Why didn’t its overthrow end poverty and inequality?

EPWP workers mobilised behind the banner of the Marxist Workers Party (CWI South Africa), photo Marxist Workers Party

EPWP workers mobilised behind the banner of the Marxist Workers Party (CWI South Africa), photo Marxist Workers Party   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

April Ashley, Socialist Party and Unison national executive council, black members’ rep (personal capacity)

Twenty seven years ago, the world rejoiced as the monstrous apartheid regime was overthrown with the election of the first black majority African National Congress (ANC) government.

Black majority rule – one person one vote – was finally achieved in a negotiated settlement with the De Klerk National Party regime and a bright new South Africa potentially dawned. The end of violent racial oppression and exploitation and an equal opportunity for black workers to thrive in the new ‘rainbow nation’ was expected and promised.

The hopes and dreams of a better life for all in this new South Africa rested on the shoulders of the ANC government lead by the hero of the nation, Nelson Mandela.

However, this year we have seen widespread looting and rioting sweeping across South Africa as thousands of desperate and hungry people stormed shops, warehouses, and factories, burning them to the ground in rage against the ANC government which has turned their promises into bitter ashes.

Hundreds have been killed in the rioting stoked up by the ANC factional struggle between ex-president Jacob Zuma and current president Cyril Ramaphosa. The riots have caused damage amounting to billions of rand (see ‘South Africa: Riots and looting a dead end – Build working class unity to win jobs and services for all!’ and ‘South Africa: Eyewitness report of community self-defence against rioting and looting’ on socialistworld.net).

But how has the overthrow of apartheid with the promise of a bright new future collapsed into the disaster that is South Africa today?

The historic 1994 elections symbolised the triumph of the national liberation struggle. It was the first time the black majority in South Africa was able to vote – and they did so decisively to end white minority rule.

Many may remember the images of queues snaking around the polling booths as millions lined up to vote – waiting for hours, all day in some instances, to cast their first vote.

There was a huge anti-apartheid movement around the world against the international pariah regime in the 1970s and 1980s – involving demonstrations, lobbies, and boycotts. It was the main international campaign of the youth, and the labour and trade union movement. Therefore, the victory against apartheid was seen as our victory.

In South Africa, black workers struggled bitterly for decades against ferocious oppression as they were driven off their own land and confined to live in ‘Bantustans’. These so-called ‘homelands’ were in reality rural slums to hold unemployed workers for the migrant labour system which was the main tool of capitalist oppression.

These native reserves were dumping grounds – barren lands with no running water, no facilities, abject poverty and despair – to ensure a plentiful supply of cheap labour for the capitalist class.

The use of the ‘pass laws’ to restrict and control the movement of black workers coming into urban centres was another major tool of oppression, along with other measures.

Struggle against the pass laws resulted in the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 with the killing of 69 people. Most victims were shot in the back as they tried to flee the armed police.

In June 1976 it was the turn of the youth in the ‘Soweto uprising’. Youth defiantly hurled themselves at the South African state machine that was forcing them to be taught in Afrikaans (a language evolved from Dutch settlers) – a symbol of apartheid. This massacre caused outrage and deepened their bitterness against the regime.

Social conditions

Underlying the fury of the youth was the social conditions they lived under. In Soweto a million black people packed into the township with half the population unemployed, living in poverty under the pass laws – a virtual concentration camp.

This Soweto uprising ignited a wave of uprisings across the country. Over 1,000 people were killed as the regime tried to drown the revolutionary movement in blood. The international anti-apartheid movement surged. Workers were shocked at the sheer brutality of the regime slaughtering children and young people.

The uprising changed the consciousness of the black youth. It showed that the youth alone could not defeat apartheid so they appealed to the organised workers in the trade unions for solidarity. Hundreds and thousands of workers took strike action against the regime in the first political strikes since 1961.

This was the organised workers coming onto the scene of struggle once again following from the Durban workers’ strikes in 1969 and 1973. Trade union membership doubled and trebled in the 1970s and 1980s following the Durban strikes.

But it was the explosion of the organised workers’ strikes in the 1980s that rocked the whole of South Africa. Mass strikes in the 1980s fired the imagination of labour movement internationally who gave solidarity to the workers in South Africa. Such as the Dunnes workers’ strikers in Ireland who refused to handle South African goods (see ‘How Irish strikers fought apartheid – and establishment anti-apartheid leadership’ at socialistparty.org.uk).

In Britain, the Socialist Party (then the Militant) called for workers’ sanctions and direct links with the trade unions to support the workers’ struggles.

Many now compare the state of Israel to an apartheid state and therefore the lessons to overthrow the state and the subsequent history is important.

It was the struggles of the workers and youth that ended apartheid, of which the organised workers in the trade unions played the central role.

The formation of Cosatu – the Congress of South African Trade Unions – in 1985 was the beginning of the end of apartheid. The two million-strong Cosatu adopted the ‘Freedom Charter’ (the 1955 ANC charter which demanded democratic rights and nationalisation) under the banner of “Socialism means freedom”.

Cosatu began a series of general strikes, led by its largest affiliate, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), to overthrow apartheid by making the country ungovernable. Cyril Ramaphosa, now the multi-millionaire capitalist president of South Africa, was then the most militant NUM leader and led the strikes that threatened to cripple the economy.

Along with the general strikes, the townships were in uproar. The apartheid regime could simply not function, and the regime had to adopt a policy of ‘adapt or die’, said the leader of the ruling National Party, De Klerk. He warned the white population they faced a racial civil war if they didn’t grant black majority rule.

In reality, the white-dominated apartheid state was forced to carry out ‘reforms from above’ to prevent ‘revolution from below’.

If they didn’t allow black majority rule, the ruling class feared the movement could go further and overthrow capitalism as well.

The De Klerk government began negotiations with the ANC which resulted in the release from prison of Mandela in 1990 and negotiations around black majority rule.

The ‘Tripartite Alliance’, made up of leaders of the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and Cosatu, entered into a power sharing agreement with the De Klerk government.

Freedom Charter

The ANC had adopted the Freedom Charter in the 1950s, under pressure from the working class seeking a revolutionary change in society.

The Freedom Charter had nationalisation clauses and stated: “The national wealth of our country, the heritage of all South Africans, shall be restored to the people; the mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of people as a whole”

But the ANC abandoned the Freedom Charter in negotiations with the apartheid regime and all the capitalist institutions were left in the hands of the capitalists.

The ANC betrayed the revolutionary movement and all the hopes and dreams of the workers and youth encapsulated in the Freedom Charter (see ‘After Nelson Mandela – continue the struggle for freedom and equality’ at socialistparty.org.uk).

They were able to do this as they shifted to the right along with social democratic parties following the collapse of Stalinism and the ideological triumph of capitalism in the 1990s.

The ANC has been in power since then. But apart from the first few years of the reconstruction and development programme, when housing and some infrastructure were built, they now carry out neo-liberal policies.

Many former ANC militants simply enriched themselves, like Cyril Ramaphosa.

This former miners’ union leader became a multimillionaire, multiple property owner, serving on the board of Lonmin, owners of the Marikana mine site.

Subsequently he became known as ‘the butcher of Marikana’ for supporting mine bosses when in 2012, 47 striking platinum miners were gunned down in Marikana. Like Sharpeville, most were shot in the back as they were running away.

The same brutal methods used under apartheid are used by the ANC regime to slaughter workers fighting for a decent future. This demonstrates in action the complete capitulation of the ANC leadership to capitalism.

“What happened in reality was an exchange of political captains of capitalism; the racist white government was replaced by a ‘non-racist’ democratically elected government based on the black majority” (‘Nelson Mandela- The lessons of his legacy’ by Weizmann Hamilton and Thamsanga Dumezwenit, CWI South Africa – at socialistparty.org.uk).

Today, South Africa has the most unequal wealth and income distributions in the world. The gap between South Africa’s richest and poorest hasn’t narrowed since the end of apartheid.

The richest 10% of the population owns more than 85% of household wealth. With the wealthiest 10% of the population taking 60% of its total income, while the bottom half of the population earns less than 8%.

At the end of June, unemployment had reached a record high of 44.4% (64.4% among 15-24 year-olds). People between the ages of 21 and 59 receive no income of any kind from the state. Almost one-quarter of South African households experience hunger daily. This means workers continue to live in crushing poverty.

The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns, and the continued neoliberal cuts to the public sector, has intensified the attacks on the working class. The capitalist system lurches from one crisis to the next with no relief for working people. The organised workers will again have to take the road of mass struggle to end the desperate situation of mass unemployment and poverty.

The Marxist Workers Party (part of the Committee for a Workers’ International, to which the Socialist Party is affiliated) is today urgently campaigning for a mass workers’ party fighting on a socialist programme to end brutal capitalist exploitation.