This article was initially published in Volume 4, #1 of Azania Worker in February of 1987. A full set of the issues of Azania Worker is available at https://www.sahistory.org.za/search?s=Azania%20worker#gsc.tab=0&gsc.q=Azania%20worker&gsc.page=1.
As most activists in the antiapartheid movement realize, the largest and most powerful of the organized groups in the South African liberation movement is the African National Congress (ANC). And while some might be aware that there are other groups in that movement, their distinctive character and their differences with the ANC are seldom discussed.
This carries over to most of the practical activity against apartheid that we engage in. When we hear a speaker from South Africa, it is almost always a representative of the ANC or, recently, the United Democratic Front (which is closely allied with the ANC).
On some occasions, this organizational predominance is challenged by those who support one or another of the other groups or by those who argue that it is important for the anti‑apartheid movement here to extend support to the entire liberation movement. Frequently, such challenges are responded to with the advice that the ANC is the only really important group and that it will be the ANC that will ‘win’ in South Africa.
In addition, virtually all of the international dialogue on the fate of South Africa hinges on the demands that the South African government legalize the ANC, release Nelson Mandela and begin talking to the leaders of the Congress. There is considerable evidence that influential and powerful people inside and outside of South Africa, as well as many of apartheid’s opponents, believe that the ANC will, in fact, be directly involved in the future government of South Africa. As a consequence, they would like to arrange a relatively peaceful transition and, at the same time, put the ANC in a position where it might be willing to accommodate the demands that will be placed on it by South African corporations, international investors and the Western powers.
While the supporters of the ANC see this development as a promising one and urge all anti‑apartheid activists to rally behind the ANC, many of the other forces in the movement express considerable concern about it. Many of those other forces have long‑standing differences with the ANC and are not convinced that submerging them in a common struggle under the leadership of the ANC would be wise.
In order to assist anti‑apartheid activists to better understand the differences within the liberation movement, I have written this brief description of the history of the movement during the 20th Century. It would have been too ambitious an undertaking to chronicle the resistance of the indigenous populations to the spread of European military and economic power for the two and a half centuries prior to the twentieth. But, it should be understood that while the resistance was persistent and determined, the European onslaught was militarily superior and vicious in its brutality.
As will be clear, I have my own sympathies. I hope, however, that I have not distorted the record and I urge all who read the pamphlet to investigate the issue for themselves.
A Note on Sources
Although the article does contain references to various publications and documents, I have not included a bibliography at the end. Such a bibliography will be included in the next edition of the article.
I would like to recommend several of the books and other publications that I relied on in the course of researching the material.
First, and perhaps obviously, people should read the Freedom Charter. It is now in its third decade as the definitive statement of the goals of the Congress Alliance and it deserves careful reading and analysis.
Second, people should read the work of Steve Biko, one of the original articulators of Black Consciousness. Some of his spoken testimony is available in the biography written by Donald Woods, Biko and a collection of his writings has recently been re‑issued under the title of I Write What I Like.
Third, I would recommend One Azania, One Nation by No Sizwe. It is published by Zed Press in England. I would also recommend as a follow‑up piece a book published last year in South Africa by Neville Alexander. It is entitled Sow the Wind and was published by Skotaville Press. Readers should know that Alexander was the author of One Azania, One Nation using the No Sizwe pseudonym.
Finally, I would recommend almost everything that Basil Davidson has written about Africa but especially the book that I consulted frequently during the writing of this pamphlet ‑ Let Freedom Come.
I’d like to thank Mike Morgan of the South African Military Refugee Aid Fund for bearing with my obvious questions and for providing me with so many un‑obvious answers.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the white settlers in South Africa had been able to defeat all of the indigenous opposition to their steady expansion eastward and northward from the Cape Province. At that point, however, the long‑standing antagonisms between the Dutch and English broke out into an open conflict. The Anglo‑Boer War lasted for three bloody years and in 1902, a peace treaty ended the war on terms more or less dictated by the English. However, the peace accord did grant the Afrikaners some concessions in the area of cultural equality.
Seven years later, an act of the English parliament joined the four provinces (Cape, Natal, Orange Free State and Transvaal) into a Union of South Africa. However, it allowed all but the Cape Province to independently determine eligibility for voting. In the Cape, Coloureds continued to vote and some `natives’ retained the franchise.
One observer has suggested that the Act of Union was motivated in large part by the Bambaata Rebellion which had shaken white confidence, if not white rule, in 1906. Bambaata, a chief of the Zondi tribe of Zululand, led an armed revolt against European rule. He and his followers relied on guerrilla tactics and enjoyed a short-lived success. The rebellion cost the English authorities over $5 million. After they killed Bambaata, they beheaded him and took photographs of soldiers holding the head as a display of how the `civilized’ British dealt with the `uncivilized’ Africans. (Frank Talk, July‑August 1984: 10)
No Sizwe has suggested that the defeat marked the end of any serious possibility of a military challenge to white rule and subsequent efforts would either be religious or assimilationist in nature. While religious sentiments “kept alive the belief that Africa belongs to the Africans and that the land should be returned,” they seldom took a “directly political” form. This left the field open for efforts by various ‘elites’ to try to secure their own political rights and freedoms within the framework of a European dominated society.
Because of the manner in which they had accepted Christian teachings (non‑violence, non‑resistance to established authority, etc.), ….this class of people adopted the political methods of petition, deputation, and remonstrance and were steadfastly opposed to all talk of civil disobedience or violent resistance. None the less their political and ideological views represented the wave of the future and were to determine the organized political thought and action of the oppressed for the next few decades. (No Sizwe: 45‑46)
In his book on African liberation movements, Basil Davidson tried to describe those `elites’:
They are hard to label. The term `elites’, although they often used it about themselves, is far from satisfactory, partly because it has tended to become a mere term of abuse, and partly because these groups were far from being the `chosen ones’ of early imperialist preference. Yet it is also true that they tended to see themselves as the `chosen ones’ of history, as those who were to be the instruments of applying the European model to Africa, and therefore as the saviours of the continent. … Perhaps they can best be called the `Western‑educated few.’ (149)
Thus, the South African Native National Congress (later to become the African National Congress) was formed in 1912 at a meeting of tribal chiefs in Blomfontein as the culminating effort of a number of earlier provincial efforts. Callinicos summarized its approach:
The SANNC aimed to speak to the government on behalf of the African people, demanding equal rights and justice for all. One of its first actions was to present a petition asking the government to stop the Land Act. The petition was politely received but it failed to change the law. Other petitions followed ‑ to the British government, to the Peace Conference in Paris after World War I, and several to the Prime Minister. (92)
The Land Act was designed to systematically divide the nation’s land in a way that would ensure white ownership and possession of the largest share. Its passage and implementation were likely regardless of the resistance offered. More important than the defeat for No Sizwe, however, was the acceptance by the educated elite of the ideological consequences of their separation into Africans, Asians and Coloureds. Those consequences included the notions of race, culture and language as appropriate grounds for political organization. As a result, the elites “inevitably formed organizations which catered for disabilities felt to be peculiar to the groups from which they themselves originated.” (47)
So while the SANNC was preoccupied with questions of land rights, the African Political Organization conducted its affairs in the hope that it might persuade the government to alter its policies limiting the educational and business opportunities for Coloureds. And, during the same period, the Natal Indian Congress, organized by Mahatma Gandhi, pressed its concerns about the threat of repatriations to India and the difficulties encountered by Indian travellers. Beyond the “one common plank…for the extension of the franchise to the oppressed,” the groups concerned themselves exclusively with their `own’ problems. (47)
The first exception to this pattern was the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of South Africa (ICU). It was founded by Clements Kadalie and a handful of others in 1919. Originally a dockworkers union in Cape Town, it eventually claimed a national membership of 100,000 including both African and Coloured members. The West Indian historian and activist, C.L.R. James, assessed its early years:
Without any help in finance, experience or encouragement, suffering persecution and arrest, these built a movement which matured in strikes, demonstrations and battles with the police, while white South Africa watched its incredible growth with alarm. (83)
With the coming to power of the white worker/Afrikaner Pact Government in 1924, official persecution escalated and while the union continued to grow, the assaults and lack of support began to take a toll. After 1926, a combination of internal disagreements (especially about the role of white Communists within the union), a lack of organization and continued government persecution led to a dramatic decline. In 1938, James wrote, “Today, the two sections are but a shadow of the early ICU, and Kadalie keeps a cafe in Port Elizabeth, where formerly the workers had been shot down demonstrating for his release.” (85)
The Modern Movement
While organized opposition was not active during the last years of the 1920’s and the early ones of the 30’s, many individuals, clustered around various socialist and communist groups, continued to meet and to discuss ways of fighting white rule. Of greater significance, however, than these efforts of the left was the establishment of the All‑African Convention (AAC) in 1936. This group pulled together individuals who had been in the ANC, in the ICU, and other smaller groups. In addition, it specifically accepted Coloured and Indian, as well as African, individuals as members. Basil Davidson reports that:
Dr. G.H. Gool made history at the launching of a new organization to promote unity among moderates and radicals, the All‑African Convention. This Convention, he argued, should go beyond the tinkerings of reformism. It should `lay the foundations of a national liberation movement to fight against all the repressive laws of South Africa.’ (185)
While the African National Congress was briefly part of the Convention, it soon left to pursue a strategy of limited cooperation with governmental institutions. Opposition to such cooperation had been the central political plank of the AAC and it would have been impossible for the ANC to remain.
In retrospect, the ANC’s decision to abandon the option of non‑collaboration and to pursue a strategy of participation in the government’s segregated representative bodies probably set the stage for several more decades of separate activity against the government. This was in spite of the fact that a concrete example of successful non-collaboration occurred during the Second World War. After the government established a Coloured Affairs Department (CAD) in 1941, an Anti‑CAD Movement arose and it denied the government’s plan any success. (No Sizwe: 55) To some extent, that victory was probably due to the disarray in the government resulting from the breakdown of the United Party coalition, the subsequent repression of the Afrikaner opposition and the advances made by Coloured and African workers in the wartime economy.
Nonetheless, the victory did leave an organizational legacy ‑ the Non‑European Unity Movement. That movement’s approach was summarized in a 1951 document:
Who constitutes the South African nation? The answer to this question is as simple as it would be in any other country. The nation consists of the people who were born in South Africa and who have no other country but South Africa as their homeland. They may have been born with a black skin or with a brown one, a yellow one or a white one; they may be male or female; they may be young, middle-aged or of an advanced age; they may be short or tall, fat or lean; they may be long‑headed or round-headed, straight-haired or curly-haired; they may speak Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, English or Afrikaans, Hindi, Urdu or Swahili, Arabic or Jewish; they may be Christians, Mohammedans, Buddhists or of any other faith. … All that is required for a people to be a nation is community of interests, love of their country, pride in being citizens of their country. (No Sizwe: 56)
This almost over‑stated insistence on the subjectivity of national identity was part of a determined attempt to reject any notion that there existed any biological/natural or even cultural reasons for groups in South Africa to organize independently of each other. It was an Africanism of a new kind ‑ an Africanism that expanded to include all those who chose to be included. Such sentiments were bound to have an effect on the members of the ANC, which was the largest single political force operating in opposition to the racist policies of the government. One of the first indications of such an effect was the formation of the ANC Youth League in 1944. At first, the younger members were hoping to promote an increased level of active opposition to the government’s policies. They proposed direct action campaigns against the government and such proposals eventually bore fruit in the mounting of the `Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign’ in the early 1950’s.
At the same time, however, many of the Youth League members began developing a different political and social vision than that held by the senior members of the ANC. One spokesperson for this new viewpoint, A.M. Lembede, wrote in 1946 that:
Africans are one. Out of the heterogeneous tribes, there must emerge a homogeneous nation. The basis of national unity is the nationalistic feeling of the Africans, the feeling of being Africans irrespective of tribal connections, social status, educational attainment or economic class. This nationalistic feeling can only be realized in and interpreted by a national movement of which all Africans can be members. (No Sizwe: 58)
While these sentiments were considerably more Africanist than those which the ANC had traditionally subscribed to and while they implied a somewhat different attitude towards white participation in the movement, they nonetheless left firmly intact the notion that separate groups would have to pursue separate interests. Lembede had gone on to say:
Cooperation between Africans and other non‑Europeans on common problems and issues may be highly desirable. But this occasional cooperation can only take place between Africans as a single unit and other non‑Europeans as separate units. Non‑European unity is a fantastic dream which has no foundation in reality. (No Sizwe: 58)
Eventually, the differences between some of the Youth League’s members and the parent organization grew so pronounced that a new, independent organization ‑ the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) ‑ split away in 1958.
But before that happened, several important chapters in the history of South Africa were written. Foremost among them was the proclamation of apartheid as the official government policy. In 1948, a re‑united Afrikaner Nationalist Party had won a parliamentary majority on an explicit promise to install a thorough‑going and rigid system of white racial superiority. While white supremacy had always been the unwritten law of the land and while many legislative acts had codified racial inequality, apartheid was designed to insure that there would be no loopholes in the fabric of white power. The early years of apartheid set the stage for a renewal of popular protest.
The ANC launched its new program of protest actions in May of 1950. When the first protests were met by police opposition and resulted in eighteen deaths, the ANC called for a day of mourning on June 26th. Ever since, that day has been celebrated as South African Freedom Day. And on June 26th of 1952, the `Defiance Campaign’ was begun. People openly violated laws enforcing segregated public facilities in a fashion very similar to the method which the Civil Rights movement in the United States would use almost ten years later. Thousands went to jail and a new period of opposition to white supremacy was ushered in.
The Freedom Charter
In 1955, the ANC called for a Congress of the People to be held on Freedom Day near Johannesburg. A large meeting overwhelmingly adopted the Freedom Charter, probably the single most influential document of the liberation movement. The Charter not only opposed the current state of affairs in the country but also held out a vision of a new society. Under a clause headlined, `The people shall govern,’ the delegates proclaimed that:
Every man and woman shall have the right to vote for and to stand as a candidate for all bodies which make laws; all people shall be entitled to take part in the administration of the country; the rights of the people shall be the same, regardless of race, colour or sex; all bodies of minority rule, advisory boards, councils and authorities shall be replaced by democratic organs of self-government.
And, under a clause titled `All national groups shall have equal rights,’ they declared:
There shall be equal status in the bodies of state, in the courts and in the schools for all national groups and races; all people shall have equal right to use their own languages, and to develop their own folk culture and customs; the preaching and practice of national, race or colour discrimination and contempt shall be a punishable crime; the people shall share in the nation’s wealth! All apartheid laws and practices shall be set aside. (See The Freedom Charter)
The Charter was ratified by the African National Congress, the South African Indian Congress, the South African Coloured Peoples’ Organization, the Congress of Democrats (composed of individuals of European descent) and the South African Congress of Trade Unions. Since that time, those organizations have been more or less united in the Congress Alliance although the ANC is, in effect, the umbrella organization. A year after the adoption of the Charter, over a hundred leaders of those groups were arrested and charged with treason. Their trial lasted for four years and, even though they were eventually acquitted, the ability of the organizations to function openly was severely restricted.
In spite of the ANC’s conviction that the Charter represented a milestone in the South African struggle, its adoption brought to a head many of the long‑standing disputes between some of the Youth League members and the parent organization. These disputes principally revolved around the role of white opponents to apartheid in the policy‑making of the Congress Alliance. Youth Leaguers specifically charged that the Charter reflected the political views of the South African Communist Party.
At the inaugural convention of the PAC, Robert Sobukwe, one of its early leaders, argued that:
We wish to emphasize that the freedom of the African means the freedom of all in South Africa, the European included, because only the African can guarantee the establishment of a genuine democracy in which all men will be citizens of a common state and will live and be governed as individuals and not as distinctive national groups.
Therefore, he said:
We reject both apartheid and so-called multi‑racialism as solutions to our socio‑economic problems. Apart from the number of reasons and arguments that can be advanced against apartheid, we take our stand on the principle that Afrika is one and nobody, I repeat, nobody has the right to balkanize our land.
In other words, the PAC was charging that the Freedom Charter had, in effect, endorsed one of the ideas essential to apartheid ‑ the idea that there were different legitimate national or racial groups. Instead,
Against multi‑racialism we have this objection, that the history of South Africa has fostered group prejudices and antagonisms, and if we have to maintain the same exclusiveness, parading under the term of multi‑racialism, we shall be transporting to the new Afrika these very antagonisms and conflicts. Further, multi‑racialism is in fact a pandering to European history and arrogance. It is a method of safeguarding white interests, implying as it does, proportional representation irrespective of population figures. In that sense it is a complete negation of democracy. To use the term `multi‑racialism’ implies that there are such basic insuperable differences between the various national groups here that the best course is to keep them permanently distinctive in a kind of democratic apartheid. That to us is racialism multiplied, which probably is what the term connotes. (No Sizwe: 116‑117)
There was a good deal of bitterness in the disputes and much of it remains to this day. In the early years of the PAC’s existence, its hostility towards the ANC’s relationship to communism was usually intended to be a criticism of the ANC’s relationship to the Communist Party but, at other times, it represented a more general philosophical/political critique. In any case, the PAC itself eventually developed a political stance that also foresaw a socialist solution to the South African situation. Indeed, when the PAC won the favor of the Communist Party of China, it became a proponent of the notion that the ANC was the hopeless captive of a Moscow‑dominated, `revisionist’ CP and was, therefore, not `communist’ enough.
Sharpeville and Sabotage
One of the earliest indications of the organizational rivalry came in 1960. The ANC had planned a major campaign against the pass laws ‑ to begin at the end of March. But a little more than a week before the planned starting date, the PAC initiated its own `passive resistance’ campaign. At Sharpeville, a Black township near Johannesburg, hundreds of PAC supporters were attacked by the police and many were killed or wounded, “most of whom, characteristically, were hit in the back while running away.” (Davidson: 269)
Moves and counter‑moves came fast and furious. Sobukwe and other PAC leaders were jailed. Protests occurred throughout the country. On March 30, the government declared a state of emergency. Two thousand ANC members were detained and many thousands more were arrested and imprisoned. On April 8, the ANC and PAC were declared `unlawful organizations.’ The leaders of those organizations who had escaped arrest went underground and began preparations for what eventually became a clandestine strategy of selective sabotage.
But, before those chapters were written, apartheid’s strategists changed some of the rules of the game. In a 1961 referendum, white voters approved the establishment of a republic, thereby severing all ties with England. Votes were cast largely along the lines of the language groups ‑ Afrikaners voting for the republic and English‑speakers against. Such a `declaration of independence’ allowed the government an even freer hand in the implementation of its policies. England would no longer serve as a court of last resort for the grievances of apartheid’s victims.
Nonetheless, the ANC’s armed struggle strategy was carefully calculated to exploit the broader international reaction to the events at Sharpeville. Protests had taken place in many countries and large amounts of capital had been withdrawn from the country in the aftermath. In addition to its police/ military crisis, the South African government was thrown into a serious financial dilemma. Without international support and investment, the house of cards trembled.
The ANC hoped to shake the table sufficiently that the house would fall down. In a 1964 trial for sabotage and conspiracy, Nelson Mandela was quite frank about the ANC’s perspective:
The initial plan was based on a careful analysis of the political and economic situation of our country. We believed that South Africa depended to a large extent on foreign capital and foreign trade. We felt that planned destruction of power plants, and interference with rail and telephone communications, would tend to scare away capital from our country, make it more difficult for goods from the industrial areas to reach the seaports on schedule, and would in the long run be a heavy drain on the economic life of the country, thus compelling the voters of the country to reconsider their position. Attacks on the economic lifelines of the country were to be linked with sabotage on government buildings and other symbols of apartheid. These attacks would serve as a source of inspiration to our people. In addition, they would provide an outlet for all those people who were urging the adoption of violent methods and would enable us to give concrete proof to our followers that we had adopted a stronger line and were fighting back against government violence. In addition, if mass action was successfully organized, and mass reprisals taken, we felt that sympathy for our cause would be roused in other countries, and that greater pressure would be brought to bear on the South African government. (Woods: 37‑38)
Remarkably, that strategy had little or nothing to say about the development of a mass popular movement within South Africa itself. Indeed, to the extent that the sentiments of the people inside are considered, it is largely a consideration of persuading them that the ANC has become sufficiently militant ‑ presumably to retain their loyal support in the face of challenges from forces such as the PAC. Internal protest, as such, was to be subordinated to the cultivation of international outrage. Selected sabotage and the establishment of a world‑wide network of support became the defining characteristics of the ANC’s organizing work for almost two decades. And judged by the effectiveness with which the ANC carried out those tasks, its strategy must be deemed a success. What remains problematical is the relationship that such successes had to the development of the internal movement.
Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC, has successfully attacked some of the most sensitive military and economic institutions of the South African state. While the government spared no expense in protecting its institutions or in infiltrating the ANC, it was not able to put a halt to those attacks ‑ at least not until it concluded a series of accords with the Angolan and Mozambican governments (in 1984) which effectively denied the ANC the rear bases that it had been relying on.
At the same time that the ANC won world‑wide recognition and support, the South African regime enjoyed considerable success in carrying off its plans throughout the 1960’s (a boom period for the South African economy) ‑ at least insofar as that could be measured by the level of popular activity against it. In 1962, its security forces captured Mandela and he was later sentenced to life imprisonment along with other ANC leaders.
The booming economy also allowed the government to expand its armed forces ‑ in spite of some half‑hearted international attempts to frustrate such an expansion.
The military budget rose from an equivalent of $62 million in 1960 to $168 million in 1962. In 1963 the UN sought to apply an arms embargo. This being ineffective, it was followed by further purchases of foreign equipment; in 1964 the military budget stood at $375 million. An arms industry sprang into being, operating chiefly on licenses obtained from a variety of Western Powers; in 1972 the military budget climbed to $479 million, in 1973 to $691 million, and afterwards to more again. (Davidson: 368)
Not even the independence of the nearby countries of Zambia, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland between 1964 and 1967 made much of a dent in the apparent ability of the white regime to consolidate its power. Indeed, it eventually adopted some elements of ‘independence’ into its own internal program. In 1963, the legislature approved the Transkei Constitution Act and paved the way for the `independence’ of that bantustan thirteen years later.
A renewal of collective internal resistance to apartheid seemed a distant prospect when a dispute broke out in the National Union of South African Students in 1968 (NUSAS). But, in many ways, the origins of the characteristic ideas and demands of the contemporary popular movement inside South Africa can be discovered in the establishment of the South African Students Organization (SASO) in 1969 as an independent Black group. Prior to that year, Black college students had joined NUSAS, a federation dominated by white English‑speaking students from liberal universities. But when NUSAS did not respond to SASO’s demands for a new kind of relationship between Black and white students, SASO withdrew. Ironically, this development was first welcomed by the educational authorities since they imagined that it would contribute to a consolidation of the ethnic consciousness that so much of state policy was designed to foster. (Biko,156‑158)
SASO was the first organized expression of what has come to known as the Black Consciousness Movement. Its most prominent early spokesperson, Steve Biko, described Black Consciousness thus:
Basically Black Consciousness directs itself to the black man and to his situation, and the black man is subjected to two forces in this country. He is first of all oppressed by an external world through institutionalized machinery and through laws that restrict him from doing certain things, through heavy work conditions, through poor pay, through difficult living conditions, through poor education, these are all external to him. Secondly, and this we regard as the most important, the black man in himself has developed a certain state of alienation, he rejects himself precisely because he attaches the meaning white to all that is good, in other words he equates white with good. (Woods: 188, emphasis added)
As a result of this direction, the Black Consciousness Movement developed a two‑track strategy ‑ on the one hand, opposing the institutions of apartheid, and at the same time building institutions designed to promote Black pride, self‑consciousness and solidarity. Although the roots of black consciousness lay among students, it was not long before their ideas found acceptance in a more general audience. In 1971, the Black People’s Convention proclaimed:
The object of the Organization is to unite the South African Blacks into a Black Political Movement which would seek to realise their liberation and emancipation from both psychological and physical oppression. The Convention shall operate outside the White Government created systems, structures and/or institutions, and shall NOT seek election into these. (Black Peoples’ Convention: 13, emphasis in original)
The proponents of black consciousness intended the term ‘black’ to include not only Africans, but also Coloureds and Asians ‑ all those who were oppressed by apartheid. In that sense, their ideas represented a return to some of the notions of the Non‑European Unity Movement but with a new insistence that such unity would be forged in common activity rather than by formal analyses of the situation. In the thirty plus years in between, enough had changed in South Africa to make that common activity a genuine possibility.
Black consciousness’ challenge to the hegemonic position of the ANC within the organized liberation movement came to international attention in the aftermath of the Soweto uprising of 1976. I will be describing that event and its significance below. For the moment, suffice it to say that the rapid pace of events within South Africa demanded that the ANC reformulate much of its theoretical and practical agenda. On the one hand, it was determined to ward off the upstarts of the black consciousness tendency and, on the other, needed to capitalise on the evidently profound shifts in mass sentiment.
The ANC launched a major campaign to recruit those who fled the country, provided many of them with military training, expanded the targets of its sabotage campaign and began hinting that the day was not too long off when sabotage would be replaced by forms of guerrilla warfare. But, it also turned to the task of creating an organizational infrastructure within the country ‑ no easy task since it remained an `unlawful organization’ and anyone associated with it was liable to arrest.
Meanwhile, the black consciousness organizations got their first experience of sustained governmental repression. Steve Biko was detained and murdered while in police custody. The South African Students Organization and the Black People’s Convention were banned. Many activists left the country and many were successfully recruited by the ANC. The arrests and exiles were severe blows to the internal movement. However, in an apparent reversal of previous patterns, the arrests and exiles did not produce a vacuum inside the country. Much of the reason for this can be attributed to a series of organizational decisions of the black consciousness groups.
During his trial, Steve Biko had been asked why he had not run for reelection to the presidency of SASO in 1971. He replied that:
Our belief was essentially that we must attempt to get people to identify with the central core of what is being said rather than with individuals. We must not create a leadership cult. We must centralize the people’s attention onto the real message. (Woods: 223)
That `real message’ of black consciousness found its way into the townships, factories and mines of South Africa through a multiplicity of organizational forms ‑ many of which no longer exist. In comparison to the ANC, the black consciousness activists were in the country, were not necessarily prominent and were experienced in navigating the actually existing political space inside the country. They were not, however, as politically sophisticated as the ANC cadre and had far less in the way of external theoretical and propaganda resources. As a result, much of the international theoretical debate took place with the black consciousness position represented by an empty chair.
For example, in 1979, an article in The African Communist, a publication of the South African Communist Party, criticized Biko’s ideas in particular:
Biko’s argument is that the integration of the races is a trap, that it enables white participants to salve their uneasy consciences without losing any of their white privileges, and at the same time prevents the black participants from asserting themselves. Perhaps so, if the reference is to those `tea‑parties at home’ type of liberals only. But what of other attempts at integration ‑ the non‑liberal attempts, the radical attempts made for example by the African National Congress to build up an alliance with independent white organizations in what came to be called `The Congress Alliance’?…. Or the most radical ‑ and long‑lasting ‑ example of racial integration achieved and maintained for over fifty years by the Communist Party? On all this, Biko is silent. (“Fallen Among Liberals:: 22‑23)
Although Biko had not, in fact, specifically addressed the role of the ANC or the South African Communist Party in the article being criticized, it is quite clear that he intended his comments on integration to include both the ANC and the Communist Party. He had written:
We are concerned with that curious bunch of non‑conformists who explain their participation in negative terms: that bunch of do‑gooders that goes under all sorts of names ‑ liberals, leftists, etc. These are the people who argue that they are not responsible for white racism and the country’s `inhumanity to the black man.’ These are the people who claim that they too feel the oppression just as acutely as the blacks and therefore should be jointly involved in the black man’s struggle for a place in the sun. In short, these are the people who say that they have black souls wrapped up in white skin.
Nowhere is the arrogance of the liberal ideology demonstrated so well as in their insistence that the problems of the country can only be solved by a bilateral approach involving both black and white. This has, by and large, come to be taken in all seriousness as the modus operandi in South Africa by all those who claim they would like a change in the status quo. Hence the multiracial political organizations and parties and the `nonracial’ student organizations, all of which insist on integration not only as an end goal but also as a means.
Does this mean that I am against integration? If by integration you understand a breakthrough into white society by blacks, an assimilation and acceptance of blacks into an already established set of norms and code of behaviour set up by and maintained by whites, then YES I am against it.
If on the other hand by integration you mean there shall be free participation by all members of a society, catering for the full expression of the self in a freely changing society as determined by the will of the people, then I am with you. (I Write What I Like: 19‑26)
The debates and opposing approaches of the ANC and the Black Consciousness organizations represent the two main political currents within the South African movement and we will return to them below.
The 1976 rebellion in Soweto, the sprawling Black township outside Johannesburg, signalled to the world the existence of a new militance and determination in the struggle against white supremacy. While it had been preceded some three years earlier by a wave of Black strikes which had actually narrowed the wage gap between white and Black workers, those events escaped widespread international attention. Soweto was different.
The government’s Department of Bantu Education had announced that the language of instruction in all Bantu (African) schools in Transvaal would have to be Afrikaans. In response, students in Soweto organized a school boycott. It led to a direct clash with the police:
…the school children’s demonstration in Soweto on the 16th June 1976 was the outcome of a sustained protest against compulsory instruction in Afrikaans….when 15,000 students conducted a protest march to Orlando Stadium, they were intercepted by police who opened fire on them, the first victim being the thirteen‑year old martyr, Hector Petersen. (Mafeje: 18)
Eventually, the students called on the older residents of the townships to join in their struggle by refusing to work. And, in spite of some initial mistrust, workers did just that at the end of August. In Johannesburg, close to 80% of the Black workers struck for three days.
At that point, the police turned to the exploitation of internal differences among the township residents. In Soweto, police encouraged migrant workers, housed in a hostel which had been set on fire by students angry at the refusal of the workers to cooperate with the strike, to attack the students. On August 24th, the second day of the strike, approximately a thousand migrant workers grabbed whatever weapons they could and began threatening students and their supporters. Over the next two days, twenty‑one Soweto residents were killed and over a hundred wounded by the migrant workers.
These same migrant workers joined a later work stoppage in September, when they were approached beforehand by the students, but their actions in August brought to the fore a central difficulty facing those combatting the authorities. Why would people who are among the most oppressed (and few are worse off in the townships than the migrant workers) allow themselves to be used to defend the very system that was responsible for their suffering? Mafeje has argued that the actions of the migrant workers can only be understood in terms of their precarious personal positions, their self‑identification as Zulus and the on‑going ideological and practical activities of Gatsha Buthelezei, the officially recognized Chief of the Zulu people. While the attacks by the hostel dwellers might not have been promoted or sanctioned by Buthelezei’s organization, Inkatha kaZulu, they fit into a pattern of such actions wherein the Zulus or some other tribal group are portrayed as acting to protect their tribal interests and opposed to the efforts of those who would unite them with other Blacks.
In spite of the setbacks produced by these internal conflicts, the upsurge quickly spread across the country. While the initial protests in Soweto were in response to an issue that only directly affected African students in the Transvaal, within a couple of months thousands of others not so affected had joined in. So much so that one leaflet issued in Soweto was urging students in that township not to let down their allies in Cape Town who had brought the challenge to apartheid into the city of Cape Town:
Countrymen, the liberatory struggle has brought a new base, namely, the shattering of the myth that the Coloureds are more white than black. The killing of many of them in Cape Town and their stand, together with their African brethren to rock the centre of the oldest city, that symbol of white occupation of our country ‑ Cape Town ‑ is the greatest victory and marks another step in the development of a people, namely, common oppression irrespective of degree of intensity has been at last recognised by the Black man. Divide and Rule has been dealt its death blow.
Johannesburg or Soweto, the Capital and the supposed centre of this national drive, has already lagged behind the countryside. … Are we made of a different metal from them? Surely not, they are mortals like ourselves. But their discontent about the present oppressive structure has made them bold. They burnt buildings, they took possession of what was forcefully raped from them a few centuries ago……
Police reinforcements were called as far afield as Johannesburg. Therefore we are in the process of selling out the countryside, which we have stirred to revolt, only two months ago. For we fail to keep busy our local police and soldiers to such an extent that they are free to plunder elsewhere. Countrymen, this is not yet the time to retreat. (No Sizwe: 195)
It is probably difficult to overestimate the impact on the apartheid authorities of the young peoples’ willingness to confront their armed might. For years, the police had ruled through intimidation, brutality and arbitrary arrest. And the everyday subservience that had been exacted from the masses of Black people had convinced them that such practices were effective. Now, it all seemed to be falling apart. (See Andre Brink, A Rumour of Rain for a remarkable portrait of the white mind‑set in the days before Soweto). The typical police response was to shoot first and ask no questions:
….. it became common practice for the police to shoot student demonstrators at will. Indeed, in the inquiry conducted by the Cillie Commission, the police admitted to having used 50,000 rounds of ammunition against student demonstrators ….. and to having killed a total of 284 and injured about 2000. The press, including the pro‑Government Afrikaans newspapers, thought that this was a gross underestimation and that probably the actual figure was thrice as high. While casualties among the police were nil, it is obvious that the police suffered a tremendous shock at the hands of the students who would not be cowed by the usual show of force. (Mafeje: 18)
As with many other moments of mass popular outrage, few had anticipated that Soweto was in the making. While the ANC subsequently attempted to claim much of the organizational credit for the outburst, it was quite clear that there was little evidence to back that up. Indeed, one internally‑based activist specifically criticised the ANC’s approach in September of 1976:
The former South African National Congress should stop misguiding the world, that all achievements done by the black people of South Africa are performed through influences, this not correct its chief officials had skipped the country so, they don’t feel the present pinch, how can they claim the latest existence of riots, where were they when children complained about Sister language ‑ Afrikaans! Children must be given their own phame for breaking the `ICE’! The book containing the latest activities should be written and be used as a textbook throughout the oncoming black schools in South Africa. (No Sizwe: 192)
Book or not, the young people of South Africa learned a great deal from the experience of 1976. And, in many ways, they learned it without the help of most of the formally organized liberation movement. Mafeje has noted that many of the activists were not aware of the formal positions of those organizations and were typically not aware of the differences that existed among them. In the townships, individuals professed membership in one or more of the black consciousness groups but membership was apparently quite fluid and organizational growth was not accorded any special priority. (Mafeje)
The New Apartheid
Soweto demonstrated to the world that repression had not extinguished the desire for freedom and justice in the people of South Africa. While some greeted that news with jubilation, others packed their bags to come to the assistance of the government in the development and implementation of what can only be described as a counterrevolutionary strategy.
To have any hope of success, such a strategy demanded a new labor policy, a new approach to domestic collaborators, a revamped governmental structure, a re‑worked consensus among whites, a new balancing act in the whole of southern Africa and a new cultivation of international sympathy and support. A tall order in quiet times. An almost impossible order in southern Africa in the last quarter of the twentieth century.
For the rebellions of 1976 had followed, with noticeable speed, the defeat of Portuguese colonialism in Angola and Mozambique. The liberation movements now had bases of support on the doorstep of South Africa. But, more importantly, the rebellions had also followed the defeat of a South African invading army in late 1975 by the new government of Angola with the aid of Cuban troops. One can interpret the successes in Angola and Mozambique not only in terms, therefore, of the rising expectations that they might have encouraged among the people of South Africa but also in terms of a developing realization that the regime was vulnerable. But, the lessons were there for the learning by both sides in the South African struggle. The regime wasted little time in applying itself to the task.
The revision of apartheid labor policy is summarized and symbolized by the Riekert and Wiehahn reports issued in 1979. The first of the two declared that “discriminatory measures should be avoided as far as possible by not drawing any distinction on the ground of race, colour or sex in legislation or administration rules.” But, in case a reader might think that the report meant what it said, you can go on to read that:
Owing to the potential extent and the nature of the migration of Blacks (Africans) from rural areas to urban areas, serious social and sociological welfare problems will arise in urban areas in South Africa for both the established populations in urban areas, White, Coloured, Asian and Black, and the new entrants, if the migration process is left uncontrolled. (Time Running Out: 89)
While the Commission was ratifying the fundamentals of the existing state of affairs, its recommendations were nonetheless significant. These included freer movement for Africans already entitled to live in urban areas, a stricter enforcement of the laws against employers who hire illegal residents, an easing of the most outrageous forms of everyday harassment against African individuals and a renewed emphasis on the fiction that workers from the homelands who travelled to work in `South Africa’ (now probably a million strong) were immigrant workers.
Meanwhile, the Commission of Inquiry into Labour Legislation, chaired by Nic Wiehahn, recommended that the government register independent Black unions, a number of which had established themselves since the strikes in 1973 and proposed an end to the legal reservation of jobs for certain groups. On the other hand, the commission did not recommend the abolition of white‑union restrictions on the employment of Blacks.
Since 1980, Black workers have been quick to take advantage of the opportunity for unionization. Hundreds of unions have been organized throughout the country. Though there are important differences among them, the unions have been united in pressing economic demands against employers, especially in the mining and industrial sectors. Differences over white participation, registration with the government, participation in Industrial Councils, jurisdictional claims and forms of political activity have been debated quite openly. In addition, the unions have served as centers for wide-ranging political discussion and for organizing activities outside the trade union framework.
In December of 1985, most of the Black unions came together in a new federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions. This congress is claiming a membership of more than 500,000. However, several unions refused to join. Those refusals earned this commentary by the underground South African Congress of Trade Unions, which is affiliated with the African National Congress:
Those notable for their absence from the new federation are the Council of Unions of South Africa (Cusa)….and the small black consciousness trade union grouping, the Azanian Confederation of Trade Unions (Azactu). Cusa and Azactu have indicated that they are anti‑racist and cannot support the ‘non‑racialism’ policy of the new federation. Sactu cannot see any substantive difference between ‘non‑racialism’ and ‘anti‑racist’ and does not feel that this should continue to keep Cusa, Azactu and others from joining the new federation. (SACTU Position Paper)
But, according to partisans on the other side, the difference is indeed ‘substantive’ and is but one reflection of a fundamental cleavage in the contemporary South African movement.
While unionization created expanded opportunities for Blacks to organize as workers rather than as members of one or another of the ethnic groups, the government has pursued its long‑ term objective of institutionalizing the homelands as subordinate, but coherent, political units in order to promote exactly that kind of fragmented ethnic consciousness. While this aspect of their strategy bore a certain formal resemblance to the version introduced as part of the apartheid master plan of the late 40’s and early 50’s, it also represented something quite different. The homelands were now intended to have some real political and economic substance ‑ not because the South African government wished the Africans well but because only such a substance held out the prospect of a class‑based alliance with forces in the African communities. This kind of alliance was new indeed.
As long ago as 1974, Gatsha Buthelezei had advised the government to take the homelands more seriously than they appeared to be doing:
If the authorities took advantage of the remoteness of a revolution from below at present, to make certain concessions and to move more quickly, the homelands would have greater potential as a basis of a future South Africa…. Even if the idea and the system are imposed, the fact that we are prepared to make serious suggestions should be good enough to warrant our being drawn into full participation in decision‑making on this policy.
The cost of such collaboration would be the extension of wealth and perhaps some share in power to the non‑white elites. No Sizwe insists that these changes are of great significance in understanding the strategy of the apartheid regime and of the dangers that they pose for the liberation movements.
He has argued that the package of reforms associated with the last years of Vorster’s rule and the entire reign of Botha has been specifically designed to lay the foundation for this new class alliance in support of the existing capitalist state of affairs. In his argument, the white working class will be taught the wisdom of power-sharing with a new African bourgeoisie ‑ a bourgeoisie that the South African state, in cooperation with some sectors of the South African economy, will foster in a kind of hothouse fashion.
This African bourgeoisie will, however, be a homelands bourgeoisie. Not so much because the apartheid regime can’t stomach the thought of sharing economic power side by side ‑ although there is probably a good deal of that–but rather because such a bourgeois grouping is intended to provide a significant material basis for the development of new forms of `national’ consciousness among the citizens of the homelands. No Sizwe makes that case by reminding his readers that Afrikaners themselves are the products of a sustained process of economic‑political‑cultural activity by people who knew what they wanted. And part of that Afrikaner consciousness was forged out of the memories of oppression suffered under British rule. Such memories did not prevent good Afrikaners from becoming good bourgeoisie. But, are there Africans ready and willing to play the parts? The evidence is depressing and convincing.
The South African government has had little difficulty in finding those who, in exchange for payment and the prerogatives of local tyranny, will dance to its tune. For example, presidents Matanzima of Transkei and Sebe of Ciskei have run roughshod over the residents of those `nations’ and have cooperated with the South African security forces in the hunting down of suspected subversives. Sebe even sent thirty of his troops to help out in one of the South African army’s sweeps through Namibia. (Resister, October/ November, 1984: 17) And while Gatsha Buthelezei has played hard to get for the South African government by refusing to agree to `independence’ for a homeland in Zululand, he has built Inkatha into little more than a gang ‑ a gang that exacts loyalty through threats and that is prepared to do the bidding of the security forces in the disruption of popular movements and in the promotion of inter‑tribal tensions. (See SAMRAF News & Notes, #22)
These particular individuals are not necessarily the ones who will be tapped to become members of the new class. They, nonetheless, reveal the existence of a stratum of individuals who can be persuaded that such is an appropriate destiny for them as Africans in the twenty‑first century.
But, as much as No Sizwe is concerned about that development, he is probably even more alarmed at a variant scenario:
All class alliances in South Africa are in a state of flux at the moment. What needs to be stressed is that the development of the productive forces has now faced the dominant classes with a crystal clear historic choice: either to ally themselves with the ‘black bourgeoisie’ and the ‘white working class’ to crush the revolution of the urban and rural poor in the hope that, in the ensuing period of calm and stability, they can press ahead with the balkanization and neo‑colonisation of the country; or to jettison the albatross of the ‘white working class’ in favour of an alliance with a petty‑bourgeois‑led black ‘nationalist’ movement in the hope that the resultant change will stop short of shattering the basis of capitalism itself. (No Sizwe: 159)
In the latter scenario, the crucial question also revolves around the availability of political forces who will be expected to lead the movement to the point of political power in a unified South African state but who will go no further. Some have suggested that the history of Zimbabwe in the six years since ZANU’s victory has provided all the basic elements for such a solution to the South African crisis ‑ a solution that will change precious little in the lives of peasants and workers but that will have the imprimatur of majority rule–a dismal and disappointing prospect that we will examine more closely when we explore the strategic questions dividing the South African movement in 1986.
The regime has had little to offer its supporters in the working and middle classes. Except, that is, the warning that if they didn’t go along, the alternative would be worse. In 1979, P.W. Botha, then Prime Minister and now President of the Republic, advised his followers that they would have to `adapt or die.’ Some, at least, are not yet convinced that dying is the less preferable of the two.
Every announcement of a reform of old‑fashioned apartheid brought new outcries from right‑wingers. In 1982, for example, Dr. A. P. Treurnicht broke away from the Nationalists with fifteen other extreme right‑wingers in parliament to form the Conservative Party of South Africa. At the time, Treurnicht said:
We reject the idea of an open society and we oppose all political pressure to enforce integration in the social and political spheres and to bring about multi‑racialism in South Africa. (SAMRAF News & Notes, May, 1982)
Considering that no one in the Nationalist Party, even the most enlightened of the `verligte’ (as the ‘liberal Afrikaners are sometimes called), suggested anything like integration, the good doctor could be considered either crazy or far‑sighted. Three years later, the Nationalists voted to end the bans on inter‑racial marriages and moved to permit inter‑racial political organizations. If Treurnicht was frantic in 1982, he must have been beside himself for much of the last two years. But Treurnicht is not the most extreme of white politicians in these matters. To his right are the members of the Herstigte Nasionale Parte (HNP) who more or less openly proclaim their Nazi sympathies. And there are white resistance groupings, like the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, prepared to take matters into their own hands if the government goes too far. (Africa Confidential: October 30, 1985)
The New Dispensation
In 1984, the regime turned to the white electorate for a test vote on its new apartheid. A `new dispensation’ was put forward for approval in a constitutional referendum. The dispensation in question provided for the establishment of two subordinate legislative assemblies for Coloureds and Indians and, at the same time, restructured the South African government by replacing the position of Prime Minister with a more powerful State President. Neville Alexander has argued that the constitutional amendments, in effect, were designed to nullify the possibility of any significant white parliamentary opposition to the Botha program:
Now the majority of whites, especially the white workers are intransigently and paternalistically opposed to any such ‘concession’, however illusory it might be. Their racism and their fears of losing their privileged position have made them into an historical road‑block, an obstruction to even the modicum of reform which the theorists of the ruling class acknowledge to be necessary for salvaging the system. Parliament represents these people. Consequently, the white parliament has become a brake on progress as defined by Botha, Heunis and company. Parliament, therefore, has to be stripped of this power of blocking ‘reform’ and, if necessary, it should be eliminated altogether. (31)
The constitutional changes were approved only due to the favorable votes of the English‑speaking whites. In Afrikaner districts, the changes were defeated. There are two ways of reading this development. The first is as yet another confirmation of the hopelessly racist views of the Afrikaners. That is, most of the time, hard to argue with. But, the second is as a revealing demonstration of the commitment of English‑speaking whites to the regime. This reading goes against the grain of much common‑sense wisdom about South Africa to the effect that the English‑speakers really are more liberal and, in some fashion, opposed to white supremacy. But no voices in the liberation movement and very few in the entire non‑white community urged support of the new constitution as a step towards reform or abolition of apartheid. The entire movement was united in characterizing the referendum and the `new dispensation’ as a charade. When whites voted to support the changes, they were voting to support white rule.
Presumably grateful for the support that it did have, the regime moved forward to carry through with the new legislative scheme. Elections were scheduled, on different days of course, for the Coloured and Indian assemblies.
A major governmental effort was mounted to encourage participation by various political formations, to promote the idea that there were campaigns pitting candidates against one another and, most of all, to get out the Coloured and Indian votes. On the face of it, the effort was an almost complete failure.
In spite of coercion and threats to cut off pensions for older people, no more than 20% of those eligible cast votes. Unofficial estimates put the totals at 15%. This failure can be attributed, in large measure, to a united opposition campaign conducted by all the internally based movements. While there had been some early disagreements over the wisdom of encouraging whites to vote against the constitutional changes in the referendum and engaging in other forms of participation that would have indicated opposition to the government’s plans, the predominant strategy urged complete abstention.
But, opposition to the government did not stop at abstention. Indeed, the voting more than any other specific governmental action seemed to provoke protest. According to one white opponent of the Nationalists, Di Bishop, “The reforms continue to exclude millions of blacks but they have raised expectations.” (Rieder: 170) It seems more likely that, on the one hand, the reforms seemed to generate no expectations at all but that, on the other, they revealed a regime desperate for an effective strategy. Perhaps, the perception of vulnerability emboldened those who confronted the authorities. According to Solidarity News Service, on the first day of polling at least 44 clashes between police and protesters took place. And when protests spread to the townships around Sharpeville,
The apartheid authorities were caught off guard. They banned the press from entering the area, and hospitals were not allowed to release casualty figures. It was at Sharpeville in 1960 that police fired into a fleeing crowd of people….killing 69 people. This year the `official’ death toll was 80, but other reports claimed over 300 people seriously hurt. (SAMRAF News & Notes, October, 1984)
When Botha was inaugurated, protests once again swept the country. The government banned meetings critical of the government in most of the major cities. As it happened, this order was issued the day before the anniversary of Steve Biko’s death and there was virtually no chance that the memorial meetings would not be held. When they were, the police again resorted to shootings and tear gas to break them up.
Why did the government go to all the trouble of implementing this constitutional reconstruction when it fanned the flames of opposition among its own supporters and apparently did so little to activate support among the non‑white peoples? Alexander has argued that:
On the one hand, they have to convince middle‑class blacks that it is worth their while to ‘go inside’; on the other hand, they have to get middle‑class and working‑class whites to accept the idea of ‘sharing power’. This government strategy has been defined rather nicely as ‘trying to find the secret of sharing power without losing control’. The entire purpose of this strategy is to stabilise the capitalist system of white supremacy in South Africa after the destabilising shocks of the period 1974‑1980……..
….There can be no doubt that the elections helped to achieve the government’s purpose of accustoming the white electorate to the idea of sharing power….Newspaper reports, opinion polls and actual practice clearly demonstrate this. (Alexander: 171)
In many ways, the government has attempted to develop and implement a long‑range strategy. Not only did the government have a plan for its white supporters and another plan for developing the homelands, it also had a plan for cultivating international support. But, at the same time, the people in the townships and workplaces were working on some plans of their own. As is usually the case with such matters, the plans of the oppressed did not receive widespread coverage in the news media and so the rebellions of the last two years have often been greeted with surprise at the persistence and sophistication of the rebels.
UDF and National Forum
Hundreds of groups had sprung up in the years since Soweto and their members took advantage of whatever space was opened up by the government’s actions in the legalization of unions or the promotion of political activity leading up to the legislative elections. Two national opposition groups formed ‑ the United Democratic Front (UDF), claiming an affiliated membership of almost two million and the National Forum (NF), claiming a smaller total of 600,000. The Front was and is closely identified with the political perspective of the ANC while the Forum represents the current coalescence of the black consciousness groupings. It should be noted, however, that an important component of the Forum is the Cape Action League to which Neville Alexander belongs. The League cannot be described as a Black Consciousness grouping; usually it is described as socialist.
Both groups were specifically formed to oppose the government’s attempt to recruit Indian and Coloured collaborators for its new legislative scheme. As mentioned above, there were some differences in approach to that effort. The Front, which openly proclaims its multi‑racial and inter‑class character, originally intended to campaign among whites for a no vote on the constitutional referendum. Under pressure from some of its members and from the abstentionist Forum, it ultimately urged a boycott of the entire proceedings.
Since the success of the boycott campaign, both groupings have continued to function inside the country although their members have been subject to frequent arrest and other forms of harassment. By and large, the Front has received the lion’s share of publicity within South Africa and especially overseas. Perhaps the only occasion when those identified with the Forum got much play in the news media occurred when members of AZAPO, the Azanian Peoples Organization, protested the visit of Senator Edward Kennedy in January of 1985. That brought the simmering dispute between the two tendencies into the open since Kennedy was in South Africa at the specific invitation of UDF members.
The UDF charged, and the ANC seconded the charge, that AZAPO was acting in collusion with the government since the government was also displeased with Kennedy’s visit. AZAPO responded that such a charge was nonsense ‑ that their reason for protesting Kennedy’s visit was his position as a prominent representative of imperialist interests and that any solution to the South African dilemma which would win his endorsement would be one that entrenched the rule of domestic and international capital. AZAPO insisted that Kennedy’s visit, no matter how unpleasant for the regime, would distract the movement from its central tasks. Such a response was aimed directly at drawing out the implications of the UDF’s character as an inter‑class formation.
The UDF could not directly confront the AZAPO argument since it, in fact, had members who very much wanted a ‘solution’ along the lines that Kennedy would presumably prefer. At the same time, however, much of its mass base of support was not especially sympathetic to the idea that a `solution’ which eliminated the legal barbarities of apartheid but left intact the economic barbarities of life for millions of people was what they were risking their lives for. Indeed, there were some groups within the UDF that did not support Kennedy’s visit. Even one of the Front’s presidents, Oscar Mpetha (currently imprisoned), refused to share a platform with Kennedy when he addressed a UDF rally in Cape Town. Instead, their counter‑argument was that the UDF welcomed support in the struggle against apartheid from any quarter and that Kennedy had long been a forthright opponent of apartheid and, furthermore, that he could play an important role in the approval of economic sanctions by the US government.
Debate on Organization
While much of the sparring between the two tendencies continues along the lines that were first evident in the mid‑1970’s, the debate has also been recast as a debate on the proper organizational form for the South African movement. To some extent, this reflected the organizational challenge to the ANC represented by the formation of AZAPO in 1978 as a new and somewhat more politically sophisticated embodiment of black consciousness. In an editorial in Frank Talk, AZAPO hinted at some of its self‑conception:
…BC takes into account that the central problem in any struggle is to find an antidote to fear. Crushed by the realities of routine, we all hesitate to participate in the liberation struggle. We fear losing our families and friends. We fear wasting energy. AZAPO is a revolutionary movement precisely because it calls for a break with routine, because it demands sacrifice in the present for a better world in the future. No doubt the sacrifice seems real and immediate while the better world appears distant and very uncertain….We must cling to each other with a tenacity that will shock the perpetrators of evil. (Frank Talk, July/August, 1984: 2)
Not exactly a prescription for a dues-paying, monthly meeting, organization.
On the other hand, ANC strategists and those allied with them have articulated the need for a national organization to hold the reins of the movement ‑ a movement which characteristically demonstrates unrestrained spontaneity and correspondingly narrow breadth of vision. Auret Van Heerden, a member of NUSAS and of the UDF, has argued:
Precisely because most people are unaware and un-politcised, the issues which they see as important are likely to be local, specific grievances, which are seldom overtly political, and their demands are unlikely to be political or even progressive. (2)
For him, `first‑level’ or local popular organizations have to be linked together with each other and ultimately with a `second‑level’ organization which will provide coordination and political direction:
If there is not a direct link between these two components of progressive activity, organizations may participate in broader national democratic struggles without the support of their members, and at the same time will not be feeding the political content of those national democratic struggles back into their firstlevel organizations. (Van Heerden: 22, emphasis added)
It is clear that the United Democratic Front is intended to be just that `second‑level’ organization. And, in many ways, it has been remarkably successful. Its demands have become the rallying cries of the above‑ground movement in South Africa; its activities attract thousands of participants; its leaders have emerged as internationally recognized symbols of opposition to apartheid; it has earned the wrath of the government and many of its members are imprisoned ‑ presumably because of the profound threat they pose to the authorities.
But, important questions remain about its contribution to the development of the popular movement and about its plans for that movement. On behalf of the National Forum, Alexander has tried to assess the significance of the UDF:
The UDF, because of the hundreds of thousands of rands that back it, has indeed made an impact on the mass movement. Because of the deliberate government policy of harassment of leaders, banning of meetings, detentions, etc., that impact appears to be a radical one in the short term. In fact, of course, the middle‑class leadership can at any time use the tradition that has been created to suit its own purposes.
Although Alexander did not tie together all the strands of the argument, I would suggest that the previously cited preoccupation with national leadership and centralised organization is intimately connected to the class nature of the UDF. Since the UDF cannot argue that it’s important and correct for it to have middle class leadership (for reasons that parallel its inability to engage AZAPO frontally in debate over the Kennedy visit), it must instead be argued that the movement needs leadership and organization. The fact that such leadership and organization will be invariably provided by middle class individuals and organizations is, in that argument, an unavoidable necessity. At the same time, it is argued that such leadership is representing a cross‑class set of interests that are united in opposition to apartheid.
It is, of course, difficult to challenge motives. In matters such as these, class designs can only be detected through an examination of specific organizational decisions and actions ‑ such as the Kennedy visit and, on a different plane, the decision of the ANC to endorse a strategy of ungovernability for the internal movement. In an article in The Nation, Calabrese and Kendall reported that the ANC had decided on a strategy of “`people’s war’ aimed at turning the townships into `no‑go areas’ for white authority.” The `war’ would involve attacks on black policemen and township administrators who refused to resign. While many observers have cautioned that not every attack can be credited to the ANC’s cadre or even to its influence, few have remarked on the apparent lack of concern for the development of the internal cohesion and self‑sufficiency of the township activists.
In many ways, the ANC’s approach to governability parallels its approach to the implementation of international economic sanctions and divestment campaigns. Such efforts are designed solely to exacerbate the difficulties experienced by the regime. For them, questions of internal organization have all been answered ‑ there should be trade union unity, all anti‑apartheid organizations should belong to the United Democratic Front, multi‑racial groupings are the appropriate organizational vehicle. There is, in other words, little if any need for the development of new organizational patterns which would promote both practical and theoretical activity inside South Africa. The main task for the masses is to keep up the pressure and wait for the government, or at least part of it, to yield to the combined impact of internal and external pressures and to begin dealing directly with the ANC. Thus, their most inclusive political demand at the moment is a call for a national convention of representatives of different groups to discuss a transition to majority rule. (SAMRAF News & Notes, #22)
In contrast, the National Forum has demanded:
…the convention of a constituent assembly elected on the basis of one person one vote, at which democratically elected representatives of the nation will decide on a new constitution for Azania. The constituent assembly will not be a gathering of representatives of so‑called ethnic groups. It is also not going to be convened by the present government. It is a goal for which we shall have to struggle in the years ahead with even greater dedication than before. (Alexander: 39‑40)
Some will insist that the difference is not important ‑ that so long as the people’s representatives can take part in the deliberations, the outcome will be progressive. While it might be `progressive’, the content of that oft‑ cited word remains elusive. The identification of precise meanings and goals, so that all are prepared for unexpected consequences, is a central task facing any movement. This is especially the case when a movement is torn apart by internal differences which can be manipulated by government provocateurs.
Events of the last fifteen years in South Africa have significantly increased the likelihood that the African National Congress will achieve its goal of `majority rule’ in the country. While we cannot predict a timetable for that achievement, the recent treks of various elite individuals and organizations from the white community in South Africa to the headquarters of the African National Congress in Zambia and the frequently reported on proclamations by various corporate leaders should persuade us that at least some on the two sides believe they have some things to talk about. It is also evidenced by the extraordinary public attention given to Mandela. In early summer of 1986, the Commonwealth Group of Eminent Persons went out of its way to characterise Mandela as perhaps the one person who could put out the rebellion raging across South Africa. And recently, a prominent South African businessman suggested in The New York Times that Mandela could be South Africa’s de Gaulle. While the South African government proclaims its willingness to go it alone in the face of near‑universal condemnation from abroad, it is nonetheless faced with a business community, both domestic and international, that cannot in fact go it alone and still make money.
An ANC victory would represent a remarkable addition to the post‑war wave of African liberation. However, a political victory by the ANC should not be identified as being the same thing as the unqualified victory of all those struggling against apartheid. As this article has hopefully made clear, the ANC is not the only organized force in the field against white rule and many individuals who are not necessarily affiliated to one organization or another have contributed to the struggle.
Unqualified and premature endorsements from abroad of the apparent winners will make it more difficult for those who raise different views to obtain a full hearing for their case. And it might very well contribute to the eventual proscription of yet another generation of `enemies of the people’.
Instead, we should use our resources to support the entire liberation movement in South Africa and to encourage the widest possible debate among the organized, and not organized, forces in the South African movement. We can only provide that encouragement if we are active in the antiapartheid movement here because it is here in this country where we can explain to others that the ANC does not stand alone. And indeed, I believe we can say, without hesitation, that the liberation movement is stronger because it includes a multiplicity of political and organizational forms.
While unity against an enemy is always desirable, premature unity around the political goals and strategies of one organization can lead to a victory unable to withstand the pressures and strains of the years after victory. For there should be no mistake about it ‑ the determination of the United States to protect its interests in southern Africa will lead it to use all of its economic and military resources to push a Black majority government into the directions it prefers.
The new government must be able to count on the support of all of its freedom fighters. And if it is to do that, it must indeed be a government of all of the freedom fighters and not just that of the most powerful organized force.