Workers Vanguard No. 1016

25 January 2013


Miners Strikes Shake Neo-Apartheid South Africa

Presentation to SYC Forum

(Young Spartacus pages)

We are pleased to publish an edited presentation given by comrade Jon Brule, member of the International Executive Committee of the International Communist League, to a Spartacus Youth Club forum held at City College of New York on November 27.

A little over three months ago in Marikana, South Africa, police attacked a picket line of mineworkers striking against the Lonmin platinum company. As a result, 34 strikers were killed and 78 were wounded. For many South Africans this brought back memories of the massacres at Sharpeville in 1960 and Soweto in 1976. But there was a key difference: those massacres had been carried out by the white apartheid regime and this massacre was carried out by the mainly black African National Congress (ANC) government, which is in an alliance with the largest trade-union federation in the country, called COSATU, and the largest workers party, which is the South African Communist Party (SACP).

Subsequently the government stood by the cops, as have the SACP and COSATU, and they have sought to blame militant strikers for the violence. For example, Blade Nzimande, who is head of the SACP, issued a September 17 statement that the SACP fully supports the government’s crackdown and asserted that the “ring-leaders must be dealt with.” In contrast, our organization in South Africa, Spartacist/South Africa, said, “Make no mistake: the blood of these massacred workers is on the hands of the leaders of the ANC/SACP/COSATU Tripartite Alliance and their government, who have demonstrated yet again their reliability to the Randlord rulers and their imperialist senior partners” (“Blood on the Hands of ANC/SACP/COSATU Government,” reprinted in WV No. 1007, 31 August 2012).

So there has in fact been a real witchhunt of the strikers on the pretext that these people are “criminals,” which is allegedly proven by the fact that they were “violent” and carried arms onto the picket line. In fact, it is true they did have arms, mainly things like homemade spears and so forth. The cops were heavily armed with assault rifles. And of course the cops have claimed that they were defending themselves against these workers, and there has been one lie and cover-up after another. So for example, one independent investigation showed that many strikers were not even shot on the picket line; rather they had sought to escape and were killed some distance away from the incident. Then there was something else: the police, in order to “prove” that these guys were violent, showed photographs of the bodies of the dead strikers with spears and pangas [machetes]. Well, unfortunately for the government they had issued photos of the same individuals some time earlier without the weapons on them. In other words, they subsequently planted the weapons.

From our standpoint this was a major class battle and we communists have a side with the workers. We believe that they have a right to defend themselves against strikebreakers and police scabherders. And our line on self-defense was stated squarely by our organization in South Africa, which said, “To listen to the sanctimonious bourgeois editorialists and Alliance tops talk, the Zulu, Xhosa and other native African warriors who were mowed down by the guns of British and Dutch colonisers should also have accepted part of the blame for the ‘senseless loss of life,’ because they tried to fight back with spears and other primitive weapons! We stand forthrightly for the right of armed self-defence of the working class against the bloody violence of the capitalist state, the bosses’ security guard thugs and other professional strikebreakers. For workers defence guards to protect the picket lines!

Tripartite Alliance Government vs. Miners

What this incident shows clearly is the class character of the state. When I was in South Africa some years ago, I remember having a lot of arguments with members of the SACP who assured me that the cops were now different, that this was no longer apartheid, that the cops served an allegedly progressive government, that many of them had even fought in the liberation forces of the ANC against apartheid. We had big arguments about this.

The massacre demonstrated yet again that, in fact, the state, which is based on armed bodies of men (with the police, army, courts, etc. at its core), exists as an organ of repression of one class over another. I gather you have read some of Lenin’s The State and Revolution, if you’ve been participating in this class series. This was a real demonstration that the black and white cops who carried out this massacre are the bourgeoisie’s thugs just as they were under the apartheid regime.

Notwithstanding the horrific violence and repression meted out by the government against the strikers at Lonmin, they persevered and won a substantial wage increase for many of their members. This caused a big problem not only for the government but also for the existing trade-union federation COSATU and for the SACP, who provide most of the cadre for COSATU. Not only was it an illegal strike that won but also it was a wildcat strike—i.e., the workers went out on strike in defiance of their own leadership, as they had been members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). So at the time, the COSATU leader, whose name is Zwelinzima Vavi, issued a statement on Twitter saying, “Cosatu and NUM will have to act fast or this deal can collapse...every bargaining system in can communicates [sic] the message workers can lead themselves and get what they want” (Mail & Guardian online, 19 September 2012).

Indeed, that’s what has started to happen. The strike at this particular platinum mine spread to other platinum mines, and then gold mines and chrome mines, and at least one iron ore mine, and also to other sections of the country. Currently there is a big, hard-fought strike in the Western Cape, another strike that is being waged by probably the most oppressed section of the working class in South Africa, the farm workers. In fact, only about 5 percent of these people have ever been organized into unions. But they are on strike today. In total there were some 100,000 mineworkers who were on strike at one time or another when these strikes were going on. The economy lost something like 10 billion rand, which is a little over a billion American dollars. In retaliation, the companies dismissed, or rather attempted to dismiss, thousands of miners from their jobs. Numerous miners are still facing charges.

When I was over there in September, there was a COSATU conference. Our comrades took three different placards and set up a literature table outside this conference. And the placards said: “Drop All the Charges! Victory to the Striking Mineworkers!” “Cops and Security Guards Out of the Unions!” and “Break With the Bourgeois Tripartite Alliance! For a Black-Centred Workers Government!” The literature sale was going briskly. There was a lot of interest in our material. Then all of a sudden, a large number of bureaucratic goons attacked the lit table and the comrades. They made a bonfire and threw all of our literature on it and burned it.

Why did they do this? It was not particularly because they felt threatened by a small Trotskyist organization. Rather, it was because they were hysterical and quite frenzied over the example of this mineworkers strike, this wildcat strike, and the fear that it would spread to other sections of the working class.

After this incident, Spartacist/South Africa issued a statement (reprinted in WV No. 1009, 28 September 2012) that noted, “The COSATU bureaucrats fear that other sections of the working class, inspired by this, will take the road of class struggle, thereby upsetting the cosy relationship of the bureaucrats with the capitalists and their government. That’s why the Alliance tops are now denouncing the Lonmin bosses for ‘caving in’ to the wildcat strike.” And that’s exactly what happened.

Capitalism and Its Black Front Men

Since these strikes broke out, it’s not uncommon to read, even in the capitalist press, that over the last 18 years it has been in power, the ANC government has benefited only a small handful of blacks and the rest of them have not been helped. The left organizations—who up until now have been courting one or another wing of the Tripartite Alliance—have been making haste to put a little distance between themselves and the people they have been supporting. This is not true of us, because we consistently opposed the Tripartite Alliance.

When they came into power in 1994, we wrote “Mandela/ANC Front for Racist Capitalist Rule” (WV No. 600, 13 May 1994), stressing that black freedom requires socialist revolution. In 1995, we put out one of our Black History and the Class Struggle pamphlets (No. 12) with a series on South Africa. One article has a headline, “South Africa Powder Keg: ANC Fronts for Racist Exploiters.” We always make available our back literature, unlike many other organizations, because actually we’re proud of what we stood on in the past and are not embarrassed by it. We don’t seek to cover it up, like many organizations on the left.

Now, I talked about the cops attacking the picket line. It’s also important to understand, however, that the capitalist ruling class usually doesn’t maintain itself in power simply by the use of armed force. They also have ideological weapons. They control the media, they control the schools, etc. If you want to explain why the ANC government has held on the way it has, you also have to understand this aspect. In particular, the ANC has utilized African nationalism as a way of justifying its regime. At bottom, black African nationalism asserts that the common interests of the black population are higher than the class divisions in society.

This is very, very different from the Marxist perspective. A Marxist would argue that class divisions are fundamental. You have two main classes in society: the capitalists (who own the means of production like the factories, the mines, the banks and the land) and the wage workers (who have only their labor power to sell).

Suppose we take a look at what has happened in South Africa. These events demonstrate and confirm that the Marxist perspective is superior for explaining what went on. If you look at the lineup, what do you have? On the one side you have the black workers, who are out on strike. And on the other side you have the mainly black government, black and white cops, and another element: several thousand black people—a small minority of the black population—who were admitted to the elite of South Africa when apartheid ended. Up until that time, there were really no black capitalists. Now it’s different. For example, there is a guy by the name of Cyril Ramaphosa [elected the ANC’s deputy president in December], who in apartheid days was actually the leader of the NUM mineworkers union. Today he has amassed about $675 million dollars worth of industrial and mining holdings. And he happens to be a major stockholder in Lonmin.

So, you have an alliance of the imperialists, the white Randlords with their black junior partners in the government, and the black and white cops. It isn’t black against white. The decisive division here is class against class. And this is a very important lesson about how society actually functions.

The Rise of Apartheid

Having said that, it raises a question: Why does black nationalism have the influence that it does? You can’t deny that it has had a lot of influence in South Africa. I think in order to explain that you have to first do a little excursion in history. So I’m going to have to do this rather rapidly and I’m going to leave things out.

In the 17th century, Dutch Calvinists and French Protestants settled the country, and they were given the name Afrikaners, the “white African tribe.” Later during the Napoleonic Wars, the British decided they needed to at least control the coast, because it was a convenient way station to their most important colony, India. So they seized Cape Town. But nothing much happened and the country was kind of a backwater until the discovery of diamonds and later gold in the second half of the 19th century. At this point, the British took interest.

The British imperialists realized that the gold and diamonds were located in provinces run by the Afrikaners, so they started a war called the Boer War and took over. They had to find people to work in the mines. Up until that time, most of the Africans were subsistence peasants and they raised cattle, etc. So in order to make them work in the mines, the capitalists had to take their land away, and some 87 percent of the land in the country was given to the whites. They also had to institute a rigorous system of taxes, like poll taxes, to force the Africans to make money in order to pay taxes; this meant the Africans had to go to work in a mine or someplace like that.

That’s how the British did it. Now, there is more to it than that, but that sort of is fundamentally the process. It’s important to keep this in mind because, if you talk to liberals, they say everything racist about South Africa was done by the Afrikaners, but this was actually done by the British.

After World War II, the apartheid regime came into power, and it was based on a mainly Afrikaner party called the Nationalist Party. They set up a series of rigorous stratifications of the population, which they divided into whites, mixed-race, Indians and blacks. They had these pass laws, which meant you couldn’t go anywhere if you were black unless you were carrying an appropriate pass that gave you permission. Group Areas Acts were also enacted to separate where different so-called “racial categories” could live. This was all kind of a refinement and intensification of what had existed before. What they used the pass laws for was to find a way of getting people to go where they wanted them to work, which were generally places considered least desirable, like the mines and the white-owned farms.

Neo-Apartheid South Africa Today

Today, if you look at the way the mining industry works, a lot of this is still true. Mining is still done by migrants, people who live in other parts of South Africa or in neighboring countries. Men go to work in these mines and once or twice a year they go home and see their family. And it’s still among the most dangerous kinds of work that you can do: one miner in South Africa dies every three days. It’s extremely difficult work. The mines are deep underground and the temperatures run up to about 115 degrees at the rock face.

There have been some modifications since the apartheid period. They don’t depend on pass laws to make people work in the mines, but what they have now is economic compulsion. You’ve got an official unemployment rate of 25 percent in the country, which is higher among blacks. So people go to work in mines because they have to earn a living; they have to eat.

And there is another important difference. While there are still workers from neighboring countries like Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Mozambique, some years ago the ANC government passed a law making it much more difficult for foreign black workers to work in the mines. We’re very much opposed to this discrimination against immigrants. We believe that anyone who gets to a country should have the right to stay there. In other words, we fight for full citizenship rights for all immigrants in South Africa and here in the U.S.

The ANC also has a view that South Africa is a “rainbow nation,” namely, that all races are going to be treated equally in South Africa. This is not true of blacks and whites and also other sections of the population. Nine percent of South Africans are called the coloured or mixed-race population. They are basically descended from the earlier period when the Afrikaners came and had offspring through unions with the Khoisan people, and then later with Malay women slaves. These people were Christianized and were taught to speak Afrikaans, which is the language of the Afrikaners.

Also in the 19th century the British brought over a number of people from India to work on the sugar plantations there. So one of the things you see today, and you have this in every capitalist country, is that it’s not just blacks pitted against whites, but also different layers of the oppressed are pitted against each other. Blacks against the coloureds, Indians and so forth. You don’t resolve these differences unless you get rid of capitalism.

If you look at the overall picture, South Africa is a unique society established by European colonialism. It is very different from other countries like India, which was a British colony with only a thin layer of whites who were the top military officers or the top administrators. When the British left, they left too. In contrast, the white population in South Africa is much more substantial and they actually settled the country, and they did it in a particular way. When Europeans settling the U.S. or Canada ran into the indigenous population, they killed them or ultimately drove them onto reservations. Whereas in South Africa, what the settlers did was exploit the native population.

People often make analogies between the race question in South Africa and in the United States. Of course there are parallels there. Many American blacks thought that apartheid was like a magnification or a mirror of their own oppression in this country. At the same time, there are obvious differences, starting with the fact that blacks are a minority here, whereas in South Africa they are the majority of the population. There is another very important difference: although whites in the U.S. on average are better off than blacks, if you look at the working class you have whites, blacks and Hispanics. You go out to a picket line and you’re going to see workers from different races and ethnic backgrounds. Whereas in South Africa, it is much more a question of the whites being like a privileged caste. It’s more like one race on top of others, which is not saying there aren’t a few poor or working-class whites.

So this sort of gets back to the question I raised earlier, which is, why does nationalism have the impact that it does? Because race corresponds largely to class in South Africa. If you are poor and working-class, you’re much more likely to be black or some other non-white. Therefore, it’s very easy to confuse the two conceptions of race and class. When apartheid ended in 1994, there was an enormous expectation among the black masses that not only would they have political rights, but also their conditions of living would improve dramatically. That’s not happening.

The Deal to End Apartheid

In order to conclude this rather potted history of the country you have to take into account the final period of apartheid in South Africa and recognize that it wasn’t about just what went on in the country. There were, to be sure, many militant struggles by workers against apartheid, but there were also other things that happened outside the country that shaped the outcome. One of them was that the countries that are now Mozambique and Angola were Portuguese colonies at the time. The Portuguese colonies got their independence by 1975, and this destabilized southern Africa. That year there was a civil war in Angola, and the South Africans, who considered this part of the world theirs, intervened on one side, while Brezhnev, who was the leader of the Soviet Union, got the Cubans to go in on the side of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).

We didn’t politically support the left-nationalist MPLA, but in this conflict we had a side because it was a proxy war and we wanted to see the Cubans smash the South Africans. They did, and as a result of that a lot of people in South Africa concluded that the South African army was not invincible, as had been claimed. This helped trigger a major upsurge of struggle in South Africa, which broke out around the time of the big student protests in Soweto in 1976. As a result, the regime in South Africa cranked up the level of repression, killing a lot of people and jailing many more.

The regime was not defeated, but it was an extremely expensive way of running the country. The Americans were worried. You have to remember, South Africa was a junior partner of U.S. imperialism this whole time. But the U.S. said, “Well, you know, ultimately you’re just going to have to fight the same battles over and over again and, furthermore, the communists in South Africa are gaining influence.” So at a certain point, they pulled the rug out from underneath the apartheid regime, or tried to, and they started selling off their stocks and bonds and calling in their loans to the government. They basically said to the apartheid regime, “OK, you guys had better start negotiating with the ANC.”

Now nothing much happened for three or four years. Then—we are now reaching the Gorbachev years in the second half of the ’80s—Gorbachev starts to give away the store. He gives away East Europe to the imperialists and everybody realizes that, if Gorbachev is going to do that in his own backyard, there is no way that this guy is ever going to establish a client state in Southern Africa. Up until that time, the Soviets had given a modicum of diplomatic support and weaponry for what was basically a tokenistic guerrilla army of the ANC. So at that point the apartheid guys said, “Well, the ANC has nowhere to go now. So we can drive a bargain that’s to our advantage.” And the ANC basically said, “OK, we’ll do it.” (For a more detailed account, see “Growth of the Black Workers Movement,” Black History and the Class Struggle No. 12, February 1995.)

So you got what happened, which was that legally and politically they changed the state in South Africa. Whereas before the end of apartheid, non-whites could not vote in that country, now they got to vote. That’s on the one hand. But economically and socially, nothing changed. Nothing. The same companies that had been running the country previously—like Anglo American, the largest mining company in South Africa—continued to run the country. Except for one thing I alluded to earlier, that a small layer of blacks were now inducted into the elite. Actually, working people in South Africa have a somewhat contemptuous term for these guys. They say they are “riding the gravy train” or they call them “gravy trainers.” One example is this character I mentioned before, Cyril Ramaphosa.

SACP: Obstacle to Revolution

The effect of this, however, is that workers in South Africa generally saw the ANC as having liberated people from apartheid. The other important glue here is the SACP, which for years has been an integral part of the ANC. By 1994, overwhelmingly the most militant workers supported the South African Communist Party. This is why they have a thing called the Tripartite Alliance, and this is why the Communist Party is in the government, because it gives the impression that this government, if not a socialist government, is not hostile to socialism and will pave the way for it. They say, “See? We have our comrades from the Communist Party in the government.” Now, you would never find that in the United States, would you? You would not find the AFL-CIO made part of Obama’s government. The reason is the capitalists don’t have to worry. There is no organized political party of the working class in this country, and indeed one could say that the political consciousness of the working class is lower here than it is in South Africa.

The role of the SACP is important because it’s the only organized mass party of the working class. Their theory is a theory of two-stage revolution, which holds that the way to get to socialism is to have an initial stage, which they claim is happening now, and they call it the “national democratic revolution.” In this stage they say they are going to do away with racial inequality, but they’re not going to get rid of capitalism. Then some time by and by, there’s going to be socialism. And in order to do this, according to their view, well of course you go out and join the government now and pressure it to act more and more in the interests of the working class. In fact, they deny that there is a capitalist state in South Africa. The term they use is “class contested,” implying falsely that the workers could take power without overthrowing the existing state.

This whole conception is a lie, and it has been demonstrated over the last two decades why it’s a lie. You don’t end up forcing the government to carry out pro-working-class policies. Instead, when you become part of a capitalist government, like the SACP is, you have to take responsibility for the policies of that government, which are premised fundamentally on maintaining capitalist profit. You become complicit and part of anti-working-class atrocities like the massacre at Marikana—which is not the only time the SACP has played a strikebreaking role in South Africa, but it is certainly the most recent and dramatic example.

At the same time, like I said, the expectations of the masses have been dampened. The ANC made all kinds of promises in ’94: everyone’s going to get a house, electricity, running water, and we’ll do away with unemployment. None of this has come about. Inequality, if anything, is probably higher than it was at that time. I think the average white household income is something like 365,000 rand a year, which is about $40,000, compared to 60,000 rand for a black family, which is $6,600 a year. So it’s an income ratio of about 6 to 1. And a generation has passed since the ANC came in. It has dawned on people that obviously nothing much has changed.

So to sum up, when you look at two-stage revolution, it’s a lie. First of all, the first premise is false: there was no revolution that put an end to apartheid. There was a deal that the ANC made with the imperialists and the former apartheid rulers. We have a saying in the International Communist League that two-stage revolution means that in the first stage, you put a nationalist bourgeoisie in power; in the second stage, the workers and the reds get massacred. Well that was Marikana. That’s two-stage revolution!

Tasks of a Revolutionary Party

If you persevere in this class series you will study the Russian Revolution. The Russian Revolution is what we stand for; it’s our positive example. In 1917 Russia was a country of belated capitalist development, with some of the biggest modern factories in Europe in a mainly backward peasant country, with lots of illiteracy and stuff like that. They didn’t have a two-stage revolution. The Bolsheviks fought against that idea. What happened is that the Bolshevik Party led the masses, including the peasantry, which was the bulk of the population, and made a workers revolution. This is our program.

The present situation in South Africa presents an opportunity for Trotskyists. The miners strikes have cast a sharp light on what the ANC-led Tripartite Alliance government is. Keep in mind there is a contradiction in the SACP. The top layer of the SACP really wants to administer capitalism and remain a part of that as they currently are. But many rank-and-file members joined the SACP because they wanted to be communists, as they understood it. We know, we talk to them. Among these people there are those who really don’t like the SACP’s support for crushing or attempting to crush the mineworkers strikes. A lot of these people would love to get their hands on Lenin’s writings. I sold at SACP conferences. Although it is supposed to be a Leninist party, their leadership doesn’t make Lenin’s works available to them. So you go and you sell there, and your literature table is picked clean of all the Lenin and also Marx and so forth. That wouldn’t happen in the U.S.

So what do we call for? We call for a black-centered workers government, which would undertake much needed improvement in the living standards of the black toilers. Such a government would uphold the democratic rights of the coloureds and Indians and those whites who accept a government essentially based on the black working class.

My final point is about why a proletarian internationalist perspective is essential. If you had a revolution in South Africa, the imperialists would seek to strangle it economically and militarily. So a workers government there would have to fight like hell to extend workers power to the advanced industrial countries.

Maybe some of you were at a demonstration we organized in New York a few months ago in defense of the striking mineworkers. This was a concrete act of solidarity designed to underline our commitment to make national liberation and working-class emancipation in South Africa the cause of the whole international proletariat, cutting against bourgeois nationalism in South Africa which falsely holds that workers in the West, and particularly in the U.S., are “bought off” by imperialism. More broadly, this points to the importance of constructing a revolutionary party here in what we call the belly of the imperialist beast and that such a party will take its place alongside its revolutionary comrades in South Africa as part of a Trotskyist international vanguard party.