Smash Apartheid! Workers to Power!

South Africa’s bloody apartheid regime is staggering from a year and a half of massive upheavals by a disenfranchised black majority determined to end the white monopoly on economic and political power. The Botha regime has responded with a tiny carrot of insignificant ‘‘concessions’’ (intended primarily as a sop to foreign public opinion) and a very big stick. Over a thousand people, many of them children, have been brutally gunned down by the racist state in its unsuccessful attempts to quell the continuing protests.

The stakes are high for both the white rulers and the desperately oppressed black masses, but the outcome of the struggle will also have vast repercussions far beyond the borders of the apartheid state. The white supremacist regime in Pretoria is an integral component of what purports to be the ‘‘Free World.’’ South African capitalism supplies the West with a variety of strategic minerals. It also acts as a regional imperialist gendarme and guards the vital sealanes to the Middle East. The prospect of unending turmoil and the discernible spectre of socialist revolution in the industrial powerhouse of Africa has compelled many of the leaders of the imperialist world to condemn the Botha regime’s short-sighted refusal to act in its own best interests by ‘‘liberalizing’’ apartheid.

A substantial section of the South African capitalist class shares this criticism. They are frantically searching for a formula which will enable them to continue to super-exploit black labor with the political consent of significant sections of the Indian, Coloured and African populations (collectively called ‘‘blacks’’ by anti-apartheid activists in South Africa). But the insurmountable difficulties of ‘‘normalizing’’ bourgeois rule in South Africa today (i.e., of establishing a society in which the exploited and oppressed routinely vote for their own oppression as they do in most of the rest of the imperialist world) originate in the peculiar structure and development of South African capitalism.

The Roots of Apartheid

Apartheid—a system of legislated racial oppression—grew out of the requirements of British mining interests at the end of the last century. After grabbing the land of the indigenous African population (thereby destroying the basis of their pastoral, pre-capitalist economy) the colonialists consigned them to the role of migrant laborers hired only for short-term contracts and forbidden to settle in the vicinity of their jobs.

Administered by a complicated system of pass laws, these measures were designed to create a massive low-wage, socially atomized and politically disenfranchised labor force. Cecil Rhodes, prime minister of Britain’s Cape Colony in the 1890s, was quite blunt about the intent of the pass laws: ‘‘Either you have to receive them [African workers] on an equal footing as citizens or you call them a subject race. I have made up my mind that there must be class legislation, that there must be pass laws’’ (quoted in Southern Africa after Soweto, A. Callinicos, J. Rogers, 1977).

For decades apartheid proved to be an extremely profitable arrangement for South African capital. The white working class was converted into a super-privileged labor aristocracy, guaranteed a monopoly of skilled jobs and bribed by an artificially high standard of living at the expense of black labor. But the enormous expansion of the South African economy in the 1960s undermined the foundations of apartheid. White capital is today dependent on the labor of its six million black workers. The migrant labor system has become an impediment to the continued expansion of South African industry which requires a stable, skilled workforce.

This poses a profound contradiction for the South African ruling class. Historically they (and their international investors) have paid only a fraction of the labor costs of their competitors. Their rate of return on invested capital has been proportionally higher—even after deducting the military and administrative costs of running a police state. This differential represents the ‘‘secret’’ of the vitality and dynamism of South African capitalism. The rulers of this bestial system, who have profited from it for generations, are determined to retain their competitive advantage and are adamantly opposed to granting real equality to the black population. But they are deeply divided over how to best protect their privileged position.

Faced with the danger of losing everything, the liberal wing of the white ruling class is willing to put a few Bishop Tutus in the cabinet and get rid of the most flagrantly racist legislation. Even the ultra-reactionary Afrikaner secret society, the Broederbond, concluded in a 1982 study that ‘‘Because of the position of power that has been achieved by the Afrikaner since 1948...‘legalized discrimination’ is no longer necessary’’ (Toronto Globe and Mail, 12 May 1982). This is ‘‘reform’’ South African-style: apartheid de facto instead of de jure.

The big shareholders of the Johannesburg stock exchange are all too aware that the black population feels little commitment to the protection of the wealth accumulated by generations of apartheid slavery. Consequently, the corporate liberals are not proposing to enfranchise their victims. The most the ‘‘reformers’’ contemplate is some form of racial federalism in which the white ruling class would retain effective control. In the words of Gavin Relly, chairman of the Anglo American Corporation (South Africa’s biggest conglomerate) and probably the preeminent bourgeois ‘‘reformer’’: ‘‘I’m not in favor of one-man, one-vote in South Africa....It would be simply a formula for unadulterated chaos’’ (New York Times, 18 November 1985). Establishing a regime based on the democratic principle of ‘‘one-person, one-vote’’ means breaking the power of both the fanatical Afrikaners of the veld and the sophisticated liberals of the boardrooms. Apartheid cannot be peacefully dismantled—it must be smashed!

The willingness of sectors of the South African ruling class to conduct exploratory negotiations with the African National Congress (ANC) shows just how deeply their confidence has been shaken by the struggles of the last year and the resultant flight of foreign capital. The ANC’s historic commitment to sharing power with the white ruling class, its deliberate refusal to put forward a socialist program despite the leftist verbiage of its leadership and its historic connection to the South African Communist Party (SACP), allows a section of the white bourgeoisie to consider the ANC as a possible last-ditch savior for South African capitalism. It is conceivable that the ANC could end up presiding over a South African popular front although the rabid hostility of the white laager and the pressure of the insurgent black masses—particularly the black proletariat—make such an outcome unlikely.

The hardliners among the white rulers are more inclined to ‘‘resolving’’ the current crisis by drowning the black rebellion in the blood of tens of thousands of martyrs. New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis observed on 21 October 1985 that: ‘‘President Botha and his Government have decided that it is no use trying to mollify discontent at home and criticism abroad with more talk of ‘reform.’ Instead they are going back to the historic strategy: beating the blacks into submission.’’ Pretoria’s officer corps consists largely of Afrikaner fanatics who actually believe their insane Christian/masterrace ideology, and who are quite prepared to carry out a genocidal ‘‘scorched earth’’ policy in the black townships. Given the virtual monopoly of the means of violence in the hands of the state, the black population would currently be unable to effectively resist. There are enormous overheads associated with such a ‘‘resolution’’ for South African capitalism, but it remains an option for Botha.

Black Workers Revolution—The Only Road

South African capitalism provides a powerful vindication of Leon Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution: in the modern era the capitalist class has no historically progressive role to play anywhere on the planet, and the most elementary tasks of the bourgeois revolution can only be solved by the proletariat as part of its struggle for social emancipation. Racial exploitation is inextricably fused with the entire structure of South African capitalism.

The current struggle to end apartheid verges on civil war, which the more far-sighted South African capitalists seek desperately to avert. In the 20th century such a conflict inevitably poses the question of which class shall rule—the question of ‘‘amandla’’ (power).

There are six million black workers in South Africa, and 700,000 of them are organized in independent black unions. This is where the social power to overturn apartheid lies—in the black proletariat on which the entire South African economy depends. Black workers wrested the right to unionize and to strike from a government which formerly banned black unions. While facing murderous repression these unions continue to grow and to lead economic and political strikes of tens of thousands of workers. The black proletariat has both the social weight and cohesion to organize production and run society on the basis of democractic workers councils. When black toilers rise against their exploiters, it must not be to put Tutu or any of the other pro-capitalist black ‘‘moderates’’ in the saddle, and not for a ‘‘Zimbabwean solution,’’ but rather to break the chains of apartheid once and for all by establishing their own class rule.

What’s Wrong with the Divestment Strategy

In South Africa those seeking a multi-class alliance to pressure for ‘‘reformed’’ apartheid clash inevitably with those who instinctively recognize that racial oppression can only be ended by uprooting the entire social system which produces it. The anti-apartheid movement abroad mirrors the same division. Those who attempt to pressure the banks, the corporations and the universities to divest their South African holdings appeal to the ‘‘morality’’ of an immoral social stratum—the big capitalists—which enriches itself from the blood-money sweated out of the victims of apartheid. The divestment strategy obscures the key question of class interest.

It is virtually impossible to seal off any particular sector of the international capitalist economy from the rest. For instance, if a university divests its stocks in all companies with South African holdings and refuses to deal with banks with outstanding loans to South Africa, it will still have its money in banks or trust funds which make loans and buy shares in Ford, Kodak, IBM, Johnson & Johnson or any of the hundreds of other multinationals which do have South African operations.

The divestment strategy appeals to students and others who see themselves as having little direct power to affect social change because it appears to present a means of actually doing something against apartheid. We respect the subjective impulses of the thousands of students at Berkeley, Columbia and dozens of other campuses who engaged in militant protests last spring in an attempt to force their universities to divest South African holdings. We joined the demonstrations at Berkeley despite our criticisms of divestment because the mass pickets effectively posed a referendum on apartheid.

Liberal politicians and union bureaucrats push divestment as a cheap way to refurbish their credentials as ‘‘progressives.’’ It obligates them to nothing. The divestment demand reinforces the notion that those who seek to end apartheid can find friends in the corporate board-rooms and among Botha’s imperialist allies. This is why it is promoted by every reformist ‘‘socialist’’ outfit from the Communist Party to Workers World—because it fits their strategy of class collaboration.

The bourgeoisie meanwhile has been divesting on its own terms, in response to the power of the black masses. The continuing wave of rebellion, the emergence of the black labor movement as a potential contender for power and the extent to which young militants have succeeded in making the ‘‘locations’’ ungovernable have led to a massive outflow of capital in recent months and to a reluctance by the international financial community to extend further short-term credits. This ‘‘divestment’’ is governed by the same laws as the earlier investment—it occurs because ‘‘the average return on foreign investment in South Africa has slid from 20% at the start of the decade to 5% today’’ (Business Week, 23 September 1985). Divestment is a strategy which can’t work in the long run because it ignores one of the fundamental laws of the international capital market—money abhors a (profitable) vacuum. Whenever there is money to be made by investing in South Africa, the capital will be forthcoming.

For Labor Strikes Against Apartheid Terror!

The corporations and the coupon-clippers have a vested interest in the restablization of the rule of the apartheid exploiters. The international labor movement has exactly the opposite interest. It is urgently necessary that class-conscious trade unionists around the world take up the defense of their embattled brothers and sisters in South Africa through militant labor actions against apartheid.

In the fall of 1984 Howard Keylor, a longshore militant in San Francisco and a supporter of the Bolshevik Tendency, put this class-struggle perspective into action. He put up a motion (which passed in an amended form) that his union boycott the next ship arriving in San Francisco with South African cargo aboard. For ten days, beginning on 24 November 1984, hundreds of San Francisco longshoremen defied the companies and their arbitrators and refused to touch the blood-stained cargo aboard the Nedlloyd Kimberley, despite the highly ambivalent attitude of the local union bureaucrats.

This bold action electrified anti-apartheid activists throughout the Bay Area. Hundreds of people turned out at the pier in support. A wide variety of black organizations, community groups and even several black Democratic Party congressmen endorsed the boycott. Most of the Bay Area left and labor movement (with the significant exception of the Spartacist League, which tried to wreck the action out of petty organizational sectarianism) applauded the initiative of the militant dockers. On the eleventh day the waterfront bosses, armed with a federal injunction and backed by the San Francisco cops, finally got the South African cargo unloaded. In this they were aided by the union bureaucrats who voted to knuckle under without a fight. Still, the S.F. longshoremen’s strike against apartheid stands as a tremendous example of the possibility of effective working-class solidarity with the oppressed black masses of Botha’s racist state.

In recent months workers in Britain and Australia have also taken limited labor actions against apartheid. Such actions are important not only because of the material damage which they inflict, but also because they represent the class answer to the terror of the ‘‘free world’’ racists and their international allies. The outlawed South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), which is controlled by the ANC, has called for an international labor boycott of South African goods. Workers in all unions affected by the SACTU call should fight to implement such an embargo. Students should seek to forge links with militants in these unions by trying to address union meetings, leafletting plant gates, etc. International labor solidarity can strike a powerful blow against the apartheid regime. The strategy of militant class struggle is starkly counterposed to the reformist approach of appealing to the ‘‘conscience’’ of Botha’s friends in the Fortune 500.

The ‘White Question’

A key strategic question black workers in South Africa confront in their struggle for power is the ‘‘white question.’’ In North America ‘‘white supremacy’’ is primarily a form of false consciousness with which the master class deludes white workers into imagining that the racist oppression of blacks is somehow in their interests. In South Africa however, the white population as a whole has substantially benefitted from over a century of white supremacy in a direct material fashion. Whites are the object of considerable generalized hatred by the oppressed black masses. Nonetheless a revolutionary leadership of black workers would seek to ensure that the social polarization which must accompany the struggle for power occurs as much as possible along class lines—not racial or national ones.

A workers state in South Africa must necessarily be blackcentered but it must also be non-racialist, with a place for all regardless of color. This is not only in keeping with the Marxist precept of opposition to notions of the ‘‘collective guilt’’ of any people (including oppressor peoples), but it is also important for the future development of a South African workers state, as the white population represents a potentially valuable reservoir of technical capacity which must be utilized to the maximum in the construction of a collectivized economy. A revolutionary party must seek to demonstrate to the privileged white working class that a black-centered workers government would not seek to deprive them of their lives, the chance to earn a decent living nor even their right to participate in the political life of the country.

At this point it would be virtually impossible for the black workers to militarily defeat the forces of the apartheid state without first winning a fraction of active collaborators among the whites and politically neutralizing a larger section of that population. Otherwise the overwhelming technical/military superiority of the white minority will guarantee their capacity to inflict devastating losses on the insurgent blacks.

Historically there has been an element of serious antiracist fighters among South African whites, from the cadres of the South African Communist Party to Neil Aggett, a white organizer for a black union who was brutally murdered by Botha’s cops in 1982. As militant opposition to apartheid has increased, there are indications of growing resistance among young whites to Botha’s strategy of repression. According to the ‘‘End Conscription Campaign,’’ draft-dodging was up from 3,000 to 7,500 in 1985 (Observer News Service, 18 July 1985). While still a small minority, this sentiment represents something of potentially great strategic importance for the future. The demonstrations of white South African college students opposed to apartheid also suggests that there are opportunities for a serious revolutionary leadership to recruit a layer of whites willing to throw in their lot with the black workers.

As there are whites opposed to apartheid, so there are black collaborators. A number of black police and informers have recently received their just desserts at the hands of angry crowds. In addition, the murderous attacks launched by the Zulu tribalist Inkatha thugs of Gatsha Buthelezi, chief minister of the KwaZulu bantustan, on funeral processions of the United Democratic Front (UDF) as well as on Indians in Durban last August, underlines the necessity of a class, rather than a national, racial or tribal axis to the struggle against apartheid. One’s politics, even in South Africa, cannot be automatically deduced from the color of one’s skin.

The ‘Russian Question’ and South Africa

The Soviet Union occupies an ambiguous position in the South African struggle. It is the number one target of international capitalism and the ‘‘free world’’ apartheid state is fanatically anti-communist. Over the years the Soviet Union has been the main supplier of arms to the ANC’s guerrillas. In November 1975 Soviet-supported Cuban troops aided the Angolans in smashing a CIA/South African armored column driving towards Luanda in a bid to overthrow the MPLA ‘‘People’s Republic.’’ That defeat for the vaunted apartheid military is widely regarded as an important factor in sparking the black rebellion which broke out in Soweto seven months later.

The Soviet Union has degenerated a long way from its early years under Lenin and Trotsky when it promoted revolution around the world. The bureaucracy which came to power with Stalin is primarily concerned with maintaining its own privileged status through ‘‘peaceful coexistence’’ with imperialism. As a degenerated workers state, the USSR has no intrinsic need to exploit Africa through the export of capital, but the ruling bureaucrats still play power politics in accordance with their narrow nationalist interests. Thus they turn support to leftist movements and national liberation struggles on and off at will.

Many of the radical black youth and rebellious workers in Botha’s racist hell-hole spontaneously identify with the banned SACP and defiantly hold high the flag of the USSR at funeral processions. Unfortunately this identification is tragically misplaced. The SACP and the ANC (in which the former has considerable influence) seek a partnership with the tiny black capitalist stratum and the ‘‘progressive’’ wing of the white bourgeoisie to institute a ‘‘democratic’’ capitalist South Africa. In keeping with this reformist perspective, the ANC, operating through the UDF, welcomed Teddy Kennedy’s visit in January 1985, seeing this cynical imperialist politician as an ally in the struggle.

The ANC’s more militant competitor, the avowedly socialist Azanian People’s Organization (AZAPO), spearheaded a series of protests against Kennedy’s trip, which it labelled a ‘‘CIA-sponsored whitewash.’’ Pointing out that Kennedy’s visit was entirely paid for by the U.S. government, AZAPO concluded: ‘‘So much for differences between Reaganism and the Democratic Party’’ (Frank Talk, No.6). Yet AZAPO’s black-nationalist ideology (what it calls a ‘‘race-class analysis’’) means that it generally refrains from criticizing black misleaders from Democrat Jesse Jackson to Gatsha Buthelezi. Frank Talk also defends anti-Semitic black demagogue Louis Farrakhan and openly identifies with ‘‘revolutionary’’ African bonapartists like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Egypt’s Gamal Nasser. At the same time, AZAPO, as a matter of principle, refuses to admit whites, regardless of their beliefs and activities. Clearly its ‘‘race-class analysis’’ is heavily weighted toward ‘‘race.’’

For South African Trotskyism!

Today in South Africa there are literally millions of heroic militants who are willing to lay down their lives in the struggle to smash apartheid. This is a necessary precondition for victory—but it is not sufficient. The key to success lies in the ‘‘conscious factor’’—a revolutionary leadership capable of utilizing the myriad contradictions of this profoundly sick society to bring apartheid crashing to the ground, thereby breaking one of the key links in the chain of imperialist oppression and opening the road to social liberation for all the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa.

It is urgently necessary to assemble a nucleus of militants who have assimilated the painfully acquired experience of the international proletariat in its century-and-a-half struggle for liberation. A revolutionary party of the South African masses must be modelled on the only working class organization ever to successfully shatter the rule of the capitalists—the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky. There is no other road.

—adapted from a Bolshevik Tendency leaflet, October 1985

Published: 1917 No.1 (Winter 1986)