Workers Vanguard No. 1175
15 May 2020
South African Trotskyists on COVID-19 Crisis:
We Need a New Ruling ClassThe Workers!
Neo-Apartheid Lockdown Brings Starvation, State Terror
The following statement was written by our comrades of Spartacist/South Africa, section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist).
MAY 11—At the end of April, over 10,000 people from the shantytowns of Mooiplaas and Spruit, north of Johannesburg, stood from as early as 3 a.m. in queues stretching up to four kilometres for a chance to collect one of 8,000 food hampers distributed by a local charity. Aerial footage of the scene gives a stark picture of the terrible human misery that has multiplied all over the country, and across the continent, as a result of lockdowns that have deprived the vast majority of working people of the meagre income on which they normally scrape by.
A short drive to the south is Sandton City, gloated over by the Randlords and the ANC [African National Congress] as “the richest square mile in Africa,” where Johannesburg Stock Exchange traders continued to shuttle billions in finance capital back and forth, virtually, throughout the lockdown. It would be hard to imagine a clearer illustration of the general law of capitalist accumulation set out more than 150 years ago in Karl Marx’s Capital: “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole, i.e., on the side of the class that produces its own product in the form of capital.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the advanced capitalist countries of Europe, and the United States, with over 280,000 deaths globally this year. There are real fears of what it will do in Africa and the rest of the semicolonial world, where health care systems in many countries were already on the verge of collapse before the pandemic hit. Massive overcrowding and lack of sanitation mean that in many places it’s impossible to practice even the most rudimentary health precautions for arresting the spread of the coronavirus, like washing hands or keeping your distance from others. Sections of some South African townships have population densities as high as 40,000 people per square kilometre, with up to 500 people sharing a single tap and a few toilets.
But the response in recent months has only underlined, again, that on the basis of capitalism there is no rational solution to global crises such as this one. Across sub-Saharan Africa, lockdowns implemented to slow the spread of coronavirus have brought more misery and death than the virus itself, while at the same time serving only to delay what even government spokesmen admit is the “inevitable” spike. In South Africa, the lockdown that began on 27 March has seen the number of people going hungry rise to an estimated 30 million—more than half the population. Millions of workers have been plunged into the ranks of the unemployed, and whole branches of industry are threatened with ruin, leaving broad sections of the population, including parts of the petty bourgeoisie, staring into abject poverty. Women, and especially black women, are among the worst impacted. Meanwhile, the number of confirmed COVID-19 infections has in recent weeks resumed its exponential rise, as testing has increased and the lockdown has been relaxed.
Across the country, the desperate cry heard over and over is, “We’re not going to die from the coronavirus; we’re going to die from hunger!” Anticipating food riots and other unrest in the face of intensified social misery, the [President Cyril] Ramaphosa regime deployed the army and police to enforce the lockdown. They have imposed a reign of terror in the townships, urban ghettoes and shantytowns, targeting in particular the oppressed black and coloured masses along with immigrants from other parts of Africa and Asia. At least ten people have been killed, tens of thousands arrested, and hundreds viciously assaulted by cops and soldiers. Some 75,000 soldiers—practically the entire army—have been deployed in what is by far the largest mobilisation since the end of apartheid. We say: Army out of the streets, now! As shown most bloodily by the Marikana massacre of striking mineworkers in 2012, the police are the hired guns of the racist capitalist rulers and deadly enemies of the working class and oppressed.
With millions having little to no food, the capitalist media serve up toxic quantities of cynical bourgeois propaganda about “national unity.” The sickening hypocrisy about being “in this together” serves, as in every capitalist society, to dupe the oppressed by obscuring the irreconcilable conflict of interests between the bourgeois masters and their wage slaves. Meanwhile, the bosses do what is in the nature of their system, using the crisis to rip up union contracts, slash jobs, and steal vacation leave and benefits from workers sent home during the lockdown, while tightening the screws on health care workers and others working in essential industries. The bourgeoisie cynically applauds these workers as “our heroes,” while deploying its cops to brutally disperse their protests for basic needs like PPE.
“National unity” is a doubly mendacious lie in South Africa, which, contrary to official myth, is not a nation but a colonial-derived state composed of different peoples, ethnicities and tribal/language groups forcibly integrated into the same political economy. At every step, the pandemic in South Africa highlights the neo-apartheid character of the capitalist system in this country, which cannot be changed through reforms because it is woven into the very fabric of society. Capitalism in South Africa was founded upon the superexploitation of black labour, meaning that class exploitation has always been inextricably linked with national oppression of the black majority.
As was inevitable, the lockdown has exacerbated the suffering of the black masses as well as of the coloured and Indian toilers—just as any other response based on capitalist rule would have. It is the oppressed black and coloured populations who will also be worst hit as COVID-19 infections rise. Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, with high co-infection rates, are by far the leading causes of death in South Africa, killing over 100,000 people per year in recent years. These diseases kill black and coloured people in massively disproportionate numbers, with an age-adjusted death rate among black Africans 11 to 19 times the rate among whites between 2005 and 2012, while among coloured people it was 4 to 5 times that for whites.
Reflecting the bourgeois ANC/SACP/COSATU Tripartite Alliance government’s role as black frontmen for the Randlords and their imperialist big brothers, the neo-apartheid lockdown is enforced with methods used in the days of white minority rule. For example, the ban on alcohol and tobacco recalls laws the colonial and apartheid rulers made to subjugate the non-white masses. Those killed during the lockdown include Petrus Miggels, who the cops attacked with a hammer and abducted for the alleged “crime” of carrying a few bottles of wine to his home; and Collins Khosa, who was beaten to death in his home by soldiers who reportedly saw a cup containing alcohol in his yard.
We oppose these prohibition laws, which have nothing to do with public health and serve merely as pretexts for the army and police to terrorise the working class and oppressed. We likewise oppose the ban on “fake news” about COVID-19 (or what the government deems as such), warning that such powers of state censorship always end up being used against the workers movement and the left. Our position is not based on civil libertarian opposition to encroachments on individual freedoms in the interest of public health. For example, we do not at this time oppose the bans on personal travel in and out of the country, as well as between provinces, which have been in force since the lockdown started.
When the lockdown was pronounced, Ramaphosa had the full support of all the bourgeois parties—from right-wing, white racists like Freedom Front Plus and the Democratic Alliance to the bourgeois-populist Economic Freedom Fighters [EFF]. Exposing their pretences of being a “radical” opposition to the ANC that champions the landless black masses, the EFF has been one of the most vociferous supporters of state repression during the lockdown—even as the cops and soldiers join security guards to carry out mass evictions. The EFF even denounced the possibility of lifting the ban on alcohol sales, declaring in an 11 April statement, oozing with paternalistic contempt for the black masses, that to “give a nation that is supposed to adhere to strict isolation in their homes liquor...would be a recipe for disaster”!
Capitalism is a profoundly irrational system, under which production is determined not by any conscious plan—and certainly not the needs of the majority of humanity—but by the need to accumulate capital for the owners of industry and the banks. The system is based on nation-states with antagonistic interests, but the productive forces created by capitalism long ago outgrew the boundaries of these states. Imperialism, as V.I. Lenin explained, is that stage of capitalism characterised by the predominance of monopolies and finance capital economically, and politically by the division of the world amongst a handful of dominant imperialist powers that plunder the majority of the world’s peoples and engage in unceasing struggle over the redivision of the spoils. With regard to southern Africa, this means, for instance, that the mountains of finance capital heaped up, through more than a century of superexploitation of black labour in the gold, diamond and platinum mines, are parked mainly in the City of London and Wall Street.
Capitalist imperialism is fundamentally incapable of anything even approximating a rational response to this global pandemic and is plunging the world deeper into crisis. The only way out of this morass is the road of international proletarian revolution. As Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky explained:
“What is indispensable and urgent is to separate the means of production from their present parasitic owners and to organize society in accordance with a rational plan.…
“Partial reforms and patchwork will do no good. Historical development has come to one of those decisive stages when only the direct intervention of the masses is able to sweep away the reactionary obstructions and lay the foundations of a new régime.”
—Marxism in Our Time (1939)
Spartacist/South Africa fights, together with our comrades throughout the International Communist League, to build Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard parties as sections of a reforged Fourth International, world party of socialist revolution. From Jo’burg, to London, to Wall Street: Expropriate the bourgeoisie!
Imperialism and Its Frontmen
The Executive Director of the World Health Organisation (W.H.O.) congratulated the Ramaphosa government on its response to the pandemic, calling it “incredible” and hyping up “how African countries are in many ways showing the way.” The role of the W.H.O., like the United Nations as a whole, is to give a “democratic, humanitarian” cover for imperialist pillage of the semicolonial countries. With economists predicting that the GDPs of Nigeria, South Africa and Angola—which together constitute the majority of economic output in sub-Saharan Africa—could contract by 10 percent or more this year, the IMF and World Bank have swooped in to offer “support” in the “fight against COVID-19.”
Make no mistake: these citadels of imperialist finance capital “support” the semicolonies like a noose supports a hanged man. It is in the nature of the system that crises such as these serve to further the concentration of capital and exacerbate the misery caused by the pandemic. The current, dire, state of health care in these countries is itself a product of years of IMF-dictated “structural adjustment,” part of the perpetual economic rape of Africa which, along with countless military interventions, fomenting of communalist ethnic/tribal wars and economic sanctions, has kept the continent in a state of imperialist-imposed backwardness and poverty.
In this, the imperialist masters are duly assisted by their bourgeois-nationalist point men, who, as a matter of course, are assured of a private ward and a bed in hospitals in Europe and America when in need of medical attention. South Africa’s Randlords were already looking forward to the prospect of an IMF “bailout” before the coronavirus hit, as it suited their class interests to use the IMF as a battering ram against the combative black proletariat. Their frontmen in the Tripartite Alliance have done their best to oblige. The Ramaphosa regime was already squaring up for a showdown with the unions on numerous fronts, and it is now using the “national crisis” as a cover to launch these attacks, all the while deepening the country’s subordination to imperialist finance capital.
The role of the SACP [South African Communist Party] and COSATU [Congress of South African Trade Unions] tops has been particularly despicable, though not at all surprising given their many treacheries in the service of the Tripartite Alliance. After initially posturing as opponents of prostration to the World Bank and IMF, mouthing hypocritical rhetoric about “the need to safeguard South Africa’s democratic national sovereignty,” they quickly dropped even the pretence. In late April, the leaders of both organisations gave their official blessing to Ramaphosa to go grovel to these imperialist loan sharks, with COSATU’s general secretary declaring, “if the IMF is the best option...we are happy for the government to take the loan from the IMF.”
For decades, the SACP and COSATU leaders have betrayed the interests of their working-class base over and over, subordinating the working class to the bourgeois-nationalist ANC and chaining them to the racist capitalist exploiters through the Tripartite Alliance, a nationalist popular front. As theoretical justification for this treachery, they preach the myth of the “National Democratic Revolution” (NDR). The “NDR” is the South African variant of the Stalinist two-stage revolution schema, whereby the reformist misleaders shackle the working class to the “progressive” bourgeois forces during the so-called bourgeois-democratic stage while promising them that the second, socialist, stage will come “later.” The “two-stage theory” has shown itself over and over to be a bloody, treacherous lie, leading not to national liberation—and certainly not socialism—but to massacres of the working class. Now these reformists inform us that they are advancing the “national, democratic” cause...by shackling the country with debt to the imperialist IMF bloodsuckers!
Against the manifest bankruptcy of the “NDR” programme of class collaboration, we fight for the Trotskyist perspective of permanent revolution, which demands political independence of the working class from all wings of bourgeois nationalism. In South Africa, our call for a black-centred workers government expresses the understanding that the working-class struggle against capital is integrally bound up with the struggle for liberation of the overwhelmingly black African oppressed majority from white domination and that only a successful proletarian revolution can bring genuine liberation.
It is this programme that stands in the genuine communist tradition of Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks who led the October Revolution—not the Stalinist-derived reformism of the SACP and the like. While the SACP tops and the rest of the Tripartite Alliance frontmen have since 1994 put the screws on the mainly black proletariat in order to pay off the apartheid debt, the Bolsheviks told the British and French imperialists to voetsek [get lost] when they tried to collect on the tsarist debt. Like the Bolsheviks, a black-centred workers government in this country would repudiate the debt to the imperialist parasites as part of fighting like hell to link up with proletarian revolutions in the advanced capitalist countries.
Reformism, Poison to the Workers Movement
The leaders of the rival trade-union federation SAFTU and the metalworkers union NUMSA are happy to lambaste the SACP and COSATU tops over their blatant betrayals in upholding neo-apartheid capitalism. But they do this in the service of maintaining the threadbare credibility of the “NDR” sham. For many years, the NUMSA and SAFTU tops were loyal pillars of the bourgeois Tripartite Alliance, remaining so through the Marikana massacre and countless other betrayals, before exiting the Alliance and being expelled from COSATU in 2014. A constant refrain of theirs since then has been to plead with the SACP leaders to return to the “legacy” of Joe Slovo—a key broker in the early 1990s of the “negotiated settlement” with the white rulers that paved the way for the Tripartite Alliance to take over administering racist neo-apartheid!
With the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, the SAFTU bureaucrats have again shown the treachery of their class-collaborationist politics by pledging their support to Ramaphosa’s lockdown. Together with some of its pseudo-socialist left tails like Keep Left, SAFTU joined the popular front C19 People’s Coalition, uniting with imperialist-funded NGOs like Oxfam and bourgeois think tanks like the Heinrich Böll foundation of German imperialism’s Green Party, as well as the Nelson Mandela and Helen Suzman foundations. The C19 coalition promotes the lie of “national unity” in order to line up the working class and oppressed behind the Randlords and the neo-apartheid state, i.e., the very sources of social misery for the masses.
To make this palatable, they use the timeworn deception of preaching the lie that the bourgeois state could be the salvation of the workers, if only it would dispense “Bread, not Bullets.” Their real concern is to help the racist capitalist rulers avoid social unrest, as clearly expressed in a 24 March SAFTU statement that complained, “The state isn’t pulling its weight! The anti-viral lockdown is a social-distancing start—but fiscal stinginess and tight monetary policy risk a rebellion born of extreme desperation.” When Ramaphosa tossed a few meagre crumbs to the poor a few weeks later, SAFTU hailed the “key role of the state at a time of crisis.”
Contrary to this dangerous fairy tale, the capitalist state—which at its core consists of armed bodies of men like the police and army, together with courts, prisons, etc.—is an instrument for the oppression of the working class by the capitalist exploiters. The whole reason Ramaphosa deployed the army was to prepare for the possibility of crushing a “rebellion born of extreme desperation.” Workers must never forget Ramaphosa’s role in setting the August 2012 Marikana massacre in motion, when he demanded on behalf of the Lonmin board that [then President] Zuma and his ministers unleash “concomitant action” to crush the wildcat strike by Lonmin mineworkers fighting for a living wage.
The pseudo-Trotskyists of the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP) completely share the SAFTU tops’ reformist programme of prostrating the working class before the capitalist state. In a 24 April article, “Now is the Time for Revolution, not Reformism,” WASP engages in a lame “polemic” with some bourgeois academics from the C19 People’s Coalition, all in order to promote its own spin on the deadly illusion that the bourgeois state can be pressured to play a “benevolent” role toward the working class. “Marxists and the workers’ movement do petition state power,” WASP reassures us, “but ought to always do so by means of demands that point to the fact that the state is an organised enemy class, which can only be won over to pro-working class reforms by means of organized [sic] power of the working class and struggle, not by humility and false flattery.”
The social-democratic view that the capitalist state can be made to serve the interests of the workers—if only pressured enough, and ideally by electing a social-democratic majority to parliament—is a hallmark of WASP and its former cothinkers of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI, whose followers in South Africa are now called the Marxist Workers Party). WASP and the CWI are notorious for embracing the bourgeois cops (along with security guards and prison guards) as “workers in uniform.” The thoroughly anti-Marxist, reformist programme of the social democrats has time and again served to strangle the most promising revolutionary opportunities in history, while subordinating the working class to the state of its class enemy, weakening its class organisations and spreading political demoralisation.
The working class everywhere is under the gun with the COVID-19 crisis, but struggle against the bosses’ attacks has not ceased. There have been protests and wildcat strikes by workers in the food industry, health care workers and other essential workers. These workers—now joined by mineworkers and others in industries that are gradually returning to operation—are often forced to work without adequate PPE (some health care personnel have reported receiving just one protective mask every four days!); denied testing for COVID-19; and paid poverty wages, much of which they have to spend on transportation during the lockdown.
One such protest was called by the Young Nurses Indaba Trade Union and other SAFTU-affiliated unions, who picketed at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, and elsewhere, on May Day. In Soweto, their pickets were brutally dispersed by the cops. Health care workers protested the life-threatening conditions they’re forced to work under, raising demands for protective gear and testing, as well as safe accommodation, a danger allowance, provisions for safe transportation, insourcing of all outsourced workers and other things.
These just struggles and demands point to elementary measures needed to fight the virus and basic class interests of the workers. Marxists support these struggles, taking part in them in order to raise the consciousness among militant trade unionists of their connection to the overall class struggle against the bourgeoisie. This means sharply combatting the bourgeois lie of “national unity” as part of a broader political struggle against the reformist programmes of the sell-out leaders of COSATU and the SACP, as well as the NUMSA and SAFTU tops and their left tails. In particular, an uncompromising fight must be waged against the subordination of the trade unions to the bourgeois state. Both COSATU and SAFTU have police “unions” as affiliates, while NUMSA and other unions frequently organise security guards. It is suicidal to ally with the same people whose “job” it is to shoot you when you strike! We say: cops, security guards, prison guards out of the unions!
Marxists seek to broaden these struggles and link them up with those of other sections of the working class, and to mobilise the working class to champion the fight against all capitalist oppression. We raise, for example, the need to fight for union control of safety; for defence of squatters against evictions and police terror; for jobs for all through a shorter workweek to combat mass unemployment; and for a massive public works programme to build hospitals, schools, houses and other necessary infrastructure. In sharp counterposition to reformists like WASP, whose activity is all geared toward promoting the inviolability of the bourgeois state, we raise such transitional demands in order to advance the working class’s consciousness of the need to shatter the neo-apartheid capitalist state machinery and replace it with their own class dictatorship, a black-centred workers government. As Leon Trotsky explained in the Transitional Programme (1938): “If capitalism is incapable of satisfying the demands inevitably arising from the calamities generated by itself, then let it perish. ‘Realisability’ or ‘unrealisability’ is in the given instance a question of the relationship of forces, which can be decided only by the struggle. By means of this struggle, no matter what its immediate practical successes may be, the workers will best come to understand the necessity of liquidating capitalist slavery.”
For New October Revolutions!
Under capitalism, a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic means misery for the working masses, especially in the semicolonial world, no matter which way you slice it. But there are plenty of obvious and rational measures that the working class in power could begin implementing immediately to fight the threat to public health while also improving the social and economic conditions of life. The fundamental condition for all of this is the revolutionary expropriation of the bourgeoisie, which is our aim. A tiny hint of what’s possible can be seen in the response to COVID-19 by the Chinese deformed workers state, despite its bureaucratic rule.
Consider, for example, the massive overcrowding and lack of sanitation in the townships and squatter camps, which pose a catastrophic threat to public health. Under capitalism, the only “solutions” are things that cause just as much misery as the disease itself, and merely contain or slow the death toll—like state terror to force people back in their shacks, or “de-densification” schemes in which people are relocated to virtual concentration camps that are cut off from services and employment opportunities. But a black-centred workers government, basing itself on organs of working-class rule, would immediately seize the luxury estates, golf courses and mansions in the rich, sparsely populated, mainly white suburbs. These are in many cases just a short distance from the most densely settled, overwhelmingly black and coloured, townships and squatter camps. A portion of these dwellings could be used to resettle people in conditions where “social distancing” is actually possible, in order to limit the spread of the virus; while another portion could be used to set up isolation quarters where those who have contracted the virus can recuperate and receive care. For such a government, immediate measures like this would be part of a broader programme of expropriating the land that remains overwhelmingly in the hands of the white minority as part of the revolutionary expropriation of the bourgeoisie (see “The Land Question and Permanent Revolution,” SSA No. 16, February 2019).
A black-centred workers government would not refrain from taking measures to restrict individual freedoms in cases where these are necessary to contain a public health threat like COVID-19. However, such measures would be part of a systematic response based on collectivised means of production and a planned economy. A certain amount of shutdown of economic production in some branches of the economy would be unavoidable, on a temporary basis, in order to reduce social contact to a minimum and slow or stop the spread until a vaccine is available. But in contrast to capitalist anarchy, a workers state would be able to shift economic activity, mobilising more economic resources of society for those branches of industry needed to address the pandemic—things like providing health care, childcare and shelter; constructing and upgrading hospitals; mass production of ventilators, test kits and protective equipment; food distribution; and the development and testing of a vaccine and antiviral treatment.
Beyond these immediate measures, what’s needed are quality living conditions with enough space for all the residents, adequate sanitation, food delivery, etc. A black-centred workers government would make a start with socialist construction, to develop the productive forces and tap into the mass of human potential that is currently squandered in order to bring about social and economic modernisation. In a socialist federation of southern Africa, united on a voluntary basis, there will be an equal place for all the myriad peoples of the region.
Ultimately, this entire perspective depends on extension of the revolution to the proletariat of the imperialist centres, who under revolutionary leadership will be a powerful ally to the workers and oppressed toilers of this region. Our model is the revolutionary internationalism of Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolshevik Party, who led the working class to take and hold state power for the first time with the 1917 October Revolution. They saw the Russian Revolution as the spark for proletarian revolutions in the advanced capitalist countries, and they linked this to the fight for national liberation of the peoples suffering under the yoke of imperialism and colonialism. Today, as then, to reject capitalist barbarism means fighting for proletarian revolution to uproot the imperialist system and establish a planned, socialist economy on a world scale. For new October Revolutions, worldwide!