The challenge of the black masses
After the week of action called by the African National Congress, Charles
Longford examines the problems facing both sides in South Africa's negotiation
While the British media concentrated on the story of a neo-Nazi, a second-rate
journalist, his bottom and her secret diary, the week of action inside South
Africa almost passed it by. As alarming as Eugene Terre Blanche's buttocks
might be, they pale into insignificance when compared to the source of real
alarm for the white minority ruling class - the power of the black masses.
The week of mass action should have reminded those who have forgotten where
the real power for change lies in South Africa. When four million black
workers downed tools for two days, the economy came to a stop. When hundreds
of thousands of blacks converged on Pretoria for a demonstration, they not
only transformed this capital of the apartheid state into a black city,
hut they occupied the amphitheatre and besieged the Union Buildings of parliament
- the citadel of white minority power. Lounging on the impeccable lawns
which for decade were maintained by starvation-waged black labourers, they
listened to Nelson Mandela address them 30 years to the day since he had
been first arrested and imprisoned.
Thing of the past
Although the week of action was very limited in its objectives, it was significant
for two reasons. First, at a time when collective political action to change
society is widely considered to be a thing of the past, the spectacle of
hundred of thousands of ordinary people engaging in such action is a welcome
one. Second, it placed the black masses at the centre of events in South
Africa. It is now clear that the black masses and their aspirations are
the major problem facing both the De Klerk regime and, ironically enough,
the ANC itself.
In previous articles in Living Marxism, we have emphasised that the
De Klerk regime initiated the present negotiations not out of a genuine
concern for peace and democracy, but as the apartheid state's latest attempt
to contain the militant black working class.
As the apartheid regime became economically dependent upon the black working
class, the denial of democratic rights to the black majority became a key
source of instability. From the seventies, white governments tried to mediate
the conflict with black workers by creating a black middle class and introducing
piecemeal reforms of apartheid. But the mediators became targets for black
anger, and the minor reforms only added insult to injury. The effect was
simply to fuel the demand for real freedom. At the end of the eighties,
the apartheid regime was still relying upon repression to contain the black
The collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it Stalinism, gave the ruling
class the break it desperately needed. Stalinism had been very influential
within the anti-apartheid struggle, and the Soviet system had been widely
perceived as the alternative to capitalism in South Africa. Once it had
gone, South Africa's rulers felt for the first time that they could introduce
political reform without threatening the capitalist system itself. Political
reform, even the dismantling of formal apartheid, would give blacks the
vote, but market forces would keep them in the factories, mines, farms and
townships of apartheid capitalism.
President De Klerk's negotiations strategy is based upon these assumptions.
He wants to secure a political deal where there is some black representation
in parliament, maybe even a black president, but which will leave the socio-economic
power of the white minority capitalist class intact.
De Klerk can only achieve this end, however, if the gap between the sham
democracy he offers and the aspirations of the black masses can be overcome.
In July, De Klerk visited Boipatong township after the massacre of residents
by suspected police agents. When the president of South Africa was forced
to flee, ashen-faced and cowering as his Mercedes Benz dodged barricades
and sped away from angry residents, it was clear how wide that gap remains.
The way in which the police then opened fire on unarmed demonstrators illustrated
that the gun remains the state's ultimate mediating mechanism today, despite
all the talk of a new South Africa.
But if Boipatong showed that the black masses remain the barrier to De Klerk's
plans, it also demonstrated how they pose a problem for the ANC leadership.
Just as vivid as De Klerk's ashen face was the spectacle of ANC president
Nelson Mandela being barracked by township residents demanding guns to defend
themselves. The pressure from the masses forced Mandela temporarily to pull
out of the talks with the regime. It highlighted the gap between the masses
and their own political representatives, and the extent to which the ANC
had temporarily lost control of its own supporters.
This loss of control was not the result of bad organisation on the ground.
It was a consequence of the contradiction which lies at the heart of the
ANC's strategy today.
Although the ANC engaged in an armed struggle in the past, its goal has
always been to establish black majority rule through parliamentary representation.
The denial of access to parliamentary politics under apartheid forced the
ANC to engage in armed struggle and other forms of mass resistance. But
there was always a fundamental tension between the ANC's desire to become
a respectable parliamentary party of government, and the mass movement it
had to mobilise in order to achieve this end. Today that tension has come
to the fore as the Pretoria regime has opened the door to black involvement
in the political process.
Because both sides now accept that a revolutionary transformation of South
Africa is out of the question, they are negotiating over the precise parliamentary
arrangements under which capitalism will be run in a future South Africa.
The power of the masses is the ANC's ticket to the negotiating table. It
is only through protests such as the week of action that it can press De
Klerk to make concessions. Once the ANC gets to the table, however, what
is being negotiated is a settlement which will effectively deny the masses
a say in how South Africa is run-apart from allowing them to vote every
few years. In other words, the ANC has to he able to wield the strength
of the masses, yet at the same time marginalise them from real political
The march on Pretoria during the week of action provided a stark illustration
of the problem. Hundreds of thousands of blacks marched up Kerb Street (the
South African equivalent of Oxford Street), raised the ANC flag over Pretoria
and chanted that Mandela should he president. If this wasn't remarkable
enough, they then left Pretoria and went back to their townships.
In many ways it was symbolic of what the ANC leadership hope will happen
in the future: the black masses will sweep them to parliamentary office,
and then go hack to the townships in an orderly fashion. But as the recent
outbursts of black fury suggest, Mandela is some way from being able to
deliver such a deal.
The way in which the anger of the people of Boipatong and other black townships
almost destroyed the negotiations shows that the role of the masses remains
crucial to any future developments. It also highlights how the tension between
their aspirations and the strategy of the ANC looks set to continue.
At the same time, it is also clear that what presents itself as
a problem for the ANC leadership and president De Klerk is, in fact, the
potential solution to the situation. The power of the black working class,
its ability to close down the economy, was only glimpsed during the week
of action. Unleashed, that power could take control of the country and sweep
away De Klerk and his ruling elite. In such circumstances there need be
no worries about a stalemate in the negotiations process, since there would
be no negotiations with the oppressors - and no need for any.
Today, however, that power to transform South Africa is being channelled
into a strategy which can only marginalise it and demoralise people in the
process. Behind the apparent success of the week of action, Mandela's approach
is effectively reducing the black masses to the role of a passive stage
army. If the ANC succeeds, it will solve De Klerk's problem for him- and
deny the black majority the freedom which could be theirs.