous reports of Inkatha squads, trained and armed by the AVF, being placed throughout Natal to disrupt the elections.

The ANC leadership reacted to the Freedom Alliance’s blackmail by offering them a series of concessions designed to persuade them to participate in the elections. The new constitution was changed to give more powers to the provinces, to enhance the power and status of the Zulu king and to provide for a self governing white ‘homeland’ – all measures which favoured de Klerk’s objective of limiting the power of the black majority in the ‘New South Africa’. The Weekly Mail and Guardian commented, ‘For the first time the NP will now be able to claim some “victories” at the negotiating table.’

Fortunately the black masses have shown how to win back on the streets what their leaders gave away at the negotiating table. In early March, with the elections only six weeks away, popular insurrection brought down President Lucas Mangope of the Bophuthatswana homeland.

Mangope and his key adviser Rowan Cronje, ex-minister in the racist white Rhodesian regime, were, as leading members in the Freedom Alliance, refusing to allow elections in Bophuthatswana. But what began as a strike by civil servants, afraid that Mangope would try to steal their pensions, developed into a general uprising for Bophuthatswana’s reincorporation into South Africa and participation in the April elections. Students and other workers joined the civil servants on the streets.

When his soldiers and policemen mutinied, a despairing Mangope appealed to Viljoen to save him. Viljoen ordered in several thousand right wingers mainly from the AWB’s paramilitary wing. With popular support, the Bophuthatswana Defence Force fought the fascists off, in the process killing one AWB ‘general’. The South African Defence Force was forced to intervene to restore ‘order’ but at the price of Mangope’s removal and Bophuthatswana’s reincorporation into South Africa.

The Bophuthatswana insurrection shows that the far right’s bluff can be called. Buthelezi is undoubtedly a more formidable opponent than Mangope, but sooner or later his bullying and butchers are going to have to be faced up to – almost certainly with force – if South Africa is to have any sort of democratic future. But the rising contained an even more fundamental lesson. Once again it has been the black workers and youth who have forced the pace of change – as they did throughout the 1980s and again after Hani’s assassination. When will they get a political leadership which builds on their power and courage rather than seeks to restrain them?

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