Blinded by the White Right
As we go to press, South Africa awaits the result of the whites-only
referendum on the future of political reform. The expected 'Yes' vote for
president De Klerk's reformist policy will be widely welcomed as an aversion
of disaster. But, argues Charles Longford, the issue of the white right
is a sideshow distracting from the real dangers facing the liberation movement
The spectre of the white far right has overshadowed all else in South Africa
since the Conservative Party defeated the ruling National Party in the Potchefstroom
by-election in February, and president De Klerk announced his March referendum
to determine white support for political reform. Many commentators have
argued that the African National Congress (ANC) and other black groups must
moderate their attitudes, to avoid provoking a white backlash against the
government. As the London Financial Times put it after the referendum
was called, 'Mr Nelson Mandela needs Mr De Klerk just as much as the latter
needs him' (21 February 1992).
The point appeared not to be lost on the ANC. Within days there were reports
of it making 'significant new concessions in its negotiating stance on South
Africa's constitutional future' which 'suggest that the country could well
reach a political settlement before the end of this year' (Guardian,
25 February 1992). Mandela himself indicated that he was desperate to
prevent the 'tragedy' of a defeat for De Klerk. The idea that fear of the
right is accelerating moves towards a compromise deal was underlined a week
later, when it was announced that the De Klerk regime and the major black
groups could form an interim coalition government by the end of the year.
The critical question which nobody seems to be raising, however, is this:
since when has South Africa's white right been a deciding factor in developments
In recent years, the Pretoria regime has pursued a reform process which
has had the white opposition frothing at the mouth. It unbanned the ANC,
the South African Communist Party and other organisations, released Nelson
Mandela and other black leaders, and entered into negotiations with the
very people whom white South Africans grew up believing were the devil incarnate
and a mortal threat to civilisation. Much to the chagrin of the right-wing
opposition, the government unilaterally scrapped apartheid legislation without
When De Klerk found his way blocked by hundreds of angry armed whites as
he prepared to address a rally in Vereeniging last year, the spectre of
the white right did not prevent him pressing on with his reforms regardless
and without any talk of consultation or referenda. The white right are unpredictable
and potentially destabilising. But one thing is certain: they are not the
problem which has preoccupied the government since it embarked on the present
The central issue in South Africa has never been the tensions within the
white minority. It is the relationship between the white ruling class and
the black majority.
Containing black militancy is what has exercised the minds of the white
establishment as it has sought to reform the apartheid system. The impetus
did not come from an upsurge of the far right in South Africa. The decisive
factor was the changes in the international balance of forces brought about
by the collapse of Stalinism and the Soviet bloc. These developments boosted
the authority of the market economy and helped to disorient ANC militants,
among whom the pro-Soviet South African Communist Party has long been influential.
The crisis of anti-capitalist politics encouraged the ruling class to believe
that it could reform the political structures of apartheid so as to stabilise
society, while leaving South Africa's socio-economic system basically intact.
Divide and conquer
The aim of the De Klerk government's reform strategy has been to split the
black population and to isolate the most determined opponents of the racist
regime. The protracted process of negotiations is part of a strategy designed
to neutralise and moderate the liberation movement. And this is where the
scare about the white right opposition really fits in.
De Klerk is eager to play up the threat of the white right in order to put
more pressure on the ANC, and to lever Mandela into making further concessions.
Indeed it has been suggested that De Klerk was happy enough to lose the
Potchefstroom by-election for this reason. Certainly the choice of an unattractive
National Party candidate, their half-hearted campaign, and the government's
eve of poll announcement of huge rises in the cost of white education, all
add weight to the conspiracy theory.
Whatever the truth of that, it is clear that one of the central functions
of the white referendum has been to exert more pressure to moderate the
resistance movement. It is important to realise that, in pursuing this approach,
De Klerk is exploiting the fundamental flaw in the ANC's strategy.
The ANC leadership has come to rely more and more upon the government-sponsored
negotiating process, and less and less on mass action by its own supporters.
The ANC now seems ready to concede many of its past principles in order
to keep the negotiations going. Its initial response to the announcement
of the referendum illustrates the point. In effect, by accepting the importance
of the referendum on the 'peace process', Mandela and his associates accepted
the idea of a white veto on the constitutional future of the country. Meanwhile,
there was no organised response from the black masses themselves. They were
left to look on as spectators while the National Party and its far-right
opponents debated their future.
Arms and the ANC
This is the result of a process set in motion by the apartheid state, but
assisted by the strategic approach of the ANC. Although for years the ANC
engaged in an armed struggle, its political goal has always been for the
establishment of black majority rule through parliamentary representation.
It was the apartheid regime's refusal to grant black representatives a place
in the parliamentary process which prompted the ANC to engage in more militant
forms of struggle - from armed struggle to mass resistance. The uneasy relationship
between the ANC's desire to become a respectable parliamentary party of
national government, and the mass movement it has mobilised to help it achieve
that end, has always ensured a fundamental tension within its ranks.
In the past, what kept that tension in check was the intransigence of the
apartheid regime. The more steadfastly the regime refused to budge, the
more the ANC and its mass base turned to extra-parliamentary forms of action.
But now that the government has opened the door to black involvement in
the political process, the tensions between the ANC's respectable ambitions
and its militant traditions have come to the fore.
Limits of change
With the collapse of Stalinism and the opposition's acceptance of market
economics, the struggle in South Africa today is not about the socialist
transformation of society. Instead, a far more limited process of change
is under way. The parties are negotiating about the precise form of political
arrangements under which capitalism in South Africa should be run. To make
an impact on these negotiations, the ANC needs to be able to mobilise its
mass base to bring pressure to bear on the regime. Without any mass pressure,
or at least the threat of it, the ANC enters negotiations from a position
However, what is being negotiated today is the shape of a political arrangement
that will exclude the masses from politics - except in the formal sense of
voting for parliamentary representation once in a while. The ANC is forced
to try to mobilise its supporters, while at the same time excluding them
from having any control over the process itself. Such manipulation is proving
a sure recipe for demobilising and demoralising the mass movement
--at the very moment when De Klerk's divide-and-rule strategy is nearing
the decisive point. The tragedy is that the movement faces the risk of being
destroyed without understanding why.
When the 'struggle' is reduced to manoeuvring over negotiations, when what
matters is the exchange of arguments among the great men at the big table,
then the masses simply become a stage army, to be wheeled on and off the
stage depending upon what is happening in committee rooms. The recent huge
three-day strike against the introduction of Value Added Tax illustrated
More than 3.5m people went on strike to oppose the introduction of VAT in
South Africa as an attack on the living standards of the black working class.
Introducing VAT is meant to compensate for loss of corporation taxes in
the recession. The strike was an expression of grass roots anger at the
government's attempt to shore up the market economy in South Africa.
For the ANC leaders and their trade union allies, however, the strike seemed
to be little more than a mass lobby in support of their right to be consulted
on how South African capitalism is restructured. Jay Naidoo, general secretary
of the trade union federation Cosatu, described the strike as a lesson to
the government on the importance of consultation: 'The government has now
learned that it is not going to introduce anything in a unilateral way'
(Work in Progress, December 1991). The ANC's priorities were confirmed
by its attempts to prevent some protest marches taking place, on the grounds
that these were 'contrary to the peace agreement' with the De Klerk government.
The VAT strike, an expression of mass anger and defiance, was reduced to
another bargaining tool in the negotiations. Devaluing mass action in this
way can only engender passivity, by removing the working class from an active
role in the process. The ANC leadership is reducing the black working class
to a stage army, passively waiting on the sidelines until called upon. When
ANC leaders do decide to call on the masses for support, they may well find
that their stage army has ceased to exist.
The reduction of the mass movement to a passive bystander is proving a sure
way to demobilise it altogether. Thousands of young activists are drifting
away from politics, preoccupied with the need to survive. As the movement's
loss of direction leads black communities to turn inwards on themselves,
divisions are intensifying and state-sponsored violence has wreaked havoc.
Whatever the role of individual ANC leaders, it would be a mistake to explain
what is happening as a 'sell out'. This process is the result of the negotiation
strategy, not of wrong tactics or personal betrayal. The demoralisation
and atomisation of the mass movement are consequences of the ANC's approach.
The ANC's strategy has left it vulnerable to being exploited by De Klerk.
Mandela's dependency on the government-sponsored negotiation process means
that he is forced to make concession after concession whenever a 'threat'
to the process is raised. When the government insisted that the armed struggle
threatened the prospect of talks, the ANC abandoned it (the police and army
did not reciprocate). When De Klerk says the far right is a threat to the
negotiations, the ANC moderates its stance further to avoid provoking more
Whenever an interim coalition government is finally formed, the writing
is already on the wall for a final settlement which will fall far short
of black majority rule. It looks as if all De Klerk has to do is raise the
spectre of the white right, and the ANC will accept the entrenchment of
minority rights in the constitution rather than what they have stood for
all these years: black majority rule. In this sense, the ANC has become
a victim and prisoner of its own politics.
The real enemy
De Klerk's entire strategy of moderating the ANC has been premised upon
the understanding that the real threat to the South African ruling class
comes not from the white right, but from the potential power of the black
working class. The movement is being drawn into a process which is not only
setting back the prospects for fundamental social change in South Africa,
but is also destroying the one force that could bring such change about.
Understanding this process must be the starting point for at least posing
the need for an alternative political strategy.
Just as the white right has never been the big danger facing the regime,
so it has never been the major problem confronting the black masses. It
was not neo-Nazis, but the reform-minded government of PW Botha which waged
all-out war in the black townships during the eighties. It was not fascists,
but the peace-loving government of De Klerk which was so recently revealed
to have used provocateurs to start 'black-on-black' violence in the Inkathagate
scandal. If it is to bring real freedom for the black masses, any strategy
must surely start from a recognition of who the real enemy is.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 42, April 1992