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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 today

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 there?

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 consulting whites.

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 reform strategy.

Containing militancy

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 of weakness.

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 this reality.

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.

Stage army

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.

Drifting away

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.

ANC backtracks

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 protests.

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

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