From the July 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard
The ruling South African National Party's attempts at reforming apartheid have arrived too late, and are too little, to permit an orderly transfer of political power to the limited democracy of majority rule. Anger, fear, hostility and resistance have now made that process almost impossible — sentiments that are a direct result of the entrenched attitudes of the Afrikaner ruling class, and their strategy of divide and rule. For apartheid — based as it is on division not unity — has exacerbated other divisions within South African society, divisions potentially even more explosive than those between racial groups.
As administrative structures have broken down in the townships a power vacuum has been created which black groups are now competing to fill. Firstly there is intra-black political conflict between three main groups jockeying for position. The largest of these consists of the exiled African National Congress (ANC) together with its internal partner the United Democratic Front (UDF) — a loose umbrella organisation of about 600 heterogeneous local and national groups and the main federation of black trade unions — Cosatu. The UDF was set up in 1983 to oppose the new tricameral constitution, but now increasingly acts as the domestic wing of the ANC. The ANC's strategy uses three tactics: armed struggle which, although it receives high priority has had very little impact; organisation within South Africa itself which has proved highly successful; and activities abroad to extend foreign recognition of the ANC.
This alliance is challenged by the Azanian People's Organisation (Azapo) together with its partner the National Forum — an organisation of black consciousness groups. Azapo and its allies differ from the ANC/UDF on the question of the role of whites in the struggle against apartheid, but share similar goals and tactics, although it is relatively weak on the ground.
The third black political group is Chief Buthelezi's Inkatha movement based in the Kwazulu homeland. Buthelezi is reviled by the ANC, UDF and black consciousness groups and regarded as a collaborator with apartheid. He commands the support of six million Zulus and is encouraged by white businessmen because he opposes disinvestment. But his power base is essentially regional and tribal, located mainly in the rural homelands rather than in the townships. A group of trades unions supporting Inkatha has recently been formed to rival Cosatu which is likely to lead to a still wider gulf between the Zulus and other blacks.
However these political, tactical and personal divisions between black groups have, in recent weeks, been over-shadowed by divisions between blacks within the townships. In an attempt to foster the illusion of a degree of black self-government, local councils were created on which blacks had representation and responsibility for certain aspects of local administration — an attempt, some argued, to shift the burden of running apartheid to blacks themselves. As a result a faction of blacks grew up — councillors, local officials, small businesspeople, police — who felt that they were getting something out of the apartheid system status, and relative material well-being. Not surprisingly they were regarded with suspicion and hostility by township residents because of their close identification with "the system". In the present state of turmoil most of these councils (33 out of 38) no longer function and by June last year 240 black councillors, officials and mayors had resigned. Some have been the victims of violent attacks as punishment for their collaboration. Others have tried to fight back in a futile and misguided attempt to defend what they think they have. As a result in many townships two loosely structured, but opposed, groups have developed popularly known as the "vigilantes" and the "comrades". Violent clashes between them have contributed to the death toll of 1,500 over the past 19 months (although the majority have died at the hands of the South African security forces).
The “vigilantes" tend to be older, more conservative — the black "establishment" who have organised to defend what little they have and who are fearful of more militant activists. Initially vigilante groups emerged in the homelands in response to popular resistance against authoritarian and corrupt local administrations. More recently they have developed in urban areas in response to similar opposition to township councils. Increasingly there is evidence that their activities are condoned and even assisted by the security forces. At the Crossroads squatter camp recently, 32 people died and over 20,000 were left homeless as a result of vigilante activities assisted by the security forces who, it is alleged, provided both weapons and protection so that the forced removal of the squatters could be achieved.
Opposing the vigilantes are the "comrades" — an even more loosely structured group of mostly young, more militant township residents who have closer links with the ANC and UDF. Their activities are often organised in open defiance of the black establishment and, as township councils have collapsed, they have stepped in to provide an alternative power structure through the setting up of street and area committees responsible for organising everything from rent collection to rubbish disposal. They also deal with what they see as the crimes of alleged informers and collaborators, meting out summary punishments as severe as those handed out by the vigilantes. The blazing "necklace" has become a hallmark of the comrades' treatment of alleged informers.
The tactic of divide and rule was consciously adopted by the white ruling class in the hope that a stable, conservative, black "middle class" would emerge in the townships to administer apartheid on their behalf and to deal with more militant elements. The present activities of the township vigilantes are still, in some senses, advantageous to the ruling class, since they justify the maintenance of the security forces in the townships and violent factionalism among blacks is also used as a justification for the continuation of apartheid itself. South Africa, it is argued, is too fragmented for a unitary, democratic system to be workable. Ultimately. however, the security forces and the government can't win — they have applied the divide-and-rule strategy for what it is worth and now it is beginning to work against them. They created the divisions within the townships; now that they are becoming violent and the townships become increasingly ungovernable they use more repressive tactics to control the situation; more repression only serves to add to grievances.
But if political tactics are failing Botha's government, so too is the ideology of apartheid turning on its own. For Botha's feeble attempts at cosmetic change, which have done nothing to satisfy the blacks, are viewed with alarm and a sense of betrayal by some Afrikaners. The ideology of white supremacy was used to divide South Africa's working class. That ideology ensured that white workers were relatively affluent, had a protected position in the labour market and constituted an "aristocracy of labour". Many accepted this ideology believing that their privileged position meant that they had no interests in common with black workers. But the apartheid ideology, now recognised by significant sections of the capitalist class as an anachronism, a fetter on the expansion of wealth production, created a group of white workers who not only felt no common class interest with black workers, but who hardly even regarded them as human. Botha's attempts at reform have, therefore, bolstered the fortunes of a number of even more extreme right-wing groups, while his own National Party is itself breaking up into factions.
There are two main parties on the far right: the Conservative Party, founded after the last general election in 1981, which has 17 seats in the South African legislature, and the Herstigte Nasionale Party (HNP) which has one. But this lack of seats disguises the level of support in certain areas of the country for extra parliamentary, neo-Nazi groups such as the Afrikaner Volkswag (the people s guard) headed by Carel Broshoff. former leader of the Broederbond — a secret society dedicated to Afrikaner supremacy, and the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) the Afrikaner Resistance Movement — led by Eugene Terre' Blanche. It was this group which was responsible for the breaking up of a National Party meeting in Pietersburg recently. The AWB has a swastika-like emblem and openly supports racist violence Terre' Blanche encourages his members to join the security forces and he wants an armed vigilante group to protect whites. Ultimately he seeks the re-establishment of the old Boer republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State as a white "homeland".
Many business people, professionals and political liberals want apartheid to go. They want to replace the old racist ideology which is now causing so many problems but without basically changing the distribution of political power, hence the present attempts to introduce power-sharing without having to forfeit overall political control. Some liberals have given up and left South Africa, others, especially the young, have attended meetings supporting black political rights. Some young whites have refused to serve in South Africa's conscript army and risk six years' imprisonment. Some whites have even joined the ANC's military wing.
Clearly it is no longer possible to see the situation in South Africa simply in terms of a conflict between black and white. Class conflict, always present but to some extent disguised by the racial division, is becoming more obvious as workers and trade unionists exploit the weak position of South Africa's ruling class to press home demands for changes in working conditions and levels of pay. Within the capitalist class itself conflict is apparent between industrialists who need the more flexible labour force that an end to apartheid can provide, and the old. mainly Afrikaner, land owning class who fear the cost of such a change for the semi-feudal system by which they run their farms. These divisions are real, representing a true opposition of interests. Those created by the ideology of apartheid are not. They are illusory, representing artificial distinctions based on the ambiguous concept of racial difference, or mistaken beliefs about where your true interest lies.
Apartheid must collapse. The tactic of divide and rule has divided not only blacks but also whites and the white ruling class may well find that the absence of a single black political movement with whom it can do business is a greater threat to its existence than they had imagined. To head off black discontent the government has tried to win over blacks through a process of gradual reform to remove "petty apartheid". It has not only failed but in so doing it has now outraged its own supporters who believed the racist ideology of white supremacy. At the same time those reforms are seen by blacks as cracks in the facade of white rule, adding impetus to the pressure for change.
The white ruling class is also under pressure from capitalists who are threatening to withdraw investments from South Africa. Firstly because of the combined effects of the fall in value of assets and dividends caused by the collapse of the rand; secondly negative publicity because of their South African involvement from anti-apartheid organisations. which it is feared will affect their sales. The capitalist class as a whole is not concerned about the morality of apartheid, how humane or democratic the system is, but rather whether it is stable and can provide the environment necessary for the production of profit.
The extent to which Botha is losing his political grip is evident in the raid launched by South Africa on alleged ANC bases in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia. No doubt the raid was intended to reassure the whites at home that the regime was not going soft on blacks, despite the reforms. And no doubt too Botha thought that since America had used a similar justification (rooting out terrorists) for the attack on Libya and got away with it there would not be international outrage if he conducted a similar exercise. But America is clearly recognising which way the wind is currently blowing in South Africa (some US politicians have already started calling ANC "terrorists" "freedom-fighters") and expressed hypocritical moral outrage at South Africa's attack, as did Britain. Botha clearly has few political friends either at home or abroad. He is in a classic "no win" situation as a result of the contradictions of an archaic political and social system in a modern capitalist state. A move in any direction is likely to bring the whole citadel of apartheid down around his ears. The more interesting question that we should now consider is what is likely to replace it?