Pieter Lawrence

What Next for South Africa?

Source: Socialist Standard, April 1990.
Transcription: Socialist Party of Great Britain
HTML Markup: Darren O'Neil
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We may never know what discussions took place between President de Klerk and Nelson Mandela before the famous prisoner’s release, but it is evident they did a deal. It is possible they agreed on a detailed programme of reform. Economic forces have been pressing in on the deadlocked conflict for decades but movement has been slow. It has been thirty years since Harold Macmillan spoke of “a wind of change blowing through Africa”, but in South Africa this has been a gentle breeze which disturbed little, leaving the white monopoly of power intact. Delayed change results in greater pressure and now it seems the deadlock is about to be broken. What will this mean for our fellow workers in South Africa, both black and white?

An ideal model of capitalism would rest on a simple division between capitalists and workers with the latter voting in governments to administer their own exploitation in a “liberal democracy ”. Capital would be free to invest most profitably and train workers to achieve maximum output without skin colour or ethnic background being an issue. This would tend to secure the most efficient use of labour resources, with political stability and without excessive expenditure on forces of repression.

Tortured history

In practice capitalism rarely confirms to this model. In South Africa the legal classifications of “European”, “Bantu”, “Coloureds” and “Asians” complicate the economic and political structure in ways which inhibit efficiency. They result from the tortured history through which these groups took root in the country.

Even within these groups there was never a common identity. For over two centuries the Europeans were bitterly divided between British and Dutch. Cape Town was established as a supply station by the Dutch East India Company. During the Napoleonic Wars the British pre-empted a French take-over by seizing it themselves after which it was kept as a British colony. In the 1830s a large number of the Dutch trekked north to found the Transvaal and Orange Free State but again they came into conflict with the British when gold, diamonds, coal and other materials were discovered in the Boer republics. To gain control of these materials colonial adventurers like Cecil Rhodes conspired with the British government to instigate the Boer War. Following the defeat of the Boers, and the sufferings of their families in concentration camps in which thousands died from disease and starvation, British imperialism gained control over the entire land area of what is now South Africa.

But it was not only the people of European origin who were in conflict. Tribal differences also divided the African peoples who in the seventeenth century had migrated south from East Africa. These divisions are still a potent force, further complicating the politics of South Africa. The Zulus are mainly concentrated in Natal under Chief Buthelezi and it is interesting that he controls his power base, Inkatha, as its unelected leader. Despite their demand for it, there is no “one person, one vote ” amongst the Zulus. Nelson Mandela is a Chieftain of the Xhosa people and is acclaimed as being more representative of black South Africans through the African National Congress.

During the past seven years more than 2,500 people have died in violence between different black groups and Mandela has appealed passionately for an end to the fratricidal strife. “Throw your arms into the sea”, he recently implored a vast crowd of Zulus. The response of Inkatha was positive but also tempered with a warning:

“Only the enemies of peace and black unity would wish otherwise. However, we shall not succeed to achieve this by protracted attempts to demonise, vilify and marginalise Dr. Buthelezi. To do this is tantamount to planting the seeds of future civil war in our country.”

This threat of possible civil war, presumably in circumstances in which the Afrikaner Nationalist government may have collapsed, is indeed ominous.

Those called the “Cape Coloureds” were originally descended from the offspring of early Dutch male settlers and their female servants brought to the Cape Province from the Dutch East Indies. The temptations of sexual relations between the “races” were more than the Calvinist citizens could resist and, in any case, pre-dated the ideology of “apartness”.

The indigenous inhabitants of South Africa were the defenceless Hottentots who suffered genocide at the hands of every invader, Dutch, British and Bantu. These three groups, very different in their origins and outlook, were pitched into the same land area and now form the main elements in today’s political strife.

Capitalists’ political frustration

One of the ironies of this history is that Rhodes instigated war with the Boer Republics under the slogan of “democratic rights for all white citizens” with the object of gaining control of diamonds, precious metals and vital raw materials. In this he succeeded but as the mining industry developed under mainly British investment together with manufacturing, the white working class of the urban areas eventually formed a political alliance with the rural Afrikaners to elect an Afrikaner Nationalist government in 1948 which has held power ever since. The various National Party governments under Malan, Strijdom, Verwoerd, Vorster and Botha (the names alone speak of the return of the Afrikaners to power) have never been the “natural” or direct representatives of capitalist class interests. The more liberal-minded United Party disappeared and its current replacement, the Democratic Party, has little chance of gaining majority white support.

Capitalist interests would have best been served by a reform programme aimed at integrating the black population within a non-racial system of exploitation. This could have been introduced through a gradually-widening franchise based, for example, on property or education qualifications, arriving eventually at “one person, one vote”. This was not to be. It is to the eternal discredit of white workers in South Africa that in the majority they have pursued what they saw as their interests through racist trade unions and by voting for the National Party.

But if all this has been frustrating for capitalist class interests neither has it advanced the hopes of the Afrikaner nationalists. Their ideal of apartheid, or separate development, was always an illusion. Whether we see it as, at best, a nostalgic yearning for an independent “volk” or, at worst, a cynical euphemism for racial oppression does not matter. Either way, apartheid was against the tide of history.

When the more fanatical Conservative Party accuses de Klerk of “betrayal” and “sell-out” the greater truth is that the National Party has been overwhelmed by the economic forces of capitalism. The seeds of this were planted when the Afrikaners won political control. As a government they had no choice but to depend on taxes from mining, industry and manufacture to run their state machine. From this moment on, they were tied to capitalism. It costs a lot of money to pay for the repression of 20 million black people and, inevitably, the bills increase. Where once the Afrikaners eschewed the idolatry of gold, diamonds and profit, their heirs speak the universal language of trade and commerce. De Klerk is a capitalist politician.

In his recent important speech to the South African Parliament on 2 February he said:

“A new South Africa is possible only if it is bolstered by a sound and growing economy, with particular emphasis on the creation of employment.”

At times he sounded like a Thatcherite:

“By means of restricting capital expenditure in state institutions, privatisation, deregulation and curtailing government expenditure, substantial progress has been made already towards reducing the role of the authorities in the economy.”

At other times he also sounds like Gorbachev:

“The government’s policy is to reduce the role of the public sector in the economy and to give the private sector maximum opportunity for optimal performance. In this process, preference has to be given to allowing the market forces and a sound competitive structure to bring about the necessary adjustments.”

We might ask how it comes about that politicians as different in their backgrounds as de Klerk, Thatcher and Gorbachov are committed to the same policies. They each share a common role as functionaries of capital; the economies of South Africa, Britain and Russia are locked into the same system—world capitalism. As a result their respective governments are compelled to react to the same economic pressures to achieve efficiency and profitability and to pursue strategies which best protect their long-term interests. These are the same forces which are driving politicians in South Africa, despite their own very different origins into a common outlook.

An added reason why de Klerk can sometimes sound like Gorbachev is that both face problems of restructuring, or perestroika. According to the Independent (27 February):

“British businessmen and bankers are unlikely to return to South Africa in droves as a result of the lifting of the ban on new business investment . . . They left because of rising commercial and political risks, poor investment returns, difficulties in repatriating profits and higher returns available in other countries.”

In his speech to the South African Parliament de Klerk complained of “a serious weakening in the productivity of capital and stagnation in the economy’s ability to generate income and employment opportunities”.

It is evident that de Klerk, through his negotiations with Mandela and the ANC, hopes that he will be the man to restructure the South African economy on the basis of political stability achieved through extended democratic rights, but it is likely that the National Party has left it too late. Surely the party and the man for the task is the ANC under Nelson Mandela? Is it not more likely that it will be they who emerge as the new functionaries of capital best suited to achieving a more efficient exploitation of workers in South Africa without distinction of “race”, as capital demands?

Not afraid of black government

Certainly a number of leading capitalists assume that the future lies with a black government. For some years, Gavin Relly, the chairman of Anglo-American, South Africa’s largest business corporation which controls gold, platinum and coal production, has been in close contact with the ANC. In 1985, together with the chairman of the South African Foundation, which represents general business interests, he met with Oliver Tambo and a negotiating team from the ANC. He said then:

“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.”

He added that he and the ANC “shared a common interest in maintaining the profitability of the South African State”.

Since Mandela’s release there has been some concern in capitalist circles over the ANC’s apparent commitment to nationalisation, including the mines. However, on 26 February Gavin Relly, continuing his personal contacts with the ANC, met Mandela and afterwards urged investors to calm their fears. He said it was premature now to get agitated about the ANC’s economic programmes:

“The community and international community should not get into a flurry over nationalisation. These are issues for sensible men to discuss. Issues of nationalisation will have to be subjected to the tests of debate and the tests of what is practical to make the modern economy work.”

In his own comments on the meeting, Mandela said nationalisation remained, in certain areas, a basic policy of the ANC, but the economy at large would still be based on private enterprise. “The entire economy will remain intact” (Independent, 27 February). Again, we shall never know the details of their discussions but it is clear that Gavin Relly, a leading representative of capitalist interests, emerged a happy man from his meeting with Mandela.

Where does all this leave our fellow workers in South Africa? Our interests are directly linked with theirs and if democratic freedoms are now to be extended to that country it is in all our interests. Perhaps now the Directorate of Publications in Cape Town will release our pamphlets and the copies of the Socialist Standard which have been kept under lock and key in the cell where banned literature is stored.

In the short-term it appears that workers in South Africa may well continue to support those reformist organisations which they see as representing their interests in a “racially” divided society. However, it is also likely that the increasing pressure of the economic forces of capitalism and the reforms which are in prospect will simplify the issue into a straightforward confrontation between capitalist and working class interests. This will leave the fundamental problems of the workers still to be solved. Even now the vital work must be to ensure that a growing world socialist movement is extended to South Africa.