From Soweto 1976 to the ANC in power 1993

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In the previous article on the workers’ movement in South Africa (in International Review n° 155) we highlighted the effectiveness of the apartheid system combined with the action of the trade unions and parties up until the late 1960s when, faced with an unprecedented development of the class struggle, the bourgeoisie had to “modernise” its political apparatus in order to preserve its system. It was forced to do this faced with a South African proletariat whose mass movements showed that it was part of the global waves of struggle in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In this introduction we want to draw the reader’s attention to the importance of these questions. Although, in the face of new social movements, the South African bourgeoisie relied on its most barbaric traditional weapons, the police and military forces, the dynamic of class confrontation was unprecedented: the working class had never before shown such combativity and development of consciousness, faced with a bourgeoisie that had never had to develop such sophisticated manoeuvres, including extensive use of the weapon of rank and file unionism animated by the extreme left of capital. In this clash between the two real historic classes, the determination of the proletariat would go so far as to provoke the dismantling of the system of apartheid, resulting in the unification of all fractions of the bourgeoisie with the aim of confronting the surge in the struggle of the working class.

Before that, in 1976, following the wave of struggles that marked the 1973-74 period,1 we witnessed a vigorous continuation of this episode of struggle: the uprising of the school pupils. In June of that year some ten thousand young people took to the streets to protest against compulsory education in Afrikaans and more generally against the bad living conditions imposed by the apartheid system. A movement of young people was immediately followed by the mobilisation of thousands of adults, active and unemployed workers. Shaken by this formidable proletarian explosion, the regime responded in its customary way by unleashing its guard dogs – the forces of repression – on the protesters and killing hundreds of demonstrators including children:

Since the great strikes of 1973-74, another front of struggle opened in South Africa: that of black schoolchildren and students whose anger exploded in June 1976 in Soweto. Thereafter, the popular insurrection hardly knew a lull. The violent police repression (about 500 deaths in the city of Soweto alone, hundreds of others across the country, thousands wounded) united the entire black population in this common fight.

Many of the young people behind the popular movement were shot by police during non-violent protests or during civilian militia raids in black neighbourhoods. Adults, struck by the courage and determination of the younger generation, joined them, and followed the slogans raised by their spokespeople: workers’ strikes and transport were organised several times in the black areas of Johannesburg and Cape Town. They were massively followed, including by the Coloured populations of the Cape Province. The destruction of school buildings, drinking places, administration buildings and means of transport which marked the beginning of the popular revolt were followed by more orchestrated but equally successful campaigns. Boycotts of classes and exams until the release of imprisoned youths, general mourning in memory of the victims of repression, boycott of drinking establishments, department stores, Christmas celebrations.2

We are in the presence here of a great proletarian insurrectional movement against the general misery imposed by one of the most brutal forms of capitalism: apartheid. An uprising of indignation by youth echoed the resurgence of international class struggle marked by huge workers’ strikes in the early 1970s in countries around the world. A movement that eventually spread to the major industrial areas of the country, leading to and mixing into a single struggle of workers and people of all ages. Faced with a struggle of this magnitude, with a surge of proletarian anger threatening to undermine the system, the barbaric regime could not hide its panic and responded with a bloody terror, even though this aroused widespread outrage in the country and amplified the anger and mobilisation of the whole population of Soweto and beyond. Workers, the unemployed and families with children joined the school students’ fight. Police batons and bullets left thousands dead and injured.

But the savagery of the killings only served to radicalise the movement, which continued until 1977 with massive strikes and demonstrations and tended to politicise itself by generating countless struggle committees called “civics”3, consisting mainly of workers (unionised or not), the unemployed, young people and their parents.

The civics developed rapidly in the Cape at the end of the 1970s. They extended in a certain way the forms of organisation within the townships which had arisen during the movements of June 1976 in the Transvaal. There were practically as many specific histories as there were organisations, since these were very often born out of the particular needs of a township or neighbourhood. Many appeared in the form of struggle committees either for the boycott of public transport against an increase in fares or for a boycott of rents against their rise. Some took the form of political committees dealing with all the problems of the community. The movement was infinitely diverse: cultural, religious associations, youth, students or high school students, students’ parents, were gradually assimilated to the concept of ‘civics’. Also, there was not just one committee per ward or township but a complex web of activist memberships and areas of intervention.4

Here was a powerful social movement that crystallised at a high level some of the characteristics of the wave of struggles on an international scale. We can see that the strong combativity of the working class which lay behind the massive strikes also expressed itself in a strong will for self-organisation, and this explains the extraordinary proliferation of civics. To our knowledge this is the first time we have witnessed, on this scale, in South Africa (and on the African continent), such forms of self-organisation, where for several years the social life of neighbourhoods was literally in the hands of the inhabitants themselves who debated every subject and took charge of all the problems concerning them. This was the most worrying aspect for the bourgeoisie, which saw its authority slipping away. Certainly one can note that some committees took, here and there, an inter-classist character or religious connotation, especially to the extent that bourgeois forces (unions, parties, churches, etc.) infiltrated them. However, it should be clear that the civics, despite their ideological heterogeneity, were fundamentally the product of a genuine proletarian class struggle. Moreover, the aspect of self-organisation in the Soweto uprising shows a further step in relation to the politicisation that had characterised the South African proletariat in the powerful movement of struggle in the years 1973-1974, particularly in terms of solidarity and unity in the class struggle. Therefore a clear link can be established in the continuity between the two movements of struggle, the second taking over from the first to go further in the development of class consciousness, as illustrated by the following evaluation of the preceding wave of struggles:

The development of solidarity of black workers in action and growing consciousness of their class unity were stressed by many observers. This achievement of the struggles, though unquantifiable, was considered by them as the most positive for the progress of the organisation of the black workers’ movement. (...) These strikes were also political: the fact that the workers demanded the doubling of their wages is not a sign of the naivety or stupidity of Africans. Rather, it expresses the rejection of their situation and their desire for a totally different society. The workers returned to work with some modest achievements, but they were less satisfied now than they were before the strikes.5

From this fact, we can deduce that many of the actors in the 1973-74 strikes joined the insurrectional movement in Soweto, and that thanks to their previous experience, they could play a decisive role in its radicalisation and politicisation. Such potentialities for the development of militancy and consciousness could only shake the bourgeoisie which, moreover, was forced to become fully aware of it at the inter-imperialist level.

The great imperialist powers get involved

The Soweto movement was prolonged by strikes and demonstrations until 1977 when police repression still claimed many victims, notably the teenager Steve Biko, a militant of the “Black Consciousness” movement. The murder of this young man in a local police station refuelled the struggles and amplified the protests, the victim thus becoming a martyr of apartheid, especially in the eyes of all the defenders of the “black cause” around the world. Thus, in Africa, as in America and especially in Europe, where there were numerous demonstrations against the apartheid regime, led mainly by trade unions and leftist parties, one could read (in France) slogans such as: “Against Franco-South African friendly relations (tourism, sport, culture); against French emigration in South Africa; against deliveries of weapons and technology to South Africa; against imports of South African products, etc.6

Conscious of the intensification of the movement, in particular with the radicalisation of the proletarian youth of Soweto, the NATO imperialist bloc increased the pressure on its South African ally (including at the economic level by boycotting South African products) to prevent the political destabilisation that threatened its future, but above all to deal with the ideological exploitation of events by the Russian bloc which, not content with arming and funding the ANC, also began openly to manipulate the various demonstrations around the world against the apartheid regime. It is in this context that South African officials finally accepted the “advice” of their Western sponsors to face up to the risks their system posed. Thus even among the most extreme South African leaders there was a change of tone or tactics towards the strikers:

Unless we succeed in creating a strong middle class among the blacks, we will have serious problems” (Botha, minister of defence). “We must give enough to the blacks for them to believe in separate development (a euphemism for the apartheid system) so that they will carefully protect what they have from the agitators. Nothing will happen to us if we give these people enough to be afraid of losing what they have (...) A happy person cannot become a communist.” (Kruger, minister of police and justice).

The Pretoria government therefore decided to make a number of concessions in line with the demands of the young people in struggle, for example by withdrawing its law imposing education in Afrikaans on African students and by lifting the ban on the inhabitants of Soweto owning or building their own homes, while recognising the right to association implied by the existence of trade union and political organisations.

In truth, South African capital (at least its most “enlightened” sector) had not waited for the Soweto movement to start implementing plans to relax the apartheid regime the better to thwart the workers’ struggles:

Society had shifted. The system was no longer safe from destabilisation. The government and the South African employers would therefore make some adjustments, in order to keep these socio-political changes in as bureaucratic a framework as possible. The Bantu Labour Regulation Act of 1973 thus completed the arsenal of labour regulations. It established two types of factory committees: works committees composed only of workers’ representatives; liaison committees made up of employer and employee representatives in equal numbers (...) And the Urban Training Project played the game and tried to use these factory committees to stabilise the trade unions it coordinated.7

The implementation of this device well before the outbreak of the Soweto revolt clearly expressed the intent of the South African bourgeoisie to take into account the evolution of a situation which threatened to escape its control. Indeed, in drawing the lessons from the first wave of struggles in the years 1972-74, it had been forced to take a number of bold steps, the principal ones being to give more “power” to the African trade unions by greatly increasing their number and expanding their “rights” with the aim of avoiding “political turmoil”.8 It found, however, that this was not enough to prevent the development of struggles, as shown by the Soweto movement.

The proletarian class struggle shakes the apartheid system

In an apparent effort to counter the proletarian class struggle, the South African regime undertook a major new political direction towards nothing less than the progressive dismantling of the apartheid system, which meant the dissolution of racial barriers and the integration of black nationalist movements into the democratic political circus. But to get to this point, the apartheid regime had to be shaken to its foundations. Everything changed in the mid-1970s due to the eruption of the class struggle, but up until then the bourgeoisie had not really been disturbed by the social question:

The events of Soweto in June 1976 were to confirm the political change underway in the country. The youth revolt in the Transvaal combined with the rebirth of the black workers’ movement to unleash the major social and political movements of the 1980s. After the strikes of 1973, the clashes of 1976 ended the period of defeat.9

This represented a real reversal of the situation, given that apartheid was designed above all against the class struggle with the aim of avoiding the development of a multiracial working class10 through segregation and the attribution of “rights and privileges” to fractions of the working class. In other words, the theory of the so-called “supremacy” of whites over blacks concretely translated into (skilled) jobs and other benefits reserved exclusively for workers of European origin, while their fellow Africans, Indians and Coloureds had to be content with unfavourable conditions of work, wages and existence.11 In so doing, the apartheid regime succeeded in corrupting a large part of the working class of European origin by making it voluntarily or passively adhere to its segregationist system. And all this succeeded over a long period (between 1940 and 1980) in dividing the South African proletariat, hampering its capacity to develop struggles that might obstruct the smooth running of capitalism.

A historic turning point in the apartheid system

This reversal of the situation was also reflected in a rapprochement between the two factions of the bourgeoisie from the two former colonial powers, namely the British and Dutch. Faced with the rise of the proletariat, and a tendency towards the unity of all its ethnic components, they decided to forget their ancestral ideological hatred and divergences in order to unite behind the national capital of South Africa as a whole.

This marked a truly historic turning point in the life of the South African bourgeoisie in general and within the Afrikaner faction in particular. Since the terrible “Boer Wars” of 1899-190212, when the British crushed the Afrikaners, hatred between the descendants of English and Dutch settlers remained visible until the eve of the end of apartheid, even though they had to govern the country together on several occasions. A significant faction of Afrikaners had long dreamed of taking revenge on the British Empire, as shown by the fact that during the Second World War a good part of the Afrikaner leaders (including the military) openly showed their support for the Hitler regime which was their ideological reference point, and by the decision of the Afrikaner regime to leave the Commonwealth and change the name of the country from the Union of South Africa to the Republic of South Africa).

To address this major historical turning point in the dismantling of apartheid, South African capital found a sizable strategic ally, namely trade unionism, but of a new kind, in this case a “radical”, “rank and file” unionism (discussed below), as the only one capable, in its eyes, of stemming a tide of struggle that threatened to become more and more dangerous. And this time, given the importance of the stakes of the epoch, all the decisive principal actors of the South African bourgeoisie clearly assumed this new orientation, including the most reactionary, not to say fascist, apartheid supporters like Botha, Kruger, etc. Similarly, as will be seen later, it was the latter, together with De Klerk (former president), who directly steered the negotiation process with Mandela’s ANC with a view to dismantling the apartheid system.

To save its system of production the bourgeoisie gives birth to new unions

Faced with the collapse of the old union apparatus provoked by the explosion of struggles in the 1970s, and this despite the reinforcement by the state of the means at their disposal, the bourgeoisie decided to resort outright to what could be called “rank and file unionism” or “shop stewards”, taking the form of new “fighting” trade unions that wanted to be independent of the large union centres:

(…) During the 1970s, several union currents developed and differentiated themselves amid the resurgence of social conflicts. Their stories intertwine to the rhythm of splits and unifications. Three union projects thus developed on the basis of some distinct political and ideological assumptions.

The first was constituted (or reconstituted) around the union tradition of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) and its link to the African National Congress (ANC). The second was formed from the new Black Consciousness Movement, forming in particular the Council of Unions of South Africa (CUSA). The last, finally, appeared in an original way, with no apparent link to a known political current. It was founded in 1979 as the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU).13

This was a radical reorganisation of the trade union system with the function of neutralising the workers’ struggles if they could not be prevented. But what this shows first is that the leadership of the South African regime was fully aware of the danger of the development of the class struggle from 1973 up to the Soweto movement in 1976 and beyond. It realised that the apartheid system in all its forms was no longer adapted to the rise of the workers’ growing militancy and consciousness. Clearly, the bourgeois regime had to take note of the fact that the system of unionisation based on the division of workers according to their ethnic origins was no longer appropriate and that the apparatus of the large unions, such as TUCSA (Trade Union Council of South Africa) were no longer credible among the combative workers, especially the younger generation. Hence the emergence of these new unions to play the role of a “fighting”, “base” unionism, “independent” of the union apparatus.

The following passage relating to FOSATU (Federation of South African Trade Unions) speaks volumes as to the reality of these new unions:

(…) Our study is particularly devoted to this union current (FOSATU), which was formed from networks of intellectuals and students, themselves the products of a specific phase of the socio-economic evolution of the country.

(…) Thus, in barely ten years, a group of intellectuals (mainly white) and black workers would create a new form of union organisation. It would initially present itself as a point of reference independent of the ANC and radically opposed to the Communist Party. It would lead a large part of the strike movements of the 1980s.14

This was a very “radical” and “critical” trade union group vis-à-vis the union and political apparatus, but it was an unprecedented development in the period of apartheid in that it was able to join together black and white workers and intellectuals, radical political opponents of various kinds. In short, it was a new union apparatus called to play a major role in South African political life.As was the case for the bourgeoisie of the large European industries, faced with the radicalisation of the workers’ struggle, South African capital was forced to use “base unionism”.15 Similarly, as in Europe, in these “radical unions” was usually found a large number of leftists; this was the case with FOSATU, which was led more or less openly by elements close to the “Unity Movement”, that is to say, Trotskyists. We will come back to this later. How would the new base unions, once formed, accomplish their dirty work at the head or inside of the movements of the Soweto struggle?

The struggles of Soweto poisoned by the trade unions and the ideological confusions of the proletariat

As might be expected, the regime’s concessions could not really calm the Soweto movement; on the contrary they merely served to radicalise it, but also to divide its participants, both in the schools and among the workers. For example, some organisations more or less satisfied themselves with the government’s concessions while others with a more radical appearance demanded more. In fact there was a division of labour in the work of the unions. Besides FOSATU (among the new radical unions), the Black Allied Workers’ Union (BAWU) played an important role. Created in 1973 in the wake of the major strikes in Johannesburg, it campaigned for the exclusive regrouping of black workers of all categories and industrial sectors:

(…) Its aims were primarily: “To organise and unify the black workers in a powerful workers’ movement, able to gain the respect and recognition of the employers and the government; to improve the workers’ knowledge through general and specialised educational programmes, in order to promote their qualification; to represent black workers and their interests in the workplace.16

This was a union created exclusively by and for black workers, hence its opposition to all other unions (even those that were 99% black). But this orientation was particularly pernicious because it gave the impression of creating “positive segregation” by claiming to fulfil legitimate objectives such as improving the knowledge of black workers, or promoting their qualification. And in doing so it was able to “seduce” a large number of class conscious workers. In other words, it acted as an obstacle to unity in the struggle between workers of all ethnic origins. Besides this, to drive the point home, the BAWU immediately approached the “Black Consciousness Movement”:

This position reflects the general attitude of the various organisations that made up the black consciousness movement, in particular of black students (South African Students’ Organisation – SASO – which was separate from the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) in order, according to its militants, to escape the paternalism shown by all whites vis-à-vis blacks.17

Thus the groups in the student milieu adopted openly and without difficulty the orientation of the BAWU union; that is, becoming openly racist and playing the same role of division of the workers’ ranks as the most racist white unions. In short, it was far from defending the common interests of the South African proletariat, and even those of the black fraction of the working class. And indeed, behind this regroupment or alliance between workers and students we can see the harmfulness of the race question, especially when it is couched in terms of “black consciousness” as opposed to “white consciousness” , rather than the consciousness of the proletarian class. And this even as the conditions were largely met for unity in the struggle as shown by the strike movements taking place in the country where many sectors of workers were fighting for class and not racial demands, which were in fact often successful. Moreover, to the difficulties of the alliance between workers and students linked to racial and trade union divisions was added the corporatism and petty bourgeois spirit of the intellectuals who were strongly present in this struggle movement. As a result, despite the strong momentum created by the general resurgence of the struggle in the early 1970s, the combativity of the workers and youth of Soweto was diverted into a dead end:; the movement was diverted and divided by ethnic rivalries between ethnic, corporatist and petty bourgeois cliques, which ultimately stifled every purely proletarian attempt at giving the struggle a direction:

(…) One of the most important and surprising aspects of the creation of African trade unions in Natal is the role played by groups of academics, students or white teachers. The importance of the role of the handful of intellectuals who made a deep commitment to the African workers does not mean that the South African university was the vanguard of protest and combat for the liberation of the black masses. Far from it. The conservatism and racism of Afrikaner youth, the recklessness of Anglophone students and the corporatism of professional intellectuals were the general rule. As for black students, having voluntarily left the white student organisations (in 1972), it seems that their struggle for their own survival as a group and their participation in the Black Consciousness Movement captured their entire militant energy.18

Clearly, in these conditions the real proletarian vanguard could hardly put itself forward because it was tied down and corralled by the nationalist or racist trade unions, and sometimes by the corporatist factions of the intellectual petty bourgeoisie, manipulated by various political groups like the CP, ANC and leftist elements. From this point on, we can see more clearly the limits of the development of class consciousness, especially among the young people of Soweto, whose struggle was their first experience as members of the proletarian class.

The ANC diverts the youth struggle of Soweto towards the imperialist armed struggle

Having infiltrated the various organs of the working class youth of Soweto, the ANC extended its control over a large number of radical youths coming from the “civics” and managed to enrol them in the armed struggle by sending them to military training camps in neighbouring countries. The ANC especially targeted the most active elements of the Soweto movement, those who were seeking to escape the police repression of the South African regime, promising them “training” to better fight against the apartheid regime. And once there, many critical youths were systematically punished by imprisonment or even death:

Those ANC soldiers unhappy with this policy did not have the right to discuss it, under the pretext of discipline. In 1983, the ANC participated in the Angolan civil war, sending protesting soldiers there to get rid of them. And when hundreds of returned survivors mutinied the following year, they were suppressed. For this there was an ANC prison camp in Mozambique, the Quatro, where torture was used against recalcitrant internal opponents.19

Clearly, even before coming to power, the ANC already conducted itself as an executioner of the working class. But what the Trotskyist group Lutte Ouvrière, which we have just cited, does not say is that the party of Mandela was involved in the war in Angola in the 1980s on behalf of the Russian imperialist bloc, where it received support from neighbouring countries (opponents of the NATO bloc): Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, etc. This was the period when the ANC and CP articulated their struggle for “national liberation” with confrontations between the imperialist powers of the east/west blocs, clearly relying on the support of Moscow. Similarly, while internally the struggle was being broken militarily, externally South Africa was playing the role of “deputy gendarme” of the western imperialist bloc in southern Africa, hence its military involvement, like all its rivals, in the war in Angola and other neighbouring countries.

From FOSATU to COSATU, South African trade unionism at the service of the national capital

Since the entry of capitalism into decadence (marked by the first imperialist world conflict in 1914), trade unionism has ceased to be a real organ of struggle for the working class, and even worse, has become a counter-revolutionary instrument in the service of the capitalist state. This is illustrated by the history of the class struggle in South Africa.20 But the study of the history of trade unionism in the case of the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) and COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) shows us the power of a new unionism capable of simultaneously exerting influence on a highly combative proletariat and on the archaic apartheid regime. FOSATU made use of its “genius” for organising, to the point of being simultaneously heard by both the exploited and the exploiter in order to astutely “manage” the conflicts between the two antagonists – which meant, in the final analysis, serving the bourgeoisie. Similarly, it played the role of “facilitator” in the “peaceful transition” between the “white power” and the “black power” resulting in the establishment of a “national unity” government.

Birth and characteristics of FOSATU: Founded in 1979, it was the result of a trade union re-organisation following the disappearance or self-dissolution of the main former trade unions in the aftermath of the vigorous strike action of 1973, which shook the entire country.

This new union current gave birth to the most important unions in industry (except the mines): automobiles, metallurgy, chemicals, textiles, etc. The same year that FOSATU was founded, the South African state facilitated its role by deciding to grant the title of “employee” 21 to all blacks including those in the Bantustans, followed soon after by African workers from neighbouring countries. This hugely promoted the unionisation of workers in all sectors of the country, amply benefitting FOSATU by allowing it to create its own “development project”:

In the early 1980s (this union movement) developed an original trade union project, based on a conception explicitly independent of the main political forces, formed from networks of intellectuals and students, themselves produced from a specific phase of the socio-economic evolution of the country; it corresponded to a real social and economic change in the country and accompanied the gradual transformation of the organisation of the labour market.22

It was, therefore, in this context that this trade union movement was propelled by its desire to be both a “trade union left” and a “political left”, and that many of its leaders were influenced by Trotskyist and Stalinist ideology:

Towards the end of the 1920s, militants adhering to Trotskyist critiques split from the Communist Party. Some of them were leaders of a broad movement in the 1940s called the Unity Movement. Furthermore, a renowned trade unionist in the thirties and forties, Max Gordon, was a Trotskyist.

This current fragmented and greatly weakened in the late fifties. But there still existed in Cape Town, in the seventies, a strong presence of these groups, mainly among Coloured teachers”.

(...) In interviews done in Cape Town in 1982 and 1983, we were able to verify that the leader of the municipal workers’ union, John Erentzen, had been a member of the Unity Movement. Marcel Golding, before entering the miners’ union leadership, was part of a study group of Trotskyist orientation.”

(...)Alec Elwin (First Secretary of FOSATU) said he was influenced initially by the French Althusser and Poulantzas. He mentioned the importance for people like him of the debate that existed in Britain in the seventies on the question of shop stewards, that is to say, workshop delegates and rank and file organisation. Another important factor for this generation of radical intellectuals was the contribution of a renewed Marxist analysis of apartheid (by people like Martin Legassick) regarding capitalist relations of production. Thus there gradually emerged an alternative theory to that of the Communist Party.

From these quotes we can see clearly the role played historically23 by the Trotskyist current or its “nebula” in the unions in general and in base unionism in particular. We have seen previously that the Trotskyist current was involved in the formation of new radical unions in the wake of the struggles of the 1970s. In this context it is worth noting a specific facet of the contribution of Trotskyism to the counter-revolution, namely “entryism”24 into the social democratic parties (and trade unions); that is, joining (clandestinely) these bourgeois organisations supposedly to seize (in due course) their leadership (for the revolution). In fact, this practice is anti-proletarian and expresses a clear contempt for the working class in whose name its (hidden) practitioners claim to act.25 Another consequence of this practice is that it is impossible to positively identify “entrists”, to know, even approximately, the number of FOSATU leaders who were under Trotskyist influence at one time or another during their stay in the South African Trade unions.

Here we can put forward the idea that the leaders of the "trade union left" embodied by FOSATU/COSATU were marked by various bourgeois ideological influences: ranging from Trotskyism to Social-Democracy through Stalinism, “Solidarnosc” trade unionism (Poland), Lula’s “Workers’ Party” (Brazil):

In October 1983 the newspaper FOSATU Work News” published a double page centrefold article on Solidarity and Poland. The thread is pretty similar to what the leaders of the FOSATU thought about the South African process: industrial growth, little improvement of the workers’ status, repression, control of demand, internal differentiation in the union and the evolution of the Walesa group ... And the article ends: the struggle of Polish workers is an inspiration to all other workers in struggle”. (...) In 1985, issues 39 and 40 published a long article reporting on the Workers’ Party of Brazil (PT).26

Here we can clearly see the similarities in the approach of unions like FOSATU and those of Walesa and Lula, especially in terms of their preparations to accede to the highest levels of the state.

Thus armed with its experience of politico-trade union maneuvering in the struggles of the 1970s and 1980s, FOSATU could openly enter the service of South African national capital by taking advantage of its “aura” to work for the constitution of a new trade unionism rid of the archaic apartheid trade union apparatus, making its hazy union doctrine prevail by relying essentially on the industrial workers, as indicated in the text of its first congress:

The federation will essentially consist of unions of industrial branches to the extent that this is, within the framework of existing industrial structures, the best way to promote workers’ unity and the interests of workers, and as far as this is also the best way for it to concentrate on the areas of workers’ concerns. This, however, does not reflect support for current industrial relations”.

(...) The absence of racial divisions (non-racialism), workers’ control, trade union branches, grassroots organising, international workers’ solidarity, trade union unity.27

If we situate FOSATU’s politico-union manoeuvring in the context of apartheid, we can understand the relative ease with which the Federation was able to attract a number of workers struggling or conscious of the necessity of the need for unity in the struggle across ethnic boundaries. Besides its status as the first union in the industrial sector, it made particular use of its combative image in the eyes of many workers from the struggles in the 1970s-80s to earn their trust. With its well-organised apparatus of “fighting unionism” it entered into discussions with all the other unions which had retained some influence, with a view to federating them, although not without great difficulties, especially with those under control of the ANC/CP. It also had to contend with the hostility or reluctance of other trade union movements before convincing or marginalising them, like the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) or some unions close to the “Black Consciousness” Movement.

FOSATU prepares to integrate itself into the political apparatus

At its origin in 1979, FOSATU consisted of three registered (legal) trade unions and nine unregistered unions,28 which meant that the latter were dominant and their weight was reflected in the Federation’s ideological and strategic choices. This was until the moment when FOSATU decided to initiate a shift towards its institutional integration, that is to say, by becoming more and more involved in power, albeit remaining “radical”:

The debate on registration took the form of a sharp polemic against the unions of FOSATU that were registered. The attack came from the GWU (pro-Black Consciousness) and, in a much more virulent way, from the SAAWU (pro-ANC). The arguments were roughly similar: loss of independence vis-à-vis the state and obstructing a true democratic functioning of the trade unions which had to comply with the constraints of official control, etc.

(...) Other debates were conducted during negotiations. And it was the shape of the future confederation which most troubled the FOSATU leadership. It was convinced that the model of FOSATU was best suited to its company union sections, its industrial branch unions, regional structures (inter-professional, in the terminology of French unionism), its grassroots democracy based on shop stewards, etc.”

(...) The leadership of FOSATU finally convinced the majority of its partners on these union issues. But it is important to note here that the unification process towards the foundation of COSATU was finally clarified when the SAAWU changed position, in our opinion, after the leaders in exile of the ANC and the Communist Party themselves decided to change their attitude. And also when the NUM, the mining union member of CUSA and by far its biggest affiliate, decided in December 1984 to break with its federation and participate fully in the launch of COSATU.29

By integrating the mining union (NUM), FOSATU definitively imposed itself in the decisive sectors of the national economy and became from that moment the obligatory partner of the regime. It thus reinforced its control over the most combative sectors of the working class and successfully took the initiative in uniting the main trade unions. This was a remarkable journey for FOSATU, which managed to bring together the major influential trade unions in a great confederation throughout the country, leading to the creation of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).

Once again, FOSATU showed its “political genius” and organisational expertise by evolving from a radical opposition of the left to a union alongside the great nationalist bureaucratic apparatus with the aim of acceding to bourgeois power; and this without any openly hostile working class reaction. It is notable that these “pimps” of the working class for the left bourgeois apparatus had to proceed methodically step by step. First: by opting for a left political and union “radicalism” to better seduce the combative workers; second: by unifying the union apparatus, and third: by promoting the constitution of a broad trade union and political front in order to “wisely” govern the post-apartheid country.

In its quest for trade union and political unity, COSATU was unable to integrate two currents close to the “Black Consciousness” movement and the PAC. Both of them preferred to remain in opposition with their own unitary federation, the National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU). There were also other small white or corporatist unions. However, they had no decisive influence on the organisation of struggles compared to COSATU.

It is through this that the ex-FOSATU leaders would continue to pursue their “trade union mission”, to the point that many are now playing their role of managers in charge of South African capital, as ministers or big business owners.

Control of the civics at stake in the bitter struggles of the union/political apparatus

By becoming widespread and taking over the whole of social life in the main districts of the industrial cities over a period of time (generally between 1976 and 1985), the civics eventually became the central prize for all the organs of power in South Africa and the struggle for control over them provoked bitter clashes between union/political gangsters:

One of the major problems facing the new union movement was the development of another form of organisation of the black population, the civics, or community associations. This term was often used to group all associative forms emerging in the townships.

Considerable work remains to be done on these movements because they have not received the same attention as the trade unions from researchers.

(...) It seems that the development of the civics started mainly in the Cape under the impact of two competing political currents at the time in this region: one of the independent political left (nebulous political heir to the Unity Movement”) and the other related to or influenced by the ANC. Networks of associations were divided according to political sympathies. Thus, in the Cape, militants of the Unity Movement formed with the associations they controlled the Federation of Cape Civic Associations and militants of the ANC and the Communist Party formed their own Cape Area Housing Action Committee (CAHAC). This cartelisation then developed at the national level with, in addition, the activity of the AZAPO party (heir to the Black Consciousness Movement) and of militants and supporters of the PAC (Pan Africanist Congress). In the mid-eighties the majority of the political currents appeared publicly under the banner of the groupings of the civics they controlled”. 30

We can only share the opinion of the author of the quote that the “civics” have not received the same attention from researchers as the unions and that much work remains to be done on these movements. This being said, the other major point to emphasise is the relentlessness with which the union and political vultures attempted to neutralise the organisations resulting from the insurrectionary struggles of Soweto. In order to catch up with the movement they had not initiated, all these bourgeois forces proceeded by infiltration and sordid maneuvers to sabotage the various committees under the name of civics and finally managed to control them and use them as instruments in their struggle for influence in order to gain power. In 1983, we saw a series of demonstrations and strikes mobilising more and more people, especially in Soweto but also in other regions. This was the moment chosen by the ANC to intensify its control over the social movements by creating an organisation called the “United Democratic Front”, a kind of “forum” or simple “net” in which Mandela’s party managed to catch many of the civics. And the ANC’s rivals were not slow to respond by chasing the same autonomous groups, accompanied by criminal violence on both sides:

(...) More and more violent polemics developed at the rhythm of major social conflicts: a general strike, a local or regional stay-away, or even a boycott of white-owned businesses, indiscriminately aimed at factory employees and the population of the townships; and in these areas, such as Port Elizabeth or East London, where at least 50% of the unemployed were already at that time, it was not possible to organise movements of this magnitude without relying on the complementarity of the civics and the trade unions. Each party obviously had such a unitary conviction. But the political stakes were such that each sought to exert hegemonic pressure on the other. There were all sorts of conflicts including between associations controlled by AZAPO (the People's Organisation of Azania) and certain unions.

(...) Examples abound of cases of physical violence. FOSATU leaders complained that, because there was no real centralization, groups of young people linked to the civics sometimes attacked workers carrying out their normal work. Bus drivers could be attacked or even killed by young people who did not understand or simply ignored the trade union opposition to this or that appeal.31.

In short, this is how the “civics” were scuttled by the various trade union, nationalist and democratic forces vying for control. In other words, we see that the ANC and its rivals did not hesitate to train many young people to kill each other or to attack and kill active workers like bus drivers. And this for the greater good of the common enemy, namely the national capital. Certainly, the ANC reached the pinnacle of crimes committed against the youth of Soweto for having enlisted a large number of former civic members into an imperialist camp and sending them to the slaughter for so-called “national liberation” (see previous section).

The strikes return in the midst of an economic recession

In 1982/83, strikes broke out in many areas against government austerity measures, particularly in the mines and automobile industry, mobilising tens of thousands of workers and seriously hitting the factories of General Motors, Ford, Volkswagen, etc. Like many other countries at this time, South Africa was hit by the economic crisis that plunged it deep into recession.

In the recession that opened in 1981-82, the whole system was running out of steam, including at the institutional level. Between 1980 and 1985, corporate bankruptcies rose by 500%. The interest rate went from 9.5% to 17% in 1981; it reached 18% in 1982 and 25% in August 1985. In 1982, the country still enjoyed a net inflow of 662 million rand;; in 1983, it had a deficit of 93 million rand. The rand which was worth $1.09 in 1982 was worth less than $0.37 at the end of 1985. The total of investments went from 2.346 million rand in 1981 to 1.408 in 1984. That same year, the external debt reached $24.8 billion, including $13 billion in short term debt. The volume of manufacturing output and exports fell, labour costs increased, and unemployment rose.32

Faced with the scale of the recession, the South African government had to take drastic measures against the living conditions of the working class - mass lay-offs and wage cuts, etc. For its part, despite being weakened by the struggles for control waged between the ANC and rival cliques, the working class could not remain arms crossed and therefore had to go into struggle, showing once again that its combativeness remained intact. In this respect, as an illustrative example, one can take the year 1982 when most of the conflicts concerned wage claims (170), followed by problems of lay-offs and downsizing (56), whereas conflicts for trade union recognition resulted in only 12 strikes. This last aspect is important because it means that the workers clearly did not feel the need to unionise to enter into struggle.

In the period 1982-83 South Africa was marked by an uninterrupted growth of strikes. In this context, once again the anti-working class role of radical trade unionism was notable:

It was the unions of FOSATU which were responsible for the most strikes, including those in metalworking and automobiles. It was therefore the regions where these industries were particularly present which recorded the most conflicts. The Eastern Cape region, notably the cities of Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage, experienced the highest strike rates: 55,150 strikers in 1982, of whom 51,740 were in the automobile industry. It was in the East Rand that there were the most movements in metalworking: 40 with a total of 13,884 strikers. These figures can be compared with 30,773 strikers throughout the Johannesburg region, all sectors combined (...) Such comparisons allow us to measure, at this time, the relative weight of FOSATU in the whole independent trade union movement ...33

Even when corralled, the working class remained combative and struggled on a class terrain by refusing to submit without responding to the economic attacks of the bourgeoisie. Of course, it was clearly noticeable that the workers in struggle were strongly under the control of unionism, particularly base unionism, which took the lead in the movement in order to take control of it, eventually scuttling the strikes before they compromised the interests of South African national capital. In this sense, it is remarkable that during the strike movements in 1982, no role was assigned to the “civics”, on the contrary everything was the work of the trade unions, in particular of FOSATU, which could rely on its radicalised base organisations to ensure the supremacy of its version of militancy, and deter any attempt at autonomous organisation outside the apparatus constituted as the negotiator with the state.

In 1984-85, important strikes broke out in the Transvaal/Port Elizabeth, mobilising tens of thousands of workers and involving the population by combining multiple demands (wages, education, housing, right to vote, etc.). In parallel to the miners’ strikes and those of other employees, businesses owned by whites and public transport were actively boycotted, and thousands of young people refused to serve in the military.

Faced with the protest movements, the South African regime responded by offering a “small carrot” in one hand and a “big stick” in the other. It decided, on the one hand, to grant citizens of colour (Indians and Coloureds) and blacks the right to elect their own MPs or municipal representatives from their communities. On the other hand, its only response to demands for higher wages and better living conditions from the protesters was the declaration of a state of emergency, and it used the opportunity to go after the strikers it accused of conducting “political strikes” to help justify a barbaric repression that led to the dismissal of 20,000 miners, the murder of a large number of workers and the imprisonment of thousands of others.

1986-90, strikes against the backdrop of political manoeuvering within the bourgeoisie

Between 1982 and 1987 the country experienced an uninterrupted growth of strikes, protests and deadly clashes with the forces of order:

On 9 August 1987, the NUM unleashed a strike in the mines. 95% of the unions consulted by law voted in favour of the strike. This affected all the mines where the NUM was implanted, 28 gold mines and 18 coal mines. The conflict was by far the longest strike in the South African mines, lasting 21 days (the 1946 conflict lasted 5 days) and representing 5.25 million days lost. (...) The NUM threw all its strength into this battle which was its biggest challenge since its creation in 1982. It demanded a 30% wage increase, a risk premium, 5 years’ salary given to families of miners killed in accidents instead of two years’, 30 days paid leave and June 16, the anniversary of the uprisings in Soweto, designated as a paid holiday.

Mining companies lost 17 million rand in this conflict but yielded on almost nothing. The coordination of the Chamber of Mines proved effective. Their leaders remained extremely firm, led by those of Anglo-America.”34

Once again the working class demonstrated its will to fight, even if this was clearly not enough to force back the bourgeoisie, which refused to yield on the main demands of the strikers. Moreover, employers and the state knew they could count on the unions to keep control of the workers, that the unions might have been “radical” but were very “responsible” when it came to protecting the interests of the national capital. Yet despite this, the working class refused to give up, returning to the fight massively in the following year (1988), when there were almost 3 million workers on strike, from 6 to 8 June.

But at the political level, the most significant event of this period took place in 1986. This was the year that saw the real political change that marked the end of the apartheid regime, embodied chiefly by the Afrikaners who had made it their mode of government. After definitively settling the “union question” by integrating the main unions into the bosom of the state (cf. the case of FOSATU/COSATU), those in power decided to implement the policy of constitutional reform. In this context, meetings were held (in secret) between the white South African leaders35 and ANC officials, including Mandela who, from prison, between 1986 and 1990 regularly received emissaries of the Afrikaner government with a view to the reconstruction of the country on a new non-racial basis and in accordance with the interests of the national capital. The negotiations between the African nationalists and the South African government continued until 1990, the year of Mandela’s release and the end of apartheid, the lifting of the ban on the South African CP and ANC. It goes without saying that the international context had something to do with this.

On the one hand, the fall of the Berlin Wall heralded the sudden and brutal collapse of the main ally of the ANC/CP, the Soviet bloc, and a loss of prestige for the “Soviet model” that the ANC had adopted up until then; this forced the ANC to reconsider its previous “anti-imperialist” stance. On the other hand, the disappearance of the Soviet bloc meant that the prospect of the ANC’s arrival in power was no longer a threat, on the imperialist level, for the pro-Western South African bourgeoisie. And this sheds light on the announcement by the South African president, Frederick de Klerk, in February 1990, before Parliament, of his decision to legalise the ANC, the CP and all the banned organisations, in a perspective of global negotiation. The following are the reasons for his decision:

The current dynamic in international politics has also created new opportunities for South Africa. Significant progress has been made, among other things, in our external contacts, particularly where there were previously limitations of an ideological order. (...) the collapse of the economic system in Eastern Europe is also a signal (...) Those who seek to impose on South Africa such a bankrupt system should engage in a full revision of their point of view.

And indeed, “those who sought to impose on South Africa such a bankrupt system” (the coalition that governs South Africa today) then decided to engage in a full revision of their point of view by entering definitively into the ranks of the managers of the national capital, starting with COSATU:

In early 1990 the debate on the working charter in COSATU finally turns to the development of a set of basic rights (...) accompanying the constitutional proposals of the ANC. It is no longer a question of a political programme”(...);

  • In 1990, nationalist figures of NUMSA (unions affiliated to COSATU) join the Communist Party. Among others, Moses Mayekiso is elected member of the provisional leadership of the newly legal party;
  • In July 1991 the fourth congress of COSATU confirms an alliance between the union of the miners (NUM) and that of the automobile-metalworkers (NUMSA). They together account for 2,000 delegates of the 2,500 present;

(...) One of the resolutions adopted at the union congress says:We are in favour of training our members and encourage them to join the ANC and the Communist Party’.”36

From then on, the whole of the South African bourgeoisie was united in a new so-called “democratic” era and of course the whole population, including the working class, was invited to unite behind the new leaders in the construction of the democratic multiracial state, and the “party” could begin…

Co-option has only just begun, but already there is not a single big company that is not looking for a certain number of ANC managers to integrate into its leadership. A veritable ‘Mandela generation’ has been absorbed into public or private structures quickly losing their fidelity to the old doctrines. The call for ‘civil society’ has become the keystone of all discourse in order to bridge the gap between the still strong social movement and the arrangements at the top. But for those who remember the political themes of the eighties there is no doubt that the terminological shift is not a mere form.” 37

Ultimately, by virtue of its bourgeois class nature, the political-trade union left could absolutely not go against the capitalist system, despite its ultra-radical and anti-capitalist, workers’ verbiage allegedly for the “defence of the working class”. In the end, the trade union left proved to be a simple and formidable pimp for the left of the capital. But its main contribution was undoubtedly the fact of having succeeded in knowingly constructing the “democratic/national unity” trap in which the bourgeoisie was able to imprison the working class. Moreover, taking advantage of this climate of “democratic euphoria”, largely as a result of the liberation of Mandela and company in 1990, the central power could rely on its “new union wall” consisting of COSATU and its “left wing” to systematically divert the struggle movements into demands for “democracy”, “civil rights”, “racial equality “, etc. And this even when workers went on strike for wage demands or seeking to improve their living conditions. Indeed, between 1990 and 1993, when a transitional government of “national unity” was formed, strikes and demonstrations became scarce or had no effect on the new government. The poison of democratic illusions was compounded by a terrible tragedy in the black working class when, in 1990, the troops of Mandela and those of the Zulu chief Buthelezi clashed militarily for the control of the populations of the townships. This conflict lasted four years and caused more than 14,000 deaths and massive destruction of workers’ dwellings. For revolutionary marxists this bloody struggle between the black nationalist cliques merely confirmed once more the bourgeois (and backward) nature of these gangsters, who thus expressed their readiness to comply with the state’s orders to prove their ability to manage the best interests of South African capital. Besides, this was the central objective of the bourgeoisie’s project when it decided the process which led to the dismantling of apartheid and to the “national reconciliation” of all the bourgeois factions that had been killing each other under apartheid.

This project would be implemented faithfully by Mandela and the ANC between 1994 and 2014, including the massacre of workers resisting their exploitation and repression.


1 We often speak of the years 1973-74 and ‘76 without referring to 1975. Indeed, that year experienced fewer struggles and appeared as a moment of “pause” before the storm of Soweto.

2 Brigitte Lachartre, Luttes ouvrières et libération en Afrique du Sud, Editions Syros, 1977.

3 Civics or CBOs (Community Based Organisations): “Popular associations, often on the basis of a geographical area or street, whose members organise themselves and decide the organisation’s goals”. This definition is from the book La figure ouvrière en Afrique du Sud, Karthala, 2008.

4 Claude Jacquin, Une gauche syndicale en Afrique du Sud (1978-1993), Editions l’Harmattan, 1994. The author is a journalist and researcher specialising in the new South African trade unions.

5 Jacquin, Op. Cit.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 In the words of a South African leader quoted in the article From the Second World War to the mid-1970s” in International Review n° 155.

9 Jacquin, Op. Cit.

10 On the basis of apartheid and its harmful effects on the working class struggle see the article “From the birth of capitalism to the eve of the Second World War” in International Review no 154.

11 In fact, the first discriminatory measures were introduced in South Africa in 1924 by the Labour government, in which the Afrikaners participated.

12 On this conflict, with its hundreds of thousands of victims, and repercussions for relations between the two former colonial powers, see the article in International Review n° 154.

Jacquin, Op. Cit.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 See the ICC pamphlet Unions against the working class, which widely addresses the issue of “base unionism” and its nature.

16 Lachartre, Op. Cit.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid.

20 See the articles in the International Review n° 154 and 155.

21 Under apartheid a South African black worker, even if they had worked for decades in the country, was not considered an “employee” because this term was reserved for “rights-holders”, that is essentially white workers (and to a lesser degree Mestizo and Indian workers).

22 Jacquin, Op. Cit.

23 See in this regard the articles in International Review, no 154 and 155.

24 The infiltration of the left parties (SP/CP) was theorised by Trotsky in 1930. For more on this see the ICC pamphlet in French Le trotskisme contre la classe ouvrière.

25 It is certainly no accident that many of these grass roots leaders (including Marcel Golding) left unionism at the end of the apartheid regime to become rich businessmen and influential politicians (discussed in the next article).

26 Jacquin, Op. Cit.

27 Ibid.

28 Under apartheid, registered unions were unions recognised by the state, while those not registered were tolerated up to certain limit but not recognised by law.

29 The NUM was created in 1982. It claimed 20,000 members in 1983 and 110,000 in 1984. Initially it was hostile to state registration (Jacquin, Op. Cit.).

30 Jacquin, Op. Cit.

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid.

33 Ibid.

34 This company, whose boss (Oppenheimer) was one of the biggest supporters of the unionisation of Africans, was particularly fierce when faced with the demands of employees, unionised or not (Jacquin, Op. Cit.).

35 A delegation of South African employers went to Zambia in 1986 to meet with the ANC leadership. An exchange of correspondence developed from 1986-90 between Mandela and Botha, head of state of South Africa, then with De Klerk who succeeded him in 1989. This all led to the release of the ANC leader in 1990, which announced the end of apartheid.

36 Jacquin, Op. Cit.

37 Ibid.





Class struggle in South Africa