Democracy and South Africa

For many years the question of democratic rights in South Africa has been a prominent issue in world politics. The issue of democracy cannot be separated from the more basic question of ownership and control of the means of production; democratic administration can only be practised on the basis that the whole community holds the means of production in common and can therefore control the deployment of productive resources, through democratic procedures, in the interests of the whole community. The circumstances in which any minority class monopolises the means of production in pursuit of sectional interests rules out any possibility of a truly democratic society.

What is normally considered to be “democracy” under capitalist society in fact centres on the quite different question of “legal rights of expression” and “legal rights of organisation” within a society which operates through class antagonisms. But we do not therefore say that this question of “legal rights of expression” is unimportant to the working class. On the contrary, we assert that the legal right to organise on the industrial front through trade unions, and the legal right to organise politically is of vital interest to the working class.

Given that we are dealing with the question of “legal rights of organisation” in class society, the issue of trade unionism is clear-cut. Independent trade unions are vital for workers in pursuing their struggle with capitalists over the division of wealth between capital and labour. The “right of political organisations” is also important but workers’ political organisation should be aimed at dispossessing the capitalist class of their monopoly of the means of production. If workers demand political rights merely for the purpose of changing the administration under which they will remain exploited, then this is not in their interests and will not result in a truly democratic society.

Black workers in South Africa have been struggling for the legal right of “one person one vote”. This repeats past struggles by workers in the so called advance industrial countries where such rights are now well established. Black workers in South Africa can look at the position of workers in, for example, this country and ask themselves—is this an objective which is worth struggling for? Should they not set their political sights higher than this?

A recent significant event was the appearance of Oliver Tambo at the Labour Party Conference as a fraternal delegate from the banned African National Congress. Tambo spoke about the objective of his Party which is a system of “one person – one vote”. The Labour Party Conference expressed “the right of political organisation” as it exists in this country and Tambo would have listened to the various debates which took place. What was the subject of these debates? He would have heard speaker after speaker protest about the continuing poverty of workers; about mass unemployment; riots in the cities sparked off by police brutality in enforcing working-class poverty; the power of the state in smashing the coal strike with mass arrests, fines and imprisonment. Tambo will have seen, demonstrated in front of him, the fact that the mere winning of voting rights has left the fundamental problems of workers untouched.

The black workers of South Africa have every reason to distrust the opposition to apartheid which is being expressed by various capitalist interests. This is based on the naked economic interests of capitalists who seek a political structure in South Africa which will enable them to continue to exploit workers under conditions of greater security and stability. Nor is there anything new in this in South Africa.

Colonial adventurers and speculators such as Cecil Rhodes, raised the issue of “democratic rights” when they sought to gain control of the gold, diamond and other mineral riches which had been discovered in the independent states of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. These states were under Afrikaaner control to the exclusion of the capitalist mining interests who conspired to promote the Boer War over the issue of their “democratic rights”. The Boer War resulted in British control over the entire land area and all the resources of what is now South Africa.

The longer term results of giving political rights to all white workers could not have been foreseen by the British colonial conspirators. As the mining industry developed under mainly British investment together with manufacturing, the white working class of the urban areas eventually joined with the rural Afrikaaners in maintaining an Afrikaaner government which has now held power since 1948. This National government has never been the “natural” or direct representative of capitalist class interests. It has been a racist political monster of their own indirect making and they have had to live with it. Their subsequent attempts to form a capitalist reforming party such as the Progressive Party have completely failed.

The Afrikaaners have been forced to accommodate the mainly British capitalists. In order to operate their vile republic, they have been forced to depend on government funds derived as taxes from the capitalist enterprises which have developed. The irony now is that the vastly expensive forces of repression designed to exclude blacks from the political structure and which place capitalist interests at risk are being financed through taxes by the capitalists themselves. White working-class support for the rigid racist policies of the government ensures political impasse, subject to ever increasing tensions. Capitalists recognise now that their interests lie in reaching a peaceful political accommodation with the black majority.

According to the Financial Guardian (5 September 1985), British capitalism is still the largest overseas investor in South Africa with over £5 bn. invested in plant and machinery and another £6 bn. invested in stocks and shares. British groups directly employ over 350,000 workers or 7 per cent of the work force. More than half of the 2,000 foreign controlled companies are owned by UK based groups and in addition to this British capital holds massive share blocs in South African companies. British capital holds 48 per cent of one of the largest employers—Gold Fields of South Africa. British based conglomerates operating in South Africa include Lonrho, Dunlop, Courtaulds, Unilever, GEC and ICI.

The level of UK capital invested in South Africa is currently rising at between £200 million and £300 million each year. This is accumulated and reinvested directly from the exploitation of South African workers still leaving a further surplus of capital to be withdrawn from the country. Translated into the language of economic interests the concern which is expressed over “democratic rights” is a concern for the safety of these investments.

Capitalist interests would have been best safeguarded through a process of reform aimed at integrating the black population within a multi-racial system of exploitation. This could have been introduced through a gradually widening political franchise based on property and “educational” qualifications, arriving eventually at an indiscriminate system of “one person – one vote”. Black people could have been absorbed into the administration with greater freedom granted to black entrepreneurs. A shrewdly organised process of capitalist reform based on divide and rule may have achieved this. But since 1948, men such as Malan, Strijdom, Vervoerd, Vorster and Botha have remained latter day heroes of the Zulu and Boer wars. They have been men of the past but with the imperatives of capitalist forces weighing in on them with increasing urgency.

Perhaps now Botha, under pressure from capitalists within his own camp, has sufficiently escaped the “laager” mentality to consider some reforms, but the probabilities are that this has been left too late. The intransigence of their racist policies has created a body of opposition which sees no need in its turn to compromise on the demand for “one person – one vote” and therefore a political take over by the black movement.

Anticipating this, Gavin Relly, the chairman of one of South Africa’s biggest corporations—Anglo American—paid a visit to Oliver Tambo and a negotiating team from the African National Congress. Relly was accompanied by the Director General of the South African Foundation, which represents general business interests, plus Zac De Beer, representing the Progressive Party, the authentic voice of capitalist interests in South Africa.

According to the Guardian (25 September 1985) the Chairman of Anglo American told the ANC team “What we are concerned with is not so much whether the following generation will be governed by black or white people, but hat it will be a viable country and that it will not be destroyed by violence and strife”, and also that “they shared a common interest in maintaining the profitability of the South African state”.

In the event of the African National Congress or some comparable movement coming to power, where would this leave the black workers of South Africa? They should not assume that their present struggles to form genuine trade unions which could operate freely and independently, or the right to organise politically will be automatically accomplished. The likely outcome will be some form of state capitalism with black faces in the governing positions of the administration who will have achieved an accommodation with the capitalist interests which already exist. It will be a system of exploitation without distinction of race, but it should not be assumed that those enjoying the new positions of power and privilege will take kindly to the existence of genuine trade unions or independently organised political movements. Inevitably the struggle for working class interests will go on. From general experience it is not difficult to imagine Oliver Tambo, the exponent of “democratic rights” at the Labour Party Conference, forming a future administration which will repress working class struggles as indeed have various Labour governments in this country.

The struggle for democratic rights should not be linked with any political action which will result merely in a new form of tyranny. Notwithstanding the severe difficulties under which our fellow workers in South Africa are forced to pursue their struggles, they do enjoy one advantage. They can now look at the “success” of black nationalist movements in Africa. If this not enough they can look further to the condition of workers in the so-called advanced countries. What they will see is the continued exploitation of workers who suffer all the problems inherent in capitalism. In Britain, the home of “democracy”, miners have been beaten, imprisoned and sacked for taking industrial action, as have miners in South Africa.

Black workers in South Africa can learn swiftly from the experience of workers’ struggles in the past and in other places. They can avoid the mistakes which have been made. They should reject the leadership theory and ensure that their trade unions are thoroughly democratic. Above all they can set their political sights high and commit themselves to the struggle for world socialism. In this way, the limited demand for the right of political organisation can become the positive work of organising now for a genuine system of world democracy.

Pieter Lawrence

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