Spartacist South Africa No. 16
The Land Question and Permanent Revolution
Expropriate the Bourgeoisie! For a Black-Centred Workers Government!
Over the last year, the African National Congress (ANC) has done a kind of tightrope walk over the question of land. On the one side, the party has given lip service to the anger and frustration of the black majority by making a parliamentary bloc with the bourgeois-populist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) to begin the process of amending the constitution to allow for land expropriation without compensation. While hyping this up as a reversal of its decades-long policy of relying on the “willing seller, willing buyer” method of land redistribution, the ANC has on the other side sought to reassure capitalist investors that nothing is really going to change.
The ANC’s manoeuvering is, in its own way, a testament to the potential explosiveness of the land question. As political commentator Rapule Tabane put it, the prospect of land expropriation evokes “hope in many poor black South Africans” while “provoking fear and uncertainty among many white South Africans and business people” (city‑press.news24.com, 4 October). It is not at all difficult to understand why: land ownership provides one of the clearest measures of how entrenched white domination remains, and how little the black majority has gained, in the “new South Africa”. For example, whereas white people—currently 7,8 percent of the population—owned 85 percent of all farmland at the end of apartheid, almost 25 years later they still own 72 percent. In contrast, just 4 percent of farmland is owned by black Africans, who are 80,9 percent of the population!
Behind these statistics are the brutal oppression and poverty that mark the lives of black and coloured people who work on the farms and live in the surrounding communities, where the white boss still rules through the sjambok. A glimpse into this racist hell is provided by the news headlines highlighting particular atrocities: farm workers being forced to drink liquid faeces as punishment for “neglecting their duties”; white farmers shoving a black man into a coffin and threatening to set him on fire; a black youth killed while being transported to the police station in the back of some white farmers’ bakkie—for the alleged “crime” of taking sunflower heads!
Millions of black and coloured workers and farm dwellers have been thrown off white-owned farms since 1994. Meanwhile, some 17 million black people remain trapped in the desperately impoverished areas of the apartheid-era “homelands”. They are subject to the arbitrary, despotic rule of tribal chiefs and their agents, which is especially oppressive to black women.
The urban population has steadily increased in the decades since the end of pass laws and influx control. With the prime real estate monopolised by a mostly white, wealthy elite, the non-white masses get crowded into backyard dwellings and other substandard housing in the townships, or shacks in sprawling squatter camps. It is not uncommon for such desperate, overcrowded living conditions to exist just a few kilometres away from leafy suburbs with lavish mansions—the boundary between the two worlds patrolled by armies of machine-gun-toting private security guards.
As Marxist revolutionaries, we seek to do away with the whole system of racist neo-apartheid capitalism at the root of this hideous oppression and replace it with a socialist system in which those who labour rule. Even if the black masses are to make some partial gains, under capitalism, toward getting the land, this will not be a result of parliamentary commissions and the like, but of social struggle. The outpouring of anger at the public hearings on land expropriation held around the country last winter and the noticeable increase of land occupations both show the burning desire for land. What’s crucial is that the land hunger of the masses be mobilised behind the social power of the proletariat in a fight against the racist capitalist rulers. This requires a political struggle against the nationalist and reformist misleaders, whose whole outlook is defined by parliamentary cretinism and reverence for bourgeois “order”.
The ANC tops are cynically using the constitutional amendment on “expropriation without compensation” (EWC) for populist posturing. Even after a year of raging “land debate” it remains to be seen what the actual content of such an amendment might be. The ANC has dragged out the so-called “consultative process” with an unending series of parliamentary commissions, so as to calm things down and allay the capitalists’ fears over property rights while still getting political mileage out of “EWC” for this year’s elections (and the EFF is happy to play along).
The amendment process is unlikely to be concluded before the elections, but as it stands now the schemes reportedly being floated by Ramaphosa and the ANC tops would be meaningless for the black masses. If some meaningful concessions were to be offered in the face of struggle—via a constitutional amendment or some other legislation—Marxists would of course support them. At the same time, we emphasise to the workers and oppressed that all reforms are bound to be stunted and reversible as long as the capitalists remain in power—and that is the class content of bourgeois democracy.
The land question is inextricably bound up with the national oppression of the black majority, and as such raises the spectre of social revolution. It goes to the very heart of capitalist class rule in this country, which was built on the superexploitation of black labour. The dispossession of black land was driven above all by the capitalists’ need to secure labourers for the white-owned mines and farms. Take, for example, the former homelands, whose formation and maintenance was inextricably tied to the migrant labour system that’s produced mountains of wealth for the Randlords and imperialists. Overturning this oppressive status quo is never going to be accomplished by reformist tinkering that leaves the private property of the ruling class untouched.
A just resolution of the land question cries out for a revolutionary struggle to uproot capitalism and establish a black-centred workers government. Such a government would expropriate the white-owned commercial farms and convert them to collective and state farms under control of the farm workers whose labour keeps them going. It would strip the parasitic chiefs of all privileges and powers, enforcing the democratic rights and social liberation of their “subjects”—especially black women—by rallying the rural toilers in struggle against these and other lackeys of the Randlords. In the urban areas, a black-centred workers government would begin addressing the housing crisis by expropriating the luxury dwellings of the rich and converting them to housing for the workers and poor. At the same time, it would embark on a vast programme of public works—including construction of quality, racially-integrated public housing, building and expanding basic infrastructure. This would be part of a radical reshaping of society, lifting the rural areas and townships out of poverty and desolation.
Addressing the many just demands of the black majority—including democratic demands like security of tenure—that have been cruelly frustrated under neo-apartheid rule since 1994, a black-centred workers government would simultaneously begin the tasks of socialist construction, while fighting to spread workers revolution internationally. For such a government, expropriation and redistribution of land would be part and parcel of the revolutionary expropriation of the bourgeoisie as a whole, in the first case by breaking up its machinery of state repression and replacing it with a workers state.
This perspective is derived from Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, based on the understanding that the bourgeois-nationalist forces of dependant countries are incapable of solving any of the fundamental problems posed by imperialist domination because of their subordination to imperialist capital and mortal fear of their own proletariat. The programmatic core of permanent revolution is complete political and organisational independence of the working class from bourgeois nationalism. This demands a break from not only the ANC, but also more radical-sounding bourgeois parties such as the EFF which, despite its occasional spouting of “Marxist-Leninist” rhetoric, represents the implacable class enemies of workers liberation.
It has become cliché, especially among bourgeois-liberal political commentators, to lament the ANC’s “lack of political will” to resolve the land question. In fact, the government of the ANC-led Tripartite Alliance has demonstrated plenty of will to safeguard the interests of the capitalist ruling class it serves—from deploying the cops to evict squatters, destroy their shacks, break strikes and disperse service delivery protests, to rolling out neo-liberal policies like the easing of exchange controls. The government’s land policy has been fully in keeping with its overall commitment to maintaining the rule of the Randlords and the domination of their imperialist senior partners. As with so many other burning questions, this has meant bitter betrayal of the aspirations that animated the mass struggles against apartheid.
It is well-known that after 1994 the ANC adopted a neo-liberal policy (essentially brain-trusted by the World Bank) based on letting the capitalist market handle “redistribution”. The result, predictably, has been to perpetuate white domination of the land. Even in those cases where land has been restored or redistributed, it is frequently the white landowners who are the main beneficiaries. For example, in 2013-14 almost the entire annual budget for land restitution was wiped out to settle a single land claim: the government paid around R1 billion—an amount far above market value—to the owners of Mala Mala game reserve, settling out of court so as to avoid antagonising the country’s landowners.
The utter and grotesque bankruptcy of the farcical “land reform” of the past decades is clear enough: according to academics and treasury spokesmen, at the current rate even resolving the present backlog of land restitution claims could take two centuries and cost an estimated R600 billion! This wretched, servile land policy is not an aberration, but speaks to the very essence of the neo-apartheid system that emerged from the ANC’s negotiated settlement with the white rulers in the early 1990s.
Against the hype over the “South African miracle”, we Spartacists told the truth at the time, for example writing in July 1994: “The rigid structures of apartheid may be gone, but white supremacy remains, and will remain until the racist capitalist system is overthrown by the working people who produce its superprofits” (“South Africa Powder Keg”, reprinted in Black History and the Class Struggle No. 12). We consistently opposed, as a matter of principle, giving any political support to the bourgeois Tripartite Alliance of the ANC/SACP/COSATU or any bourgeois political party.
In contrast, virtually the entire international left supported the ANC politically and helped to peddle the myth of a “new” South Africa. In South Africa, this included fake-Trotskyist groups like Keep Left!, who are affiliated to the International Socialist Tendency (Cliffites), and the forebears of the Workers and Socialist Party, who were known as the Marxist Workers Tendency (inside the bourgeois ANC!) and affiliated to the Committee for a Workers’ International (Taaffeites). Now that the ANC has lost popularity, many of these leftists complain that it has “lost its way”, for example pointing to the unfulfilled promise that “the land shall be shared among those who work it” and other populist demands of the 1955 Freedom Charter.
But the class interests represented by the ANC have been clear from its very founding, and these have consistently dictated its servility to the white rulers. Just look at John Langalibalele Dube, first president of the ANC’s predecessor, the South African Native National Congress (SANNC). Himself an owner of small sugar plantations, Dube saw the black African masses, “just awakening into political life”, as in need of British colonial stewardship. Hence he argued for a policy of “treading softly, ploddingly”, of “deep and dutiful respect for the rulers God has placed over us” (February 1912 address to “Chiefs and Gentlemen of the South African Native National Congress”).
Such sentiments were common among the leaders of the SANNC/ANC, who wished to impress upon the British rulers that they were “respectable” men of property who should be given a role to play in the colonial system. But the British imperialists—not to mention the National Party rulers after 1948—saw no need for their assistance. Instead, they relied on increasingly rigid segregation and legal discrimination to police the black workers, at the same time preventing the emergence of any semblance of a black African property-owning class.
As a result, the ANC would later adopt a more populist posture, such as with the Freedom Charter. Far from indicating any change in the class character of the ANC—as claimed by reformists who falsely present the Freedom Charter as “socialist”—that shift reflected the petty-bourgeois ANC tops’ recognition that they would need the pressure of the black working masses to force the white rulers to the bargaining table. As ANC icon Nelson Mandela himself put it, the Freedom Charter was in no way intended as a “blueprint for a socialist state”, but rather aimed at “the development of a prosperous Non-European bourgeois class” (“In Our Lifetime”, 1956).
When the opportunity to negotiate a deal with the white rulers ultimately arose, it was in the context of the counterrevolutionary destruction of the bureaucratically degenerated Soviet workers state in 1991-92. This left the ANC without leverage to extract even minimal economic concessions from the Randlords and imperialists. Instead, the latter relied on political concessions to maintain their rule, co-opting the Tripartite Alliance tops to act as their front men and contain the militancy of the black proletariat.
In the process of betraying the aspirations of the black majority, the ANC tops dropped their populist pretensions like a bad habit. While still in prison, Mandela had reassured ANC supporters in early 1990 that “nationalisation of the mines, banks and monopoly industries is the policy of the ANC, and a change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable”. Within a few months, “Madiba” had “seen the light” and began assuring the white rulers that they did not have to worry about nationalisations. After the April 1994 elections, he restated this position: “In our economic policies...there is not a single reference to things like nationalisation, and this is not accidental. There is not a single slogan that will connect us with any Marxist ideology” (Sunday Times, 1 May 1994; quoted in Marais, Limits To Change, 1998).
Since then, the Tripartite Alliance government has demonstrated in a thousand different ways that it is a reliable enforcer of the rule of the Randlords and their big brothers in Wall Street and the City of London. The clearest and bloodiest proof was delivered with the Marikana massacre of 16 August 2012, when it oversaw the police killing of 34 striking black mineworkers at the behest of the London-based platinum giant Lonmin.
Now, with the possibility that their grip on governmental power could be threatened for the first time since 1994, the ANC tops have cynically begun to mouth some populist rhetoric about land “expropriation without compensation”. This is a transparent bit of electioneering. Following local elections in 2016 that saw the party lose control of several big metros, including Johannesburg, it’s hoped that “EWC” will galvanise the ANC’s voting base this year and contain losses to the EFF, which has made land expropriation one of its main calling cards since it was founded in 2013.
The land question has also become a political football in the factional struggles within the ANC between supporters of Cyril Ramaphosa and of Jacob Zuma. The latter began pushing “EWC” toward the end of Zuma’s presidency in an effort to dress up the anti-worker, anti-poor attacks and rampant corruption of his nine-year presidency in populist garb. The two factions nearly came to blows over land expropriation when Zuma’s supporters introduced a motion calling to amend the constitution on the final day of the ANC’s national conference in December 2017, where Ramaphosa was narrowly elected to succeed Zuma. As we wrote last year, the hands of the leaders of both the Zuma and Ramaphosa factions are stained with the blood of Marikana: it is suicidal for the working class to give the slightest political support to any of them (see “Ramaphosa vs. Zuma: ANC Factions of Marikana Massacre”, SSA No. 15, January 2018).
The mere talk of fiddling with the constitution over property rights is very worrying to the bourgeoisie. As good front men, Ramaphosa and the ANC tops are keenly aware of this and have constantly reassured the Randlords and imperialists that there will be “no smash and grab” land seizures. Rather, as Ramaphosa warned in an Op-Ed in the London Financial Times in August 2018, something must be done to ward off further instability. The editors of that mouthpiece of finance capital in turn gave him their backing, decrying Donald Trump’s “clumsy” Twittervention earlier that month and warning that “the alternatives” to Ramaphosa’s effort “to go about this in a measured way...would spell disaster” (ft.com, 26 August 2018).
The “measured” approach envisioned, however, is just more of the same. Ramaphosa has indicated that expropriation should focus on derelict buildings and unused state-owned land, while ruling out productive farms. In other words, fiddling around with allocating a small fraction of non-valuable land while leaving all of the high-quality, productive land untouched.
Contrary to the wishful thinking of Ramaphosa and the Financial Times, pitiful cosmetic changes like this are not going to quell the masses’ land hunger. Recognising this in their own way, other representatives of the big bourgeoisie worry that Ramaphosa has conciliated populist moods in the ANC far too much, and that this could unleash popular discontent that he and the ANC won’t be able to contain. For example, senior Business Day columnist Peter Bruce admonished Ramaphosa in September 2018 to “Take charge, Mr President, and do it now”, complaining:
“Already his pledge that there will be no land grabs under his presidency is being made hollow. There is land being grabbed in the south of Johannesburg, in Hammanskraal, in Limpopo—and it isn’t being taken back by the police. Why not, Mr President? Surely the police have standing orders on this?”
These words recall the bourgeoisie’s hue and cry, in the early weeks of August 2012, over the “lawlessness” of the striking Lonmin workers in Marikana. No one should be fooled by their hypocritical hand-wringing and the crocodile tears they shed after the Marikana massacre: the “stability” demanded by the Randlords, in the face of massive social discontent at the base of society, means bloody police repression of the workers and oppressed.
The key lesson from Marikana—where the workers showed no lack of militancy and bravery—is that the working class must be organised independently of the capitalist state and the bourgeois parties that serve the class enemy. This requires above all a political struggle to break the most advanced sections of the working class from reformist and nationalist false consciousness, winning them to the task of forging a revolutionary vanguard party capable of utilising the crises of this system to lead the workers to power through socialist revolution.
Bankruptcy of Bourgeois Populism
Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters have, since their inception, styled themselves as the champions of the striking Marikana workers. The EFF is certainly much more adept than the ANC at using populism to appeal to the discontent of the black masses. However, their aim in doing so is not to mobilise them against the neo-apartheid capitalist system, but rather to frighten the mainly white bourgeoisie and convince them that the EFF’s services are needed to preserve this system. They promote themselves as the best candidates for keeping a lid on things—perhaps at the price of some concessions from the Randlords—in order to enrich themselves and their cronies.
Populists throw around phrases about “the people” in order to conceal the fundamental division of society into hostile classes with irreconcilably opposed material interests. In South Africa, populism is typically wrapped in the envelope of black nationalism—the false view that all black people have a common interest that transcends class divisions. Malema expressed this during an EFF meeting with black professionals in Sandton last year, telling the audience: “Before we deal with the class system, we must deal with the race issue first.... let’s build our own system and have it in place when we are gradually taking them out” (news24.com, 23 November 2018).
This succinctly captures the class interests of the would-be black exploiters that Malema and his ilk represent. Their main gripe with neo-apartheid is that the Randlords have not given them a big enough role in the superexploitation of their “own” people. Indeed, many black nationalists argue that the black cops and security guards in Marikana (and even black Lonmin shareholders like Ramaphosa) are the brothers of the striking workers that were massacred! Against this grotesque lie, we insist that cops, whether black or white, are the armed thugs of the racist bosses.
The nationalist populism of Malema and the EFF has credence among black workers due to the heavy overlap of class exploitation and racial oppression that characterises this society. This unique feature of South African capitalist society underlies our call for a black-centred workers government, which expresses the recognition that national liberation is impossible without the overthrow of neo-apartheid capitalism. As Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky put it in a 1935 letter to his supporters in South Africa, a revolutionary party of the proletariat in this country must “openly and boldly take the solution of the national (racial) problem in its hands”. In doing so, we seek to advance the struggle against national oppression as the strategic lever for socialist revolution in this country. As Trotsky emphasised, “The historical weapon of national liberation can be only the class struggle” (“Letter to South African Revolutionaries”, reprinted in The Fight for a Revolutionary Vanguard Party: Polemics on the South African Left, International Communist League pamphlet, 1997).
The EFF nationalists, in stark contrast, seek to channel the discontent of the black majority into the dead end of bourgeois reform schemes. A case in point is their land programme. The first “cardinal pillar” in the EFF’s founding manifesto demands that the state, “through its legislative capacity, transfer all land to the state, which will administer and use land for sustainable-development purposes”. Under this arrangement, former land owners would be allowed to apply for “land-use licences” that would be granted for up to 25 years with the possibility of renewal.
This sounds radical compared with what the ANC promises, and has also been met with hysteria from the big bourgeoisie (as well as some small-time black property owners, including tribal chiefs) who decry it as an assault on private property. At the same time, it has been a major source of the EFF’s popularity among the dispossessed black masses, especially unemployed youth. While this is understandable, particularly in light of the abject failure of “land reform” under the ANC, in and of itself such a reform remains completely in the confines of capitalism. It would not guarantee a change in social relations on the farms or the satisfaction of land hunger amongst the black majority. It’s already the case that mining companies are required to apply for state licences to extract minerals, yet this has changed nothing in the brutal superexploitation of black mineworkers or the wretched living conditions of communities around the mines.
Malema and the EFF cynically promise the black majority that getting back the land is as easy as passing a motion in parliament. In a December press conference, Malema declared, “The land issue is getting resolved in South Africa through a peaceful means within the constitutional framework of the republic.” To call this a pipe dream is a vast understatement. Peter Groenewald, MP for the ultra-right wing, racist Freedom Front Plus—whose main constituency is white farmers—gave a more accurate picture of things when he threatened, during an August debate in parliament, that the farmers “are not going to leave their land freely”.
While the white farmers are preparing to resist any potential encroachments, so are the banks (in a very different way). Total farm debt amounts to R197 billion, about 75 percent of which is collateralised by land. If one goes beyond farm-related debt, the total for property-backed loans is more than R1 trillion. Any serious encroachment on the white minority’s domination of land would immediately pose the question of what happens to that debt. The heads of the big banks, for their part, are threatening that land expropriation will plunge the country into chaos, with the CEO of Nedbank raising the spectre of a “classical banking crisis”.
In the same vein, the right-wing opponents of land expropriation never fail to threaten that it will lead to economic catastrophe like in Zimbabwe. The collapse of Zimbabwe’s economy was in large part the result of economic warfare by the imperialist overlords, who sought to punish the population for the Mugabe regime’s defiant seizure of white-owned farms. Of course, the ANC government has its share of responsibility, having acted as point men for the imperialists on the diplomatic front while assisting the Randlords’ exploitation of the situation economically. As Marxist internationalists, we defended the land seizures and opposed the imperialist sanctions. But we never gave any political support to the bourgeois ZANU-PF. We highlighted the bourgeois character of Zimbabwe’s “fast track land reform”, pointing out that it was Mugabe’s ZANU-PF cronies who were its main beneficiaries, while the regime pitted farm workers against land hungry peasants. Many of the poor peasants who received small farms even lacked seeds and basic machinery needed to productively operate them.
To Malema and the EFF, the threats of the farmers, banks and imperialists are immaterial—for the simple reason that the EFF schemes are not intended to resolve the land question. Their agitation around the land question is nothing more than a pressure tactic toward the bourgeoisie, whose rule they are committed to maintaining.
Malema, in particular, is a master at this game who cynically changes his tune to suit the political needs of the moment and the audience he’s addressing. He went from promising, in 2008, that he would “kill” for Jacob Zuma...to arguing, in 2016, that it’s necessary to ally with “white monopoly capital” to get rid of the Zuma-led ANC. (The latter entailed voting the white-racist Democratic Alliance into power in several metros and making trips to London to address and confer with representatives of British imperialism, including one Lord Robin Renwick—former ambassador to apartheid South Africa under Margaret Thatcher!) And while Malema tells his supporters at EFF rallies that the land is rightfully theirs, he concluded his speech to the 2017 South African Property Owners Association convention by beseeching the landlords and real estate moguls: “If you are going to invest in property today, it is also going to be wise to invest in the EFF.... There is no future without the EFF” (Daily Maverick, 21 June 2017).
From the standpoint of the working class and the oppressed, landless black majority, however, it is necessary to have a class-struggle response to the blackmail of the banks and the intransigence of the white farmers. Overturning the legacy of colonialism and apartheid on the land question demands a broader struggle against the capitalist system as a whole, including fighting for workers revolution in the imperialist powers.
In particular, we are for expropriating the banks. As Leon Trotsky explained in the 1938 Transitional Programme, under imperialism finance capital is dominant and the banks have actual command over the economy:
“It is impossible to take a single serious step in the struggle against monopolistic despotism and capitalistic anarchy—which supplement one another in their work of destruction—if the commanding posts of banks are left in the hands of predatory capitalists. In order to create a unified system of investments and credits, along a rational plan corresponding to the interests of the entire people, it is necessary to merge all the banks into a single national institution.”
Trotsky explained that a single state bank will be able to create much more favourable conditions for small depositors as well as favourable credit conditions. What is decisive, however, is that “the entire economy—first and foremost large-scale industry and transport—directed by a single financial staff, will serve the vital interests of the workers and all other toilers”. This is possible “only if the state power itself passes completely from the hands of the exploiters into the hands of the toilers”.
Fighting for this revolutionary programme entails politically exposing and defeating nationalist-populist demagogues like Malema and the EFF, who despite their openly bourgeois programme have gained a hearing among significant sections of the black proletariat. This is thanks in no small part to the wretched betrayals of the reformist misleaders of the SACP and COSATU who, as component parts of the bourgeois Tripartite Alliance, have assumed responsibility for governing racist neo-apartheid capitalism. Along with countless betrayals of working-class struggles, this has meant lending support to the ANC’s servile “willing seller, willing buyer” policy and helping administer the capitalist state machinery used to demolish “illegal” shacks and houses, persecute land rights activists, etc. This state stands in unbroken continuity with the white-supremacist apartheid state, as attested to by the numerous apartheid-era acts that are still on the books.
One such act—the 1956 Riotous Assemblies Act—was used in 2014 by the virulently white-racist outfit AfriForum to bring a case against Malema following EFF rallies in which Malema allegedly urged his supporters to occupy land. That act, giving the state the legal power to prohibit public demonstrations deemed to engender “feelings of hostility between European and non-European inhabitants of the Union [of South Africa]”, was part of a long series of laws enacted in the 1950s to entrench the apartheid system. Irrespective of our political opposition to the EFF, we say it is in the interest of the workers movement that the legal vendetta against Malema and the EFF be defeated. Similarly, it’s necessary to defend the countless land rights activists who have been attacked by the cops and dragged through the courts. This includes defending organisations like the Durban-based Abahlali baseMjondolo, whose leaders and members have for years been subject to violent harassment, including assassinations, at the hands of the capitalist state.
For Permanent Revolution!
Our model is the 1917 Russian October Revolution, led by V.I. Lenin together with Trotsky. That revolution was like a beacon illuminating the path to liberation for the oppressed masses around the world—not least because of its extraordinary impact with respect to the land question. It liberated the Russian peasantry from the yoke of the big landowners who, in alliance with the Tsarist autocratic state and the church, had oppressed and bled them dry for centuries.
Following the revolution of February 1917, which overthrew the Tsar, the peasants expected big things from the bourgeois Provisional Government that replaced the tsarist regime—especially after representatives of the populist Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), the traditional champion of peasant interests, entered the government in May 1917. But all of their hopes were frustrated, as the SR ministers in the Provisional Government exhorted them to refrain from seizing the land. Instead, the SRs’ programme was to wait for the bourgeois Constituent Assembly to divide up the land.
The attitude of Lenin’s Bolsheviks, who stood in principled, uncompromising opposition to the bourgeois Provisional Government, was completely different. The Bolsheviks called on the peasants to take the land now. Lenin repeatedly emphasised to the peasants that their aspirations for land could only be realised in alliance with the proletarian socialist revolution against capitalism, and indeed the October Revolution delivered on this promise by overthrowing the bourgeoisie and putting power in the hands of the soviets of worker and peasant delegates. One of the first acts of the Soviet government was to carry out the SRs’ unfulfilled promises to the peasants.
Like in pre-1917 Russia, the land question in South Africa is a potential motor force for socialist revolution. But the structure of agriculture is vastly different. Whereas Russian agriculture at the time was sustained by some 10 million peasant families, in today’s South Africa 35 000 commercial farms (almost all of them white-owned) completely dominate food production—with some estimating that just 7000 of these farms produce 80 percent of all food.
Agricultural production on these farms requires massive capital investment and employs a level of technology comparable to that of industrial enterprises producing for the world market. To effectively manage such a “factory in the field” takes years of specialised education and training. In addition to the high degree of concentration of farming, agriculture in South Africa is dominated both “upstream” (fertiliser, agro-chemicals) and “downstream” (food processing, distribution, retail) by a handful of big capitalists—global giants like Bayer Monsanto and DowDuPont, as well as regional monopolies like Tiger Brands, Shoprite and Pick N Pay.
Hundreds of thousands of black and coloured farm workers labour on the commercial farms, making poverty wages and suffering under some of the most oppressive, unsafe working conditions anywhere. These workers fought militantly for improved conditions during a wave of wildcat strikes in the wine vineyards and other farms of the Western Cape in 2012-13. Those strikes were notable in breaking through the divisions between black and coloured workers, and also between immigrants and South African-born workers, which have historically been fomented and exploited by the white bosses.
But the farm workers are a very vulnerable section of the working class, with levels of union organisation much lower than in the industrial working class. This has been exacerbated by increased casualisation through parasitic labour brokers and other means, using murderous divide-and-rule to shore up these bloodsucking operations. For example, in 2009 the town of De Doorns in the Western Cape—an epicentre of the 2012-13 strike wave—was the site of anti-immigrant pogroms against Zimbabwean workers, reportedly stoked by South African labour brokers who were trying to eliminate their Zimbabwean competitors.
What is urgently needed is to mobilise the social power of the industrial working class in concrete acts of labour solidarity, to aid the unionisation of farm workers and their fight for better conditions. This would be linked to a broader struggle to smash the parasitic labour brokers and other middlemen through class struggle means (see “For a Class-Struggle Fight Against Labour Broker Parasites!”, SSA No. 7, Winter 2011). The main obstacle to this is the reformist misleadership of the trade unions—in particular the COSATU bureaucracy, who together with the leaders of the Stalinist-derived SACP have subordinated the interests of their mainly black, proletarian base to the class enemy through the Tripartite Alliance nationalist popular front with the ANC. Their main concern during the 2012-13 strike wave was to demobilise the farm workers, as they worked overtime to shore up the Zuma-led ANC in the wake of the Marikana massacre.
In recent years, some sections of COSATU—most notably the metalworkers union NUMSA—have formally split from the Tripartite Alliance and in 2017 formed the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU). However, while SAFTU has generally adopted more militant rhetoric than the COSATU tops, this formal split is not based on principled opposition to class collaboration. The SAFTU leadership wants to return to the “good old days” of the ANC, frequently declaring its loyalty to the ANC’s bourgeois-populist Freedom Charter. A class-struggle leadership of the unions must be built in opposition to these popular-frontist politics, and doing so is linked to building the revolutionary vanguard party needed to lead the successful overthrow of neo-apartheid capitalism.
A black-centred workers government will expropriate the 35 000 highly mechanised and capital-intensive commercial farms, converting them into state-run farms and collective farms. The agricultural proletariat would play a leading role in this process, forming a critical link to the revolutionary proletariat in the industrial and urban centres. By aligning agricultural production on the state-run farms to the needs of the population and incorporating these farms into a central economic plan, it would be possible to not only ensure the “food security” that the bourgeoisie presently uses as blackmail but to expand food production and for the first time provide the poor with adequate, high-quality nutrition.
Rejecting such a revolutionary outlook, many on the South African left promote small-scale farming as the “solution”—in reality providing a cover for leaving the big, productive farms in the hands of the white capitalists. Former Young Communist League leader Mazibuko Jara argued, in Amandla! magazine, for a shift “away from industrialised agriculture” (“Expropriation without compensation: how far can it go?”, aidc.org.za, 20 August 2018). According to Jara, “Government must be pushed to subdivide farm holdings and to support changed, low-input land uses and production technologies.” This is not only utopian, but reactionary—seeking to turn back the clock of economic development and re-establish pre-capitalist farming methods.
In Russia, where the burning problem was one of modernising agricultural production, Lenin argued for the exact opposite of what Jara proposes, for example writing in April 1917 in an article directed to the Congress of Peasants’ Deputies:
“The question of continuing to run the big farms, wherever at all possible, as large-scale enterprises, directed by agricultural experts and the Soviets of Agricultural Labourers’ Deputies and using the best machines, seeds, and most efficient farming methods, must be discussed and practical measures taken without delay.
“We cannot conceal from the peasants, least of all from the rural proletarians and semi-proletarians, that small-scale farming under commodity economy and capitalism cannot rid humanity of mass poverty, that it is necessary to think about going over to large-scale farming conducted on public lines and to tackle this job at once by teaching the masses, and in turn learning from the masses, the practical expedient measures for bringing about such a transition.”
The implementation of this perspective proved not to be feasible in the immediate aftermath of the October Revolution, largely because of the enormous social weight of Russia’s large peasantry. However, South Africa’s agricultural production already is dominated by large farms, so the task of a workers state here would be that much easier.
Alongside the commercial farms dominated by the white capitalists, there are currently more than 200 000 small-scale black farmers who struggle to remain viable, many of them selling their produce to street vendors and other informal markets as a main or secondary source of income. In addition, an estimated 2-2,5 million people carry on some sub-subsistence farming in the “communal lands” of the former bantustans. The food they produce is not even enough to provide their main nourishment, much less income, with their main sources of income coming from social grants and remittances from relatives working in the mines, factories or on commercial farms.
According to the propaganda of the racist capitalist rulers, this is just the natural order of things. It’s not uncommon to hear this expressed in the most blatantly racist terms, such as those used by Agri SA executive director Omri van Zyl, who told the Financial Mail (23 August 2018), “Farming is in one’s blood”! In one arrogant, ignorant phrase, more than a century of violent land dispossession and legal disenfranchisement of black farmers is passed off as a product of “genetics”! Not to mention decades of generous state-subsidised promotion of white commercial farmers, who for decades constituted one of the main social bases of the National Party regime.
Another cog in the machinery oppressing the rural black masses was the tribal chieftaincy system. Artificially perpetuated and manipulated since the days of the British colonialists—who eagerly seized upon and reinforced the most retrogressive aspects of tribal and traditional culture as a means of propping up their rule—this system was notoriously “perfected” under apartheid with the introduction of the “homelands” or bantustans. The white supremacist regime pampered reactionary parasites like Zulu “King” Zwelithini and his uncle Mangosuthu Buthelezi in return for ruling these desolate, poverty-stricken areas with an iron fist and collaborating in terrorising and murdering ANC members and other anti-apartheid activists. One of the last gifts the National Party gave these reactionary tools was to establish the Ingonyama Trust, literally in the dying days of apartheid, as a slush fund for Zwelithini and a means of perpetuating reactionary tribal-based divisions among the black majority. The Zulu monarch recently showed that he has not forgotten his community of interests, forming an alliance with the AfriForum racists to fight against possible land expropriations!
The tribal chieftaincy system has been perpetuated under neo-apartheid by the ANC, which has copied from the colonial and apartheid rulers’ playbook by promoting reactionary, anti-woman measures like the Traditional Courts Bill (see “Down With the Traditional Courts Bill!”, SSA No. 9, Winter 2013). The SACP in particular continues to promote the “National Democratic Revolution” (NDR), the South African variant of the Stalinist schema of “two-stage revolution”, in which first the workers help the “progressive” bourgeois forces come to power in the “democratic” stage, while the second “socialist” stage is postponed indefinitely. The bankruptcy of the “NDR” is utterly exposed in the former homelands, where even the most basic democratic rights are denied, willy nilly, to a large part of the black population.
Because of the wholesale denial of black people’s right to own property, and the brutal history of forced removals, the demand for “security of tenure” had a prominent place in the anti-apartheid struggle. But despite the formal guarantee of this right in the constitution, “security of tenure” under neo-apartheid must seem like a cruel joke to the toilers, especially women toilers, in the former bantustans. One NGO, the Rural Women’s Movement, is currently representing more than 400 widows who have been hounded off land administered by Zwelithini’s Ingonyama Trust after their husbands died. In Xolobeni in the Eastern Cape, community members have fought for years against attempts by an Australian mining company, in league with the local chief, to displace them from their land in order to mine the sand dunes for titanium. Stories like this are repeated in rural areas across the country, with dozens of community activists killed every year for fighting such land grabs.
Like the ANC, the EFF embraces the tribal authorities on the basis of black nationalism. Thus Malema spoke alongside Zolani Mkiva, the general secretary of CONTRALESA, who the EFF formed a bloc with, in July 2018. Mkiva declared his support for the Ingonyama Trust because the land it administers is “in the hands of Africans. It’s not stolen land.” Although this flies in the face of the EFF’s supposedly non-negotiable “first cardinal pillar”, Malema expressed no disagreement.
Divide-and-rule is also a tool that the neo-apartheid regime inherited from their forebears. Just as it’s used in the Western Cape to divide farm workers, it is also rolled out in KwaZulu Natal, where Indians form a significant component of the proletariat, which is in the main black African. Alongside virulently anti-Indian outfits like Mayibuye Afrika Forum, which includes members of the ANC and EFF, Malema helps stoke poisonous anti-Indian prejudices among black Africans by seizing on well-known examples of anti-black racism to paint the Indian population as one reactionary mass.
It is no accident that both the EFF and ANC so crudely mimic the colonial and apartheid rulers in propping up the chieftaincy and promoting divide-and-rule. With the advent of imperialism, capitalism lost the ability to play any progressive historical role, and bourgeois parties like the ANC and the EFF are tied by a thousand threads to imperialism. At the heart of Trotsky’s perspective of permanent revolution is the recognition that, in countries of belated capitalist development, only working-class power can resolve the outstanding democratic tasks like national liberation or freeing women from pre-capitalist slavery. The working class, once in power, cannot stop at resolving the democratic tasks but is inevitably faced with beginning the work of socialist construction while fighting tooth and nail to extend the revolution to the advanced capitalist countries to ensure its ultimate success.
Fighting as a tribune of all the oppressed, a Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard party would mobilise the power of the overwhelmingly black proletariat on behalf of widows, farm dwellers and others who are struggling by whatever means available to hold onto the land they occupy against dispossession at the hands of the chiefs and farm owners. Ensuring that basic democratic demands like security of tenure are met will be a task of a black-centred workers government. Such a government, basing itself on the working people, would be fundamentally different from the current government in terms of the class interests it represents and the aims it pursues. While ruthlessly attacking the capitalists’ private monopoly of the means of production and stripping the chiefs and other capitalist lackeys of their wealth and privileges, it would for the first time provide real guarantees to the poor of their right to occupy and work their small holdings.
To this end, soviets (councils) of rural toilers would have an important role to play in democratically resolving the specific problems of the rural areas—e.g. deciding on allocation of communal land, collaborating with the workers state to exploit mineral resources, training and supporting small farmers, etc.—and linking the rural areas to the workers soviets in the industrial centres. They would be important instruments for fighting to eradicate anti-woman traditional practices—such as lobola, ukuthwala, widow abuse, virginity testing and female genital mutilation—which are particularly rife in the rural areas.
Soviets of rural toilers would also have an important role to play in ensuring the genuinely democratic resolution of conflicts over land claims, including between different tribal-language and ethnic groups. This is critical, particularly at a time when the betrayals of neo-apartheid have intensified the struggles of different sections of the non-white oppressed groups over the increasingly scant crumbs from the capitalist rulers. This is seen not only in the tribalism whipped up by the likes of Zwelithini, but in the frequent attacks on foreign-owned shops and other anti-immigrant attacks.
Such measures would in themselves represent a huge step forward in comparison to neo-apartheid. At the same time, a black-centred workers government would pursue a plan of industrial development, construction and public works which would among other things provide decent jobs and skills training for all. Such a government would seek, as part of a socialist federation of Southern Africa, to completely transform the entire region and lift its peoples out of poverty. The success of this depends crucially on the victory of workers revolutions in the advanced capitalist countries and the creation of an international socialist planned economy. When the hideous divisions of society along class and race lines are no more than memories, the remarkable beauty and resources of the land can truly be enjoyed by all.