South Africa’s Dawning Revolution

Against the Current, No. 1, January/February 1986

David Finkel

Black Workers, Their Unions and the Struggle for Freedom in South Africa
By Denis MacShane, Martin Plaut and David Ward
South End Press, 1984. $8.
A Ride on the Whirlwind
By Sipho Sepamla
Readers International, London and New York, 1984.

The Story of a Dispossessed People
By Motsoko Pheko
Marram Books, London, 1984, distributed in the U.S. by Zed Press and Biblio Distribution Center, Totowa, New Jersey. $10.95.

The Revolution Under Fire
By Joseph Hanlon
Zed Press, 1984, distributed in the U.S. by Biblio Distribution Center, Totowa, New Jersey. $10.75.

THE SIMPLE BUT effective technique of banning television cameras and reporters has enabled the South African regime to drastically cut the coverage presented to American and European audiences of the ongoing confrontation.

Black townships are still being invaded, teargassed, terrorized and burnt at the same rate as before, and the numbers of demonstrators mowed down by police fire is if anything increasing. However, with striking similarity to the Polish martial law regime of December 1981, the South African state is more adept in suppressing information to the outside world than in crushing its subjects at home.

Under these circumstances, as Black South Africans continue their revolutionary freedom struggle, solidarity activists in this country have a special responsibility to use every means to convey the realities of that struggle to an American audience. The information and analysis contained in the books reviewed here are invaluable for that purpose. They also help outside observers to penetrate to some extent the inner political dynamics and human dramas of a classic example of an unfolding revolution.

The authors of Power!, while explaining that the general character of apartheid is not their main subject, present the most succinct summary of it:

“We have not attempted to describe the full horror of the daily existence of the SO percent of the South African population which is not white. (In 1984) one third of all black children under the age of 14 did not get enough food to eat and were stunted in their growth. In Cape Town, a nuclear power station came on stream in 1984, yet for most blacks the only heating source in one of the bantustans (“homelands”) is firewood the people have to spend 150 million man-hours collecting. The pass and group areas Acts, which control where blacks live, work and travel are still in force. Since 1948 12.5 million people have been arrested or prosecuted under the pass laws. In 1983, 140,000 violations of the controls on movement or habitation were recorded, an average of nearly 400 a day. Since 1960, three and a half million people have been forcibly evicted from their homes and a further two million are threatened.” (Power!, p.11)

These horrors and others (political repression and police brutality) are relatively well known. This leads the authors to focus their book on the less publicized facts of the extent of organization and political consciousness achieved by Black South African workers.

It is a gripping and fascinating account, made even more important by events that have occurred since the book’s publication and which have made it already somewhat dated. At the end of November 1985 a new, unified, non-racial trade union federation COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions was founded). It brings together the main sectors of the Black union movement: the industrial unions of FOSATU (Federation of South African Trade Unions), a number of “general” unions some of which are linked to the United Democratic Front, and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

Problems and Promises

The complex task of integrating workers and leading officials from the general unions into the appropriate industrial union structures will profoundly test the new federation’s unity and maturity. (However, in a few cases, such as the General Workers Union on the docks of Capetown, Port Elizabeth, East London, and Durban, the general union already has an industrial structure- (see Power!, p. 96.)

At the same time, in a call reminiscent of the defiance campaign against the pass laws initiated by the Pan Africanist Congress in 1960, COSATU has stated that if the pass laws are not revoked within six months it will call upon Black workers to burn their passes. The potential new struggle against the passes under today’s dramatically changed conditions — a quarter century of industrial development and the rise of a powerful workers’ movement capable of spearheading and directing such a nationwide action-embodies the principal themes of the South African revolution.

Power! is the book to read to learn how that movement has developed. The richness of detail makes it impossible to summarize briefly, but that is its strength. Chapters cover how shop floor organizing takes place; how the unions deal with the maze of industrial legislation; the differing perspectives of sections of the movement on how to relate community and political with economic issues; women’s struggle for equality within the unions; occupational safety and health issues; the steps toward unity which were just beginning when the book was written and have recently produced COSATU. (See pp. 116-17 for a discussion of some of the problems faced in the first stages of developing union unity.)

The chapter “Women Workers Assert Their Rights” demonstrates a startling similarity with problems faced by women workers in our own society: the double and triple burdens of wage labor, housework and sexual subordination; sexual harassment; the difficulties of being recognized as equals inside the union itself.

This is the stuff of which a vital labor movement is made, intensified in South African conditions by the daily heroism that is required of every union activist. Anyone who doubts the ability of the working class to organize itself and to arrive at an understanding of its destiny — including an understanding of how much the South African workers’ movement shares in common with Polish Solidarity — need only to read the keynote address by FOSATU General Secretary Joe Foster in April 1982 (Appendix 1).

According to Foster, “as the struggle of Solidarity shows, even the fact that a country is said to be socialist does not guarantee that workers control their own destiny. In short, it could be said that workers must build a powerful and effective movement if they are to succeed in advancing their interests against some very hostile forces, but they must also ensure that this movement is able to take a clear political direction.” (p. 144)

FOSATU’s insistence on independent class organization no doubt helps to account for its affinity with Solidarnosc, as well as explaining the hostile criticisms directed against it by the South African Communist Party.

Historic and strategic differences have prevented the full unification of the Black unions. The Council of Unions of South Africa (CUSA) and the Azanian Congress of Trade Unions (AZACTU) are two groups of unions which have not joined the new COSATU. However, CUSA’s largest affiliate and one of the key unions in the entire movement, the NUM led by Cyril Ramaphosa, has broken from CUSA to join COSATU.

The CUSA and AZACTU unions are linked more to the Black Consciousness movement of the 1970s than with the “non-racial” stance of FOSATU, a position which is roughly in the tradition of the African National Congress (ANC). The differences are not always clear to those not directly engaged in the struggle inside South Africa, out in essence, Black Consciousness organizations stress the development of Black leadership and regard the non-racial approach as a potential cover for whites to lead and manipulate the Black struggle.

The authors of Power! offer a cautious factual account of the differences and a brief chapter (chapter 9) on some of the early difficulties in bringing FOSATU, CUSA and some independent unions together. Practical differences included the issues of the degree of autonomy versus discipline within a proposed unified federation, the principle of “one industry, one union” proposed by FOSATU, and jurisdictional problems. Presumably, a successful consolidation of the new COSATU (which apparently incorporates most previously independent unions) would greatly reduce CUSA’s influence, but this remains to be tested.

The Debate on Non-Racialism

To an outside observer it is not clear whether the decisive obstacles to full Black union unity were practical and structural differences, or the broader philosophical-political issues of Black Consciousness versus non-racialism. The intensity of these broad debates can be gauged from a reading of Motwko Pheko’s Apartheid: The Story of a Dispossessed People.

First published in 1972 by the Sharpeville Day Association in Dar-es-Salaam (Tanzania), this work is largely a trenchant critique of the non-racialism of the ANC and is especially bitter in denouncing the South African Communist Party (SACP). The documentation is somewhat spotty, sometimes citing a Chicago-based newspaper The Revolutionary Worker as an authority on the struggle between the ANC and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC).

Motsoko Pheko views the more recent divisions between the United Democratic Front and National Forum Committee as a direct continuation of the ANC-PAC struggle. (PAC split from ANC in the late 1950s; both were banned after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre.)

The chapters on the early African resistance to European colonialism and expansion provide useful material for refuting the amazingly widespread myth that South Africa was largely empty when the white man arrived, and that Blacks entered the area afterward. The mythology of a “land without people” is common to colonialist ideologies, of course, from the commonplace “Columbus discovered America” to the Zionist fraud recently recycled by Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial, asserting that there were virtually no Arabs in Palestine until the prosperity generated by Jewish immigration generated an influx from Syria!

Motsoko Pheko concisely chronicles the Africans’ wars of resistance from the 16th through 19th centuries. Unfortunately, the account thins out drastically when it comes to the 20th. An entire half century of struggle is covered in one brief 13-page chapter, “The Political Struggle of the Dispossessed (1909-60),” enabling the author to get on to his task of writing a post-1960 history from a pro-PAC and anti-CP vantage point.

A 27-page chapter devoted to “‘The Communist Party of South Africa” contains such balanced formulations as:

“The white reformist Communist Party of South Africa, under the disguise of the Congress of Democrats, has been the greatest saboteur of the liberation movement both inside and outside South Africa. (p. 113) The African National Congress of South Africa has itself been betrayed by the South African Communist Party. The most recent case is that of Nelson Mandela (whom Pheko implies was given away to the police after refusing to back the CP in a factional dispute). (p. 115) Besides sabotaging the struggle South African Communist leadership has never shown any revolutionary courage. (p. 115) Political parties which refused to compromise on the fundamental question of repossession of the land and the right of Azanians to self-determination have had a very rough treatment at the hands of the Communist Party of South Africa. They have used vast sums of money to misinterpret and misrepresent African organizations which refused to accept their line. (p. 116) As for the Congress Alliance, the African majority was dominated by a minority under the cloak ‘multi-racialism.’ These minorities included white South African Communists.” (p. 120)

Without trying to whitewash the South African Communist Party’s checkered history and manipulative factionalism, it is difficult to accept that the Communists had a monopoly in this regard. Anyone wanting to explore this history should check Pheko’s polemic against other sources on the incidents he cites. A reading of Time Longer than Rope by the late Edward Roux, as well as a more recently published autobiography by the same author, shows some of the complexity of the experiences and choices faced by party activists who were deeply engaged in the struggle to organize Black workers over a period of decades.

Motsoko Pheko’s book should be read for two reasons. It coherently presents the perspectives of the PAC, which continues to view the question of land as decisive to the liberation struggle. In addition, it offers a view of that struggle and its history which represents at least a current inside South Africa (how strong we don’t know) but which is rarely presented outside since the solidarity and publishing activities for the anti-apartheid movement in Europe and North America are largely pro-ANC. That PAC current and its views should be known. However, anyone looking for an objective account, particularly of the past 25 years of the ANC, will have to find it elsewhere.

Inside the Whirlwind

In the Black South African novelist Sipho Sepamla’s A Ride on the Whirlwind, we enter the South African struggle from another angle: inside the township of Soweto. The novel unfolds in the 1976 rebellion. After it was banned in South Africa, three copies reached London where Readers International was able to make it available to the world.

Sepamla explores several themes. First is the consuming hatred of the township residents, especially the youth, for the Black collaborators with the regime. Andries Batata, a Black cop of special brutality and sadism, is the main target for their vengeance.

The second and perhaps deepest theme is the interaction of three generations within the Black struggle. In the middle are a collective of Soweto youths led by the charismatic Mandia. Living together under the authorities’ noses, they go on daily “operations” to burn down beer halls, engage in sabotage, lead student riots and generally engage in the kind of heroic urban revolutionary warfare that the American New Left only dreamed about.

There is no doubt that such groupings really did exist inside the “spontaneous” movements of 1976. But both in the novel and in real life, the lack of a strong, disciplined organization and insufficient technical expertise are bound to lead to defeat and tragedy.

The older generation of Blacks has a mutually ambivalent relationship with the young revolutionaries. They are cautious and burned by years of defeat. Some, however, give cover or active aid to the youth, who in turn view them with suspicion but nonetheless are reliant on their ultimate support and solidarity.

Into this equation steps Mzi, a guerilla fighter trained outside the country by The Movement (the ANC). He has the military training and the weapon that the young militants lack. In partnership with Mandia he pursues Batata; yet security dictates that he not meet with Mandla’s collective, some of whom become resentful and suspicious.

A subordinate theme is the degree of material support provided by sympathetic whites (Ann Hope). The account shows something of the gulf between them and the Blacks engaged in struggle, but this is the least developed and least satisfactory dimension of the novel.

A Ride on the Whirlwind is not a novel of daily life, but it does offer snapshots of the smoke rising over the townships from the stoves at dinner, of the trains carrying workers to and from white Johannesburg, of the deep fatigue of a woman worker walking through the township at the end of the day and the ever-present threat of the traumatic disruption of normal life by police raids.

The novel also takes us at the end into the prison interrogation chambers, where captured members of Mandla’s collective face sophisticated and sadistic tortures, humiliation and death. It is a chilling portrayal: the cell destroyed, its members in the process of being physically broken and only a few escaping to exile to continue the struggle.

Yet the struggle will continue, as Sepamlo tells us in Mzi’s thoughts:

“His hope was embedded deep in his heart because for the exile there is always the eternal light burning for home-coming. For him there would be a second coming. His faith in the thought was enshrined.” (p. 244)

That the struggle continues, and on a higher level, is also a fact of real life. In 1985, we have seen the masses of Soweto and dozens of other townships carry out actions which in Sepamlo’s novel of the 1976 uprising are assigned to a vanguard, in particular the unfortunately necessary physical liquidation of collaborators. Indeed, in 1985 Black demonstrators in massive numbers have carried out acts which Sepamlo’s guerilla hero Mzi never contemplated: carrying the struggle into the streets of Johannesburg, and other white areas.

If anything, as the struggle of 1985 picked up where 1976 left off, it appeared that the internal struggle was less reliant on guerilla exiles trained outside the country. While the military activity of the ANC’s “Spear of the Nation” is not to be dis­ counted, it may be expected that the new Mzis and Mandlas of the South African revolution will be forged not in external training camps but in the fires of the burgeoning working class movement.

Stakes of the Struggle

Because Sepamlo makes no effort to show the power of Black workers in factories, mines and other industries, A Ride on the Whirlwind does not offer more than hope and heroism, which by themselves cannot produce a victory. It does, however, provide a powerful statement on some of Black South Africa’s trials on the road to liberation.

This brings us finally to the international character and the regional stakes of the South African struggle. In Mozambique: The Revolution Under Fire, British journalist Joseph Hanlon has written perhaps the best journalistic account of a victorious southern Africa liberation movement. Yet the hand of South Africa rests heavily on every aspect of Mozambique’s life:

“The onions in Maputo come from South Africa. So does the electricity. And the planes that bombed Maputo on 23 May 1983 came from South Africa too.

South Africa has launched an undeclared war on Mozambique, yet it remains an important trading partner. This curious relationship is the result of history and geography, which have turned South Africa into the dominant military and economic power in the region.

In the colonial era, South Africa was made the region’s economic heart. Mozambique was as closely linked to Johannesburg as to Lisbon. The port of Lourenco Marques was developed to serve South Africa, which also became one of the largest employers of cheap Mozambican labour. Portuguese settlers became dependent on South Africa even for basic foodstuffs. Lourenco Marques drew its electricity from the South African grid. Industry in Mozambique grew up dependent on South Africa for parts, raw materials and service. The Lourenco Marques oil refinery was designed to produce heavy fuel oil, not needed in Mozambique, to be sold to South Africa.

Eight years after independence, Lourenco Marques had been renamed Maputo, but the economic situation remains similar. South African cargo still passes through the port. Mozambique still imports spare parts, onions and a host of other items from its more developed neighbour. Part of Maputo’s electricity still comes from South Africa. (p.8)

This where Hanlon’s account begins. It ends with a postscript entitled “Destabilization Works,” detailing the circumstances which forced the Mozambican government of Samora Machel to sign the Nkomati Accords with South Africa in 1984.

By sponsoring a contra movement called Mozambique National Resistance, by air raids and all kinds of economic depredations, South Africa had brought about the virtual destruction of the Mozambican economy. Under the Nkomati Accords, South Africa was to halt these activities in exchange for Mozambique closing ANC operations based in Mozambique. Mozambique has kept its part of the bargain; South Africa of course has not.

In between, Hanlon tells the story of the liberation movement FRELIMO, its liberation war against Portuguese colonial rule and its efforts to build a new society. The classic mistakes and contradictions of Third World liberation movements in power are all present here: over-centralization of agriculture, investment schemes which could not possibly be carried out due to lack of infrastructure, the continuing subordination of women within political structures and very inadequate programs for freeing them from the grip of traditional society at village level, the growth of an elitist and often incompetent bureaucracy.

But here, too, are inspiring moments in the struggle to build out of the ruins of colonial underdevelopment a society fit for human beings to live in. Against great opposition, the FRELIMO government moves to bring primary health care to the countryside instead of keeping it centralized in urban hospitals. Within the FRELIMO structure itself, a kind of “class struggle” takes place over the strategy to be followed in health care.

Ordinary railway and port workers, deliberately left unskilled by the departing colonial regime, must learn to run facilities abandoned as the old order crumbled. Peasants form co-ops; some succeed while others collapse, in some cases because well intentioned government aid was earmarked for too-rapid expansion rather than basic maintenance of tractors.

A Blocked Liberation

On balance, Hanlon’s account can only strengthen a sense of critical solidarity with the Mozambican national liberation movement and its leadership. To a greater extent than many such movements, FRELIMO during its liberation war developed a system of political education and popular administration in liberated territories. It was committed to the emancipation of women (abolishing polygamy, initiation rites, etc.), to sending educated cadres to fight in rural zones, to a non-racialist policy as opposed to backward forms of nationalism.

Nonetheless, the regime formed by the leaders of that liberation war was not only forced to sign the Nkomati Accords, but even more humiliating, to publicly declare them a “victory” for the peoples of southern Africa. More recently, when continuing economic ruin and even starvation threatened Mozambique, President Samora Machel has even sought close ties with the Reagan Administration.

Are such agreements with apartheid and imperialism, signed under extreme duress, a betrayal of the revolution 7 Do they mean that the leadership has changed from a force for liberation to an ally, albeit unwilling, of reaction?

Hanlon abstains from passing judgement, and it seems wise to follow his ex­ ample. The grim reality is that no policy, whether of confrontation, accommodation or capitulation to the apartheid regime, can be viable except tactically and in the short-run, so long as South Africa’s military and industrial might retains its stranglehold over the states of southern Africa.

Mozambique and Namibia, with their mineral wealth and Mozambique’s hydroelectric base, ought to be prosperous. Zimbabwe’s agriculture should make it a breadbasket for half the continent. Instead, these nations remain poor, unstable and war-torn. The revolution to be led by the South African working class must complete the national liberation struggles and open the social revolutions in the surrounding nations.

Whether that revolution is approaching its climax or faces years of protracted struggle is as yet unpredictable. It remains our responsibility as socialists and solidarity activists to study, publicize and support it in every way we can. In the townships, the factories, the schools and prisons of South Africa, people continue to organize, resist, demonstrate and die in police massacres, even when the cameras stop rolling.

January-February 1986, ATC 1

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