It was in 1652 that Dutch settlers first went to the Cape of Good Hope. This began as a supply station to service the ships of the Dutch East India Company. It also began 350 years of conflict which has now produced a very different beginning. In April, new constitutional arrangements will start with all adult South Africans having the vote and the election of a transitional government.
The struggle of mainly black workers against that bigoted, racist ideology, “apartheid” has been long and bitter. The struggle to get the vote has required determination and sacrifice. Socialists support that struggle. Without the power to capture control of the state by democratic means, socialism is impossible. This raises an important point. Getting the vote is not the end. Now that it has been won, how is it to be used?
Inevitably, in the first flush of the expected ANC
victory in the election there is a lot of optimism amongst its supporters about what the ANC in power will do for them.
They foresee not just the end of race discrimination but the end of the grim poverty in which most of them have lived. They expect their living standards to rise on the basis of jobs and good wages for all. They expect decent housing, health care, education, pensions and other benefits. In fact, this will not happen.
This is not a question about the sincerity or good intentions of Nelson Mandela and his associates. It is about economic realities. The ANC leaders are now being fitted into the mould of reforming capitalist politicians and as such believe that when in power they will be able to do all sorts of good things for their supporters. They believe they are the right men and women for the needs of the hour. It has been a popular misconception that if only workers are able to get the right people into the right positions of power at the right time then everything will be alright. This false idea has led to failure and disillusion in almost every country throughout this century and it won’t be any different in South Africa. By now the reason should be obvious.
The ANC leaves no room for doubt that it is committed to running the capitalist system. For example, in the ANC “Freedom Charter” Nelson Mandela has written:
“Under the Freedom Charier, nationalisation would take place in an economy based on private enterprise . . . [this] would open up fresh fields for a prosperous African population of all classes, including the middle class. The ANC has never at any period of its history advocated a revolutionary change . . . nor has it.. . ever condemned capitalist society ” (page 179).
This means that in a South Africa run by an ANC government it’s going to be capitalist business as usual. Class differences, with a great gap between rich and poor, will continue. Black workers will still be exploited alongside whites. Through their labour they will continue to keep the wealthy and the privileged in a society which puts the profits enjoyed by a few before the needs of the whole community.
If a movement has at last managed to form a government to run capitalism, as Nelson Mandela says the ANC is going to do, it has no choice but to work within the economic limitations and class objectives of the market system. Particularly at this time of world slump most governments are in financial difficulties and this is the situation that the ANC will have to take on.
One of the first promises to go will be the promise of jobs for all black workers at good wages. No government can control the level of employment or wages; this is impossible. The promise to provide decent housing for everyone along with health care, education and pensions will also be forgotten.
What is also inevitable is that the ANC government will come into conflict with the trades unions. Despite the present links between the unions and the ANC, when in power the new government will be concerned to run and develop a profitable economy. The unions will be concerned with wage increases and better conditions.
The two objects of higher profits and higher wages will be in conflict with each other and as always, this will lead to disputes at places of work with the possibility of the ANC government using the state machinery to smash the workers’ strikes. The function of the state is to administer class society and enforce the exploitation of workers and this is the anti-working-class role that the ANC is about to embrace.
The policy of apartheid was never in the best interests of South African capitalists. The Nationalist government was kept in power by an eccentric alliance of Afrikaner fanning interests and white urban workers who. to their eternal discredit, imagined that it was in their interest to keep black workers out of the skilled labour force and to deny them the vote. Hence the support of white workers for the various job reservation Acts and other forms of discrimination against black workers.
Capitalist interests would have been best served by a reform programme aimed at integrating the black population within a multi-racial system of exploitation. The old United Party formed by Smuts might have achieved this but it was obliterated by the success of the National Party which held power continuously after 1948. Latterly, capitalists like the Oppenheimers
put money into a new reforming party, the Progressive Party
, but this also failed.
For many years it seemed that the Afrikaner bigots of the National Party would be the last people on earth to change their ideas but they have at last caught up with economic realities. Confidence in the economy began to drain away as a result of poor investment returns, the collapse of the Rand and rising commercial and political risks coupled with stagnation. In February 1990 De Klerk
told the South African Parliament that “a new South Africa is only possible if it is bolstered by a sound and growing economy, with particular emphasis on the creation of employment”.
Before this, the ANC had already been in discussion with South African capitalists assuring them that their interests would be safeguarded under an ANC government. For their part, the capitalists were anxious to emphasise their own non-racist credentials. For example, in 1985, the Chairman of Anglo-American Corporation
, one of the biggest in South Africa, told the ANC negotiators that::
“what we are concerned with is not so much whether the following generation will be governed by black or white people, but that it will be a viable country and that it will not be destroyed by violence and strife”
“they [by which he meant the ANC and South African business] shared a common interest in maintaining the profitability of the South African state”.
At last it seemed that under the ANC a reforming regime could emerge to facilitate the maximum exploitation of South African workers without distinction of colour on the basis of a broad consensus between the main political forces. This leaves the question of whether the groups outside the consensus, Inkatha
and the extreme Afrikaners, will be strong enough to disrupt the new arrangements.
So, who will be the victors in this long struggle that has held the attention of the world since the end of Second World War? If the extreme elements are so foolish as to plunge the country into a civil war that will only add new chapters to a conflict in which the main sufferers, as always, will be the working class.
Given that the new arrangements work out on the other hand, we take it that black workers will enjoy greater freedom to organize in trades unions and benefit from the end of political censorship and repression.
We shall see. But the most immediate class beneficiaries of the constitutional changes will be the South African capitalists and those with high investment in the country.
As the Chairman of Anglo-American emphasised, when it comes to the human resources that it wishes to exploit, capital is completely free of racial prejudice.
We should ask whether these results will be worthy of the suffering, torture, imprisonment and deaths which have been the input of black workers into the struggle. It will be a very poor testament to the courage of that struggle, and all the sacrifices that have been made, if its gains are now thrown away in a betrayal in which the great majority continue to be exploited.
Surely, the least that struggle deserves is that those who have won the vote should think long and hard about how it should be used. Since all the main strands of South African history still intrude so forcibly into the present political situation it is useful for black workers to think back to their past. It is worth remembering that working for wages is very recent and that tribespeople had to be forced into it.
A colonial report entitled African Labour Efficiency Survey – 1949
was concerned with the problem of how to force the people of the Kikuyu
in East Africa to become wage workers. It said this:
“The East African comes from a tribal economy in which his human needs of sustenance can still very largely be met. He has not, to any significant degree, been de-tribalised. The East African has not been bent under the discipline of organised work . . . In respect of the few working activities which in the past occupied him he was free and independent.
Though the tasks he performed were prescribed by tribal law and custom, he could do them in his own way and at his own speed, for him time had no economic value. The work he did for others was not for wages, but was one of the duties arising from his relationship with his fellows. He gave satisfaction by his work and he derived a measure of contentment from it. In these circumstances he was willing to do what was required from him.
To work steadily and continuously at the will of another was one of the hard lessons he had to learn when he began to work for Europeans.”
This was how African people lived for countless centuries, not working for wages but co-operating to provide for the needs of the community.
Why should black workers embrace and continue the economic forces of capitalism that destroyed that way of life? If the traditional relationships of co-operation are extended to all other workers and are applied using modern technology, modern communications and fully democratic methods of organization, they are all we need to create a healthy society which can serve all our needs without distinction of race or sex.