Resisting white rule, 1946-1976
In 1948, South Africa’s National Party (NP) rode to electoral victory on the slogan of “apartheid.” The Black working class had grown more assertive in the previous few years, and the NP’s campaign played on the rising fear among the all-white electorate. Black squatter settlements were growing on the edges of the white city centers, and Black workers were getting organized. Two years before the election, 60,000 members of the recently-founded African Mine Workers Union went on strike in the greater Johannesburg area. Security forces put down the strike within a week, but only by killing nine mineworkers and injuring more than 1,200.
The Nats promised stricter enforcement of pass laws, and, once in power, the party herded Black workers into townships at a “safe” distance from white areas. The forced relocations led to multiple protests in the next decade, in part because much of the new housing was remote from the places where Black people worked. For many, it became impossible to walk to work, and many protests, including bus boycotts, centered on transit services that were expensive and inconvenient.
Strikes continued in the early 1950s, mainly around workplace demands — wages and conditions. The strikes and township protests were significant in showing the strength of the working class, but the class wasn’t organized as a political force.
The African National Congress (ANC), however, was getting organized. The end of the Second World War and the advent of official apartheid brought up a new generation in the ANC Youth League, future leaders who started to look beyond the middle-class framework of quiet pleadings with the regime. The new generation included Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, who all later led the ANC, and Robert Sobukwe, who was soon to found the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).
These young leaders witnessed the growth of the working-class struggle, both in workplaces and in the townships. They were also inspired by what Gandhi had done to turn the Indian Congress toward mass politics. The new idea was that the ANC would seek to mobilize broad popular forces under its political leadership. In 1952, the ANC launched what became known as the Defiance Campaign in nonviolent resistance to the apartheid laws.
The movement inaugurated the modern era of South African mass politics. Up till then, resistance movements, however explosive, had relied on local leadership and focused on very specific sets of demands. The ANC’s contribution was to sponsor coordinated efforts and to target some of the fundamental features of the apartheid system, such as the pass laws. The topics of discussion thus expanded beyond the tactics of resistance, important as they were, to include questions of strategy to bring the whole system down.
The Defiance Campaign gave thousands of people their first brush with activism, but the decade of resistance ended abruptly in 1960 with a couple of massacres, the most famous being the one at Sharpeville in March. The demonstration, which was against the pass laws, was actually sponsored by Subukwe’s PAC, which had broken from the ANC a year earlier. Security forces gunned down 69 people, most of them shot in the back as they were running away.
I’ll draw out two points about the Sharpeville massacre.
First, it showed that there could be multiple political forces besides the ANC that would initiate action and contend for leadership in the movement. This was possible because activity kept springing up from the grass roots. Without such action from ordinary people, contending organizations would have no movement to contend over, and divergent ideas of strategy would remain just ideas with no significant consequences. So there was very lively debate — precisely because there were thousands of people looking for the ideas that they should act on.
The second point about Sharpeville was that people could see that eight years of action on the model of the 1952 Defiance Campaign had failed to budge the apartheid edifice. The state, in fact, intensified its repression after Sharpeville and bolstered the apartheid system with a battery of new repressive laws. The ANC and PAC were both “banned” within weeks of the massacre, and Sobukwe would spend the 1960s in prison. Further resistance would have to arise on a new basis.
Many were demoralized as the state cracked down after Sharpeville. The ANC leadership, now centered around Mandela and comrades from the Youth League, concluded that an armed resistance to apartheid was necessary. They founded a group called the Spear of the Nation, which, in Zulu, is Umkhonto we Sizwe (also known as MK).
The plan was to carry out an escalating series of attacks on the state. They were to begin with exploratory pinpricks like individual bombings and build strength for larger confrontations. MK was active until the fall of apartheid, but it never got much beyond pinpricks.
In 1964, Mandela and nine other ANC leaders were convicted of 221 acts of sabotage, and Mandela went to prison until 1990. The ANC was banned, and much of the group’s leadership, including MK’s, went into exile in other countries in southern Africa. Inside the country, cadres of the ANC went underground. They worked more closely with the South African Communist Party, which also worked underground and built a reputation within the resistance for courage and sacrifice.
Debates over strategy
I’ll pick up the threads of the resistance in a moment, but first, it’s worth looking at some of the ideas that grew up inside the movement as guides to action.
I’ll start with Sobukwe. He founded the Pan-Africanist Congress out of frustration with the moderation of the ANC, which he associated with its openness to multiracial participation. He was thus an early proponent of an Africanist strategy for liberation that didn’t include participation from whites. According to Sobukwe, a white could be counted as African by owing loyalty only to Africa and by accepting the democratic rule of an African majority. Despite this voluntarist, nonracial theory of African-ness, the PAC excluded whites in practice.
These views harmonized with an identification of whites as a settler-colonial class. The Black struggle was thus an independence struggle, parallel to other struggles taking place on the continent whose aim was to expel European colonial rulers. I’ve already pointed to the problems of seeing 20th-century white rulers as colonists. They didn’t send their profits back to some home country. What’s more, if they fell from power, they really had no home country to return to. They had become white Africans.
The PAC’s views were the inspiration for a slogan of its armed wing in the 1980s. The slogan was a play on, “One person, one vote,” and it called for “One settler, one bullet.” In the 1960s, the PAC began to align with the Chinese regime, while the Soviet Union continued to back the South African Communist Party (and implicitly, the CP’s ally, the ANC).
The politics of the PAC is an illustration that nationalist politics is sometimes a step into militance, and the lingering minority appeal of the PAC came from people’s disgust with the recurring stodginess of the ANC. The appeal also comes from an observation that when the liberation movement took on the membership of white liberals in particular, they tended to counsel gradualism and negotiation over confrontation. What’s more, whites could use their privileged background to exert a disproportionate influence even over groups that were majority Black.
These are the points that inspired the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) of the late 1960s and 1970s, beginning with the creation of the all-Black South African Students Organization (SASO). Steve Biko, SASO’s founder, was not hostile to the idea of a non-racial South Africa, but favored separate organization because he thought that white liberals held back the development of Black confidence and leadership. Black Consciousness was thus based on ideas about the social psychology of resistance and not a particular theory of apartheid or a grand strategy for overthrowing it.
Now to the ANC’s ideas. The ANC is a big tent, so I can’t cover the whole diversity. The first thing to say is that even though the ANC favored armed struggle in theory, it was always secondary in their politics, for a couple of reasons. First is that negotiation and conciliation was their default position, and MK was an expression of the leadership’s frustration that that position hadn’t worked. Second is that an alternative of mass action from the grassroots was to continually emerge in the next twenty years, which doesn’t really fit well with secretive underground methods of armed struggle.
If the ANC could use mass pressure as better leverage against the apartheid regime than MK could offer, then so be it. The important thing is that the ANC mainstream leadership always favored a negotiated end to apartheid, seeing both armed struggle and mass action as leverage to help the leadership extract concessions from the regime.
This is most obvious in retrospect. The ANC didn’t always look so conservative, because it drew lots of revolutionaries into its ranks, and the movement itself repeatedly showed a potential for social revolution that might have overwhelmed the more moderate voices in the ANC. But it was always a multi-class formation with the middle class in the lead, even when it later acquired a working-class base.
As for a theory of apartheid, and a corresponding resistance strategy, the ANC borrowed theirs from the Communist Party, the SACP. The SACP analyzed apartheid as “colonialism of a special type,” or as Mandela later described it, a peculiar kind of “internal colonialism.”* The CP’s theory of “colonialism of a special type” conceded the obvious fact that whites had formed an indigenous ruling class. For the CP, however, that wasn’t the point. The real point was that if the struggle was anti-colonial, Stalinist theory specified that the revolution would separate into two distinct pieces that would occur years apart from each other. First comes the stage of national liberation (or “National Democratic Revolution” — NDR) to abolish racial discrimination and establish Black majority rule. This might entail mass mobilization of the working class, but would not include a class seizure of power or the beginnings of socialism. Socialism would have to wait until the “normal” form of capitalism developed and the twisted apartheid form was a relatively distant memory.
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*This is not to be confused with the psychological sense of “internal colonialism,” a concept common to Frantz Fanon, the PAC, and the BCM. For a Marxist critique of the characterization of apartheid as an instance of internal colonialism, see Wolpe 1975.
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The more liberal wing of the ANC could advocate just the first part of the two-stage revolution and say that the goal is to establish nonracial capitalism, and the other stuff about socialism is harmless rhetoric that draws the support of the left wing while putting off that struggle to the indefinite future.
Points like this make it easy to be dismissive of the CP and especially of the ANC, but as I mentioned, the rhetoric about socialism did draw in people who wanted to overturn all forms of oppression. The ANC’s Freedom Charter, did say, after all, that “The people shall govern” — and that the country’s natural wealth belonged to all the people. The Charter, passed in 1955 by a conference of 3,000, has played a double role in the broader “Congress” or “Charterist” movement: (1) to draw in the most radical activists, who are often the bravest and most committed, and (2) to serve as a touchstone for those same radicals when they say that the Congress movement has not gone far enough. These points are still important today because a bunch of people with these hopes are still in the ANC, the CP and the trade unions associated with them — even if they’ve become cynical about the leadership of their own organizations.
There’s another theory of apartheid, the one that I recommend, that became most developed in the early 1970s. Some of the theory came from folks who were around the left of the CP (see Wolpe 1972), but Trotskyists (e.g., Martin Legassick) also played a crucial role in spelling it out. It starts by rejecting the idea that white dominance in the late 20th century was a form of colonial rule and by recognizing that South Africa was an independent capitalist state. Apartheid was a grotesque racist system, but at its heart, it was a system of labor regulation. All capitalist states regulate labor, the migration of workers, their legal rights, etc. The special character of apartheid was that distinctions of race were key to marking out economic roles.
This characterization of apartheid suggests that other ruling classes could approach their own problems of labor regulation by designing nonracial forms of apartheid. I’ve taken this up in 2006 and 2009 in discussions of China’s hukou system, which confers second-class citizenship on workers of rural origin. This legal status, like the status conferred by “race” in apartheid South Africa, is hereditary. One distinctive feature of apartheid systems in particular is that workers are allowed into the population centers — as second-class citizens — as long as capital requires their labor, but must return to their “true homes” in the countryside when they are laid off.
The theory and practice of white supremacy was thus built into the way that South Africa’s ruling class extracted profit and ruled politically, but white supremacy functioned as a means to capitalist rule, not an end in itself. One prime minister summed these things up in his way: “We need the Blacks because they work for us, but the fact that they work for us can never entitle them to political rights.”
The Trotskyist theory goes on to say: The existence of a substantial working class, and the coincidence of class oppression with racial oppression, meant that a workers’ revolutionary movement could take on both at the same time — and that it would need to take on both. Socialism was on the agenda if the working class could organize itself independently and provide the broader movement a political lead.
The return of mass action
In the early 1970s, with the ANC and the PAC banned, the working class stepped forward after more than a decade of repression. Strikes began in 1973 on the docks in Durban and spread to other workplaces in the city, involving 100,000 workers. The Durban strikes set off a nationwide strike wave.
The strikes gave rise to a new appreciation of the power and significance of workplace struggle. Many workers became revolutionaries as a result, including a significant number who distinguished their revolutionism from the politics of the ANC and SACP. The ANC/SACP aimed to focus a broad movement on the goal of black majority rule, a goal that might be reached through negotiations and without the overthrow of capitalism — if the movement just provided enough pressure. The new worker-militants and their intellectual supporters put forward an alternative vision, sometimes in explicitly anti-Stalinist terms, of the revolutionary destruction of apartheid to be led by workers themselves.
In 1979, these forces, initially inspired by the Durban revolt, formed the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU), the country’s first truly national trade union federation. The South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), founded in the same year as the Freedom Charter (1955), had been active within the broader “Charterist” movement ever since. Led by SACP militants, SACTU adhered to the theory of National Democratic Revolution, and thus earned the scorn of FOSATU.
Unfortunately, FOSATU activists and their co-thinkers had a narrow view of what the working class needed to do. They saw worker’s power at the point of production as the central feature of a revolutionary movement, which was an advance, but they discounted struggle outside the workplace. In the name of maintaining political independence, this meant that they put off the question of political organization that could coordinate the struggles of the broader working class — even of members of the middle class who could be won to a project of revolutionary socialism. These worker-militants became known as the “workerists.”
Workerism is a flawed organizing outlook anywhere, but it was especially off-base in the South African context, where about one-quarter the urban population was unemployed, students and youth were becoming radicalized, and women’s organization had sprouted up. The history of South Africa, from the time of apartheid to today, is a record of the interaction of struggles inside and outside the workplace. The theoretical and practical question for the left has been what political ideas and organization can coordinate these struggles to maximum effect. FOSATU’s activists would have to develop their ideas in response to further upsurges in struggle.
Before the founding of FOSATU, however, there had already been a massive upsurge that was built on the interaction of township and workplace struggles: the Soweto rebellion of 1976-77. The youth radicalization of the 1970s had been closely linked to workers’ struggle, as Peter Dwyer notes:
A wave of mass strikes spread between 1973 and 1976, creating a climate of revolt that spread across the country as student activists began to forge links with workers through discussions about wage levels, legal advice, and organizing. (Dwyer and Zeilig, 99)
Soweto was South Africa’s biggest Black township, with about a million residents, located to the southwest of the country’s biggest city, Johannesburg. (That’s why it’s called Soweto — South-West-Township.) The spark for rebellion came when the government resolved to teach Black students in Afrikaans, essentially a foreign language to Blacks in that region.
That rebellion is the subject of the next article in the series.
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Peter Dwyer and Leo Zeilig. African Struggles Today: Social Movements Since Independence. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012.
Harold Wolpe, 1972. “Capitalism and cheap labour-power in South Africa: From segregation to apartheid.” Economy and Society, 1(4):425-456. Available online from the Harold Wolpe Memorial Trust.
Harold Wolpe, 1975. “The theory of internal colonialism: the South African case,” in I. Oxhaal et al., Beyond the Sociology of Development. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Available online from the Harold Wolpe Memorial Trust.