Spartacist South Africa No. 8

Winter 2012


From the Archives of Women and Revolution:

On Black Women in South Africa: Smash Apartheid! For Workers Revolution!

We reprint below, in excerpted form, an article from Women and Revolution (W&R) No. 31 (Spring 1986). W&R was published by the Women’s Commission of the Spartacist League/U.S., section of the International Communist League, between 1973 and 1996. From 1998, W&R articles have been published in Spartacist, the quadrilingual theoretical journal of the ICL. Written over 25 years ago, the article highlights many aspects of the brutal oppression of women which, despite some changes, continue to be familiar in the “new”, neo-apartheid, South Africa. It is particularly relevant now, given that the Tripartite Alliance government is currently trying to push through the reactionary Traditional Courts Bill, which will further strengthen the power of the tribal chiefs.

In the living hell that is South African apartheid, the oppression of women reflects the most intense contradictions of that tortured society. Apartheid is not simply a particularly vicious form of racism whose excesses might be purged while leaving the capitalist structure of the society intact. South African capitalism is fundamentally based on the structures of apartheid: the migrant labor system, centrally in the mines, and the so-called “homeland” system for blacks—the barren wasteland bantustans where the black women of South Africa live and die, forcibly separated from their working men, left to tend the young, the aged and the dying in starvation conditions. These “homeland” bantustans are a filthy lie from start to finish—the “homeland” of the white minority comprises 87 percent of South Africa, including all the mines, industries, ports, the rail system, the good land, in short all the wealth and development accumulated through the sweat of superexploited black labor.

In no other country in the world is the entire majority population denied their very birthright, their right to be at home in their own country. Winnie Mandela, called by many blacks “the mother of her country”, the heroic wife of imprisoned African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela, expressed that bitter truth for all black South Africans. After her arrests last December by the white police state as she tried to return to her home in Soweto after her banning restrictions were loosened, she stated: “I am charged with a crime that does not exist in most of the democratic, civilized world—being at home” (New York Times, 26 December 1985).

The vicious apartheid system, centrally the bantustans, exacerbates all the oppression black women face, not only as blacks, but also as women. Accompanying the virtual enslavement of the black majority is the systemic government repression in all spheres of life, not least in the realm of sexual relations. Indeed, apartheid South Africa magnifies and institutionalizes all that is backward, brutal and sick in capitalist society. Given its dependence on the migratory labor force and the bantustans from which that labor is drawn, apartheid capitalism also finds it useful to deliberately maintain and foster tribalism.

On the bantustans, white judges—the so-called white witch doctors—“interpret” tribal laws, including enforcing a bride price for women, known as lobolo, a transfer of cattle or cash from the husband to the wife’s father, which gives the husband the right to repudiate the marriage at any time simply by forfeiting his lobolo payment. An African woman married by such “customary union” in the bantustan is considered a perpetual minor under her husband’s control and is unable to own property in her own right.

In fact, such “interpretations” by the white ruling class are even a deformation of tribal society, as Hilda Bernstein has pointed out in “For their triumphs and for their tears: women in apartheid South Africa” (1975). She notes that while “the concept of the independent woman cannot take shape” in tribal society, being based on kinship groups rather than any conception of individual rights, nonetheless women had some protections within that kinship structure. But in South Africa today the “tribal chiefs”, for example, are not heads of tribes but simply appointed civil servants. The retribalization enforced by the white capitalist rulers has superimposed the worst aspects of capitalism on the intense backwardness of tribalism. Such attempts to run the reel of history in reverse have met sharp opposition from the black population: the 1976 Soweto uprisings were in part revolts against the teaching of Afrikaans and tribal languages rather than English in the schools.

South Africa, like tsarist Russia, represents an extreme case of uneven and combined capitalist development. South Africa’s advanced industrial infrastructure is entirely dependent on a rigidly totalitarian, colonial subjugation of the black, Asian and coloured (mixed-race) toiling masses. Inside Soweto, the two-million-strong black city outside Johannesburg, the largest structure is a huge electrical power station: but that power lights up white Johannesburg, not Soweto, where only 20 percent have electricity; for the rest it is darkness at night or at best candlelight or kerosene lamps. Yet blacks who live there consider themselves lucky, for wives and children are allowed, unlike in labor camps where such “superfluous appendages” are literally thrown away back onto the bantustans.

Not far from the modern auto plants of Port Elizabeth, Xhosa youth are initiated into tribal secret rites leading to circumcision and manhood. “There are minor differences between Pedes [sic] and Zulus. But they are not differences we can classify as relevant. The Pedes circumcise their women and the Xhosas do not”, a former “Black Consciousness” woman leader and disciple of Steve Biko, Thenjiwe Mtintso, told American reporter June Goodwin (Cry Amandla!, 1984). Sexual mutilation is not irrelevant! This shocking statement in itself reveals the wracking contradictions of South African society, as well as the inability of any form of nationalism to even approach the question of the liberation of women from such horrifying backwardness. Indeed, in those African countries formally independent of colonialism, like Zimbabwe or Angola, the masses of blacks and especially women still suffer under the most intense poverty and backwardness.

The Bantustans: Industrial Reserves of the Unemployed

Four million African women are relegated to the bantustans where, on an inadequate plot of impoverished land, they are supposed to scratch out of the brush and rock the subsistence to nourish and raise a family, care for the sick, the aged and the unemployed. These inhuman conditions lead inevitably to disease and early death. The South African government keeps no mortality statistics for blacks, but it is estimated that in some rural areas infant mortality is over 25 percent.

Many black women in South Africa do work—some as agricultural workers, some in textile industries and many of these have participated in union organizing struggles—but always, always under the hideous deformations of apartheid. In Soweto some black women work as nurses at the huge Baragwanath Hospital, largest in the Southern hemisphere. A bitter strike by black nurses and auxiliary workers last fall exposed the starvation wage conditions in this medical outpost of the forced labor camp that is South African apartheid. Yet such jobs are considered among the “best” black women can find.

Most black women who work in the cities are domestic servants, paid hardly anything at all because they have the “privilege” of living in the house of the white baas (boss): that is, forcibly separated from their husbands or their children, who grow up on the bantustans cared for by female relatives. “You go to the butcher and get their meat and servants’ meat. They call it servants’ meat. They write ‘servants’ on the label. You don’t know whether you eat good meat or old or bad”, said one black woman (Cry Amandla!, 1984).

The heart of apartheid is the migratory labor system, the reduction of South African blacks to dispossessed foreigners within their own country and the reduction of the surrounding black states to labor colonies for South Africa’s mines, factories and farms. The bantustans with their forced evictions and tribalization, the contract labor system, the onerous pass laws, all exist to turn Southern Africa into a vast reservoir of superexploited black labor. It is on the bantustans that the next generation of wage slaves is raised. It is to the bantustans that black workers must return when they are unemployed or injured, or to be buried by their widows. (As late as 1981, in one year over 600 workers were killed in the gold mines alone, another 119 in the coal mines.) Thousands of workers, maimed for life while toiling for the white ruling class, are dumped back on the bantustans. The full brunt of “social insurance” for South Africa’s black proletariat is borne by the women relegated to these unspeakably destitute “homelands”.

This system was developed under the auspices of British imperialism in the pre-World War I period: apartheid was created in the struggle to extract the tremendous gold reserves and diamonds of the South African mines. As H.J. and R.E. Simons point out in their book Class and Colour in South Africa 1850-1950:

“The high turnover of migrants exposed great numbers of men to the unfavourable conditions, spread the risk of pneumoconiosis and venereal diseases over a wide area, and delayed the peasant worker’s adjustment to an industrialized environment.... A certain way to reduce the high death rate ... was to settle the miners with their families in villages along the Reef.... The owners preferred to offset the cost of wasted lives and skills with savings on housing, food and wages. Africans received less than a living wage, while their families kept themselves on the land. The owners contended that the migratory system was ‘a fundamental factor’ in the mining economy and essential to their prosperity. If the African ‘has not got the reserve subsistence to go back to’, said Gemmill, the secretary of the Chamber, ‘we cannot afford a wage to make it possible for him to live in an urban area’.”

This system is in essence unchanged to this day.

For Permanent Revolution in South Africa!

The Achilles’ heel of apartheid is its absolute dependence on the labor of the six-million-strong black proletariat. Hundreds of thousands of these black workers are coming together with the coloured proletariat, Indians and even some courageous whites, like martyred union organizer Neil Aggett, in a burgeoning union movement. For Marxists, the principle that those who labor must rule is fundamental. The trade-union movement provides an extremely important form of mass organization for the black workers. But the black proletariat is still being used as cattle to haul the ideological cart of nationalism. A Bolshevik party must be built to lead a victorious struggle for “amandla”, power, for all the oppressed, through workers revolution.

South Africa is the one place in sub-Saharan Africa where there is the possibility for a workers state, because here the black population has been partially absorbed, at the bottom, into a modern industrialized society which can, based on the revolutionary reorganization of society, provide a decent life for its citizens. The black working class must pose itself as the vanguard of workers revolution, not only within South Africa, but also as the motor force for the socialist reconstruction of all Southern Africa.

In this regard the black miners of South Africa resemble the oil workers of Baku in tsarist Russia. Recruited from the many peoples of the Caucasus and Central Asia, they were not only the vanguard of the Bolshevik Revolution in the region but became a transmission belt for communism to the toiling masses and oppressed peoples of Turkey and Persia. Contrast the mass misery of neocolonial black Africa with Soviet Central Asia today. At the time of the 1917 Russian Revolution that region was largely inhabited by illiterate, mullah-ridden nomads. Today, their social progress is measurable in centuries and in some respects (i.e., literacy) compares favorably to the United States. Most striking is the change in the status of women in these societies, freed from their utter subjugation to tribal elders and barbaric slavery.

Because South Africa, like tsarist Russia, is such an extreme case of combined and uneven capitalist development, it also represents an extreme application of Trotsky’s perspective of permanent revolution summarizing the experience of the Russian Revolution. This holds that in countries whose bourgeois development has been belated, especially colonial and semi-colonial countries, genuine democracy and national emancipation can be achieved only under the dictatorship of the proletariat. A workers revolution in South Africa will be the spark for the liberation of the desperately impoverished black masses throughout the continent. More broadly, socialist revolution must conquer internationally—only the worldwide expropriation of imperialism will lay the basis for the international division of labor upon which a communist society must be based.

Writing of tsarist Russia, Trotsky described the permanent revolution as:

 “... a revolution which welds together the oppressed masses of town and country around the proletariat organised in soviets; as a national revolution that raises the proletariat to power and thereby opens up the possibility of a democratic revolution growing over into the socialist revolution.

“The permanent revolution is no isolated leap of the proletariat; rather it is the rebuilding of the whole nation under the leadership of the proletariat.”

The Permanent Revolution (1930)

The lessons of October—the victorious Russian workers revolution of 1917—are key for the liberation of South Africa’s exploited and oppressed: the women, the youth, the entire disenfranchised black population, the Indian and coloured peoples, the urban and rural workers. Precisely because apartheid and all its institutions are necessary appendages to capitalist rule itself in South Africa, the only solution is workers revolution. The African National Congress’ call for a “non-racial, democratic” capitalism is a utopian scheme for reform which must founder on the rocks of brutal competition for scarce economic resources under current conditions. To accomplish the rudiments of women’s liberation in South Africa requires a program to provide those millions trapped on the bantustans with productive work, which means smashing the profit system and rebuilding the society on a different class basis.


A genuine revolutionary leadership must unite all the oppressed and neutralize a section of the white population (i.e., convince some whites not to fight for apartheid). Certainly a black-centered workers government would struggle to place in its service the technical, scientific and administrative skills which the white population to a large extent monopolizes. Meanwhile, the existence of groups such as Black Sash and the “anti-conscription” campaign reflect weak links in the attempt to impose a laager mentality upon all South African whites. In the brutal, nasty, patriarchal South African police state, in which the Dutch Reformed Church imposes its own form of Christian fundamentalism, it’s no accident that among the white opponents of apartheid, many are women.

The women of South Africa are destined to play a crucial role in the South African workers revolution, as the women of Russia were key to the October Revolution. During the 1950s, when the Pass Laws were extended to women, there was a massive mobilization of black, Indian, coloured and white women from all over South Africa—very often walking for hundreds of miles in a massive pilgrimage. They gathered 20,000-strong in Johannesburg and sang the freedom song whose lyrics must resound soon: “Now you have touched the woman, you have struck a rock, you have dislodged a boulder, you will be crushed.” To crush the white supremacist regime once and for all, to smash apartheid slavery, the black working class of South Africa must be organized to lead a fight for proletarian revolution. The popular chant at union meetings: “Amandla! (Power!) Awethu! (It is ours!)” will be realized only through the building of a Leninist/Trotskyist party to lead that revolution. Under the red banner of authentic communism, the liberation of black South African women will be won when power is seized once and for all from the white racist rulers. Smash apartheid! For workers revolution!