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Workers Vanguard No. 1151

22 March 2019

South Africa

The Land Question and Permanent Revolution

Part One

We reprint below the first part of an article from Spartacist South Africa No. 16 (February 2019), publication of the South African section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist).

Over the last year, the African National Congress (ANC) has done a kind of tightrope walk over the question of land. On the one side, the party has given lip service to the anger and frustration of the black majority by making a parliamentary bloc with the bourgeois-populist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) to begin the process of amending the constitution to allow for land expropriation without compensation. While hyping this up as a reversal of its decades-long policy of relying on the “willing seller, willing buyer” method of land redistribution, the ANC has on the other side sought to reassure capitalist investors that nothing is really going to change.

The ANC’s manoeuvering is, in its own way, a testament to the potential explosiveness of the land question. As political commentator Rapule Tabane put it, the prospect of land expropriation evokes “hope in many poor black South Africans” while “provoking fear and uncertainty among many white South Africans and business people” (city‑, 4 October 2018). It is not at all difficult to understand why: land ownership provides one of the clearest measures of how entrenched white domination remains, and how little the black majority has gained, in the “new South Africa.” For example, whereas white people—currently 7.8 percent of the population—owned 85 percent of all farmland at the end of apartheid, almost 25 years later they still own 72 percent. In contrast, just 4 percent of farmland is owned by black Africans, who are 80.9 percent of the population!

Behind these statistics are the brutal oppression and poverty that mark the lives of black and coloured [mixed race, partly Malay-derived] people who work on the farms and live in the surrounding communities, where the white boss still rules through the sjambok [whip]. A glimpse into this racist hell is provided by the news headlines highlighting particular atrocities: farm workers being forced to drink liquid faeces as punishment for “neglecting their duties”; white farmers shoving a black man into a coffin and threatening to set him on fire; a black youth killed while being transported to the police station in the back of some white farmers’ bakkie [small pickup truck]—for the alleged “crime” of taking sunflower heads!

Millions of black and coloured workers and farm dwellers have been thrown off white-owned farms since 1994. Meanwhile, some 17 million black people remain trapped in the desperately impoverished areas of the apartheid-era “homelands.” They are subject to the arbitrary, despotic rule of tribal chiefs and their agents, which is especially oppressive to black women.

The urban population has steadily increased in the decades since the end of pass laws and influx control. With the prime real estate monopolised by a mostly white, wealthy elite, the non-white masses get crowded into backyard dwellings and other substandard housing in the townships, or shacks in sprawling squatter camps. It is not uncommon for such desperate, overcrowded living conditions to exist just a few kilometres away from leafy suburbs with lavish mansions—the boundary between the two worlds patrolled by armies of machine-gun-toting private security guards.

As Marxist revolutionaries, we seek to do away with the whole system of racist neo-apartheid capitalism at the root of this hideous oppression and replace it with a socialist system in which those who labour rule. Even if the black masses are to make some partial gains, under capitalism, toward getting the land, this will not be a result of parliamentary commissions and the like, but of social struggle. The outpouring of anger at the public hearings on land expropriation held around the country last winter and the noticeable increase of land occupations both show the burning desire for land. What’s crucial is that the land hunger of the masses be mobilised behind the social power of the proletariat in a fight against the racist capitalist rulers. This requires a political struggle against the nationalist and reformist misleaders, whose whole outlook is defined by parliamentary cretinism and reverence for bourgeois “order.”

The ANC tops are cynically using the constitutional amendment on “expropriation without compensation” (EWC) for populist posturing. Even after a year of raging “land debate” it remains to be seen what the actual content of such an amendment might be. The ANC has dragged out the so-called “consultative process” with an unending series of parliamentary commissions, so as to calm things down and allay the capitalists’ fears over property rights while still getting political mileage out of “EWC” for this year’s elections (and the EFF is happy to play along).

The amendment process is unlikely to be concluded before the elections, but as it stands now the schemes reportedly being floated by [President Cyril] Ramaphosa and the ANC tops would be meaningless for the black masses. If some meaningful concessions were to be offered in the face of struggle—via a constitutional amendment or some other legislation—Marxists would of course support them. At the same time, we emphasise to the workers and oppressed that all reforms are bound to be stunted and reversible as long as the capitalists remain in power—and that is the class content of bourgeois democracy.

The land question is inextricably bound up with the national oppression of the black majority, and as such raises the spectre of social revolution. It goes to the very heart of capitalist class rule in this country, which was built on the superexploitation of black labour. The dispossession of black land was driven above all by the capitalists’ need to secure labourers for the white-owned mines and farms. Take, for example, the former homelands, whose formation and maintenance was inextricably tied to the migrant labour system that’s produced mountains of wealth for the Randlords and imperialists. Overturning this oppressive status quo is never going to be accomplished by reformist tinkering that leaves the private property of the ruling class untouched.

A just resolution of the land question cries out for a revolutionary struggle to uproot capitalism and establish a black-centred workers government. Such a government would expropriate the white-owned commercial farms and convert them to collective and state farms under control of the farm workers whose labour keeps them going. It would strip the parasitic chiefs of all privileges and powers, enforcing the democratic rights and social liberation of their “subjects”—especially black women—by rallying the rural toilers in struggle against these and other lackeys of the Randlords. In the urban areas, a black-centred workers government would begin addressing the housing crisis by expropriating the luxury dwellings of the rich and converting them to housing for the workers and poor. At the same time, it would embark on a vast programme of public works—including construction of quality, racially integrated public housing, building and expanding basic infrastructure. This would be part of a radical reshaping of society, lifting the rural areas and townships out of poverty and desolation.

Addressing the many just demands of the black majority—including democratic demands like security of [land] tenure—that have been cruelly frustrated under neo-apartheid rule since 1994, a black-centred workers government would simultaneously begin the tasks of socialist construction, while fighting to spread workers revolution internationally. For such a government, expropriation and redistribution of land would be part and parcel of the revolutionary expropriation of the bourgeoisie as a whole, in the first case by breaking up its machinery of state repression and replacing it with a workers state.

This perspective is derived from Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, based on the understanding that the bourgeois-nationalist forces of dependant countries are incapable of solving any of the fundamental problems posed by imperialist domination because of their subordination to imperialist capital and mortal fear of their own proletariat. The programmatic core of permanent revolution is complete political and organisational independence of the working class from bourgeois nationalism. This demands a break from not only the ANC, but also more radical-sounding bourgeois parties such as the EFF which, despite its occasional spouting of “Marxist-Leninist” rhetoric, represents the implacable class enemies of workers liberation.

Neo-Apartheid Treachery

It has become cliché, especially among bourgeois-liberal political commentators, to lament the ANC’s “lack of political will” to resolve the land question. In fact, the government of the ANC-led Tripartite Alliance [with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU)] has demonstrated plenty of will to safeguard the interests of the capitalist ruling class it serves—from deploying the cops to evict squatters, destroy their shacks, break strikes and disperse service delivery protests, to rolling out neo-liberal policies like the easing of exchange controls. The government’s land policy has been fully in keeping with its overall commitment to maintaining the rule of the Randlords and the domination of their imperialist senior partners. As with so many other burning questions, this has meant bitter betrayal of the aspirations that animated the mass struggles against apartheid.

It is well known that after 1994 the ANC adopted a neo-liberal policy (essentially braintrusted by the World Bank) based on letting the capitalist market handle “redistribution.” The result, predictably, has been to perpetuate white domination of the land. Even in those cases where land has been restored or redistributed, it is frequently the white landowners who are the main beneficiaries. For example, in 2013-14 almost the entire annual budget for land restitution was wiped out to settle a single land claim: the government paid around R1 billion [almost $70 million]—an amount far above market value—to the owners of Mala Mala game reserve, settling out of court so as to avoid antagonising the country’s landowners.

The utter and grotesque bankruptcy of the farcical “land reform” of the past decades is clear enough: according to academics and treasury spokesmen, at the current rate even resolving the present backlog of land restitution claims could take two centuries and cost an estimated R600 billion! This wretched, servile land policy is not an aberration, but speaks to the very essence of the neo-apartheid system that emerged from the ANC’s negotiated settlement with the white rulers in the early 1990s.

Against the hype over the “South African miracle,” we Spartacists told the truth at the time, for example writing in July 1994: “The rigid structures of apartheid may be gone, but white supremacy remains, and will remain until the racist capitalist system is overthrown by the working people who produce its superprofits” (“South Africa Powder Keg,” reprinted in Black History and the Class Struggle No. 12). We consistently opposed, as a matter of principle, giving any political support to the bourgeois Tripartite Alliance of the ANC/SACP/COSATU or any bourgeois political party.

In contrast, virtually the entire international left supported the ANC politically and helped to peddle the myth of a “new” South Africa. In South Africa, this included fake-Trotskyist groups like Keep Left!, who are affiliated to the International Socialist Tendency (Cliffites), and the forebears of the Workers and Socialist Party, who were known as the Marxist Workers Tendency (inside the bourgeois ANC!) and affiliated to the Committee for a Workers’ International (Taaffeites). Now that the ANC has lost popularity, many of these leftists complain that it has “lost its way,” for example pointing to the unfulfilled promise that “the land shall be shared among those who work it” and other populist demands of the 1955 Freedom Charter.

But the class interests represented by the ANC have been clear from its very founding, and these have consistently dictated its servility to the white rulers. Just look at John Langalibalele Dube, first president of the ANC’s predecessor, the South African Native National Congress (SANNC). Himself an owner of small sugar plantations, Dube saw the black African masses, “just awakening into political life,” as in need of British colonial stewardship. Hence he argued for a policy of “treading softly, ploddingly,” of “deep and dutiful respect for the rulers God has placed over us” (February 1912 address to “Chiefs and Gentlemen of the South African Native National Congress”).

Such sentiments were common among the leaders of the SANNC/ANC, who wished to impress upon the British rulers that they were “respectable” men of property who should be given a role to play in the colonial system. But the British imperialists—not to mention the National Party rulers after 1948—saw no need for their assistance. Instead, they relied on increasingly rigid segregation and legal discrimination to police the black workers, at the same time preventing the emergence of any semblance of a black African property-owning class.

As a result, the ANC would later adopt a more populist posture, such as with the Freedom Charter. Far from indicating any change in the class character of the ANC—as claimed by reformists who falsely present the Freedom Charter as “socialist”—that shift reflected the petty-bourgeois ANC tops’ recognition that they would need the pressure of the black working masses to force the white rulers to the bargaining table. As ANC icon Nelson Mandela himself put it, the Freedom Charter was in no way intended as a “blueprint for a socialist state,” but rather aimed at “the development of a prosperous Non-European bourgeois class” (“In Our Lifetime,” 1956).

When the opportunity to negotiate a deal with the white rulers ultimately arose, it was in the context of the counterrevolutionary destruction of the bureaucratically degenerated Soviet workers state in 1991-92. This left the ANC without leverage to extract even minimal economic concessions from the Randlords and imperialists. Instead, the latter relied on political concessions to maintain their rule, co-opting the Tripartite Alliance tops to act as their front men and contain the militancy of the black proletariat.

In the process of betraying the aspirations of the black majority, the ANC tops dropped their populist pretensions like a bad habit. While still in prison, Mandela had reassured ANC supporters in early 1990 that “nationalisation of the mines, banks and monopoly industries is the policy of the ANC, and a change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable.” Within a few months, “Madiba” had “seen the light” and began assuring the white rulers that they did not have to worry about nationalisations. After the April 1994 elections, he restated this position: “In our economic policies...there is not a single reference to things like nationalisation, and this is not accidental. There is not a single slogan that will connect us with any Marxist ideology” (Sunday Times, 1 May 1994; quoted in Marais, Limits To Change, 1998).

Since then, the Tripartite Alliance government has demonstrated in a thousand different ways that it is a reliable enforcer of the rule of the Randlords and their big brothers in Wall Street and the City of London. The clearest and bloodiest proof was delivered with the Marikana massacre of 16 August 2012, when it oversaw the police killing of 34 striking black mineworkers at the behest of the Londonbased platinum giant Lonmin.

Now, with the possibility that their grip on governmental power could be threatened for the first time since 1994, the ANC tops have cynically begun to mouth some populist rhetoric about land “expropriation without compensation.” This is a transparent bit of electioneering. Following local elections in 2016 that saw the party lose control of several big metros, including Johannesburg, it’s hoped that “EWC” will galvanise the ANC’s voting base this year and contain losses to the EFF, which has made land expropriation one of its main calling cards since it was founded in 2013.

The land question has also become a political football in the factional struggles within the ANC between supporters of Cyril Ramaphosa and of Jacob Zuma. The latter began pushing “EWC” toward the end of Zuma’s presidency in an effort to dress up the anti-worker, anti-poor attacks and rampant corruption of his nine-year presidency in populist garb. The two factions nearly came to blows over land expropriation when Zuma’s supporters introduced a motion calling to amend the constitution on the final day of the ANC’s national conference in December 2017, where Ramaphosa was narrowly elected to succeed Zuma. As we wrote last year, the hands of the leaders of both the Zuma and Ramaphosa factions are stained with the blood of Marikana: it is suicidal for the working class to give the slightest political support to any of them (see “Ramaphosa vs. Zuma: ANC Factions of Marikana Massacre,” SSA No. 15, January 2018).

The mere talk of fiddling with the constitution over property rights is very worrying to the bourgeoisie. As good front men, Ramaphosa and the ANC tops are keenly aware of this and have constantly reassured the Randlords and imperialists that there will be “no smash and grab” land seizures. Rather, as Ramaphosa warned in an Op-Ed in the London Financial Times in August 2018, something must be done to ward off further instability. The editors of that mouthpiece of finance capital in turn gave him their backing, decrying Donald Trump’s “clumsy” Twittervention earlier that month and warning that “the alternatives” to Ramaphosa’s effort “to go about this in a measured way...would spell disaster” (, 26 August 2018).

The “measured” approach envisioned, however, is just more of the same. Ramaphosa has indicated that expropriation should focus on derelict buildings and unused state-owned land, while ruling out productive farms. In other words, fiddling around with allocating a small fraction of non-valuable land while leaving all of the high-quality, productive land untouched.

Contrary to the wishful thinking of Ramaphosa and the Financial Times, pitiful cosmetic changes like this are not going to quell the masses’ land hunger. Recognising this in their own way, other representatives of the big bourgeoisie worry that Ramaphosa has conciliated populist moods in the ANC far too much, and that this could unleash popular discontent that he and the ANC won’t be able to contain. For example, senior Business Day columnist Peter Bruce admonished Ramaphosa in September 2018 to “Take charge, Mr President, and do it now,” complaining:

“Already his pledge that there will be no land grabs under his presidency is being made hollow. There is land being grabbed in the south of Johannesburg, in Hammanskraal, in Limpopo—and it isn’t being taken back by the police. Why not, Mr President? Surely the police have standing orders on this?”

These words recall the bourgeoisie’s hue and cry, in the early weeks of August 2012, over the “lawlessness” of the striking Lonmin workers in Marikana. No one should be fooled by their hypocritical hand-wringing and the crocodile tears they shed after the Marikana massacre: the “stability” demanded by the Randlords, in the face of massive social discontent at the base of society, means bloody police repression of the workers and oppressed.

The key lesson from Marikana—where the workers showed no lack of militancy and bravery—is that the working class must be organised independently of the capitalist state and the bourgeois parties that serve the class enemy. This requires above all a political struggle to break the most advanced sections of the working class from reformist and nationalist false consciousness, winning them to the task of forging a revolutionary vanguard party capable of utilising the crises of this system to lead the workers to power through socialist revolution.



Workers Vanguard No. 1151

WV 1151

22 March 2019


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South Africa

The Land Question and Permanent Revolution

Part One