The following document was adopted by the Eighth National Conference of Spartacist/South Africa.
Today, after almost three decades of ANC-administered neo-apartheid, it is clear to advanced workers and broad sections of society that the struggle for black liberation was cruelly betrayed by the Tripartite Alliance tops. The land remains in the hands of the white minority. Millions of black people are still trapped in the desolate former bantustans, where black women in particular suffer hideous poverty and oppression. Racial oppression, superexploitation of black labour, mass unemployment, deindustrialisation and lack of services for the urban and rural poor all persist and have in many ways gotten worse.
This is widely recognised and rightly seen as proof that the negotiated settlement ending apartheid did not touch the roots of black oppression and white domination. The real question is why: how could the anti-apartheid struggle end with such a thorough betrayal of the oppressed masses’ aspirations for national and social liberation? Without a correct answer, it is impossible to put forward a clear programme of struggle today to advance the interests of the proletariat and the oppressed. But it is precisely on this question that confusion and disorientation reign among the left and the workers movement. The common explanations are utterly superficial and unconvincing, focused on the individuals who represented the ANC at the CODESA talks, particular paragraphs of the Constitution and other such distractions.
This incapacity to explain the causes of the neo-apartheid betrayal is directly tied to the alternatives offered today to the now-hated ANC. The main left-wing party opposing the ANC, the EFF, resurrects the radical populism that defined the ANC at the peak of the anti-apartheid struggle, claiming that this is the way to fight for the economic liberation of the black majority that was sold out to white monopoly capital at CODESA. In the labour movement, prominent opponents of the Tripartite Alliance such as NUMSA’s Irvin Jim tell advanced workers that the answer to the SACP tops’ wretched betrayals is to build a party modelled on...the SACP of the 1980s! Their opponents within SAFTU counterpose to a resurrected SACP some variant of the programme of workerism that dominated the black trade unions from the 1970s until the early 1980s.
What all of these purported solutions have in common is that they are premised on maintaining the political hegemony of the petty-bourgeois nationalists over the liberation struggle. No fundamental explanation of the betrayal of the anti-apartheid movement can be given without confronting this question of leadership, which lies at the heart of all the contradictions defining that struggle. While the black proletariat was the main social force driving the anti-apartheid movement forward, the leadership of the movement remained in the hands of a nationalist petty bourgeoisie. Although this layer itself represented no independent class force, with the aid of the SACP and the labour bureaucracy it was able to restrain and constrain the power of the working class at every stage, acting as the central obstacle to national and social emancipation. A serious analysis of the anti-apartheid struggle and the class forces that shaped it leads to but one conclusion: at every stage, opening the path to victory demanded a fight for revolutionary proletarian leadership of the movement, in counterposition to the black nationalists and in competition with them. This is the chief lesson of the anti-apartheid struggle, and it retains its full force today.
The Seeds of Apartheid’s Demise
The explosion of struggle in the 1980s was the result of the contradictions of apartheid rule that had been mounting since the system’s inception. The government of P.W. Botha was unable to contain these seething contradictions through reforms of the system or naked state repression. The key reason was the massive increase in the black proletariat’s social power, organisation and militancy. Not only did the mainly black working class emerge as the Achilles heel of white-minority rule, but its advanced layers saw their fight against the bosses as intimately bound up with the emancipation of the black nation, captured in widely popular slogans like “Socialism Means Freedom!” This speaks to the completely intertwined nature of race and class in South Africa.
South African capitalism was built on the complete dispossession of the black African peoples and brutal measures of racial oppression and segregation to meet the demands of British imperialism for cheap labour and natural resources. What changed with the rise of apartheid in the late 1940s is that this system was turbo-charged under the political control of the Afrikaner nationalists, who developed a pervasive system of rigid racial segregation aimed at imposing totalitarian control over all aspects of black life.
The main force behind this was the Afrikaner bourgeoisie, which in alliance with the Afrikaner intelligentsia sought to advance its class interests in response to both the opportunity and the threat posed by the situation facing South Africa’s rulers after World War Two. The decline of British imperial power offered the Afrikaner elites a chance to advance from a position of subordination to the English-speaking bourgeoisie. They also perceived a growing threat to white-minority rule as the post-1910 alliance of maize and gold came under increasing strain from the impact of industrial growth, in particular from the growth of the urban black proletariat.
To weld the white working class and petty bourgeoisie into a solid political base for tackling these challenges, the Afrikaner elites combined a virulent white-supremacist ideology with extensive welfare and skills development programmes to uplift poor whites. They used control of the government, protectionist measures and pooling of resources to advance the power and wealth of the Afrikaner bourgeoisie, propelling companies like Naspers, Sanlam and Rembrandt from a marginal position in the 1940s into decisive players in the cartel led by Anglo-American which dominates the South African economy to this day.
The imperialists and the English-speaking bourgeoisie made their peace with apartheid, despite their displeasure at the growing assertiveness of the Afrikaner bourgeoisie and the fact that a number of government policies conflicted with the capitalists’ long-term economic needs. Apartheid served their immediate needs by effectively crushing the black unions and halting wage increases for black workers. Following the March 1960 Sharpeville massacre, there was an initial panic in world markets as the continued viability of apartheid was questioned. But once the National Party government was able to completely suppress the black liberation movement, foreign investment from the US and other imperialist powers poured in. Between 1963 and 1972, the South African economy had one of the highest growth rates in the world, rivalling that of Japan. A report of the US National Security Council summed up the imperialists’ strategic outlook on Southern Africa in the early 1970s: “The whites are here to stay and the only way constructive change can come about is through them.”
With the rise of apartheid, the black nationalists were forced to face up to the fact that the white capitalist rulers had slammed the door on any possible role for the black elites in their system. The tribal chiefs and black intellectuals who founded the ANC in 1912 had done so with the intention of defending the specific interests of the upper layers of the black petty bourgeoisie, seeking to preserve their limited franchise in the Cape and have it extended to the areas the British had conquered in the Anglo-Boer War. Appealing to the British imperialists to recognise that incorporating the black elite would be beneficial for running their colony, the ANC leaders abhorred any appeal to the black masses to struggle against white domination. Instead they sent endless deputations to seek redress from the monarchy and Westminster.
But the British rulers, having chosen an alliance with the defeated Afrikaners based on their common interest in superexploitation of black labour, ruthlessly stamped out anything that hinted at the development of a black property-owning class. As the black elite was increasingly marginalised and humiliated, stripped of any residual rights and reduced to the status of non-citizens along with the rest of the African majority, growing layers of the black petty bourgeoisie became disillusioned with the bankrupt approach of the early ANC.
The ANC’s Radical-Populist Turn
The rise of apartheid in the late 1940s was a tipping point. By the end of the decade, the “young lions” of the ANC Youth League—Lembede, Mandela, Sisulu, Tambo, etc.—had displaced the old guard leadership and set the ANC on a radical-populist course. They would go on to adopt a national-democratic programme that was quite radical, the 1955 Freedom Charter; engage in heroic and self-sacrificing struggles against the apartheid regime; and seek the support of the black proletariat through an unprecedented degree of collaboration with working-class unions and parties. This turn reflected a shift in the upper layers of the black petty bourgeoisie, who had come to realise that the only way to defend their interests in the face of white discrimination was to lean on the black masses (and later the armed struggle).
Nevertheless, in turning to populism the ANC leaders retained the class aspirations of a stymied black elite. Their intermediate class position and bourgeois appetites meant that they continued to fear the prospect of the class struggle sharpening into a fight for black proletarian power. And although they had been forced by the white rulers’ obstinacy to seek the support of the black proletariat, their aim was still to pressure these rulers—especially the imperialists and English-speaking bourgeoisie—to come to terms with them. Their methods and policy for the mass struggle were thus a constant brake on it, aiming to retain petty-bourgeois hegemony over the black toilers in order to use the struggle as a bargaining chip with the white capitalists.
The ANC’s radical-populist turn was tied to its alliance with the Stalinist Communist Party (CPSA/SACP), which had helped rescue the ANC from near collapse in the 1930s and was critical for establishing the ANC’s political hegemony over the black proletariat. For close to a century, the Stalinists have made it their central task to build a nationalist obstacle to proletarian leadership of the liberation struggle by forging a mass base for the ANC and convincing would-be communists that their job is to keep the ANC leadership on a leftward course.
This strategy was set by the Stalinised Comintern in the 1928 resolution on South Africa, which argued that developing “a national-revolutionary movement of the toilers of South Africa against the white bourgeoisie and British imperialism” could only be done by transforming the ANC into a “fighting nationalist revolutionary organisation”. This position is based on the class-collaborationist view that since all black Africans are subject to national oppression at the hands of the imperialists and South African whites, resistance to this oppression dictates glossing over class divisions among the oppressed and mobilising the toilers behind the leadership of the black elites.
Nothing could be more false and harmful, both to the class interests of the black proletariat and to the national liberation struggle. The revolutionary struggle against imperialism does not weaken but rather strengthens the political differentiation of the classes. To really arouse the black toilers against imperialism is possible only by connecting their basic and most profound life interests with the cause of national liberation. But everything that raises the oppressed and exploited masses to their feet inevitably pushes the upper strata of the black petty bourgeoisie into an open bloc with white monopoly capital.
The Stalinists sense this too, and in order to preserve the alliance with the black elites they constantly seek to curb the struggles of the toilers. Far from developing the national-revolutionary movement, this only weakens the fight against imperialism. In the 1940s this class collaboration led the CPSA to utterly betray the national movement to the benefit of British imperialism, supporting the US and Britain in World War Two. The Stalinists joined the ANC leadership in peddling the lie that the imperialists were fighting for “democracy and freedom” (the ANC from the beginning of the war; the CPSA following the German invasion of the USSR in 1941). They treacherously aided the pro-British government of General Jan Smuts by telling workers not to strike, peddling the miserable lie that the oppressed masses’ democratic and national rights would be granted as a bounty for good behaviour if they assisted the war effort.
This flew in the face of the lived reality of the oppressed black masses, who pointedly asked supporters of Smuts and British imperialism: “We fought for you in the Boer War and you betrayed us to the Dutch.... Why should we fight for you again?” Indeed, by preventing the toilers from fighting for their interests when the situation was most advantageous—when the capitalists were most reliant on black labour because of wartime industrialisation, and most fearful for the stability of their government—Communist and ANC leaders helped pave the way for precisely the white reaction they claimed to be fighting through their “democratic” alliance with Smuts and British imperialism. The black proletariat would suffer a number of crippling defeats and have its struggle for unions set back by decades, most notably with the bloody crushing of the CPSA-led African Mine Workers Union strike of 1946 by the Smuts government.
The Armed Struggle
It was in the context of these defeats that the apartheid government came to power in 1948 and the ANC turned toward radical populism. Once they had begun this turn, they would be forced by the increasingly stubborn and brutal response of the apartheid regime to depart quite dramatically from the conservative politics of respectability that marked the ANC during its first decades of existence. This included, after the banning of the liberation movements in the early 1960s, embarking on a course completely unacceptable to any wing of the bourgeoisie by launching a guerilla struggle with political and military support from the Soviet Union. This self-sacrificing struggle would greatly increase the ANC leaders’ prestige in the eyes of the black masses, and the decades the ANC leaders spent in prison and in exile certainly testifies to their heroic defiance of the white rulers.
The ANC made this left turn at a time when no section of the white rulers had any interest in offering concessions to the black petty bourgeoisie. With the black working class greatly weakened and class and social struggles all but stamped out in the decade after Sharpeville, the only black tools the apartheid rulers had any use for were the pliant, hand-picked tribal chiefs. This allowed the ANC, with the help of the Stalinists, to put itself forward as the leader of the black masses without in any way having to break from its petty-bourgeois aversion to proletarian class struggle. Taking the guerilla road after Sharpeville was consistent with their petty-bourgeois class position and nationalist programme.
The period when MK carried out armed struggle, underground sabotage and individual terrorism is today popularly seen as the ANC’s revolutionary phase, favourably contrasted with its later sell-out. But it is critical to understand that although they were motivated by a deep and just desire for reckoning with the racist butchers and intersected that same sentiment in the masses, these methods in fact served to set back the struggle against apartheid.
To start with, the guerilla road removed the most dedicated militants from conducting the necessary political work to rebuild the black trade unions and the mass struggle inside the country. The guerilla strategy was fundamentally counterposed to raising the masses’ confidence in their capacity to struggle for their own liberation: by turning their hopes toward a liberator in exile who will return to free them from white domination, it reinforced a sense of powerlessness and impeded the revival of mass struggle. If MK and the other armed wings of the liberation movement are coming, why do the arduous work of rebuilding the black trade unions in conditions of illegality and arming them with a liberation programme? Why organise secret meetings, carry out underground agitation and build a vanguard party to lead the struggle for national and social emancipation?
In fact it was the trade-union movement that brought down apartheid. The guerilla struggle, while not weakening the regime in any meaningful way, was a major factor in politically subordinating this movement to the ANC. This was mainly thanks to the SACP, which beginning in the 1960s liquidated into the guerilla struggle and told the working class to look to MK for its liberation.
The SACP’s course was a complete renunciation of a proletarian strategy to fight apartheid. It was the direct opposite of the duty of Marxists, as Lenin explained in polemicising against the Socialist-Revolutionaries’ (SRs) petty-bourgeois strategy of left-wing terrorism: “The Social-Democrats will always warn against adventurism and ruthlessly expose illusions which inevitably end in complete disappointment” (“Revolutionary Adventurism”, August-September 1902). The SACP’s betrayal stemmed from its strategic alliance with the ANC: once you abandon the political independence of the working class, there is no need to fight against a petty-bourgeois strategy which liquidates the mass movement and no firm basis for such a fight. In stark contrast, Lenin’s struggle against the SR strategy of terrorism was based on his unyielding “demand to adhere steadfastly to the class standpoint”.
Despite militants’ hopes that the armed struggle would lead to a revolutionary reckoning with the racist white overlords, the guerilla strategy in fact never precluded cutting a deal with the Randlords and imperialists; it was seen as one possible lever to pressure them for such a deal. The SACP’s 1962 programme, The Road to South African Freedom, is explicit about this. Alongside radical talk about “armed resistance, culminating in a mass insurrection against White domination”, it promotes the profound illusion that the demands in the Freedom Charter could be realised through an amicable agreement: “The possibility would be opened of a peaceful and negotiated transfer of power to the representatives of the oppressed majority of the people.”
The Growth of the Black Unions and
the Township Revolt
Beginning in the 1970s, the prolonged stability of the 1950s and ’60s began to break down as the economic contradictions of apartheid sharpened and the black proletariat asserted itself more and more. By the mid-1980s, the situation had become acute. The fury of the black masses had built up such pressure that each concession granted by the Botha government had the opposite of its intended effect: instead of stabilising the system, it only made things more explosive by feeding the confidence of the masses in their own capacity to struggle. The result was a pre-revolutionary situation, which directly posed the need for the overthrow of the apartheid regime by the masses themselves.
This situation brought to the surface the reactionary role of the ANC’s leadership of the liberation struggle, which had been more masked in the preceding period. While they continued to raise calls for “people’s power”, as the spectre of popular insurrection drew nearer the petty-bourgeois nationalist tops became increasingly fearful of the precarious position this would place them in. This led them to push more and more for imperialist-sponsored negotiations to resolve the crisis. For their part, the imperialists and Randlords became convinced of the need for some arrangement with the leadership of the liberation movement in order to safeguard capitalist class rule and restore profitability. This dynamic underpinned the ANC’s rightward trajectory in the 1980s, leading to its neo-apartheid betrayal of black freedom.
The breakdown of apartheid stability in the 1970s was a result of the system’s economic successes in the decade before, which exacerbated all the contradictions apartheid sought to contain. There were many such contradictions, but the fundamental and defining ones all related to the white capitalist rulers’ reliance on superexploitation of black labour: the requirement of expanding production constantly pulled more black workers into the factories and mines, running up against the strict regimentation of the masses required for white-minority rule. In particular, the boom in foreign investment and growth of manufacturing greatly increased the bourgeoisie’s need for a skilled and stable workforce. This collided with the government’s “grand apartheid” project of creating the bantustans as supposedly independent “homelands” and limiting the movement of black people into the townships and urban areas. Capitalism’s need to expand the consumer market likewise collided with the job colour bar and denial of citizenship rights to the black majority.
The number one threat to the system, though, was the growth of the black proletariat, which began to recover from the defeats of the 1940s and flex its muscles. The first glimpse of its growing social power was the Durban wildcat strikes of 1973. Three years later came the Soweto youth uprising; the apartheid rulers were not able to simply crush black resistance as they had after Sharpeville. By the late 1970s, the apartheid regime also faced challenges to white rule throughout the region, including military defeat at the hands of Cuban forces in Angola.
In this context, decisive sections of the white rulers began to see the need for apartheid to “adapt or die”. One critical concession, recommended in 1979 by the Wiehahn Commission, was to grant legal recognition of black trade unions, which the white rulers calculated would increase their means of controlling the black proletariat. This proved to be a major miscalculation. The black trade unions would explode in size and militancy during the 1980s, becoming the backbone of the mass struggle against apartheid and drawing in the bulk of the coloured and Indian proletariat. This posed even more starkly the contradiction between the vital interests of the mainly black proletariat, which are to lead the national-democratic struggle and use it as a lever to sweep away white monopoly capital, and its political subordination to a petty-bourgeois nationalist leadership which acted as an internal brake on the struggle for those interests.
A crucial factor feeding into this subordination was the workerist trend that dominated the black trade unions during the early years of their revival following the Durban strikes. The workerists drew all the wrong lessons from the treacherous role the Stalinists and nationalists had played in the defeats of the previous wave of black unionisation in the 1940s. While not denying as such the need for the unions to engage in political action, including against the apartheid regime, they denied the centrality of the struggle for national liberation and democracy, dismissing these questions as a diversion from the “real class struggle”. Particularly when such struggles were initiated and led by the nationalists, they resorted to sectarian abstention.
Workerism was justified as “defence” of the proletariat’s class independence from black nationalism. In reality, by limiting and restricting the proletariat’s participation in the struggle against national oppression and imperialist tyranny, the workerists capitulated to the white rulers’ schemes to divert the working class from the fight against apartheid. In this way, the workerist programme also discredited the fight for the proletariat’s political independence in the eyes of the black masses, bolstering the political authority of the nationalists and Stalinists. As the national struggle intensified in the mid-1980s, the bankruptcy of workerism was thoroughly exposed: either black union militants were going to struggle for leadership of the uprising or they were going to be sucked behind the leadership of the nationalists. The workerists ended up either displaced or recruited to the SACP’s class-collaborationist programme of subordinating the black proletariat to ANC leadership.
Contrary to both the workerists and the SACP, the strategic task for the workers movement was to fuse the national and class struggles by fighting for revolutionary communist leadership in opposition to the petty-bourgeois nationalists. This was posed most acutely in the township revolt of the mid-1980s. The opening shots came from the townships of the Vaal Triangle and the East Rand between September and November 1984, culminating in a two-day stayaway of some one million workers across the Transvaal. In the months and years that followed, the street battles, strikes and stayaways would jump from one area to another across the country.
In many of these struggles, popular committees (street committees, industrial area committees, etc.) emerged to coordinate the protests; in some townships, these effectively replaced apartheid authority. The uprising was fuelled by the black masses’ unwillingness to tolerate apartheid controls and humiliations such as Bantu education any longer, combined with a revolt against worsening social conditions, from rent increases and appalling housing to despicable working conditions and starvation wages.
This period marked the height of the mass struggle against apartheid. Conditions in many factories and communities at times approximated local dual power, with plant supervisors who didn’t dare to set foot on the assembly line floor and state-appointed councillors unable to enforce apartheid laws or collect rates and rents. As one leader of the shop stewards’ committee in Witbank put it: “The aims were quite political, and it was simply to overthrow the government.... All these actions, boycotts, stayaways...[were] directed at that objective” (quoted in Karl von Holdt, Transition From Below ).
But behind the backs of the masses, the ANC tops were doing everything they could to put a brake on the mass struggle. They did this in various, apparently contradictory ways, reflecting their attempt to balance between the main class forces and their organisational weakness on the ground. On the one hand, they sought to appeal to the aspirations for a popular uprising against apartheid in order to use the pressure of the masses to extract concessions from the white rulers and consolidate their political hegemony over the black proletariat. On the other hand, they sought to demonstrate to the imperialists and Randlords that the ANC could play a crucial role in containing the mass struggle and restoring stability.
The ANC’s famous call to “make the country ungovernable” captures this high-wire balancing act. While it became a clarion call for the masses to struggle against the hated white oppressors, it did absolutely nothing to connect this anger with the urgent task of preparing a popular insurrection. This was deliberate: by simply exhorting the masses to rise up without any clear direction, the ANC sought to exhaust their energy while leaving the fate of the uprising—how, exactly, the apartheid rulers were going to be removed—in the hands of the petty-bourgeois tops. The cynical calculation at work was frankly admitted in a March 1986 London Observer interview with Thabo Mbeki, who is credited with inventing the “ungovernability” slogan:
This treacherous doublespeak was designed to intersect the growing appetites of the imperialists and Randlords to pursue a deal with the ANC. The Botha government’s obstinacy and inability to subdue the township revolt was alienating even the apartheid regime’s staunchest foreign backers, Reagan and Thatcher. The finance houses of Wall Street and the City of London also ramped up pressure on the apartheid rulers to come to terms with the ANC. When Botha lashed out, snarling not to “push us too far”, Chase Manhattan bank triggered a South African debt default in 1985 by refusing to roll over the country’s loans.
At this point, imperialist diplomats and heads of all the biggest South African companies began flocking to Lusaka for talks with Tambo, Mbeki and Co. Over the next few years, ANC leaders stepped up their appeals to the representatives of monopoly capital. Beseeching them to open the way to negotiations, they called for more pressure on Botha so that he would grant enough concessions to allow the ANC to sign on without losing all credibility. To this end the ANC held key meetings with the Anglo-American bosses in 1986 and US Secretary of State George Schultz in 1987.
Splitting the SACP—
Key to Advancing the Struggle
All of these developments were bringing to a head a massive contradiction. The ANC tops were steering a clear course toward collaborating with imperialism and the verligte for a negotiated settlement. This course could only be carried through by arresting the struggle. But the ANC leadership itself had no organisational means to directly subdue the masses. Especially after the government smashed the United Democratic Front, all of the reins to actually organise and direct mass action were in the hands of the leaders of COSATU and via them the SACP. And the last thing their working-class base wanted was to give up the fight to bring down Botha and let the fate of the country be decided in talks overseen by their racist exploiters. No, they were striving to intensify the revolt by welding the anger of the township masses to their own class struggle against the very same bosses the ANC tops were conniving with.
To break the impasse, one thing above all was needed: to smash the reactionary alliance of the SACP/COSATU leaders with the ANC, which at every step smothered the initiative of the masses and paralysed the struggle. To accomplish this task, the crucial missing factor was a genuinely communist pole waging a sharp struggle to split the SACP over the demand to break the strategic alliance with the ANC. This was what was needed to fight for revolutionary leadership and draw the dividing line between reform and revolution.
The objective conditions were ripe for such an intervention. From 1986 on, COSATU militants increasingly took central responsibility for organising the mass struggle. The organisations rooted in the working class had uniquely managed to withstand repeated waves of apartheid police-state repression. And the workers seized on this to give the mass struggle their own class imprint, carrying out siyalala (sleep-in) strikes across the breadth of what is now Gauteng Province, forming industrial area committees to link townships to the factories and take the lead in rebuilding the mass movement, and coming up with innovations like train committees to circumvent the state of emergency.
But all the left-wing SACP/COSATU rhetoric—from lip-service to working-class leadership of the national-democratic struggle to resolutions by NUMSA calling for a workers’ programme and strengthening of the industrial committees—amounted to nothing. The committees were left to wither on the vine, with nothing whatsoever done to transform them into the coordinating centre around which the masses could rally for an onslaught against the apartheid government, despite the clear appetite for such a campaign among union militants. Why? Because actually acting on the fine words of the COSATU left would have posed point-blank the need to smash the SACP/COSATU leadership’s alliance with the ANC.
That is something the leaders of NUMSA and other left-wing affiliates resolutely rejected, notwithstanding their critical posture toward the ANC. They fundamentally opposed a political split in the workers movement and did not have a programme to fight for revolutionary proletarian leadership of the liberation struggle. They thus ended up forming the most left-wing link in the reactionary chain binding the black proletariat to its capitalist exploiters, helping to paralyse the struggle and lead it to betrayal.
To split the SACP, a communist pole needed to put clearly before every SACP and COSATU militant the fact that their leaders’ alliance with the ANC was the main barrier obstructing the realisation of the masses’ most deeply felt aspirations. It needed to hammer home that maintaining this alliance meant turning every demand in the Freedom Charter—from universal sufferage to reclaiming the land and mineral wealth of the country—into a bargaining chip in the imperialists’ rigged game. And it had to counterpose a way to defeat this monstrous betrayal and break the shackles holding back the struggle: agitating in every strike, in every industrial area committee and on every train to break with the ANC and fight for an SACP/COSATU government to implement the Freedom Charter on the rubble of the Botha regime.
By waging a concerted struggle along these lines, a revolutionary pole would have intensified the pressure on all wings of the SACP and COSATU leadership. On the one hand, it would have laid bare for all the treachery of the openly reformist wing, which by refusing to break the alliance was in fact protecting the ANC tops’ wretched coalition with the imperialists. On the other hand, it would have removed the ground from underneath centrists like the NUMSA tops by forcing them to choose between splitting with the reformists or openly uniting with white monopoly capital. Such an intervention would have had the potential to break through the paralysis induced by the alliance, unleashing a new upsurge of the revolt that could have opened up a direct struggle for black proletarian power.
Lessons of Leninism
The township revolt indicates the impact that even a small core of Leninist-Trotskyist cadre can have on the course of history. Such a cadre will not magically appear during pre-revolutionary and revolutionary events. It must be forged in the preparatory periods through fighting to guide struggle and assimilating the lessons of the class and national struggles in South Africa and internationally. In particular, the lessons of the 1917 October Revolution are crucial to apply to the South African terrain.
After the working class of Russia carried out the February Revolution overthrowing the tsar, the bourgeoisie had no popular support whatsoever on which to base its government. The real popular authority was the soviets, at whose head stood the Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionary leaders. The masses had elected them to lead the soviets in the belief that they would entrench the revolution and carry out the bourgeois-democratic programme they were known for. But the Menshevik and SR leaders, based on their firm conviction that the bourgeois-democratic revolution could only be led by the liberal bourgeoisie, begged the capitalist parties to form a Provisional Government and take the power that the revolution had handed to themselves.
It was Lenin’s arrival in April that set the Bolshevik Party on the course that led to the October victory. The first thing he insisted on was an immediate break with the bourgeoisie—No support to the Provisional Government! All power to the soviets! He fought to split the workers and peasants from the Mensheviks and SRs by exposing their leaders’ treacherous refusal to break the coalition with the bourgeoisie. The Bolsheviks insisted that the only way to carry out the burning bourgeois-democratic tasks, which were frustrated and betrayed as long as the capitalists remained in power, was to fight for the revolutionary proletariat to seize power. It was only on this basis—Lenin’s split with the opportunists and centrists, his insistence on the independence of the proletariat from the bourgeoisie and his fight for Bolshevik leadership—that the bourgeois-democratic revolution would be victorious under the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The SACP’s whole orientation and activity in the struggle against white-minority rule was based on rejecting the lessons of the October Revolution and reviving the Menshevik programme. The SACP worked tirelessly to subordinate the black proletariat to petty-bourgeois nationalist leadership through a strategic alliance with the ANC. During the township revolt, SACP leaders gave this class-collaborationist programme a left-wing guise because this was needed in order to restrain and paralyse the struggle on behalf of the ANC leadership.
Joe Slovo’s 1988 pamphlet, The South African Working Class and the National Democratic Revolution, is a prime example of using Lenin quotes to cover for peddling the Menshevism upon which Lenin waged war his entire political life. Besides adeptly exposing the bankruptcy of workerism, Slovo’s pamphlet criticised some of his allies in the liberation movement who advocated renouncing the more radical social demands in the Freedom Charter in order to appeal to the verligte. Slovo insisted that there’s “no Chinese wall” between the democratic and socialist stages. True, but this concession to the socialist aspirations of the working class merely served to set up a more sophisticated and dangerous deception to yoke the proletariat to ANC leadership.
In order to sell the lie that the SACP’s strategic alliance with the ANC comes at no cost to the proletariat, Slovo pleaded: “It is, however, sometimes alleged that an alliance will tie the hands of the working class and erode its independence. Such an outcome is certainly not inevitable.” As if it were a matter of “an alliance” between the proletariat and the black petty-bourgeoisie in the abstract! The alliance Slovo defended is one in which the petty-bourgeois nationalists explicitly call the shots. And in such an alliance it is absolutely inevitable not only that the hands of the working class will be tied and its socialist aspirations betrayed but that the national-democratic revolution itself will be betrayed as a result of containing the class struggle within bounds determined by the black elite. To see this, it was enough to look at what was unfolding in real time in 1988, when the alliance with the ANC was the primary means by which imperialism strangled and subdued the struggle.
Even the theoretical case in Slovo’s pamphlet does not stand up to scrutiny. He argued to ensure the “objective economic foundation for an inter-class black alliance” by limiting the aims and methods of the struggle to the perspective of “an interim phase in the post-apartheid period which neither threatens the immediate economic aspirations of the other nationally-dominated classes nor militates against the fundamental interests of the workers”. In other words, the struggle must promise not to threaten the bourgeois aspirations of the black elites. But it is “certainly inevitable” that this can only be done by tying the hands of the working class, paralysing the mass struggle and abandoning all the methods needed to wage war against imperialism.
An alliance on this basis is sure to lead to the betrayal of the needs of both the proletariat and the black petty-bourgeoisie, as the black elites seek out a reactionary coalition with the white monopoly capitalists (as indeed happened under the ANC alliance). The proletariat does have an interest in an alliance with the black petty bourgeoisie, but it must be based first of all on leading its lower strata in struggle against their common oppressor, white monopoly capital. The proletariat and its party will increase their capacity to lead the broad masses the more boldly they wage such struggle. But that is possible only on the basis of an independent class party and class policy, which is completely incompatible with the alliance Slovo advocated, in theory and in reality.
Because there was no genuinely communist pole challenging them, Slovo and the SACP were able to use a left cover to attract a layer of trade-union leaders who had become disillusioned with workerism during the township revolt. This was instrumental in bringing the revolt to heel on the ANC’s behalf and thus allowing the nationalist tops to embark on formal negotiations with the apartheid butchers.
Take, for example, Moses Mayekiso. Imprisoned in 1986 for his leading role in building action committees to coordinate the revolt in Alexandra township, by 1989 he was using his influence as a NUMSA leader to convince workers to go along with negotiations: “I believe the solutions to our country’s problems will finally come through negotiations. I don’t believe that we will be able to get to Pretoria and oust Botha from those buildings” (quoted in Jeremy Baskin, Striking Back: A History of COSATU ). A year later, Mayekiso, now a leading SACPer, and Slovo headed a delegation of Tripartite Alliance tops to the Mercedes-Benz plant in East London to break the sit-in strike of NUMSA workers, warning them against disrupting the negotiations. Meanwhile, Slovo joined Mandela and other top ANC leaders in openly guaranteeing white monopoly capital that under the ANC there would be no nationalisations, their investments would be secure, and control of the economy and land would remain in the hands of the whites and the imperialists.
From Negotiations to Neo-Apartheid
Once negotiations got under way following unbanning in 1990, the central leaders of the ANC and SACP rapidly shed their left-populist facade, giving in to the white rulers on virtually all of the radical social demands in the Freedom Charter. For most of the ANC’s left-wing critics, the early 1990s are the decisive turning point when the liberation movement was betrayed by giving in to white monopoly capital at the negotiating table. Common explanations for this heinous sell-out include: the sidelining of certain populist ANC leaders (Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Chris Hani); the disbanding of the UDF; COSATU’s exclusion from the negotiations; Cyril Ramaphosa’s participation in drafting the Constitution; the ANC leaders’ inadequate grasp of economics.
What all of these purported explanations have in common is that they accept and uphold the hegemony of petty-bourgeois nationalism over the liberation struggle, seeking merely to shift relations within this framework by pressuring the ANC tops to make different “choices”. They all narrow the scope of the betrayal to what transpired during the negotiations and the settlement, disappearing the whole history that led up to this. To be sure, the betrayal of black freedom was most acute during the imperialist-brokered “transfer of power”. But focusing only on this is to whitewash the role of the nationalist leadership of the liberation struggle, facilitated by the SACP, in restraining the struggle at every stage preceding the sell-out.
For the same reasons, these explanations fail to give a convincing account of the rapid and wholesale capitulation to imperialism by the ANC, SACP and COSATU tops. These were leaders of organisations backed by millions of oppressed toilers. Many had faced detention, torture and the threat of assassination and spent decades in prison and exile. They had up until very recently preached the need for a people’s war to smash white domination, and even for socialism. To explain the abandonment of all this and their embrace of neoliberalism by individual failings, greed and cowardice is absurd. No, this followed the logic of the class struggle: their petty-bourgeois nationalist programme dictated restraining and disarming black workers in order to impose the ANC tops as intermediaries between the proletariat and imperialism. In carrying out this programme, they checked the main social force pitted against the white rulers, leaving themselves no option but to rush headlong into the suffocating embrace of imperialist finance capital.
The ANC’s leadership had served to restrain the black proletariat before the negotiations began, and of course they continued to use the pressure of the black working class as they progressed. But the start of formal negotiations marked a key turning point. Committing to a negotiated settlement meant committing to confining the class struggle within strict limits: the apartheid regime would not be toppled by the masses but wrapped up through an “orderly” imperialist-sponsored process. This was the whole point of negotiations from the standpoint of the nationalist tops. If the class struggle had sharpened to the point of overthrowing the apartheid government, this would inevitably have threatened their position as intermediary between the black proletariat and the white ruling class as well as their bourgeois aspirations.
It was for this reason that the COSATU bureaucracy’s endorsement of negotiations in 1989 was so critical for solidifying the subordination of the black union movement to the ANC. This was codified the following year with the establishment of the Tripartite Alliance, which formalised the SACP and COSATU tops’ incorporation into an ANC-led nationalist popular front that served to enforce the strict confines of the class struggle required for a “smooth transition”. After 1990 this meant that every serious struggle to defend the interests of the proletariat and the oppressed masses—whether against the bloody tribal violence fomented by Inkatha and other apartheid-sponsored vigilantes or against the imperialists’ neoliberal onslaught—immediately confronted the need to break this straitjacket.
At the same time, the political situation in the country was wide open and remained volatile, with huge expectations of an upsurge in struggle on the part of the masses. But to smash the negotiations shackles and unleash the real potential of the masses could only be done with a determined effort to break the anti-apartheid movement from ANC leadership, split the Tripartite Alliance and place the proletariat at the head of the liberation struggle.
The Fight Against Inkatha Terror
With regard to the tribalist terror unleashed by Inkatha in KwaZulu and on the Rand, counterposing a communist leadership to the ANC tops was a life-or-death question. Everyone in the liberation movement knew that Inkatha was a tool of the apartheid rulers. Using the same divide-and-rule balkanisation of the black majority that drove the bantustans policy, they sought to weaken the ANC and preserve as much as possible of white-minority rule. Many militants burned with resentment toward ANC leaders for leaving them completely defenceless against this terror due to their commitment to enforcing the terms of negotiations. Defence against Inkatha was left in the hands of Self Defence Units organised by militant nationalist youth, who in many cases further fuelled the bloody tribalism by carrying out reprisals targeting all Zulus in the hostels.
There were many criticisms of the ANC, SACP and COSATU leaders for their timid response, and calls on them to do more. But to actually wage an effective defence of the black masses and cut through the spiral of tribalist bloodletting could be done only by arming the proletariat and waging class struggle against the basic interests of the imperialists and Randlords—things the Tripartite Alliance tops adamantly opposed because they would have exploded the negotiations and threatened their position in the transfer of power, which was premised on safeguarding the class interests of the capitalist exploiters. To fight for a class-struggle response to Inkatha pogroms meant fighting to break the negotiations straitjacket and to split the liberation movement. This was something all wings of the SACP and COSATU leaders, along with their left tails, vehemently opposed, no matter how much they criticised Mandela and Co. To carry out a split required the intervention of a Leninist-Trotskyist pole.
What would have been a revolutionary response to Inkatha terror? Certainly, a determined campaign to organise military defence guards, based on the trade unions and composed of both migrant and township workers, was an absolute necessity. But military struggles require political leadership. The Inkatha leaders were appealing to the just grievances of the migrant workers—mass retrenchments, wretched housing in decrepit unisex hostels, separation from their families and isolation from the surrounding communities—and channelling them behind their reactionary aims of fighting the liberation movement and preserving the privileges and power of the parasitic KwaZulu bantustan satraps.
To undercut this, military defence needed to be combined with a programme of struggle for the burning interests of these workers. It was necessary to say to the migrant labourers: “The mineral wealth of the country belongs to you, not the Randlords and imperialists—take it!” To the hostel dwellers and masses in the squatter camps surrounding the urban areas: “Seize the mansions and luxury apartments in the white areas!” It was also crucial to take the class struggle into the villages in the bantustans of KwaZulu and elsewhere, setting the black masses against the chiefs and other puppets of apartheid rule. Revolutionaries needed to say to the farmworkers and the black masses trapped in the desolate homelands: “Take the land, whether from the white farmers or from the bantustan satraps!”
A struggle along these lines would have dramatically altered the relationship of forces and opened up fresh prospects for the liberation struggle to go forward. Instead, the unchallenged hegemony of the ANC ensured that the reactionary spiral continued, which played a big part in demoralising the masses and weakening the working class. The ANC tops in turn exploited this to ram through the sell-out to white monopoly capital, telling the masses that this was the only way to “avoid civil war”.
The other club the ANC tops used to make the masses submit was the reactionary international situation, which was defined by liberal triumphalism and unchallenged US imperialist hegemony as capitalist counterrevolution triumphed in Eastern Europe and the USSR. Mandela and Co. took a leaf out of Thatcher’s book, telling the black masses “there is no alternative” to neoliberalism in the now unipolar world.
Over a decade later, the left-wing populist Julius Malema, who rose to prominence expressing the burning anger of the black majority over the negotiated settlement and IMF-dictated austerity, echoed this apology, telling the ANC Youth League National General Council in 2010: “We understand that in 1994, certain decisions could not be taken because both domestically and globally, the balance of forces favoured imperialists and therefore [was] hostile to progressive change.” In his attempt to defend the ANC’s betrayal, Malema unintentionally highlighted the bankruptcy of nationalism. It is not true that there was no way to go against the dictates of the imperialists. It is, however, true that to do so required a break with the nationalists, who were and are an obstacle to waging a struggle against imperialism.
As we have shown, the ANC’s hegemony over the liberation struggle was the decisive factor in subduing the 1980s upheaval, diverting the masses away from a confrontation with imperialism and into the reactionary embrace of Anglo-American imperialism as “allies” of the struggle. Just as crucially, nationalism is a fundamental obstacle to linking the liberation struggle in South Africa to the mobilisation of the proletariat internationally, particularly in the advanced capitalist countries, against their common enemy, imperialism. This is true of both the liberal and pan-Africanist trends of black nationalism in South Africa. The ANC and its allies passed off as “international solidarity” campaigns like the call for economic sanctions, which reinforced the subordination of workers in the imperialist centres to the capitalist exploiters and their social-democratic agents. For their part, the PAC and other nationalists turned off by the ANC’s “non-racialism” dismiss the working class of the imperialist countries as hopelessly bought off and privileged, which likewise serves to deprive the black toilers of a crucial lever in their struggle against imperialist subjugation.
The nationalists’ bankrupt response to imperialism is closely linked to their inability to respond to the racial divide in South Africa in a way that could strengthen the liberation struggle and undercut the white capitalist rulers’ bases of support. The liberal nationalist wing associated with the ANC preached the utterly reactionary line that the way to win white allies was by maintaining white privilege! To counter this, the PAC and other hard nationalists raised slogans such as “one settler, one bullet”, which could only help push all whites into the arms of the capitalist exploiters.
At the height of the township revolt, when the question of neutralising white support for apartheid state repression as much as possible was urgently posed, these bankrupt responses played out in the following ways. The ANC and UDF tops promoted reactionary coalitions with liberal white bourgeois organisations such as the Five Freedoms Forum. Meanwhile, within the armed wing of the struggle there was a push to make white civilians “soft targets”, vainly hoping to turn whites against the government by making them fear for their lives. Both of these reactionary policies served to prevent a polarisation among the white minority that would strengthen the anti-imperialist struggle.
The nationalism of the black masses arises in response to imperialist subjugation and white domination. In this sense, and only in this sense, it expresses opposition to oppression. Communists have a duty to champion this legitimate aspiration and use it as a lever to advance a revolutionary struggle against imperialism and the white ruling class. But this can only be done through a struggle to break the masses from nationalism, which envelops these aspirations in a bourgeois programme.
Nationalism ties the masses to the black elites and pits them against their class brothers and sisters in the imperialist centres, against other oppressed groups and against all whites. In counterposition, Leon Trotsky outlined the revolutionary proletarian approach to polarising the white working class and strengthening the struggle for black liberation. In a letter to South African revolutionaries written in April 1935 (when Britain was the main imperial power in South Africa), Trotsky emphasised that only on the basis of mutual struggle against the domination of the white exploiters—that is, only by sharpening the class struggle as the historical weapon of national liberation—can the solidarity of black and white toilers be cultivated and strengthened. He explained:
For the victory of the struggle against imperialism and white domination through a black-centred workers government! For a socialist federation of Southern Africa! Reforge a South African section of the ICL that Lenin and Trotsky would recognise as their own! For black Bolshevism! Phambili, amaBolsheviki amnyama, phambili!