“The road of racial rainbows and imaginary class harmony without mobilizing the people to get rid of the existing state and uproot the underlying system appealed to many, especially the middle classes among the oppressed: it is an easier road than revolution. But the problem is, as the bitter experience of South Africa of the recent past 20 years has shown once again, it is entirely illusory – and imaginary.”
This article is from Maoist Information Bulletin. Published by UCPN (M), International Bureau, Vol. 04, No. 13.
This is a piece published in Nepal’s Maoist press against “negotiating to share political power within the old state.” In other words, it should be read as a sharp polemic over contested issues facing Nepal’s revolution and its Maoist leading core.
Two Decades After Mandela’s Release:
20 Years of Freedom in South Africa?
The world watched elatedly 20 years ago as Nelson Mandela was finally freed from 27 years in South African jails in February 1990, so hated was the apartheid regime and all the injustice it stood for. Mandela, as one of the world’s longest-held political prisoners has become a sort of living legend.
Apartheid’s jails regorged with thousands of political prisoners from the decades of struggle against apartheid representing different organizations and different perspectives. Many fighters, leaders and soldiers died in detainment or were hanged in police stations, thrown out of upper-story windows and never saw a wigged white apartheid judge go through the motions of a trial. Treason was a common charge. And the masses of South African people had made enormous and heroic sacrifices during the struggle and periods of upsurge over the previous decades. Although Mandela’s enemies secretly began negotiations with him in 1988, it was never a secret that their releasing political leaders and unbanning opposition groups in 1990 was a calculated step in the dismantling of apartheid and reorganisation of political rule in South Africa.
At the end of the 1980′s the apartheid system of enforced racial segregation and oppression in which the black majority (including people of Indian and mixed race origin) was legally forbidden the most elementary rights was rotting at the seams under the combined weight of major social, political and economic crisis.
It was a revolutionary situation, which the white settler regime fully realized as it could no longer contain the political upsurge that had been shaking the country in waves since 1976 and reached a peak in the mid-1980′s. Despite police invasion of the townships where most blacks lived, these became bases to stage different forms of struggle. Youth, students and workers, including foreign migrant workers, organized mass boycotts, stay-aways (from school, businesses and work}, strikes, fighting with the police and then funeral marches after people were gunned down. In the rural areas too, where most Africans were forced to live in phony ethnic-based reserves, people rioted against the despised bantustan authorities and their vigilante squads, fought for better land and resisted force removals as part of apartheid’s territorial consolidation.
While vast sections of blacks were mobilized in one form or another to fight white rule, many thousands were also actively involved in organizations fighting for national liberation and revolution, and passionately debating the future.
President P.W. Botha’s counter-revolutionary strategy, combining some reforms and modest social welfare with divide and conquer tactics among the anti-apartheid forces, utterly failed to stabilise the situation. The situation was so out of control by 1986 that the apartheid government declared emergency rule with curfews and a doubled police force that occupied the exploding townships. In the late 1980′s four to five thousand people were killed. Every funeral was turned into another round of struggle. The intensity of the upsurge led the regime to ban 31 black political organizations in 1988, provoking the creation of numerous new local committees to carry on. The struggle remained at a high level into 1990.
The apartheid rulers, advised by the West, sought Nelson Mandela’s help to end the crisis and smother the escalating revolutionary movement by lending credibility to a negotiated settlement with anti-apartheid organizations. They were able to buy precious time while they reorganized South Africa’s political rule in ways that did not fundamentally change the socio-economic system it served and the country’s role as powerhouse of Africa and guardian of imperialist interests in the region.
As it was designed to, the negotiated compromise in South Africa had a terrible effect, helping to snuff out the revolutionary aspirations of the millions of people who, at the cost of great sacrifice including their lives, threatened to pull down the regime in order to end white rule and all the vicious oppression and suffering it represented. This immense opportunity and revolutionary potential was channeled into voting for one of the 19 candidates with Mandela representing the ANC (African National Congress) that had been groomed to share state power with the slightly reformed National Party – the same reactionary party that had presided over formal apartheid for nearly 50 years. It was called a Government of National Unity. Having the right to vote for the first time in history, naturally the majority of Black people turned out in record numbers to elect the popular former political prison Nelson Mandela with hopes that the ANC would be able to deliver on its promises of liberation, returning the land to the blacks, and doing away with the inequalities and bitter subjugation they had endured for so long.
How did a so-called national liberation organization led by Mandela succeed in drowning this revolutionary process? How did it become such a willing tool of the ruling classes?
1994: Negotiating to share political power within the old state
Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, along with other political prisoners, and the unbanning of numerous political organizations was a key step in launching the negotiations process for multi-party elections and the gargantuan effort to draw a large section of the black liberation movement, including many of its radically-minded intellectuals, into that process. Mandela called on people to stop the struggle, lay down their arms, to “bury the past. extend a hand”. (Some examples of Mandela’s class collaboration are more or less accurately portrayed in the beginning of the 2009 movie Invictus, as he sought to override mistrust among ANC employees faced with sharing the state with their previous enemies. One scene in particular depicts Mandela welcoming the same special branch security officers into his personal bodyguard who had actively hunted down and killed anti-apartheid activists.}
Heavily financed and counselled from the West, the ANC and its sister organizations, trade unions, and the SACP set about communicating the message that antagonistic struggle was no longer necessary: a peaceful electoral path would solve South Africa’s tremendous problems, if blacks – the ANC – joined the government and worked from within to change the nature of the state. Aiming to gain some seats at the tables of political power as they existed with a big boost from the more liberal sections of the white capitalist class directly tied to imperialism and the imperialists themselves, who were actively working for a transition on terms favourable to their continued domination of South Africa, the ANC willingly became a political instrument of these classes and interests they had ostensibly opposed for decades. Worse, much of the ANC’s own complete surrender to this plan took the form of being soldiers in the battle to politically disarm and actively demobilize broad sections of the movement against the regime at a very crucial point in history while helping convince leaders with whom it had long-standing disagreements – whose rank and file had shed blood over – to join in the negotiations project.
Mandela and prominent clergy like Desmond Tutu lead the way to these ‘talks about talks’, as they were dubbed. Given the sharp tensions over different programmes and struggle against the non-revolutionary politics of the ANC, naturally disputes and misgivings arose among the various participating liberation groups, including the PAC, Azapo, left ANC splinter groups, Trotskyist circles inside and outside of the ANC and others, some temporarily pulling out or arguing for interim “guarantees” such as a Constituent Assembly. But the “miracle” the bourgeoisie and its international partners achieved was to bring most of these black political leaders into the same tent of compromise. If successful, the US imperialists were eager to apply this model to other conflict-ridden states and former colonies that needed to be politically stabilized as post WW2 arrangements increasingly were becoming outmoded. An important component of the model was to build up the black middle and better-off classes that had a material stake in the system and to appeal to those who aspired to be part of the elite. In turn they would help continue to persuade the country’s majority poor population they didn’t need to overthrow capitalism, but must instead “take part” in developing it, which required making peace with those at the top – both black and white.
One of the other great myths about the South African transition was that was peaceful. The negotiated agreement was cemented in a combination of talks AND violence.
When the international bourgeois press crows that “civil war was avoided” it means there was no open “race war” between white extremist groups – which were more or less neutralized and pulled into political compromise as well – and the black masses. In reality, the world witnessed a very bloody process of apartheid moulting to share political rule in the early 1990′s in which over 13 thousand black lives were lost.
Open fighting repeatedly broke out or was orchestrated between the ANC or other political organizations and the right-wing Zulu nationalists of Gatsha Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party and its paramilitary forces, supported by police and security forces or by conservative white groups threatening to destabilize elections. In addition, sharp contradictions over the political differences between the moderate United Democratic Front, the ANC and its more rebellious youth base on the one hand, and Azapo and other political groupings in and around black consciousness movements and PAC on the other hand, often took a violent form. Thirdly, state violence to repress the rising struggle of the people (portrayed from the perspective of the future in the “science fiction” film District 9 as an armed onslaught against the masses of alien “prawns” was in fact a daily reality in the townships and resulted in several massacres after 1990 from Bisho in the Ciskei to Sebokeng in Gauteng.
The road of racial rainbows and imaginary class harmony without mobilizing the people to get rid of the existing state and uproot the underlying system appealed to many, especially the middle classes, among the oppressed. It is an easier road than revolution. But the problem is, as the bitter experience of South Africa of the recent past 20 years has shown once again, it is entirely illusory – and imaginary.
In reality, the society is nearly as segregated as ever – minus the legal apartheid scaffolding supporting it. Despite a rising and very visible black middle class, inequalities between rich and poor have actually increased. New political freedoms, while greater than under white rule, are mainly channeled into pressuring the ANC in government for more service delivery and exercising a vote to keep them in power. Twenty years ago, a whole generation was ready to tear up the place for something new, different and truly liberating.
At the same time, many people’s experience had taught them to distrust the negotiated outcome and they were (and still are) bitterly angry at being dragged into this deception – trading the masses’ revolutionary struggle in for the chance to vote for a black government that, despite its populist promises, is in fact governed by the needs and requirements of the global capitalist-imperialist system that such posturing serves. Struggles continued to erupt against the ANC’s betrayal of the people but the giant tide to become citizens in a liberal democracy had a powerfully debilitating effect, as it was intended to, polarizing things in a very unfavourable way for revolution.