Revolution #205, June 27, 2010
South Africa Soccer Hype:
Illusions of Change... and the Reality
What a trip! For the first time ever, the World Cup is being held in soccer crazy Africa. And not just Africa in general, but South Africa. More than 300 million people will have their eyes laser focused on South Africa from June 11 to July 11.
And what a show they'll see. Ten brand-new state-of-the-art stadiums, new high-speed train lines, new highways, gleaming five star hotels. Clearly, there's a whole lot more than a soccer game going on here. A special issue of Sports Illustrated focused on the World Cup shouted it out on the opening page: "The Big Rollout for the host country, this World Cup is more than a global soccer tournament. It is vivid proof that a nation that once symbolized racial oppression has been transformed into a vibrant, multicultural society." The head of the Organizing Committee for the tournament, Danny Jordaan, put it this way: "You're talking about the transformation of a country and a society. Our past has been a past of apartheid, a past of separation of people based on discrimination. This project can actually bind the nation."
And while even the most enthusiastic praise poets have to allow some degree of admission that, in the midst of all this supposedly remarkable transformation, South Africa does have its continuing "problems," the basic point remains—what was once a brutal racist heaven is now a "rainbow nation." And hanging over all this, like the soft white clouds that drape over Table Mountain in Cape Town, is the core message: this "promised land" was reached not through revolution against apartheid and imperialism but through finding common ground with and conciliating with imperialism as the road to ending apartheid and imperialist oppression. That's the real story of the South African miracle.
It's funny, a lot of the people writing about South Africa today like to talk about the land of contrasts. Sometimes they talk about the contrast between the "new, free and progressive" South Africa and all the police raids, forced evictions and removals, arrests and protest bans that have been part of the preparation for the World Cup. But mostly they're talking about the striking contrast between poverty and wealth, the first-world gleam of the major cities and the third-world squalor of the squatter camps and townships, often one standing in the shadow of the other.
Watching all the coverage of the World Cup, I'm reminded of my own memories and the contrasts they provoke. I visited South Africa—or, as the revolutionary minded people called it in the rebellious years, Azania—twice during the countrywide uprisings in the urban townships that helped bring the apartheid regime down. Soccer was always a big, big subject. I remember being struck by how deeply into soccer the black people were. I had a friend who always had a big, warm smile on his face and when he talked about soccer, the smile practically consumed his face. He explained that he thought soccer was a form of rebellion—while the white settlers played rugby, the black people went for soccer. He also went on to school me about how the black people not only loved a good soccer match for the joy of the sport but also for the opportunity to secretly meet in the stands, to organize and spread the struggle.
Often as we talked he would be kicking a soccer ball—now you have to get this picture clear, when I say kicking the ball, he was literally dancing in mid-air as he moved the ball from foot to foot, off of his knee and up to his head where he bounced it off into the air and let it drop to the tip of his shoe only to start the whole beautiful dance all over again. I once asked where he learned to do this and he smiled and said he just picked it up.
Another friend told me later that he had been a major soccer star in Soweto—people came from all over to see what he could do and share in all the dreams of making the impossible seem so possible and beautiful. But my friend had his soccer career cut short. When the anti-apartheid rebellions broke out he enthusiastically joined the struggle. He lost one of his eyes when the South African police shot him during a demonstration in Soweto. But that's not a World Cup story for today.
Everything that exists in South Africa today came in the wake of the fall of the apartheid regime in the early 1990s. And it's the product of the way that fall came about. The apartheid regime began in 1948 and was one of the most savage and racist settler colonial regimes in modern history. Apartheid means "separateness" in Afrikaans, the language of white settler colonialists. It's an ugly word, it's a rolling grunt that pushes its way out of your mouth and it's pronounced "Apart-hate." It was a system that legalized racial segregation throughout the entire society. It was closely tied in with and subordinate to global imperialism. It couldn't survive without imperialism, and imperialism hungered for the extreme profit it could reap under apartheid. The U.S. and other Western imperialists supported the apartheid regime politically and militarily and saw it as a forward outpost of their system in Africa.
Under apartheid the black people, who were 90% of the population, lived on 13% of the land while the white settlers who made up 10% of the population owned and lived on 87% of the land. The white people owned and controlled everything. The black people were not officially considered citizens of South Africa and had no rights. When they lived inside the "official" South African territory they were forced to live in segregated tin shacks, ghetto townships or squatter camps, lacking the most basic services and sanitation. Otherwise they were confined to remote and desperately poor "homelands" or Bantustans that were holding pens for African laborers hoping to get a job in the city or in the mines. Under apartheid the black people, the Azanian people, were used as beasts of burden and driven until they couldn't be driven any further.
It's June 16 as I write this article, the 34th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising. This was a township demonstration of school kids, some as young as 11, who left their classrooms and took to the streets against an order from the apartheid government that they had to learn Afrikaans. Hundreds, and some say thousands, were killed by the apartheid police and army on that day. But these youths, marching behind a banner that read "For Freedom We Shall Lay Down Our Lives!" captured the hearts of people all over the world and set a fire in South Africa that eventually helped spell the end of apartheid.
The Azanian people, especially the youth, dreamed of revolution and liberation. They fought heroically for over 15 years and many of them paid dearly—thrown into apartheid dungeons where torture was guaranteed—including with electric cattle prods shipped to the South African police with the approval of the U.S. government. Countless numbers lost their lives, shot down in the streets, murdered in prison or assassinated by white hit squads. Standing up against the monstrous twins of apartheid and imperialism, often with little more than rocks, bottles and a lot of heart, they continued to inspire hope and joy in people everywhere.
The Azanian people were up against a whole world of oppression. Apartheid South Africa churned out superprofits for capitalist-imperialist investors through hellish exploitation on the settlers' farms and in the capitalists' gold and diamond mines. And geo-strategically, South Africa served as the regional enforcer of the interests of the U.S. in the region. By the 1970s, the Soviet Union—no longer socialist in anything but name, but still portraying itself as a socialist alternative—was a rival imperialist superpower challenging U.S. domination in Africa. Armed conflict raged throughout the region that involved anti-colonial struggles, but increasingly became dominated by wars between forces allied with the Soviet Union and U.S./South African-sponsored groups—those wars left deep scars in the region that remain today.
Around the world the U.S. and Soviet imperialists faced off with each other, each plotting and planning to undercut and outmaneuver the other. Sometimes this confrontation was more openly done and other times not. And in many parts of the world the Soviet Union worked through parties like the South African Communist Party (SACP). The SACP was a revisionist party—that is, it had long ago given up on the goal of revolution and communism.
For a long time the SACP was the critical element in the Soviet contention with the U.S. in South Africa, a contention based on undercutting and countering U.S. domination there as part of the Soviet drive to ultimately redivide and dominate the world. And even while pro-Soviet forces in South Africa were hit with repression, the U.S. imperialists kept "channels open" with them. These forces were concentrated in the African National Congress whose leader was Nelson Mandela, and the SACP that was "communist" in name only.
There were other, more radical forces on the ground as well, like Steve Biko. Despite his "adoption" at times by the current rulers of South Africa, Biko denounced those who preached reconciliation with the system as he understood it, and along with others struggled to forge a movement and an agenda that would liberate Azania. The regime was particularly vicious in crushing these radical and revolutionary forces—Steve Biko was beaten to death in prison by the regime in 1977 at the age of 30.
But as heroic as the people's struggle was, the Azanian struggle was not able to develop the kind of revolutionary leadership—a real communist leadership—that could lead the people to wage the kind of revolutionary struggle it would take to not only defeat apartheid and imperialism, but to build a whole new society.
Still, the people fought on ferociously and along with other major developments in the world at the time, helped create a situation that brought the apartheid regime to the edge of collapse. The imperialists and their white South African partners faced the need and found the way to adjust their form of domination in South Africa while maintaining, and even in some ways strengthening their imperial interests. To do this they had to stop the rebellions and they used a two-pronged approach to do it. They unleashed brutal military repression and they sought out those within the struggle who were willing to partner up with the regime and imperialism. They found these partners in the ANC, their leader, Nelson Mandela and the (phony communist) SACP, many of whose leading members were also in leading positions in the ANC. During the anti-apartheid struggle, the SACP, in conjunction with the overall agenda of the Soviet Union, never aimed to do more than gain some influence in the society through pressuring the rulers for reforms while leaving the overall system intact.
During the anti-apartheid struggle, when the Soviet empire collapsed the U.S. imperialists moved quickly to reassess and reshape how they dominated South Africa, a plan that hinged on ditching formal apartheid and bringing the ANC (including some elements of the revisionist/reformist SACP) into the whole apparatus of imperialist domination in South Africa. By the early 1990's negotiations set the tone for the day and a deal was worked out that put black faces in high political places, developed and nurtured a black middle class and incorporated many elements of the anti-apartheid movement into the system of colonial rule while leaving the backbone of imperialist domination and exploitation adjusted, but not fundamentally changed.
Without a revolutionary state power there was no way that the new South African ruling coalition could ever birth a whole new liberated society. The future the Azanian people—and all people the world over—ultimately need is a communist future, a future described in the Message and Call from the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, The Revolution We Need…The Leadership We Have as "A world where people work and struggle together for the common good…Where everyone contributes whatever they can to society and gets back what they need to live a life worthy of human beings…Where there are no more divisions among people in which some rule over and oppress others, robbing them not only of the means to a decent life, but also of knowledge and a means for really understanding, and acting to change, the world." The most important point to understand about the dictatorship of the proletariat is not simply—or definitely not mainly—all the radical changes that can and will be made in the living conditions of the people. Revolutionary state power will be able to effect a whole lot of radical and sorely needed changes like land reform. But this isn't enough and in fact, if left here, the masses of people will soon find themselves back in some form of imperial hell. The most important point about socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat is that it is a transitional phase, a way to move from all the horrors of imperialism to communism. The revolutionary state will lead the people themselves to dig up and do away with all the old scars of imperialism—all the roots of the social, economic and political inequalities and oppressive relations as well as all the old traditional thinking and ideas that are spawned by, bolster and reproduce these relations. Yes, this will be full of ups and downs, twists and turns, and should be marked by widespread debate and dissent, exploration and discovery in every facet of human life—in other words a really invigorating and exciting process of uncovering the truth, bringing to life new ideas and changing the world. And in doing all this the people themselves will be changed. This is what real revolution and a real revolutionary communist leadership is all about. Absent this, we have South Africa today.
When Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994 the fix was in, all kinds of compromise and conciliation with the old apartheid masters and the imperialists paved the way—formal apartheid and all of its most grotesque features were done away with and the Azanian people were promised a land of economic well-being and political equality. Sixteen years after the end of apartheid this scheme has been revealed to be a pirate ship floating on a sea full of blood and broken dreams.
Make no mistake: in the new South Africa the main pillars of the economy—still dominated by mineral mining for export—remain firmly under the control of global imperialism. The black faces in high places serve those imperialist interests and not the interests of the people. And while many of the figures illustrating the conditions in South Africa today are done to appear "race neutral," the conditions inside the country are still very much conditioned by race.
It's a country that has the greatest income inequality in the world, the largest gap between rich and poor. The median annual income for black working adults age 15-65 is five times less than for whites in the same age group. Life expectancy at birth is 49.2 years and 36.1% of the people are not expected to live to be 40. Forty-three percent of the people make less than $2 a day—up from 34% in 2006; 26.2% of the people make less than $1.25 a day. The official unemployment rate is 25.2% but when you add in all those who have been out of work so long they've stopped looking, the figure jumps to 35.2%. When the black townships are taken alone, the unemployment rate is even higher. The unemployment rate for black adults from 15-65 is seven times higher than it is for whites in the same age bracket.
Land redistribution remains a burning issue. As of 2006 70% to 80% of the land was still controlled by a relatively small number of white people protected by the ANC government's "willing seller/willing buyer" redistribution scam. Forced evictions and removals of black people are common. More than a million black people have been evicted from farmland since the end of apartheid. As of 2009 the urban population of South Africa had ballooned to 61% of the entire population. Thirty-three percent of them live in "informal settlements" without electricity, sanitation services, sewers and water. As a result, cholera is a major risk. The overall squatter population is estimated to hover around 10 million people or more and it mushrooms year to year. Soweto, now hailed as a sparkling new "city," still remains very much a township whose hills are covered with makeshift shacks and tin rooftops. Hundreds of thousands of new housing units provided by the government in the townships around Johannesburg—called kennels by the people—are actually only half as big as the old 40-square-meter matchbox houses provided under apartheid.
Yes, South Africa is a land of contrast. And perhaps the biggest and most damning contrast is the one that the World Cup hoopla is meant to cover up. And this is the contrast between what might have been and what is, the contrast between a society dominated by imperialism and one liberated by revolution. And in this contrast, the need for a genuine revolutionary communist leadership stands out starkly. While not a guarantee of victory and liberation, the lack of it is a certain guarantee that the people will pay the ultimate price.
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