Workers Vanguard No. 1082
29 January 2016
Race and Class Under Neo-Apartheid
For a Black-Centered Workers Government
Below is the second part of an article that was originally published in December as a supplement to Spartacist South Africa, newspaper of the International Communist League’s South African section. The term “coloured” refers to the mixed-race, partly Malay-derived population in that country. Part One appeared in WV No. 1081, 15 January.
The DA’s [Democratic Alliance] default response to exposures of racist outrages in the Western Cape is to point out that similar things are happening in the rest of the country, where the ANC is in government. Responding to the outcry over revelations that local police in Worcester were issuing a new “dompas” [pass book] that black and coloured gardeners and domestic workers were required to carry in order to enter certain wealthy white suburbs, Helen Zille pointed out that the same system was being promoted in ANC-run Gauteng.
Indeed, in March 2015 the Gauteng MEC [Member of Executive Council] for “community safety” convened a “Rural Safety Summit” with representatives from the police and various farmers organisations—the African Farmers Union of South Africa, as well as right-wing white racist outfits like the Transvaal Agricultural Union and Agri SA. The summit adopted a plan for increased police repression in rural farming communities, including the directive that “farmers must hire legal and documented workers and create profile cards to be verified at local stations.” This in fact reveals a lot more about neo-apartheid South Africa and the Tripartite Alliance government than Zille and the DA intend—namely, it is but one example of how, fundamentally, both the ANC and the DA defend white privilege. Obviously, they come at this from very different starting points, but in both cases it is a function of administering the racist capitalist system.
Going back to the ANC’s founding days in 1912, its aim has always been to promote the development of a black elite to join in the exploitation of “its own” people. They didn’t want to leave that to the Boers and the British. While at times adopting more or less populist rhetoric and militant protest tactics to mobilise the black masses behind this aim, the final goal never changed. And the path to this goal necessarily led to striking a deal with the white rulers and acting as their black front men. The anti-coloured chauvinist demagogy of some ANC leaders—just like their promotion of anti-immigrant bigotry—is in large part designed to conceal this fundamental reality by scapegoating coloureds and other marginalised oppressed groups for the miserable living conditions of the black majority.
Black nationalism—the false view that all black people share a common interest standing above class divisions—is the key obstacle to revolutionary consciousness among the South African proletariat. It is the ideology through which the working-class base of COSATU [Congress of South African Trade Unions] and the SACP [South African Communist Party] is subordinated to the bourgeois ANC and the capitalist exploiters via the Tripartite Alliance. Even with the enormous discontent and anger against the ANC and its Alliance partners, nationalism remains the dominant form of false consciousness among black workers. After the platinum belt around Rustenburg became a “no go area” for the ANC following the Marikana massacre and the massive wave of militant wildcat strikes by mineworkers in 2012, it was the bourgeois nationalist-populists of Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) that gained the most in the 2014 elections.
The dominance of nationalist false consciousness among the proletariat is above all a product of the overwhelming weight of national oppression felt by the black majority. To address this burning issue and set the proletarian and plebeian masses against the nationalist misleaders, we have advanced a programme for proletarian leadership in the struggle for national liberation, encapsulated in the slogan of a “black-centred workers government.”
We fight to win class-conscious coloured workers and other anti-racist coloured activists to this programme. This is based on the understanding that the fight for national liberation of the oppressed black majority is the strategic motor force for workers revolution to smash the racist neo-apartheid system that oppresses all of the non-white toilers. The oppression of coloureds (and Indians) is directly conditioned by the superexploitation of the black proletariat, and any meaningful fight to end this oppression necessarily means fighting for the national liberation of the oppressed black majority. Likewise, any meaningful fight for black liberation means an unyielding fight against black nationalism, which is riddled with anti-coloured and anti-Indian bigotry. This understanding is critical for building a racially integrated Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard party that can intervene and fight for revolutionary leadership among all sections of the oppressed. Under a black-centred workers government, there would be an important role and full democratic rights for coloureds, Indians and Asians, and those whites who accept a government centrally based on the black working people.
Particularly in the early years of neo-apartheid, many South African leftists vehemently objected to our slogan, arguing that by acknowledging that there are differences and divisions among the non-white masses, we echoed the line of the apartheid rulers who constantly played divide-and-rule among the racial groupings and sought to promote tribal and ethnic identities. Instead, these leftists—including the New Unity Movement, the forerunners of the Democratic Socialist Movement/Workers and Socialist Party and the pseudo-Trotskyists who are now in the orbit of the ILRIG (International Labour Research and Information Group) labour think tank—embraced the ANC-promoted illusion of “non-racialism.” In doing so, they ignored the real and dramatic expressions of division along colour, national and tribal lines in Mandela’s neo-apartheid state. The nationalist fictions of the “rainbow nation” and “nation-building” were their means for denying reality, because their reformist programmes are fundamentally incapable of changing it.
Thus, in 1997 a Cape Town-based fake-Trotskyist outfit, the Workers International Vanguard League (WIVL, now renamed Workers International Vanguard Party) wrote us a 19-page “open letter” that was largely devoted to retailing the nasty slander, “The Spartacists promote racial divisions in South Africa.” WIVL objected to our call for a black-centred workers government, because to them it meant “a workers’ government in South Africa should have a racial guarantee worked into its very constitution.” In our reply to WIVL (printed, along with WIVL’s “open letter,” in Hate Trotskyism, Hate the Spartacists No. 1, July 1998), we pointed out that this “colour-blindness” was in reality a mask for WIVL’s accommodation to coloured parochialism and a denial of the structural racial hierarchy of South African capitalism with its special oppression of black Africans at the bottom.
In South Africa, class exploitation is integrally bound up with national oppression. Despite a sizeable coloured proletariat, especially in the Western Cape, and an urban Indian working class in Natal, the overwhelming majority of workers are black Africans. WIVL’s attack on our call for a black-centred workers government was in fact an attack on Leon Trotsky himself. In his only substantive writing on South Africa, a 1935 letter to South African revolutionaries, Trotsky insisted:
“It is entirely obvious that the predominant majority of the population, liberated from slavish dependence, will put a certain imprint on the state.
“Insofar as a victorious revolution will radically change not only the relation between the classes, but also between the races, and will assure to the blacks that place in the state which corresponds to their numbers, insofar will the social revolution in South Africa also have a national character.”
—reprinted in The Fight For a Revolutionary Vanguard Party: Polemics on the South African Left, April 1997
Our recognition that proletarian revolution in South Africa is the supreme act of national liberation in no way entails the slightest political support to nationalism as an ideology or to the project of “nation-building.” South Africa is not a nation but a colonial-derived state, encompassing diverse peoples and based on a brutal racial hierarchy. The boundaries of almost all African states, including South Africa, were drawn arbitrarily by the colonial powers and have no national legitimacy. A single tribe or people often were dismembered between two or more countries, while two or more historically antagonistic peoples were often forced together in a single state. A democratic, egalitarian and rational solution is impossible under capitalism. The fight for a black-centred workers government in South Africa is part of our perspective of a socialist federation of Southern Africa.
Combating nationalist ideology means confronting the prejudices and chauvinist stereotypes about coloureds that are common among black Africans, which the ANC, EFF and other nationalists promote. In many African languages, racially derogatory terms like amaBoesman (“bushman”) are the standard—sometimes the only—words to refer to coloureds. There is also a widespread misconception that the coloured population simply arose from miscegenation between black and white people. This misconception is often accompanied by anti-coloured prejudices—that coloured people “don’t know where they come from,” are “unreliable,” etc. It reflects an acceptance of the notion of “races” as inherent, fixed biological categories—a fallacy that has traditionally been promoted as part of racist pseudo-scientific attempts to justify slavery and black oppression by “proving” that blacks are “inferior.” (For a debunking of these myths in the U.S. context, see “The ‘Bell Curve’ and Genocide U.S.A.,” Black History and the Class Struggle No. 12, February 1995.)
Racial categories are a product of human social relations, not of genetics, which means that the corresponding racial identities, prejudices, etc., are shaped by the particular historical development of the society in which they exist. The coloured population is made up of various mixtures of the different peoples that have inhabited South Africa over the centuries—slaves from East Africa and South and Southeast Asia; Dutch and other white European colonisers; the Khoikhoi, San and other native inhabitants.
While there was a complex racial hierarchy in the Cape Colony during the time of slavery, the consolidation of these diverse peoples into the coloured population as it essentially exists today—a race-colour caste of intermediate status in the racial hierarchy—was a later development. This process was intimately bound up with the formation of a modern capitalist economy in South Africa in the late 1800s. As Ian Goldin argues in Making Race—The Politics and Economics of Coloured Identity in South Africa (1987): “It was no accident that the period which saw the evolution of a distinct Coloured identity also saw a dramatic transformation of labour” as people migrated to the towns of the Cape Colony in search of employment. Goldin describes how this distinction emerged among the labour force in the 1890s, with employers on the docks, on the farms and elsewhere dividing workers into “Natives”—who they preferred to hire for unskilled and heavy manual work—and “cape boys” or “coloureds”—who were preferred for artisan jobs as carpenters, brick layers, etc.
Class Struggle and
the Role of Communists
It would, of course, be wrong and extremely one-sided to think that the relations between blacks and coloureds are only characterised by antagonisms and mistrust. Besides the examples of racial clashes, there are also notable examples of struggle against the bourgeoisie’s divide-and-rule tactics. Against those who promote racial stereotypes, it is important to stress that the coloured population is by no means homogeneous (nor is the black population, for that matter)—political and social attitudes vary widely between individuals, based on class background, personal experiences and other factors. Moreover, the prevalent attitudes among the coloured population are also not fixed, but vary with time and location. For example, there has generally been much less support for the DA among coloured working people in the rural areas—the agricultural regions of the Western Cape, as well as much of the Northern Cape—than in urban areas.
In terms of communist intervention, a key focus must be the industries where black and coloured workers are integrated at the point of production—for example, in auto factories in the Eastern Cape, as well as in agriculture in the Western Cape. The racial divisions between blacks and coloureds go against the basic material interests of the working class, and the very workings of capitalist exploitation compel the workers to organise collectively against the employers. Class struggle creates the objective conditions for combating and breaking through the racial and other divisions: every hard-fought strike inevitably poses the need for class unity against the capitalists.
Take the farm workers strike of 2012-13 in the Western Cape. A focal point of the strike was De Doorns, which in 2009 was the site of violent anti-immigrant pogroms that forced some 3,000 mostly Zimbabwean immigrants to flee to refugee camps. According to some reports, these attacks were sparked by South African labour brokers, who, in an effort to eliminate competition from Zimbabwean labour brokers, incited the anti-immigrant mobs by blaming Zimbabwean workers for “stealing” jobs from South Africans. This and many other examples show how the white farm owners and parasites like the labour brokers play divide-and-rule in order to keep all of the different sections of farm labourers viciously exploited, including by pitting men against women, permanent workers against seasonal workers, coloured workers against black workers, etc.
When the strikes broke out in 2012, the farm owners tried to use the same tactics to undercut the strike by sowing divisions, with support from the Western Cape government of Zille and the DA. But this failed to break the solidarity and unity of this militant strike across racial and national lines. One strike committee leader told Jesse Wilderman of Wits University: “The people were all united—Zim, Sotho, coloured, Xhosa speaking—everyone was united.... The strike brought back the struggle culture [of] the 1980s and we were really united across the whole group” (Farm Worker Uprising in the Western Cape: A Case Study of Protest, Organising, and Collective Action, 26 September 2014). The strikers faced down extreme state repression and won a modest concession when the minimum wage was raised from R69 to R105 ($4 to $6) per day.
In response to even this incredibly meagre increase in starvation wages, the racist farm owners carried out a whole range of reprisals aimed at intimidating and scapegoating strike militants. The farmers have combined the reprisals with calculated provocations designed to promote divisions among the workers. Some farmers have brought in new foreign workers to get around the increased minimum wage, some are reportedly bussing in coloured workers from other areas to avoid hiring seasonal workers who were active in the strike, and others have evicted permanent workers who participated in the strike from on-farm housing. There are indications that these measures have succeeded, in some areas, in reviving the old reactionary national and racial divisions. Thus, Wilderman reports that one group of workers he interviewed in De Doorns threatened a repeat of the 2009 pogroms.
A key lesson from the strike and its aftermath is that while the economic struggles of the workers do pose the need for class unity across racial and other divisions, in and of themselves these struggles are not capable of forging this unity on a consistent and lasting basis. For that, a revolutionary workers party of the Bolshevik type is needed. As Lenin explained in What Is To Be Done? (1902), history shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is unable to spontaneously generate socialist consciousness. That consciousness must be introduced from without, through the intervention of a vanguard party that has summed up the lessons of the history of class struggle internationally in a revolutionary Marxist programme. Such a party would not limit its intervention to the immediate economic struggles of the working class, but must act as a tribune of the people, able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects.
The Bolshevik party built by Lenin fought vigorously for the democratic rights of all nationalities in the “prison house of peoples” of tsarist Russia. Central to Lenin’s attitude on the national question was the urgent need for proletarian revolutionaries to champion the struggles against national oppression and stand for the equality of all nations in the interests of clearing away the obstacles to working-class unity. In “Critical Remarks on the National Question” (1913), Lenin wrote: “Working-class democracy contraposes to the nationalist wrangling of the various bourgeois parties over questions of language, etc., the demand for the unconditional unity and complete amalgamation of workers of all nationalities in all working-class organisations...in contradistinction to any kind of bourgeois nationalism.”
Lenin and the Bolsheviks gained the political authority to fight for the unity of the proletarian vanguard across national divisions because they were known as the staunchest fighters against Great Russian chauvinism and oppression of all national minorities. At the height of the 1905 Revolution in October, when the tsarist autocracy threatened to “drown the revolution in Jewish blood,” rumours of an anti-Jewish pogrom spread through Petersburg. Within a matter of hours some 12,000 armed workers had been mobilised by the workers soviet (council) to repulse the reactionary “Black Hundreds” gangs.
There are important differences between the patterns of national/racial oppression in South Africa and tsarist Russia. Most significantly, whereas the majority of the workers that made the 1917 Russian Revolution were ethnically Russian—fighting against Russian exploiters who oppressed other nationalities—in South Africa, the overwhelming majority of workers suffer national oppression at the hands of a white minority. Moreover, the various peoples that inhabit South Africa do not constitute separate nations, as they are integrated into one economy. Despite these differences, the approach of Lenin and the Bolsheviks is very relevant for addressing the racial, tribal and other divisions among the oppressed here—especially with regard to the burning need to mobilise the proletariat in defence of immigrants.
The Controversy Over Affirmative Action
One flashpoint for racial antagonisms in recent years has been affirmative action. Controversy escalated in 2011 in response to proposed amendments to the Employment Equity Act that would have required employment targets and quotas to reflect national, as opposed to regional, demographics. This was justifiably seen by coloureds in the Western Cape as a racist attack on them, as it would mean that despite being a majority in the region, the employment targets for coloureds would be pegged at about 9%. The logic of the proposal is a racist programme of forced population transfers—one of the many reactionary directions that capitalist “nation building” can take. This was spelled out by Jimmy Manyi (then leader of the Black Management Forum and later a spokesman for the ANC government), who in multiple interviews railed against the “over-concentration” of coloureds in the Western Cape.
In a similarly nationalist vein, Manyi also decried the high numbers of Indians who had benefited from affirmative action and “Black Economic Empowerment,” implying that they should be excluded from both. While the proposed change in affirmative action was dropped from the final amendment following a ruling by the Cape Town Labour Court, there has been a sustained anti-Indian campaign in recent years, centred in KwaZulu-Natal and driven by black business associations trying to cut out Indian competition for state tenders and the like. This reactionary crap is supported by members of the ANC and Malema’s EFF. While the EFF today poses as “friends” of the coloured people and has gained some coloured support in the Western Cape, it should not be forgotten that in 2011, when they were leading the ANC Youth League, the current EFF leaders Malema and Floyd Shivambu were outspoken supporters of Jimmy Manyi.
These racist attacks on the coloured and Indian minorities serve to strengthen the racial divisions and drive the coloured and Indian working people into the arms of their worst enemies. Thus, the reactionary white-dominated trade union Solidarity was able to pose as the champions of the coloured minority by challenging the proposed guidelines in court. Solidarity’s aim is scrapping affirmative action entirely, part of its broader purpose of defending white privilege, as clearly spelled out in an old entry (since deleted) on its website: “Because of the ideology of representation the masses do not benefit and whites are being seriously disadvantaged.”
Solidarity’s court case was on behalf of ten prison guards (nine of them coloured and one white), who had been passed over for promotion based on quotas using national demographics. It must be clear that all jailers—whether black, coloured or white—are the bitter class enemy of workers and the oppressed. Just like the police, their job is to mete out racist repression in defence of the capitalists. They have no place in the trade unions or other working-class organisations.
While we defend affirmative action against racist rollback and also oppose the racist attempts to exclude coloureds and Indians, the aim of communists is not to defend the miserable status quo under capitalism. Affirmative action is incapable of solving the pervasive, racist discrimination in employment and education, because it is premised on maintaining the capitalist system under which the oppressed are pitted against each other for a handful of jobs in a society with a massive level of unemployment.
For a Black-Centered
What’s urgently posed is a political struggle within the trade unions for a new, class-struggle leadership. Such a fight must be waged against both the treacherous pro-Alliance leaders of COSATU and their reformist opponents like the NUMSA metal workers union bureaucracy. A class-struggle leadership would seek to unite workers—black and coloured, male and female, employed and unemployed, etc.—in common struggle, based on the understanding that all their interests are fundamentally antagonistic to those of the capitalists. As long as workers are pitted against each other in competition for a limited pool of jobs, the bosses will always play divide-and-rule to weaken the labour movement.
What’s needed is a fight for union control of hiring, with special union-run programmes aimed at reaching out to and training workers from specially oppressed layers. This must be linked to the fight for jobs for all, demanding that the available work be divided at no loss in pay among all those capable of working. We need a class-struggle fight to smash labour-broking slave labour, mobilising the unions to fight for permanent jobs for contract workers, with equal pay for equal work, union conditions and full union protection for all workers. This includes fighting for full citizenship rights for all who have made it here.
The ANC’s policy document “Affirmative Action and the New Constitution,” written by Albie Sachs in 1994, makes it explicit that affirmative action was chosen as an alternative to the obvious solution to begin addressing the monumental injustices of white minority rule, which would have been to “confiscate the spoils of apartheid and share them out amongst those who had been dispossessed.”
This, of course, was never something the ANC was going to do, at bottom because of its commitment to maintaining capitalism. And this points to the issue that underlies the continued racial and tribal divisions among the non-white masses, like so many of the other burning issues of economic and social backwardness that are the racist legacies of imperialist domination and apartheid and cannot be resolved under capitalism. Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution uniquely points the way forward to the economic and social modernisation of countries of belated capitalist development. Its application in South Africa is encapsulated in the call for a black-centred workers government.
Adequate housing for the millions in the townships, squatter camps and villages, including racially integrated housing, free quality education, the eradication of lobola and other traditional patriarchal practices oppressive to women: these desperately needed measures require the overthrow of neo-apartheid capitalism. A black-centred workers government in South Africa would start by expropriating the Randlords and their black front men, seizing the “spoils of apartheid” and the means of production. Under a workers government, these would be used not merely to redistribute wealth, but more fundamentally to reorganise and expand production on a socialist basis, which is what is really needed to bring about the economic and social modernisation so desperately needed.
The success of socialist transformation will depend crucially on the international extension of the revolution, particularly to the imperialist centres. Proletarian revolution internationally would mean the expropriation and centralised control of the productive wealth of North America, Europe and Japan. The full, rational utilisation of economic resources, particularly investment embodying the most advanced technology, will produce a quantum leap in labour productivity, moving rapidly toward a fully automated economy. The resulting vast increase in output will allow the massive transfer of productive resources to the more backward countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The victory of proletarian revolution on a world scale will, of course, not be an easy task. But it is the only alternative to capitalist barbarism. As explained in the ICL’s “Declaration of Principles and Some Elements of Program” (1998), this victory
“would place unimagined material abundance at the service of human needs, lay the basis for the elimination of classes and the eradication of social inequality based on sex and the very abolition of the social significance of race, nation and ethnicity. For the first time mankind will grasp the reins of history and control its own creation, society, resulting in an undreamed-of emancipation of human potential, and a monumental forward surge of civilization. Only then will it be possible to realize the free development of each individual as the condition for the free development of all.”
This is what Spartacist/South Africa fights for as a section of the International Communist League. We urge those looking for an alternative to the vicious racism and oppression of neo-apartheid capitalism to check out our revolutionary, internationalist Trotskyist programme.