The fight against apartheid 10 years after: Why South Africa is still unequal

Submitted by Anon on 16 April, 2004 - 8:17

On 27 April 2004, Freedom Day, South Africans will celebrate the anniversary of the elections of 26-29 April 1994, and 10 years of "majority rule". On 14 April 2004 they will go to the polls to elect their third government since apartheid ended. In this article Vicki Morris looks at the history of apartheid and how it was defeated. In the next issue of Solidarity she will consider apartheid's baleful legacy.
Ten years ago, the world marvelled at the queues of South Africa's black population going to vote for the first time. Four years earlier the world had watched amazed as Nelson Mandela walked from 27 years of imprisonment to freedom, the clearest sign of the beginning of the end of apartheid.

Between Mandela's release and the first democratic elections in South Africa there were still four years of uncertainty and violence. But even in 1990, the unbanning of the ANC and other anti-apartheid organisations, and the fact that the apartheid government was prepared to negotiate changes to their system, marked an historic about-turn.

It was a stirring time but were we over-sentimental then? Unlikely as it at first sounds, a cynic could reasonably argue that the history of South Africa proves the adage "if voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal". Apartheid was not simply about denying basic democracy - one person, one vote - but a whole system of keeping the majority down, serving the interests of the tiny white minority. Has a lot changed in 10 years?

South Africa is five times the size of the UK. Its population in 1996 was 43 million. Life expectancy is 46.5 years. The population growth rate is 0.01%; AIDS is devastating the country, which has a 20% HIV infection rate.

Despite its great resources, today South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world. The 1996 census suggests that the poorest 40% of the population earn about 3.8% of the country's income while the richest 10% earn about 52%. The income gap in South Africa has widened since 1994.

Despite the elevation to the middle and ruling class now of a small number of black people, the economic system in South Africa today remains much what it was before 1994: "racial capitalism".

What was apartheid?

Apartheid - an Afrikaans word meaning "apartness" - was the name given to a system which the government that introduced it lyingly liked to call "separate development". In fact, no development at all was intended for the black majority, only vicious exploitation or neglect.

Apartheid was a codification and extension of existing racist legislation. It was introduced after the ultra-racist Afrikaner nationalist party, the National Party, unexpectedly won the 1948 general election.

Pre-1948 legislation already included:

  • 1913: Land Act prevented Africans buying, renting or using most of the land. The effect was land hunger, poverty and starvation for Africans, and a supply of cheap labour for the expanding diamond and gold mines, and for white-owned farms. It is this and subsequent use of racist laws to control black Africans as workers that gives credibility to the explanation of apartheid as "racial capitalism".
  • 1923: South Africa divided into "prescribed" (urban) and "non-prescribed" (rural) areas. The movement of black men between them was controlled. Black men had to carry pass books giving personal details and showing where they lived.

After 1948 new laws were added:

  • Throughout the 1950s the government, against fierce resistance, forced black women also to carry pass books.
  • 1950s: classification of the population into races: "whites" (13%), "Africans" (77%), "coloureds" (8%), "Asians" (2%).
  • 1950: strict residential segregation. Black people could work in white areas with permission, but hardly ever lived there unless they were servants. Movement into white areas - "influx" - was strictly controlled. Black people could live in the designated rural areas and in impoverished townships around the cities. Male workers coming from far afield, for example, to work in the gold mines, lived in stark hostels.
  • 1953: division of public facilities and transport into those for "Europeans Only" and "Non-Europeans Only".
  • 1959: creation of "homelands" - generally, neglected rural backwaters - for each of the officially recognised African groups, with a degree of self-rule but often under a more or less puppet ruler. By this means the government hoped to divide and rule the African majority. At various times the regime fostered inter-ethnic rivalries, for example, in the 1980s, stirring Zulu people in KwaZulu Natal murderously against the ANC, whose leadership is predominantly Xhosa.
  • 1970: the Bantu [apartheid term for black African] Homelands Citizens Act compelled all Africans to become a citizen of the homeland for their ethnic group, regardless of whether they'd ever lived there, and removed their South African citizenship.

The system of apartheid laws was enforced and maintained by a viciously racist police force; as time went on, increasingly by the racist armed forces; by a racist civil service; a white judiciary; an unfree press; and so on.

The rainbow opposition to apartheid, the ANC

The biggest opposition movement was the African National Congress (ANC). It had been a quietist organisation through its early decades, eschewing violence or even illegal activity. Nelson Mandela and others formed the ANC Youth League in 1944 to stir the organisation to greater activity.

The ANC was initially suspicious of organisations of Coloured and Indian people, who enjoyed small privileges over Africans, but became convinced that they - and even white organisations - could be allies in the battle against racism, then against apartheid.

The ANC became a big tent for different groups opposing apartheid, but it was not always obvious that it would dominate.

The Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA)

A Stalinist organisation, the CPSA subscribed to the two-stage theory of how to achieve socialism in the colonial world: first, communists must fight for freedom from the imperialist power, in alliance with, often subordinate to, "progressive" forces of whatever class; second, once national liberation had been achieved, the struggle for socialism might begin. They never got to the 'socialist' stage. Since their vision of 'socialism' was Stalinist, that is a good thing.

The Communist Party thus aligned itself with the ANC and, in the 1950s, won control of it. Initially the ANC was hostile to the Communist Party, and sections of it were always so. Some broke away and in 1959 formed the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC).

Anti-apartheid leads to socialism?

In part the ANC's aspirations encompassed those of working-class South Africans, and of poor South Africans who would simply like to have a job, at the same time as they encompassed those of a would-be black bourgeoisie who looked forward to enriching themselves through other people's labour just as soon as they had the freedom to do so.

The Freedom Charter* was drafted in 1955 by the ANC, South African Indian Congress, South African Coloured People's Organization and the white organisation, the Congress of Democrats, after countrywide consultation. The most common demand was one-person-one-vote. The Charter was adopted by the 25-26 June 1955 Congress of the People.

The document pledged to fight for: democracy; political and legal equality; nationalisation of "the mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry…all other industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the well-being of the people; "The Land Shall be Shared Among Those Who Work It!"; an ethical foreign policy.

It saw a big role for the state, the representative of "all the people", which will guarantee or provide: funding for agricultural improvements; every child and many adults a good education; "decent" housing; free healthcare; benefits for those who cannot work. There would be freedom of movement, and rights for citizens against all that might be repressive about the state.

One section promised: "There Shall be Work and Security! All who work shall be free to form trade unions, to elect their officers and to make wage agreements with their employers; The state shall recognise the right and duty of all to work, and to draw full unemployment benefits;

"Men and women of all races shall receive equal pay for equal work;

"There shall be a forty-hour working week, a national minimum wage, paid annual leave, and sick leave for all workers, and maternity leave on full pay for all working mothers;

"Miners, domestic workers, farm workers and civil servants shall have the same rights as all others who work;

"Child labour, compound labour, the tot system and contract labour shall be abolished."

The Charter did not talk about socialism or capitalism, about replacing capitalism with socialism, but it did promise radical change, and in the 1960s and 70s it was widely promoted as effectively socialist.

In 1950 the government had introduced the Suppression of Communism Act, banning movements that followed the teachings of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky - and used it to harass many that did not, including the ANC!

The CPSA dissolved itself and reformed in secret in 1953 as the South African Communist Party (SACP). It emerged publicly after Sharpeville.

On 21 March 1960 in Sharpeville, 69 people protesting against the pass laws were shot dead by the police. A big strike wave followed. On 30 March the government at last banned the ANC and the PAC. Seeing that the anti-apartheid movement could no longer afford to eschew violence against its foe, the ANC resolved to form an armed wing, which it named uMkhonto weSizwe (The Spear of the Nation), MK for short.

The ANC's description of what followed is:

"In 18 months MK carried out 200 acts of sabotage. But the underground organisation was no match for the regime, which began to use even harsher methods of repression. Laws were passed to make death the penalty for sabotage and to allow police to detain people for 90 days without trial. In 1963, police raided the secret headquarters of MK, arresting the leadership. This led to the Rivonia Trial where the leaders of MK were charged with attempting to cause a violent revolution." One of the leaders was Nelson Mandela, given a life sentence.

"Some ANC leaders - among them Oliver Tambo and Joe Slovo - avoided arrest and left the country. Other ANC members left to undergo military training. …the underground structures of the ANC in the country were all but destroyed."

South African capitalism boomed in the 1960s, and for a while apartheid looked secure and stable.

The ANC's strategy became increasingly based on diplomacy. It maintained a political and military apparatus in exile, with subsidies from various governments, and based itself on the rise of independent states elsewhere in Africa, and the civil rights movement in the USA to boycott or "isolate apartheid".

The fall of white rule in Portugal's African colonies, Angola and Mozambique, in 1974, and in Zimbabwe in 1980, helped it.

Its numbers were boosted in the late 1970s by youth fleeing repression in the wake of the school students' strikes of 1976.

In 1976 President Vorster announced that black school students would have to study some subjects in the widely hated Afrikaans language.

On 16 June police fired on a peaceful protest by Soweto pupils, killing at least three. Students across the country responded with angry protests that were met by more police violence. At the end of a week, 1,000 people had died.

Organisations of angry young people, and increasingly militant trade unions boosted the anti-apartheid struggle in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

By the mid-80s the ANC was calling for the opponents of apartheid to make the townships where many Africans lived "ungovernable". They proposed non-cooperation with the township authorities established by apartheid, and the setting up of "people's committees", "people's courts", "people's defence militias" - "people's power", in short - parallel to the apartheid state. A condition of dual power in the country was hinted at, although that situation had by no means been reached.

Actually the "ungovernability" strategy served to marginalise the organised black working class. Black trade unionists were scarcely less at risk of being "necklaced" - killed with burning tyres around their necks - than genuine stooges of the white regime.

It pushed the government into doing a deal with the established opposition - the ANC, with its stable political machine in exile - and made it difficult for any constructive, self-organised alternative to emerge from below. "Ungovernability" was also "unlivability" in the townships.

The independent trade union movement

In 1973 the new black industrial working class developed in the 1960s had burst onto the scene with a great strike wave based around Durban.

"…A fresh impetus to the organization of African workers was given through the establishment of a number of new industrial unions (sometimes referred to as 'independent unions,' to distinguish them from older unions linked to one of the existing conservative union federations), mostly in the Durban region, under the tutelage of a small core of white intellectuals and former union officials.

"After a series of mergers and realignments, these unions coalesced into two main federations by the mid-1980s - the non-racial Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU) and the very much smaller black consciousness (later Africanist) National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU)."**

The new unions' political thinking was anti-Stalinist, socialist and militant. They aimed at bolstering the political independence of the working class from other opponents of apartheid, they organised workers to fight within the anti-apartheid struggle for its own goals against the capitalists.

At first the CP and the ANC denounced the new unions as "yellow unions" because they negotiated with bosses and the government. Some union leaders talked of founding a workers' party as an alternative to the ANC. But they were slow to move. The CP changed tack. By the late 1980s it had won hegemony in the new union federation COSATU.

Why did apartheid end?

The tremendous battle waged against apartheid provided a strong push factor to get rid of apartheid, but there were also factors pulling on South Africa's capitalist rulers and persuading them that apartheid was an increasingly inefficient system for making profits.

By the 1980s the economy was stagnating; the townships were in revolt and the black trade unions becoming more militant; although the economic sanctions against South Africa demanded by the ANC since the early 1960s were always applied patchily, shortages developed of some materials that the economy and the apartheid state needed in order to function; there were shortages of skilled labour, because education for black people was so poor.

The cost of administering apartheid, and dealing with the insurgency was very high.

South Africa was becoming a pariah even among the world's capitalists - more because it was less profitable than for any moral reasons. The ex-colonial world now offered plenty of other cheap-labour sites with good infrastructure for the multinationals to move to. At the same time, world trade was becoming freer, and capital flows greater. The greedy big bourgeoisie of South Africa feared they would miss the neoliberal boat. Their old, semi-autarkic strategy was no longer workable.

Moreover, the apartheid regime was in secret negotiations - secret even from other members of the ANC - with Nelson Mandela from 1985 and clearly negotiations were reinforcing the ANC's realism. Trevor Ngwane, one-time ANC member, now a leader of the Anti Privatisation Forum and hostile to the ANC government, describes the period:

"…there was opposition to the direction the negotiations were taking. Mandela used his gigantic stature to contain it. In January 1990 he'd announced - in the note smuggled out from Pollsmoor Prison - that nationalisation continued to be the policy of the ANC; 'growth through redistribution' was the line. By September 93 he was touring Western capitals with the National Party Finance Minister, Derek Keys, speaking at the UN, pleading for foreign investment and guaranteeing the repatriation of profits and capital-protection measures." ("Sparks in the Township", New Left Review 22, July-August 2003)

The fall of Stalinism in Europe in 1989-91 was central here. What the leaders had seen as "socialism" collapsed. Their political machine did not collapse. But their political vision did - into a vision of a new South Africa changed by legal reforms, but with no social equality, and constructed in alliance with the IMF.

Many former leaders of the independent trade unions joined them in this rush to neo-liberalism.

South Africa no longer faced the "communist threat" that had solidified the ranks of white South Africa's elite and brought it some international support.

The National Party came to believe they could manage the end of apartheid, even preserve aspects of it. They could certainly preserve capitalism.

Can we then celebrate on 27 April, Freedom Day? Are all South Africans now free from worry about poverty, violence, ignorance and disease? Are they even free from police harassment, state intrusion and racial discrimination? Of course, the answer is no.

So celebrations of the achievement that majority rule, one person, one vote, represents, must be mixed with the resolve to help South African workers use this achievement to push on and achieve real economic and social freedom for the black majority, not just a few.

* View the Freedom Charter and the Workers' Charter adopted by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) in 1987 here

** Geoffrey Wood, "South African Trade Unions in a Time of Adjustment," Labour/Le Travail Spring 2001 (4 Apr. 2004)

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