issue 159 - May 1986
We see South Africa simply as a battle against white racism. But black people want much more than an end to the apartheid. Chris Brazier explains.
THE church was packed to the rafters and quivering with sound. 'Boesak!
Boesak!' chanted the crowd in this 'coloured' township near Cape Town. The media were out in force to witness a service that had all the fervour and flavour of a revivalist meeting, the latest event in the brief itinerary of a group of visiting US Congress members. One of the Americans rose to deliver the 'lesson', a passionate performance that called God to battle against the South African Government and raised up Allan Boesak as the black people's saviour. At the end he burst into song with a daring alto rendition of 'The Impossible Dream'. He hadn't been in showbusiness long enough to know where to stop but it was still a brilliant piece of theatre.
All to the good, you might think - surely it can only be positive for prominent Westerners to visit South Africa if they emerge with their hostility to apartheid reinforced, their commitment to economic sanctions redoubled. Well. . . yes and no. As I emerged from that church, it wasn't just the security police lined up by the gate that made me feel uneasy. The congressman's message was powerful but there was something wrong with it, something very wrong.
* * *
I came to South Africa pretty much a naïf. I knew where I stood on this issue better than on any other in the world. Well, it is, if you'll pardon the expression, so black and white, isn't it? It's so blindingly obvious that apartheid is evil, that black people should attain their full human rights. So obvious that we all tend to stop thinking about it right there. I'm probably as well-informed as most people in the West about South Africa - my job sends briefings and articles about it scudding across my desk every day. But I've always found them hard to read. All those names, all those different people's organisations - what on earth could I do with the information?
I'm a member of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement and have stood dutifully handing out leaflets at my local supermarket, protesting about its South African foodstuffs. And I suppose I felt I knew all I needed to know about the issue for that kind of solidarity work. I was wrong. Not because apartheid is any better than we imagine. But because I hadn't looked closely enough to realise that this is my war. And yours. This is the world's front line.
* * *
That black Congressman spoke of civil rights, of the great battle won by black people in the United States, and compared Boesak to Martin Luther King, just as he did Bishop Desmond Tutu on his American tour just afterwards, swapping 'saviours' with alarming ease. The idea of individual saviours leading black people to freedom, whether it is Tutu or Nelson Mandela on his black charger, is absurd and somewhat obscene given the hundreds of ordinary people who have lost their lives in the war on South Africa's brutal rulers. But the clear implication that everything is now hunky dory for black people in the US was even more offensive - it was as if the presence of a black caucus in Congress was proof in itself that the ghettoes do not exist, that racism and black poverty are things of the past, laid to rest alongside Dr King's coffin. And the theatrical politician's hidden agenda became distinctly visible when he quoted Paul Robeson, the great black actor, singer and socialist, but added 'not that we agree with his politics, of course'.
In this sentiment the Congressman is united with Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and even PW Botha. They may not fully realise it, but they are all on the same side in this war. Because what they are interested in preserving in South Africa is capitalism.
'Oh God, here we go again,' you're probably saying, 'capitalism as the root of all evil. Granted Reagan and Thatcher aren't as committed as they should be to ending apartheid, but why bring capitalism into this? Black people in South Africa are victims of vicious race laws that deny them their full humanity - that's the issue.'
Before I visited South Africa I might well have agreed - it is, after all, the country's racist laws which make it a unique target for the world's opprobrium. And ten years ago most black South Africans would have given the same answer - what they were fighting for was a non-racial society. But things have changed, and people's perceptions have shifted with a speed that neither the South African Government nor the international community can match.
When your children are out fighting one of the world's most sophisticated armies with just sticks and stones; when the sheer bankruptcy of the State's governing bodies forces you to get involved in running your community; when each of Botha's tinkering reforms makes little or no difference to your living conditions; when, all of these things happen you inevitably become radicalised. And you realise that if the Government bowed to pressure and scrapped all its racist laws tomorrow, it would not be enough. Even 'one person one vote' resulting in a legitimate black government would not be enough so long as land, wealth and economic power remained in the hands of an elite.
The struggle is no longer against apartheid - its days are truly numbered. It is against an economic system that keeps black people at the bottom of the heap.
This is the important 'covert' war that you have to watch. This is why South Africa's top businesspeople travelled to Lusaka to meet the leaders of the African National Congress (ANC), why its Stock Exchange is calling for the scrapping of racist laws, why even conservative press commentators call on Botha's they belatedly reason, there's a chance that our profits and privileges will remain intact. The country's new black rulers won't want to derail the gravy train - they'll let us carry on as did so many other newly-independent African nations and the West's gold and platinum, not to mention its strategic interests and its corporate holdings, will be safe.
A guide to South Africa's
African National Congress (ANC): Formed in 1912 as the South African Native National Congress, it is the oldest of all current South African political organisations. Long outlawed, it is committed to armed resistance to apartheid and, in the absence of the imprisoned Nelson Mandela, is led in exile by Oliver Tambo. There is evidence that it has been radicalised by an infusion of young blood since the Soweto uprising in 1976. The ANC enjoys enormous black popular support and is an indispensable part of the country's future.
United Democratic Front (UDF): Launched in 1983 as a broad alliance opposed to the new Constitution which enfranchised 'Indian' and 'Coloured' people but not 'Africans', it has grown very rapidly and has widespread support across the country. Its strength is its ability to involve and politicise people who would previously not have been reached by the liberation movement. Its weakness has been its ideological reliance on the 30-year-old Freedom Charter, which is vaguer in its socialist commitment than today's activists would like and also countenances the continuation of the four ethnic groups - 'White', 'Indian', 'Coloured' and 'African'.
National Forum: Also launched in opposition to the 1983 Constitution, this is an umbrella grouping which includes, amongst other groups, the Black Consciousness (BC) movement. BC was the dominant radical idea of the 1970s and many activists in the UDF have a BC background. BC is thus not the property of any one group, though the Azanian People's Organisation (AZAPO) is most closely associated with its ideas. AZAPO still sees it as vital that black people organise separately from whites, but since 1983 its commitment to a socialist solution has been paramount. Its strength lies in its theory, while its weakness has been its failure to organise locally and win ordinary people's support.
Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC): Broke away from the ANC in the 1950s and similarly committed to armed resistance from 1960 onwards. It has recently rather faded from view, though it is still strongly backed by Zimbabwe
Inkatha: Inkatha is the political movement of Mangosuthu 'Gatsha' Buthelezi has moved steadily to the Right since his decision to take office in one of the Government's bantustans. His calls for non-violence and oppositions to disinvest have pleased both the West and the National Government, which is increasingly using him as a ''tame'' black voice. His following particularly among rural Zulus is strong, though since only Inkatha members can 'advance themselves' in Kwazulu the true extent of that support is difficult to assess.
Progressive Federal Party (PFP): The official opposition party, and essentially the voice of white liberals opposed to both apartheid and radical economic change.
National Party: The party of government since apartheid was instituted in 1948. While it remains the party of apartheid, its recent reforms to the race laws have led to two splinter parties being formed and claiming increasing support among right-wing Afrikaners. These are the Herstigte (or 'strengthened') Nasionale Party and the Conservative Party. But even the unashamed racism of these parties is eclipsed by the overtly fascist Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging.
The only problem is, it's too late. If apartheid had been scrapped in the 1960s, or even the 1970s, then big business might have been successful in its aim. But now, in Soweto and Cradock, in Mamelodi and Langa, in all the black townships that serve the white cities while keeping their poverty out of sight and out of mind, people have come too far to turn back. They understand ever more clearly that the enemy is not a white face - there is a substantial number of white people sincerely committed to radical change - but instead the racial capitalism which gives white people their power.
This is revolutionary talk, and yet revolution is not just around the corner. It is very easy to be swept up by the euphoria of resistance, whether you're a journalist - I felt at times like the John Reed of the 1980s, watching a revolution unfold before my eyes as he did in Russia in 1917 - or a teenager boycotting apartheid's schools and chanting 'liberation first, education later'. But the Government still has a very firm grip, even if it is more hamstrung by international opinion than ever before. As yet it has exerted only a fraction of its full repressive power: its conscripted army could stand a million strong. So there is at least ten years of hard thinking and bitter fighting to go - and that means ten years of hard work for anti-apartheid activists in the West, too.
One reason why we handed over this issue to black South Africans was to discover whether they wanted the West to pull the financial rug from under their Government. And the answer came through loud and clear - despite the claims of Reagan, Thatcher and their token black voice Chief Buthelezi, the latest extensive survey showed only 26 per cent of black people in favour of free investment by Western companies. It might mean a little extra hardship - but then so did the stay-away from school, the consumer boycott of white shops which meant paying higher prices. If it brings the day of liberation nearer, as it almost certainly will, ordinary people are, it seems, quite prepared to suffer a little more.
That is our role in the West - to put all the pressure we can on our governments to isolate the South African regime as completely as possible. And it is a job that the anti-apartheid solidarity groups profiled on pages 24-25 are doing with increasing success. What it is not our business to do is to try and influence the internal politics of the liberation movement. One activist in the Black Consciousness (BC) movement told me that on a recent visit to the West he met a European anti-apartheid campaigner who told him he was wasting his time, that the only way forward was to join the United Democratic Front (UDF). The sheer gall of the European is astonishing, rooted in a we-know-best arrogance that surely itself derives from colonialism and racism.
At this point your eyes are probably beginning to glaze over. BC? UDF? AZAPO? Most of us are only really familiar with the ANC among the resistance groups, and perhaps with the UDF as its unofficial arm inside the country. The ANC is unquestionably the most popular force, with the allegiance of twice as many urban black people as its nearest rival (see pages 16-17). Yet to treat it as the only legitimate representative of black people is to misrepresent the ferment of ideas and activity within the resistance movement in South Africa.
The debate between the broad-based UDF alliance and the groups aligned to the National Forum (including the BC movement and the Azanian People's Organisation or AZAPO) is fierce. Sometimes it degenerates into a petty point-scoring reminiscent of far-Left groups in the West; in places there has even been violent confrontation. But it is an important debate - about the kind of socialism that will be built in the country, about the role of whites and liberals in bringing it about. And there are some signs that they're co-operating more closely.
Another hopeful sign in 1985 was the formation of the Confederation of South African Trades Unions (COSATU), a huge step forward in a country where organised labour has been notoriously weak. COSATU's task now is to organise many more than the 12 per cent of workers who currently belong to a trade union.1
The conventional outlook on South Africa's future is gloomy - bloodshed, bigotry and more bloodshed. But there is enormous potential, too. In black townships such as Cradock, new democratic structures have evolved which are giving people more control of their own lives right in the middle of a country which seeks to deny them any control. And it is precisely this kind of decentralised, fully democratic local self-government which is making a future socialist South Africa or Azania inevitable, however long it might take.
Socialism is no longer a dirty word - it is instead being embraced by ordinary people who are actually pulling their 'leaders' along with them. It is, as National Forum strategist Neville Alexander puts it (echoing, of all things, November's NI), 'a socialism without a model, a socialism from below'.
Racist South Africa is the world's pariah and we should redouble our efforts to shun it. But a socialist South Africa, whatever it is called, could be a beacon of hope not just for Africa, but for the whole world.
1 12.4 per cent, Race Relations Survey 1984. South African Institute of Race Relations. 1985.
This special report appeared in the race against time - making the new south africa issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.