Coincidentally, the day F W de Klerk—the last white president of South Africa—died, I was rereading a book by the great South African Marxist Harold Wolpe.
Wolpe, who died in 1996, would have laughed at the Telegraph obituary’s claim that de Klerk “brought an end to apartheid”—the system of racial domination in South Africa.
Wolpe was a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and supporter of the African National Congress (ANC).
In 1963 he was among the ANC military command headed by Nelson Mandela who were captured by the Security Police at a farm in Rivonia, near Johannesburg.
Wolpe escaped from prison and fled into exile in Britain.
He then became the leading figure in the group of South African Marxists who revolutionised our understanding of apartheid.
Previously liberals argued that the exclusion of the black majority from citizenship and a system of controls over their movement and access to land and work were economically irrational. Wolpe and the other so-called “revisionists” exploded this myth.
They showed apartheid had its roots in the system of segregation developed under British colonial rule. Racial domination served the interests of the white capitalist mine owners and farmers by supplying them with cheap black labour.
In Race, Class, and the Apartheid State (1988), Wolpe returned to this subject against the background of what had become the crisis of the apartheid system.
The crushing of black resistance in the early 1960s had unleashed an economic boom fuelled by foreign direct investment in South Africa. This involved the rapid expansion of the manufacturing industry.
But the white minority couldn’t provide the workers needed to fuel this growth. By the 1970s, the South African economy was dependent on an increasingly educated and skilled black working class settled in the cities.
The result was a rising surge of struggles starting with the 1973 Durban strikes. These sparked what Wolpe calls “an unprecedented growth of an independent black trade union movement”. There followed the 1976 school students’ rising in Soweto, and a great explosion of strikes and urban revolts in the mid-1980s.
The regime was able to break the risings’ impetus through brutal repression, but capital flooded out of the country. Moreover, as Wolpe pointed out, the state’s “capacity to eliminate the mass democratic movement has virtually exhausted itself”.
Apartheid, historically “functional” to capital accumulation, was now increasingly “contradictory”—an obstacle to capitalism’s further development.
De Klerk, after taking over as state president in 1989, tried to break out of this impasse by releasing Mandela. He unbanned the ANC and the SACP the following February.
But he did not pursue subsequent negotiations with Mandela and his chief adviser, the current president Cyril Ramaphosa, in good faith. De Klerk recognised that he would have to scrap the racist exclusions suffered by the black majority.
But he wanted to limit the power of any government elected by one-person one-vote. This involved mobilising the Zulu tribalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IPF) against the ANC and its allies in the Congress of South African Trade Unions.
Some 14,000 South Africans died in the resulting political violence. The perpetrators weren’t just the IFP. They were also a series of shadowy death squads organised by the Security Police and South African Defence Force. This blood was on de Klerk’s hands until the day he died.
It was the black masses who foiled his plans. The assassination of SACP leader Chris Hani in April 1994 provoked a tremendous explosion of anger. Mandela used this to break de Klerk’s resistance at the negotiating table.
The following March, a rising in the tribal statelet of Bophuthatswana shattered the reactionary “Freedom Alliance” of the IFP and the white far right.
A few weeks later South Africa’s first democratic election swept Mandela into the presidency.
Over the following 27 years the ANC failed to confront the capitalism that Wolpe had shown dominated South Africa’s history. But there’s much more to be learned from him than from de Klerk’s eulogists.