So. after the nomenklatura in Eastern Europe, it is now the white minority in South Africa that has been forced to agree to negotiate on giving up its "leading role" and "guaranteed monopoly" of political power. For this is what the release of Mandela means.
It means that those in charge of the South African state have at last publicly admitted what they have long realised in private: that they cannot maintain the law and order necessary for the proper functioning of the capitalist system they preside over without including the majority of the population in the system of political representation. Their hope is that Nelson Mandela will be able to command sufficient support among the black population to be the person with whom they can negotiate an orderly transition from apartheid to the new "non-racial democracy" that capitalism demands, indeed has been demanding for decades.
The failure of apartheid, as an attempt to impose on a capitalist economy a caste system based on skin colour, is underlined by the fact that the party in charge of the South African state - the Afrikaner nationalist National Partei - is the same party that, under such hateful figures as Malan, Verwoerd and Vorster, introduced apartheid after 1948 as a rigid codification, and intensification, of the existing discriminatory practices against "non-whites".
Already in 1948 apartheid was an anachronism, even from a capitalist point of view but. with the franchise restricted to "whites" most of whom were Boers in all senses of the word, the succession of parties directly representing the capitalist interest - the United Party, the Progressive Federal Party and, today, the Democratic Party - were unable to win a majority in the white parliament. Political power was exercised - and has been without a break since 1948 - by the representatives of Afrikaner nationalism whose original policy was to try to reconstruct the master and servant relationship between whites and blacks their forefathers - the people who organised the Great Trek from the Cape Province in 1836 to avoid the abolition of slavery in the British Empire - had known in the pioneer days of white colonisation.
What the Afrikaner nationalist government sought to keep "apart" capitalism brought together. More and more Africans were drawn into capitalist industry, and not just as labourers in the mines but as workers of all kinds - clerks, accountants, bank employees as well as foremen and skilled and semi-skilled production workers - until today they form the majority of the urban working class of South Africa.
From the 1970s onwards the development of capitalism forced the government to abandon apartheid bit by bit. First to go was the industrial colour bar under which certain skilled manual jobs were reserved for whites. Then Africans were allowed to form trade unions. Then the Pass Laws were abolished and Africans allowed to own property in the townships. Then the so-called "petty apartheid" of separate park benches, beaches and the like was relaxed. Then "coloureds" and Asians were granted some political rights. Then the Mixed Marriage Act - which criminalised sexual relations between the different "races" - was abolished. Then mixed residential areas emerged in some cities.
All that remains - and of course it's a big all - are the laws which classify every South African into one or other "racial" group and which reserve areas for the exclusive habitation of these groups, but the De Klerk government has declared, as it had no choice but to, that these too are negotiable.
Like all decent-minded people, socialists are pleased at the coming demise of the obscene system of institutionalised race discrimination of apartheid. Although the coming of a non-racial regime in South Africa will allow the "non-whites" there a dignity and respect as equal human beings which they have been denied up to now, the ending of apartheid will not amount to "liberation" for the working class in South Africa. Capitalism without apartheid - which is all even the ANC wants, despite its talk of "socialism" (in reality, nationalisation, or state capitalism) - will remain capitalism and so exploitation for profit, bad housing, inadequate health care, cheap schooling, unemployment, poor transport, police brutality, pollution and all the other problems workers have to endure under capitalism will continue as well.*
The end of apartheid will not mean the end of working class problems. At most it will result in the creation of the best conditions under which the working class can struggle to protect its interests within capitalism and, more importantly, can struggle alongside the workers of the rest of the world for the non-class as well as non-racial society that socialism will be.
Socialist Standard, March 1990
*This could well be why Jacob Zuma recently resorted to the old 'You'll get pie in the sky when you die' lie by promising ANC voters a place in heaven.