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Nelson Mandela’s life was long and full. His resistance to white supremacy began in the early 1940s — before “apartheid” even became the name of South Africa’s oppressive system — and continued in the 1990s through his term as the country’s first Black president.

Mandela before prison insideTo grasp his life’s significance, we have to come to grips with both his life and his times. South Africa’s liberation struggle took place alongside — and in interaction with — dozens of African anti-colonial movements. The history of apartheid and the resistance movement also corresponded almost exactly to the period of the Cold War, a conflict that had major effects on South Africa and its region.

I will, however, narrow the focus to events inside South Africa that shaped Mandela’s early political life, up to 1964, when he entered prison for 27 years. In those first years, he became a prominent leader of the struggle, along with others in his generation.

Other tributes to Mandela have rightly emphasized his steadfast adherence to political principles for the decades that followed his incarceration. My tribute will focus on the period in which he acquired those principles.

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To start with, we have to ask, “Why apartheid?” Apartheid was an elaborate, brutal system of racial oppression, but a system that served a purpose: to allow a white ruling minority, numbering less than one-fifth of the population, to regulate the labor of the Black majority. The aim was to shape the kind of working class that the white minority needed.

The National Party won the 1948 election on the slogan of “apartheid,” which means “separation” or “separate development.” It took the party years to assemble the legal, repressive and bureaucratic elements of the apartheid system. Previous systems of labor control, however, had employed racial distinctions and foreshadowed many of the measures that the apartheid government took.

In the 1800s, long before the apartheid phase of South African history, Black wage laborers were working on white-owned farms. The discovery of minerals — diamonds in 1867 and gold in 1884 — rapidly boosted the demand for African wage laborers.

White power was decentralized at the time, so regions developed in different ways, but the general trend was for whites to drive Africans off the land by taxation and by legal enactment.

In 1876, Dutch settlers made it illegal for Blacks to own land in white-controlled areas. English-controlled areas imposed similar restrictions in 1913. These acts immediately deprived Africans of livelihood, so they had to take wage jobs. Such measures were precursors to the Group Areas Act under apartheid, which forced Blacks out of urban areas that whites wanted for development.

The enlargement of white-owned places corresponded with the creation of reserves for Africans — somewhat like Indian reservations. Blacks made up 70 to 80 percent of the population, but were forced onto 7 percent of the land. This action was a precursor to the creation of Black “homelands” or bantustans under apartheid (Bantu is a language group to which several languages of Southern Africa belong).

The Reserves were to serve as dumping grounds for workers when they weren’t needed. Instead of providing a social safety net for the unemployed, white enterprises depended on the productivity of unpaid Black labor — performed mostly by women — to keep the male labor force fed in the Reserves until the white bosses wanted them back. (For a pioneering account of the role of the Reserves in social reproduction, see Wolpe 1972.)

To enforce the segregation of Africans, the white masters forced them to carry passes to verify that they “belonged” where they were at the moment. Blacks were either supposed to be in their homeland or working for a white person. The pass laws later became more systematic and restrictive under apartheid.

Eventually, the passes would have photo IDs that were made possible by the instant photography of a corporation based in the U.S. — Polaroid. The American computer giant IBM provided systems to take care of the massive job of record-keeping required by a pass system that aimed keep track of the Black population’s movements. Apartheid thus refined key repressive measures taken in previous decades — and added a lot more of its own.

Nevertheless, apartheid was really a response to a new kind of challenge from the working class.

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By the 1930s, the mining sector was still growing, but industry was expanding rapidly, encouraged by the state itself. The older workforce of mineworkers were men who lived in company-owned facilities wherever the relevant minerals were to be found. This scheme fit easily with the idea that most Black people belonged in the Reserves until they got called up for work.

Industries, however, tended to grow in urban areas to facilitate mutual exchange of inputs and outputs. These industrial centers attracted relatively stable pools of Black workers, male and female, who could take a succession of factory jobs, provide services in Black neighborhoods, and serve as household help to the growing white middle class.

As a result, the number of urbanized Blacks grew by more than a third from 1936 to 1946. By 1951, the manufacturing workforce (overwhelmingly Black African) would reach 800,000.

These developments gave workers a lot more leverage to fight for improvements in work and living conditions — a cause for alarm among the white bosses. Blacks also built burgeoning squatter settlements that began to encroach on areas that whites wanted to use or live in.

The white rulers were faced with a choice. They could let things go, and accept the presence of Blacks in urban areas — and throw the small white working class into a competition with Black workers for jobs in the labor market. This would mean the development of a multiracial workforce and an increasingly multiracial residential scheme. The rulers would have to trust in market forces to maintain social inequality and ensure conditions that would allow profit to be acquired at an acceptable rate.

This, of course, was not the choice the white bosses made. Instead, the election of the National Party in 1948 signaled that the ruling class would respond to new challenges by strengthening and systematizing the forms of racial repression that were originally developed to deal with scattered mineworkers. As South African Trotskyist Martin Legassick wrote in 1971:

[The advent of] apartheid has meant an extension to the manufacturing economy of the structure of the gold-mining industry. In the towns, all remnants of African land and property ownership have been removed, and a massive building program in so-called “locations” or “townships” means that the African work force is housed in carefully segregated and police-controlled areas that resemble mining compounds on a large scale. All the terms on which Africans could have the right to reside permanently in the towns have been whittled away so that to-day no African…has a right to permanent residence except in the “reserves”…. (Legassic 1971, 261)

Colorblind market forces would not do the job the bosses wanted — to maintain extremely low wage rates for African workers. At the same time, apartheid’s racial segmentation of the labor market would retain the loyalty of white workers to the system by rewarding them with better schools, jobs, houses and neighborhoods, along with pay that was high enough for them to hire Black house-servants.

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This was the period in which Nelson Mandela was coming of age. His first demonstration was in 1943, before the official advent of apartheid, in the urban township of Alexandra outside Johannesburg. Thousands of people were protesting a 25 percent increase in bus fares. They won.

Then, in 1946, 60,000 mineworkers went on strike in the areas around Johannesburg. The authorities defeated the struggle with violence, leaving nine dead and 1,500 injured. The strike, however, made a big impression: first, on white voters, who opted for the National Party two years later; and second, on Africans in Mandela’s generation. The struggle marked both the rising power of the working class and the ruthless determination of the white rulers to crush it.

Mandela was also impressed by a two-year campaign by the South Asian Indian minority to resist being removed from white areas. Although the campaign went down to defeat, Mandela wrote in his memoir Long Walk to Freedom that the struggle made a permanent impression on him.

The campaign was conducted on Gandhian principles, tightly organized and disciplined, with its members prepared to sacrifice themselves without fighting back directly against the state. Mandela was impressed by the Indians’ courage and their methods, but also because he realized that Black South Africans weren’t the only ones willing to put up resistance to white supremacy.

Mandela was already a member of the African National Congress (ANC), a Black nationalist organization that had sought racial equality since 1912. The events of the 1940s, and the social trends underlying them, convinced Mandela and other young members that the ANC had to take a new course. He respected ANC President Albert Xuma, but Mandela wrote that Xuma:

carried himself with an air of superciliousness that did not befit the leader of a mass organization…Xuma presided over an era of delegations, deputations, letters and telegrams. Everything was done in the English manner, the idea being that despite our disagreements, we were all gentlemen. He enjoyed the relationships he had formed with the white establishment and did not want to jeopardize them with political action.

The ANC had to become more confrontational, Mandela and his co-thinkers argued. The ANC would have to tap into the possibilities of mass resistance that were developing. The outlook was in some ways still elitist, but with a common touch. Masses were to be mobilized, but their actions would be strictly controlled by seasoned organizers, according to the Gandhian model.

In 1944, Mandela and a handful of other future leaders — including Walter Sisulu and Mandela’s law partner, Oliver Tambo — founded the ANC Youth League to advocate the new agenda within the ANC. Both Tambo and Sisulu were to serve as the ANC’s general secretary in future years.

Anton Lembede, a major force in launching the Youth League, died in 1947, but the group picked up important new recruits, including Govan Mbeki, father of Thabo (who would serve as South Africa’s second Black president), and Robert Sobukwe, a brilliant young public speaker.

By 1952, the Youth League and its ideas were on the ascendant in the ANC. Mandela was chosen as the central organizer for a series of actions known as the Defiance Campaign. The campaign would train volunteers in the techniques of nonviolence, and the volunteers would then court arrest by deliberately violating a half-dozen of the key laws in the apartheid system.

The Defiance Campaign lasted for six months, led to more than 8,000 arrests, and captured nationwide and even worldwide attention — three years before the Montgomery bus boycott.

The campaign never did reach its second planned phase, which was to include strikes and major demonstrations, but it did achieve a number of things. One was to unite other organizations around ANC leadership — including organizations of Indians, mixed-race people (known in apartheid lingo as “Colored”) and anti-apartheid whites.

The campaign also led to a fivefold increase in the membership of the ANC, from 20,000 to 100,000 in just six months. With this campaign alone, the Youth League transformed the ANC from a major lobbying group into a mass organization. The campaign had no effect on the apartheid regulations, but it recruited the cadres who could make future such campaigns much more effective.

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The next major initiative was the Freedom Charter of 1955. The ANC and its Indian, Colored and white allies (together known as the Congress Alliance) sent out their members to find out what ordinary South Africans wanted for the future of the country — in answer to questions like, “If you could make the laws, what would you do?”

All kinds of suggestions came from individuals and a great variety of groups, including church groups, sports teams, unions and women’s groups. Mandela’s memoir notes that “the most commonly cited demand was for one-man-one-vote.”

The sponsoring national organizations and their branches took these suggestions and framed drafts of a document. A Congress of the People, composed of delegates from all over the country, would discuss and ratify a final Freedom Charter.

Congress delegates passed the Freedom Charter even though the police broke up the outdoor gathering before the attendees could get through their whole agenda.

The charter movement served to further strengthen the national organization of anti-apartheid forces. The charter itself was a combination of straightforward demands for the end of racial discrimination with the set of radical nationalist demands, including nationalization of the banks and the country’s mineral wealth.

It was open to many interpretations and, as such, has been a great touchstone for activists right up to the present moment.

It’s important to note that members of the Communist Party (CP, commonly referred to as the SACP) were involved in shaping the Freedom Charter. The CP was outlawed (“banned,” in apartheid lingo) in 1950 with the passage of the “Suppression of Communism Act,” which actually outlawed a wide range of oppositional activities whether they were communist-inspired or not.

In 1956, the year following the Freedom Charter campaign, the state arrested Mandela and 155 others on charges of high treason. The accused included key members of the ANC and the Congress Alliance, all of whom were released on bail within a few weeks.

The trial, however, lasted until 1961, when the arrestees finally persuaded the court that the alliance and the Freedom Charter did not call for communism or the overthrow of the government — but for a transition from racial capitalism to nonracial capitalism. Supporters of the Freedom Charter became known as the Charter Alliance, or simply “charterists.”

In 1959, one of the ANC Youth League’s members, Robert Sobukwe, founded a breakaway African nationalist group that condemned the Charter Alliance. The Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) tried to distinguish itself with a more militant stance than the ANC. The PAC claimed that the ANC had drifted into conservatism by the attempt to draw support from white and Indian liberals.

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In 1960, the ANC and its allies planned a return to mass disobedience. This time, the campaign was to focus on a single plank of apartheid — the pass system. The conception was simple: Participants would court arrest by going into areas for which they had no written permission.

As it happened, the tiny PAC tried to jump out ahead of the ANC and planned its own actions to court arrest for violating the pass laws. The actions came off with some success in a few parts of the country. One protest, however, just south of Johannesburg in a town named Sharpeville, ended in a massacre.

Police gunned down 69 people. Many were shot in the back while running away, and photographers captured the scene of panic for newspapers around the world. In the days that followed, the ANC called a nationwide work stoppage that hundreds of thousands observed.

The Sharpeville Massacre, however, was not an isolated outbreak of violence. It signaled a period of intensified repression that included a turn toward beatings, torture and murder of activists. The state had upped the ante because of the growing size and assertiveness of the resistance, and now issued bans against both the PAC and the ANC. As a result, for most of the time from the early 1960s until 1990, ANC members were underground, in exile or in prison.

In the early 1960s, Mandela and other leaders were becoming convinced that it was time to turn to armed struggle. The event that led up to this decision was a campaign for a constitutional conference that would draw up a framework of government to supersede apartheid. The ANC and its allies demanded that the apartheid government itself call the conference. When the government inevitably refused, the movement would call a three-day national work stoppage in protest.

This plan touched off a debate in the ANC leadership over whether they should plan strikes or “stayaways.” Mandela argued that workers should just stay home, as was the usual practice in ANC-sponsored work stoppages. In general, he opposed the coercion that was involved in setting up picket lines to stop other workers from going to work. In this specific case, he also argued that picket lines would set the picketers up for an escalation of government violence.

Mandela won the argument, and he might have been right about the dangers in this case. But the long-standing ANC preference for stayaways over strikes was not just a tactical choice. It was a sign that the organization took no interest in independent political organizing by workers.

Putting together a strike for political objectives would require major efforts by workers themselves to organize and persuade their workmates, whereas a stayaway could be called by a middle-class leadership from a distance. What’s more, simply staying home from work would isolate workers from one another.

The ANC’s approach to labor action was thus a sign of that the group’s blatant elitism from its first decades continued to survive in new forms. The group had a disciplined internal structure and tried to oppose that discipline on movements that it called forth. This elitist approach, of course, would became impossible as the working class grew and became accustomed to acting for itself in the 1970s and 1980s.

In any case, the ANC went ahead with its plans for the three-day stayaway. The response in the first day, however, was not very strong, so Mandela called off the action for the next two days.

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According to Mandela’s memoir, this is the point when he resolved to argue in the ANC for a turn to armed struggle, because government repression had apparently scared the movement off the streets. The SACP was already planning to form an armed group, and there is strong evidence that Mandela had joined the CP leadership, at least briefly, in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The SACP itself confirmed Mandela’s membership after his death in a statement that also implied that Mandela left the party to become a “fellow traveler” some time after the early 1960s.

It’s important to note that the resolution to shift toward military action maintained the top-down approach that the ANC had taken to workers’ action. Mandela flipped from advocating stayaways called by central leaderships to advocating the construction of a new hierarchical military structure. He made this flip by rejecting a third option of pursuing political goals through workers’ organization, strike action and the like.

Or maybe he didn’t even reject the option. At this time, much of the international left was convinced that there really were only two options for national liberation: the Gandhian form of disciplined nonviolence, or some version of armed struggle such as the ones that brought China’s Mao and Cuba’s Castro to power.

This polarity of choices — and the absence of the option of independent political action by workers — has everything to do with the dominance of the workers movement by Stalinism.

Mandela wasn’t the only ANC leader of his generation who was strongly influenced by the theoretical framework of the SACP, a party that had long since abandoned the idea of revolutionary socialism from below.

When the ANC decided in 1961 to take up armed struggle, Mandela became the central organizer of the ANC’s new armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe — Spear of the Nation, or MK for short.

That’s the reason he went to prison for 27 years. Or rather, it’s the reason he went to prison in the first place. The reason he stayed in prison was that he refused to renounce the right to use violence to bring down apartheid.

MK carried out some acts of sabotage, and its actions sometimes served as an inspiring symbol of resistance, but it never became a guerrilla force that could penetrate into South Africa’s countryside. From the beginning, the armed struggle was conceived of as just another form of pressure to get the regime to negotiate, not a means of overthrowing it. In some measure, MK ended up being a distraction from organizing underground in country.

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In fact, the major outbreaks of struggle while Mandela was in prison took place through the initiative of forces outside the ANC — even though the ANC as a group was by far the most capable of capitalizing on these initiatives and carrying them forward.

The actions included a major strike wave that began in 1973 on the docks in the port town of Durban and spread to more than 100,000 workers in the city. The actions in Durban set off a nationwide strike wave.

The strikes were the most potent expression of working-class power since the miners’ strike of 1946, and they showed how far the working class had developed since then. The manufacturing section of the workforce alone grew from 800,000 in 1951 to 1.6 million in 1976.

Three years after the Durban strikes, the children of the working class rose up in the mega-township of Soweto against substandard “Bantu education.” Within days, they drew their parents into massive strike actions in solidarity. Even after the security forces gunned down more than 100 youths in Soweto, the movement grew and spread nationwide — without the ANC’s help.

The leading students of the Soweto movement, however, became cadres of the ANC for the climactic Township Uprisings of the 1980s. Alongside this revolt of the Black neighborhoods, workers’ union organization and strike action exploded — with significant strikes continuing, even during the severe repression of the late 1980s.

The general point is this: While apartheid was initially a response to the development of the industrial working class, the further development of that class is what brought apartheid down.

The ANC — and its politics of nonracial capitalism — came out on top as the group learned to navigate through massive social upheavals and channeled them, for the most part, toward the organization’s objectives.

Most tributes to Mandela have inevitably focused on his personal attributes. One reason for this is that a focus on “the times” of Mandela’s life and times would reveal the complicity of international capital and Western politicians in sustaining the abominable system of apartheid.

Another reason to focus on Mandela’s character is that he actually exercised every virtue that people say he did: courage, patience, self-discipline and a willingness to sacrifice. He also had key political qualities that people don’t talk so much about, such as organizational skill, including an unmatched ability to construct united fronts among disparate forces for common struggle. Beyond this, he had considerable tactical flair and a talent for agitation; he knew how to move people into action with words. Mandela was part of a movement that included millions, inside and outside of South Africa, but he was no doubt its most influential individual.

The achievement of nonracial capitalism, of course, did not come close to abolishing inequality or racism itself. Mandela was deeply concerned about those issues, of course, but they were not his central life objectives. When we say that Mandela stuck to principles, he stuck to the ones he picked up in the 1940s and 1950s — a determination to dismantle a legal, bureaucratic, repressive apparatus that was openly designed to inflict racial oppression. That was a colossal fight that he helped South Africans to win. Anybody who wants to extend the fight after his death would do well to honor Mandela’s example.

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First published in December 2013 at SocialistWorker.org as “A life shaped by the struggle.” The version here incorporates minor corrections and additional references.

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Martin Legassick, 1971. “South Africa: forced labor, industrialization, and racial differentiation,” first circulated in mimeograph, then published in Richard Harris, 1975, The Political Economy of Africa, Cambridge: Schenkman Publishing Company, Inc.

Nelson Mandela, 1994. Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. Boston: Back Bay Books.

Christopher Saunders, 1988. The Making of the South African Past: Historians on Race and Class. David Philip, Publishers. Chapter 16, available here, sets the work of Martin Legassic and Harold Wolpe in the context of other efforts to create materialist accounts of South African history.

Harold Wolpe, 1972. “Capitalism and cheap labour-power in South Africa: From segregation to apartheid.” Economy and Society, 1(4):425-456. Available online here.

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