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Socialist Review, May 1994

Notes of the Month

South Africa

Freedom now – and tomorrow?


From Socialist Review, No. 175, May 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change’, said a character in The Leopard, Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel about Italian unification. F.W. de Klerk is clearly campaigning on the same principle in the South African elections. The leader of the party which was the architect of apartheid and which has presided over decades of murder, torture and repression now calls for an end to racial discrimination in South Africa.

De Klerk is hoping that much of the old world of white privilege can stay the same. Whether his hopes will be fulfilled depends on how much the black masses are prepared to fight in the months to come.

This month’s Review is published before the results of the election are known. The ANC victory and Nelson Mandela’s presidency are not in doubt, but the exact fallout from the elections may be.

In the closing weeks before 28 April the bluff of the far right wing has increasingly been challenged. In March the mobilisation of the fascist AWB and General Constand Viljoen in Bophuthatswana was defeated by a combination of mass mobilisation and the military. The victory there led to the election taking place in Bophuthatswana and increasing pressure on the third component in the right wing Freedom Alliance, Chief Buthelezi’s Inkatha, to halt its boycott of the election in the Kwazulu ‘homeland’.

Buthelezi was forced into a humiliating climbdown less than two weeks before the elections. Opinion polls put Zulu support for the ANC higher than for Inkatha, despite Buthelezi’s claim to speak for all Zulus.

The weakness and disarray of the right wing have surprised many commentators, who expected a much higher level of disruption of the electoral process and intensified civil war in Natal province. However, the dangers are still there. The car bomb which exploded outside the ANC and PAC offices in Johannesburg days before the elections looks like the work of the AWB, which is certain to use more terror tactics to try to intimidate blacks.

Lack of electoral support for Inkatha may well lead to an intensification of the war in Natal. Already before the election there are many instances of intimidation and violence against ANC supporters or even those just explaining the election process.

Although the ANC will have an overall majority, it can be weak in two areas: Natal, where Inkatha and the National Party together may do relatively well, and the Western Cape, where de Klerk’s party is looking to substantial support from the ‘coloured’ (mixed race) population, who fear the ANC.

The current divisions inside South Africa are the legacy of past policies of ‘divide and rule’ by the ruling class. Over the past two decades the ruling class has increasingly tried to buy off or compromise with different sections of blacks. Hence the ‘homelands’ established to allow ‘separate development’ of blacks, led nominally by conservative black politicians, but under the control of the apartheid government. Hence also the granting of a ‘parliament’ to ‘coloureds’ during the 1980s.

The failure of these tactics and the eventual arrival of a one person one vote election has been due to the resistance to apartheid from below, and to the changing needs of South African capitalism, which requires a stable, skilled and educated workforce. Mandela is now the favourite for president not just among blacks but among 68 percent of big businessmen.

Expectations of Mandela are high: one middle aged black woman interviewed on television said that she gave him two months to deliver his reforms. High expectations are coupled with an impatience and perhaps a wariness that change is long overdue and has to be fought for.

The series of compromises on which the election is based do not bode well for the future. Anyone with over 5 percent of the vote gets a seat in cabinet, which is to be a coalition. Only an ANC majority of 66 percent will allow it to make constitutional changes. And Mandela and the ANC leadership’s tactic has always been to compromise in the face of right wing threats, rather than face them down.

The state of South African society is such that the inequalities so prevalent under apartheid are by no means likely to be eradicated. Black wages as a proportion of all manufacturing wages fell from 35 percent to 30 percent between 1988 and 1992. The substantial reforms in housing promised by the ANC will still leave many of the problems. At present 37 percent of the total black population live in a shack or hut; while 99 percent of white households have an internal flush toilet, only 10 percent of black households do. A full 42 percent of households (17 million people) live on under £110 per month; 23 million have no electricity. Government spending on health in recent years has amounted to £120 per head for whites and £27 per head for blacks. While 52 black children per thousand die before the age of five, only 8.6 white children per thousand die – mainly from swimming pool accidents.

To rectify this inequality will take a fundamental shift in the balance of wealth and power – precisely what de Klerk and his cronies do not want. The question of the class struggle in South Africa is therefore likely to come to the fore. Just before the election Mandela addressed the Johannesburg stock exchange. The Financial Times reported:

‘The faces of the affluent white males in the glass enclosed trading floor of the Johannesburg stock exchange yesterday looked as relieved as if the Springbok rugby team had just scored a try. Bemused expressions became smiles as they broke into applause when Mr Nelson Mandela, president of the African National Congress, ended his maiden speech to the exchange.

‘Mr Mandela at times struggled to make himself heard over the chants of “Amandla” coming from the black office workers and cleaners who had gathered in the large atrium outside to celebrate the presence of their leader.’

This sums up the dilemma for the ANC: brought to power by the actions and enthusiasm of black workers, it is also desperate to compromise with South African capitalism. It is worth remembering events in Zimbabwe in 1980, when the victorious black leader, Robert Mugabe, was heralded after a long and bitter war against white minority rule. Within weeks he was turning against striking workers.

In the run up to the elections there are a whole number of strikes taking place in South Africa despite the appeals of the ANC leadership for industrial ‘peace’. The ANC has already warned that it will cut public spending to reduce the deficit. When there are confrontations between capital and labour, which way will the ANC in government choose to jump? Apartheid has created its own gravedigger, a strong and political working class with powerful trade unions who have already shown some willingness to criticise the ANC. They will need to preserve their strength and independence in the months to come.

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