Thursday 5 June 2008

Branch Meeting: Race and Class in South Africa

The recent attacks on refugees in South Africa made headlines around the world. 56 people have lost their lives and around 70,000 immigrants from Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Zambia and Zimbabwe have been displaced. To cope with the problem the South African authorities have been laying on buses and trains to help them escape back home, seeking refuge in the very lands they're refugees from.

At tonight's Stoke Socialist Party branch meeting, F looked at the background to these attacks in the context of the frustrated hopes of the black South African working class. He opened the discussion with the significant moments for racist rule in the country. British colonialism in The Cape had seen the progressive introduction of segregative policies from the late 19th century onwards, beginning with a system of passes to regulate the movement of black populations from the hinterland into the growing metropolitan centres, they increasingly became formalised with the passing of a series of racist Acts. For example, there was the 1911 Mines and Works Act which institutionalised a white (and to a lesser extent, 'coloured') labour aristocracy by creating a colour bar for jobs. Black workers could only be employed in menial jobs, forming a large pool of cheap labour. The 1913 Lands Act set up 'black reservations'. These encompassed approximately 17% of South Africa's land area and forbid black people from owning land outside of these regions.

Apartheid proper didn't come into being until after the 1948 elections. The National Party narrowly won and formed a coalition with the Afrikaner Party to push through toughened racist laws. Separateness was the principle; employment and residential segregation was no longer enough. Public space and institutions were redesigned and racially coded. This was the era of white-only beaches, white-only rail carriages, white-only parks. White children went to schools up to Western educational standards. Black children however were expected to achieve academic excellence in subjects like weeding and pot washing.

Apartheid provoked uprisings, strikes and armed resistance and successive governments responded by converting the administrative and coercive apparatus into a police state. Despite the ratcheting up of repression the organisations built up by black workers endured. When the old regime underwent its final collapse between 1989-91 and after a period of political unrest it was these organisations, the ANC, the South African Communist Party and COSATU that emerged hegemonic from the black working class. Though the history of the 'rainbow' nation has been far from smooth since, the ANC's grip on power has never been seriously challenged, and so successful (in parliamentary terms) it has become that 2005 saw the bizarre spectacle of its fusion with the old National Party.

This was basically the culmination of a project the South African ruling class had to undergo to save their necks. In the late 80s it was between a rock and a hard place, it either instituted reform from above and dismantle the racist state apparatus or face revolution from below. It chose the former option. And the so-called 'national democratic revolution' hasn't been unkind to South Africa's rulers. The ANC has 'sensibly' pursued a neoliberal course and its tripartite alliance with the SACP and COSATU has so far deflected away serious opposition. But where the black majority are concerned, though the abolition of apartheid represents a tremendous advance, their hopes remain unfulfilled. For example, out of a population of almost 44 million between an estimated 6-8 million are unemployed. 50% live beneath the poverty line and there are over 1,000 AIDS-related deaths a day. As a whole the white working class remain a labour aristocracy, on average earning six times the income of blacks, and 98% of the country's wealth remains in white hands. The ANC has managed to cultivate a new black elite but for most, the "revolution" hasn't brought much in the way of material benefits. This is the context in which the outbreak of anti-immigrant violence took place.

It has to be noted that the attacks, though brutal, were concentrated in the environs around Johannesburg. The majority of black workers expressed their revulsion at the events and there were cases of immigrant families finding refuge. But there were no reports of organised defence, nor was their much of a lead taken from the traditional organisations of the working class. The ANC condemned the attacks but denied they had anything to do with poverty and blamed criminals, opportunists and provocateurs. COSATU was slightly better, but only just. It called for a demo against xenophobia but failed to build it in any meaningful way, hence only 300 marched in Johannesburg. It also called on the poor to concentrate their fire at 'the capitalists', without actually organising them to do just that.

In the discussion P pointed out it was unlikely COSATU would take a lead in organising any kind of opposition, despite the lip-service paid to socialism and revolutionary rhetoric. The activist base and lower level officials might be prepared to fight, but the leadership is bound hand and foot to the Tripartite Alliance. As an institutional arrangement it may not have benefited the members very much but for the leaders there is the pretence of influence and position. At the end of the day a top trade union bureaucrat lives a conservative life and will see little sense in upsetting their comfortable existence by overly disturbing the status quo. This is the case with COSATU's relations to the ANC, the TUC's relation to New Labour or AFL-CIO affiliates' dealings with the Democrats.

On the Triple Alliance, A noted the Democratic Socialist Movement's forerunner, the Marxist Workers' Tendency was opposed to the Tripartite Alliance when it was in the ANC, precisely because it would hamstring revolutionary elements and force all three organisations down the path of constitutional politics. While this has been the case, the contradictions of South African society find an expression in the alliance. For example in the power struggle between Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, the latter's take up of left populist arguments reflects a certain level of discontent at the base. Similarly in the SACP, its Young Communist League has been in rebellion and in recent years threatened to run independent YCL candidates against the ANC. And in COSATU, findings from a survey taken three years ago found approximately a third of members were in favour of a new workers' party. Also there has been an increase in industrial struggle, particularly in the public sector, and last month dock workers struck to prevent a Chinese arms shipment from reaching Zimbabwe - a real slap in the face to Mbeki's cosy relationship to Mugabe's increasingly dictatorial regime.

Though it may be too early to tell, these internal ructions and disputes may have placed all three organisations on split trajectories. But unless this can be resolved positively with the establishment of working class political independence, then xenophobic attacks and other spontaneous outbursts of reaction are more likely.

1 comment:

Paul Landau said...

Enjoyed your coverage of this issue.