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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 process

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 masses.

Reforming apartheid

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.

Boipatong massacre

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.

At odds

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 power.

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.

Power glimpsed

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.