Revolution#135, July 13, 2008

South Africa: Anti-Immigrant Attacks…And Unfulfilled Dreams of Liberation

Alexandra, Mamelodi, Atteridgeville, Thokoza, and Tembisa. These names were scorched into world history back in the 1980s. On the dusty streets of these segregated South African townships, and dozens more like them, millions of black South Africans fought out the decade of rebellion that played a decisive role in bringing down the hated, racist apartheid regime.

Today these same names have surfaced again in world headlines. Only this time, for a very bad reason. On May 11, a horrific pogrom of ethnic cleansing aimed at immigrants from other African countries exploded on the streets of Alexandra. Anti-immigrant riots broke out in other townships and squatter camps throughout Gauteng Province, especially in the areas around Johannesburg, the economic and industrial heart of the country. And within a week they spread to townships and squatter camps around Durban in KwaZulu-Natal and in the western Cape province, especially around Cape Town. Mobs of South Africans attacked, beat and sometimes murdered any and all immigrants they could find—no matter whether they were neighbors or street corner vendors. Children and pregnant women were beaten and terrorized, their homes looted and destroyed. Some men were set afire in the street while South Africans watched and sometimes cheered.

It has been reported that by the end of the month 62 African immigrants had been killed, 670 wounded and tens of thousands displaced throughout the country. Non-government organizations in the townships say the figure is closer to 100,000. The vast majority of the immigrants were from Zimbabwe and Mozambique but also included people from Burundi, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, and Malawi. Thousands of immigrants driven from their homes sought shelter in and around police stations. The government eventually set up refugee camps to accommodate 70,000 people. Tens of thousands of other immigrants fled to their home countries or some other nearby country. More than 1,400 South Africans were arrested for participating in the pogroms.

Many who had been inspired by the brave youth and others who waged relentless struggle against apartheid in the 1980s and ’90s, are heartsick at what is now happening in the townships. People ask, how is it that the very places that were once centers of revolutionary hope and struggle have now become areas where such awful violence is taking place among the people?

In order to answer this question we have to step back and look at the tremendous struggle against apartheid. We have to look at what it meant—and didn’t mean—when apartheid was ended in 1994. And we have to look at the nature of the African National Congress, which has been in power since then.

Apartheid Rule

I had walked down the streets of these townships during two visits I made to South Africa in the midst of the rebellions of the 1980s and early 1990s. I shared Castle beer and revolutionary music in the illicit bars called shebeens, slept in the corrugated tin shacks and shared many a meal of pap and steak (more gristle than meat) with young Azanian revolutionaries (South African revolutionaries called the country Azania instead of South Africa). I heard many stories of what it was like to live under apartheid.

The apartheid system, which began in 1948, was one of the most savage settler-colonial regimes in modern history. Apartheid (which means separateness in Afrikaans, a language of the white settlers) legalized racial segregation throughout society.

The South African system of apartheid was totally bound up with and subordinate to global imperialism, ensuring the highest profits for capitalist exploiters. And the U.S. and other western imperialist powers politically and militarily supported the apartheid regime as a bulwark against national liberation struggles and against the Soviet Union, which by that time was imperialist and was making inroads into those struggles to serve its own interests.*

Under apartheid the white settler colonialists, who made up 10% of the population, owned and controlled everything. Black Africans were systematically deprived of all rights, denied citizenship in South Africa and forced to live either in segregated townships outside the cities or in rural Bantustans which functioned as impoverished holding pens for African migrant laborers who were allowed into “white areas” only to work in the mines, factories and farms. Africans worked these jobs for pennies an hour, often 10 and 12 hours a day. White settlers owned 87% of the land, including the most fertile agricultural land, while more than 33 million black people were confined to the 13% of the land that made up the Bantustans. Pass Laws required black Africans to carry identity documents whenever they were outside of the Bantustans.

The economy was organized for export of gold, diamonds, and other precious metals and strategic minerals. This was the heart of the economy. Other manufacturing included automobile manufacturing for both domestic use and export. Large-scale commercial farming was mainly for domestic purposes but included export crops.

While the white settlers enjoyed a standard of living equivalent to Europe, black people lived on a par with the poorest nations of the world. Housing in the segregated townships was frequently nothing more than cinderblocks and corrugated tin roofing. Most people had no running water, sanitation was terrible, and electricity was minimal if it even existed. There was little health care and disease was rampant.

Companies hired laborers who lived hundreds of miles away and migrated to work in the townships, living in worker hostels in the townships that resembled Nazi concentration camp barracks. Massive squatter camps grew up around all of the major urban areas. And all Africans in the “white areas” had to carry papers—passbooks—proving that they had permission to be in those areas. Africans who did not have these papers were subject to arrest and deportation to the Bantustans. All this served the smooth profiteering of the imperialists. And this whole racist apartheid system was enforced by the most brutal terror unleashed against the African people by the police and military.

Upsurge from Below,
Betrayal at the Top

The Azanian people, especially the youth, ached for liberation. We spent many a slow afternoon and long night talking revolution and sharing dreams of what a free South Africa/Azania would be. People were filled with hope, daring, and incredible optimism about bringing down a regime that had the backing of major imperialist powers in the world and seemed almost invulnerable. And they knew that their struggle provided inspiration to oppressed and exploited people and many others around the globe. But heroic as this movement was, it didn’t bring forward a genuine communist party—the kind of leadership necessary to wage a struggle for real liberation. And because of this, the masses paid dearly.

By the early 1990s these rebellions had rocked apartheid and imperialist rule in South Africa to its foundations. The country teetered on the brink of political collapse and was no longer considered a safe and stable place for imperialist investors and strategic planners. The mass uprisings that grew out of a few hundred youth throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails in the Johannesburg townships in 1983 exposed the ugly apartheid regime to people around the world. Internationally many people supported and joined the anti-apartheid struggle in different ways. And it became an untenable political liability for the U.S. and other western imperialists to continue to support the hated white minority regime and its apartheid system. This, together with other major developments in the world at that time, especially the collapse of the Soviet imperialist empire, created a situation where the imperialists and their white South African caretakers were both forced to and had the freedom to adjust the form of their domination in South Africa and ditch the formal apartheid system.

The unstoppable waves of struggle against the hated apartheid regime had presented the South African rulers and the imperialists with a political crisis and they had to stop the rebellions. To do this, the South African regime moved to suppress the uprisings through the brute force of the military and police. But this alone was not sufficient to get past this crisis. The South African rulers also needed to find a partner among the opponents of apartheid who could be drawn into negotiations that would lead to a “new South Africa,” that would supposedly have economic justice and racial equality for all. The solution they went for was to bring black Africans into some top political posts as well as incorporate a section of the Black national movement into South African colonial rule in almost every sphere of society.

The African National Congress (ANC) and its leader, Nelson Mandela, became a very willing and crucial partner in carrying out this imperialist program. By the early 1990s the apartheid regime had released Mandela from prison and begun negotiations with him and the ANC. In the 1994 elections—the first time ever that black people were allowed to vote in South Africa—Mandela was elected president and the ANC became the ruling party in the country.

The press called the 1994 elections the “most profound and promising transformation to democracy in modern times.” But in fact, what this election actually represented was the consolidation of the imperialist-backed South African neocolonial state—in a new form and with a new “democratic” look. It was an organized transfer of the presidency and parliament to the ANC, in a joint administration with representatives of the old white ruling National Party.

The struggle of the people was consciously diverted by the ANC into what became known as the “negotiations” process. Preaching harmony and national reconciliation, the ANC’s message in effect liquidated the difference between oppressed and oppressor and provided the ruling class with an opportunity to preserve and reinforce the political and economic system that had underlain apartheid, while getting rid of some of the open barbaric features of white-only rule. And this election was an important political success for imperialism internationally—providing an example of how to successfully defuse national liberation struggles and divert the anger of the masses into a “safe” process of working within the system.

No Fundamental Change

The system of apartheid was formally ended. But in reality, the form of imperialist domination was retooled and refined in order to create more favorable conditions for this domination to not only continue but to intensify and expand. And this was orchestrated and financed to a great extent by the imperialists, especially the United States. The new government still represented the same ruling class interests and the country remained subordinate to and oppressed by imperialism. And the deep inequalities and severe impoverishment of the masses engendered by apartheid remain in place and are growing worse.

The ANC government has succeeded in creating a relatively small black middle class and even a handful of black tycoons, but the severe gap between the rich and poor has grown even wider than in the days of apartheid. Between 1995 and 2000 the average black household income shrank by 19%, while that of whites and the black middle class grew by 15%. The poorest 10% of South Africans now have the same share of the national income as they did in 1993, the year before the official end of apartheid. And in 1996 there were 1.9 million people in South Africa living on less than a dollar a day; in 2006 that number rose to 4.2 million. The official unemployment rate is said to be 23% but most analysts put it closer to 40% nationwide and 50% in the townships (and slightly higher for township youth). Only 50% of African families get their main income from a job.

In terms of land reform, very little has changed since the days of apartheid. Under apartheid the white settlers, who made up only 10% of the population, owned 87% the land and just about all of the fertile agricultural land. By 2007 only 5% of the white-owned land had been redistributed to black South Africans. At this incredibly slow pace the ANC won’t even be able to meet its stated goal of putting 30% of this land under black ownership by 2014. And even this goal is a far cry from what is really needed—which is mass land redistribution carried out by mobilizing the rural population to take back the land as part and parcel of uprooting the semi-feudal and imperialist relations in the countryside.

This brings me back to where I began... As the conditions for the masses of black South Africans have (rather than improving) grown increasingly desperate in the wake of the ANC coming to power, there has also been a dramatic growth in the numbers of immigrants coming in to South Africa. There is a push and a pull here. People who are unable to survive in their own countries, as well as hundreds of thousands of war refugees, are migrating to South Africa. And the South African economy depends on their labor to thrive and expand. (See box for more.)

Two Paths, Two Futures

Part of the “conventional wisdom” behind the ANC program—and similar programs in the world today like that of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela—is the view that because imperialism is so powerful and so highly integrated on a world scale, it is impossible for any country to “de-link” from this. The argument is that it’s “unrealistic” to think an oppressed country could liberate itself from imperialism and develop a genuine socialist economy and social structure. But these questions need to be asked: How realistic is it to think that anything good for the people can come from continued imperialist domination? How realistic is it to think that the deep economic, social, and political problems South Africa faces can be addressed without overthrowing the ruling class that maintains and enforces a whole system of capitalist exploitation and uprooting all the economic, political, and social relations of capitalist exploitation?

In countries like South Africa (and most of the rest of the world), the task of national liberation from imperialism is the pressing task. A new democratic revolution, as the first stage of a socialist revolution, is the first, essential step. This is a revolution that unites and represents the interests of all who can be united to overthrow feudalism and semi-feudalism, the bureaucrat-capitalist class and state system dependent on and serving imperialism.

But the ANC had a very different program. The ANC never fought for genuine liberation of the people. The ANC has never been about overthrowing and uprooting the economic, political, and social relations of capitalism that exploit and oppress the masses of Azanian people. The ANC has never been about kicking imperialism out of the country. It has never been about ending the situation where the country is dominated by and subordinate to global imperialism. The ANC came to power with a whole program built around the idea that working within the system of capitalism and imperialism is what is not only the best that can be done in the world today, but what is desirable. They came to power with a program based on the view that the solution to South Africa’s problems was opening the country up to the global capitalist economy even more. And at the heart of that is the continuation, intensification, and extension of all the production, class and social relations and ideas that go along with that. The African proletarians will be guaranteed super-exploitation while the imperialists are guaranteed the protection of their private property and their right to super-exploit the Azanian people. The ANC program represented the class interests of the comprador bourgeoisie—a class whose interests lie in allying itself with and becoming the “brokers” for imperialism and a class which is, in turn, backed up and propped up by imperialism.

For example, mining—and all of the production and social relations associated with it—was not only preserved but developed further as the backbone of the economy. And today most of the miners doing the difficult and dangerous work in the mines are black while the vast majority of the management staff remains white. And most of the mining corporations are based in the European Union countries or the U.S. Many of the corporations that formed the economic backbone of the apartheid economy occupy the same position in the economy today, except that they are now based in the UK instead of South Africa, a distinction that offers them more flexibility and privileges than they would have as a South African-based corporation. Manufacturing, especially the auto industry, is another important element of the economy and the imperialist corporations involved are familiar to all—Ford, GM, Chrysler, Volkswagen, Nissan, Toyota, Bavarian Motors, and Daimler.


People used to talk about how the apartheid regime had created a tinderbox waiting to be set afire in the black townships. Today the ANC regime has built its very own tinderbox based on unfulfilled promises and high expectations running up against the reality of continued imperialist rule in South Africa.

The situation in South Africa today really drives home the terrible situation the masses of people will be condemned to if compromise and conciliation with imperialism is taken up as a solution to imperialist oppression. And at the same time, it is a strong testimony to the real difference that a genuinely revolutionary government and leadership could and can make in liberating countries and bringing into being a new and truly emancipating socialist society. 

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