In the misty early morning of 27 April 1994 I stood in a township near the city of Johannesburg to watch an extraordinary event. Black people, oppressed and spurned for decades, were lining up to vote for the first time.
Millions queued across the country, savouring their victory and voting for Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC). It was pledged to deliver “peace, jobs and freedom”.
The voters’ faces reflected the determination that the apartheid system of racial segregation must now be abolished for ever.
And the violence of the state which defended apartheid must also go. Apartheid South Africa’s history is studded with massacres—Sharpeville and Langa in 1960, Soweto in 1976, Boipatong and Bhisho in 1992. In every case terrified people fled the state’s terror, and afterwards there were fields or streets strewn with bodies.
In 1994 everyone believed that there would never again be the sickening sight of policemen and their allies shooting down protesters or strikers.
But now there is the Marikana massacre. At least 34 striking workers butchered. Again the pictures of the gun-toting cops, the screams, the twitching blood-soaked bodies.
This is a turning point, lighting up the reality of post-apartheid South Africa, where the rich still rule and the overwhelming majority of black people are treated as disposable.
How did it come to this? The answer lies in the history of apartheid, the struggles that ended it, and what has happened since that great election day 18 years ago.
Apartheid was a system of terror and brutality where everything from what job you could do to what toilet you could use and where you could swim was based on the designated colour of your skin.
The whites, one in seven of the population, were the only ones with votes and full rights. Non-whites faced discrimination and poverty.
For 45 years children had to suffer humiliating examinations of the curliness of their hair or the shape of their fingernails so the state could assign them to arbitrary “racial categories”.
Up to six million people were forced from their homes and expelled to distant townships or dusty country areas because they were found to be living in the “wrong” racial areas.
When people fought back the repression was pitiless. The state hanged over 2,000 people between 1948 and 1993. Hundreds of thousands were imprisoned and millions arrested.
The African National Congress (ANC) headed the resistance. But the struggle came at a cost. Thousands of its members were tortured or forced into exile as it organised opposition to the regime. Its leader Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years.
Apartheid was not simply an expression of evil racism. It was based on the way capitalism developed. After the discovery of diamonds and gold in the 1880s, the huge white-owned mining firms needed a vast black workforce to labour for very low wages in the hellish conditions of the mines.
In doing this they also created the earliest and one of the most persistently militant sections of the black working class. To drive African peasants from their land required decades of war, cruel laws, naked repression and the destruction of their agriculture.
The society that resulted was deeply divided, a system that was codified in 1948 as apartheid.
It was not defeated by pressure from foreign bosses and politicians—especially those in Britain. As late as 1989 Britain’s consul general reassured businessmen that Britain was South Africa’s most reliable trading partner.
Companies including ICI, GEC, Shell, Pilkington, British Petroleum, Blue Circle and Cadbury Schweppes made huge profits from the poverty wages and racist laws enforced under apartheid. Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher denounced the ANC as a “typical terrorist organisation”.
Apartheid was broken by struggle. Above everything it was the great workers’ movements from 1973 onwards that broke the back of apartheid. The very economic success of apartheid produced its gravedigger, the black working class.
Eventually the scale of workplace protests and strikes, allied to the revolt in the townships, convinced substantial sections of the ruling class that unless they made concessions there could be a revolution.
First they tried to create and buy off a black middle class and set up fake “homeland” leaders. When that failed the government was forced to negotiate with the mainstream black opposition, principally the ANC.
The 1994 election was the result. After winning nearly two-thirds of the vote, Nelson Mandela and the ANC came to office. It was a stupendous victory for struggle against the most ruthless regime imaginable. It was a triumph for everyone who hated racism.
How the ANC has stifled struggle
The ANC leaders who now headed South Africa did not intend to confront capitalism. Instead they hoped to preside over a “fair” capitalism where black and white would be treated equally.
They hoped that “partnership” with the bosses would produce prosperity. But the price for securing the goodwill of the powerful corporations, landowners and bankers, both in South Africa and abroad, was the abandonment of their promises to the masses.
The process began even before the elections with the decisions of the ANC-dominated interim government.
As the writer Patrick Bond says, “The very first act of the interim government was to accept an $850 million loan from the International Monetary Fund.
“The loan’s secret conditions—leaked to the main business newspaper—included the usual items from the classical structural adjustment menu: lower import tariffs, cuts in state spending, and large cuts in public sector wages.”
Two years into its rule the ANC imposed an even more neoliberal economic strategy, based on World Bank advice. Ministers pleaded that this was the only alternative to economic collapse.
The ANC knew it could rely on the union leaders and the Communist Party, its partners in a “tripartite alliance”, to do no more than mutter against this turn. They might criticise the ANC, but they would not propose any alternative.
Together they sought to squash any systematic opposition. One of the best organised and most militant working classes in the world was held back as the Communist Party’s leadership came to justify the ANC regime’s shifts. Trade union militants became caught up in a process of stopping strikes rather than encouraging them.
Neoliberalism has been a disaster. Of course there have been some changes since 1994. There are more homes, more people linked to the electricity grid, more schools and hospitals. But not nearly enough.
Meanwhile a tiny black elite has made itself fabulously wealthy, with former firebrands such as miners’ leader Cyril Ramaphosa grabbing multiple top directorships. Yet the income of the average black person actually fell relative to the average white’s between 1995 and 2008.
Anti-apartheid activist archbishop Desmond Tutu famously said that the ANC government had “stopped the gravy train only long enough to get on”.
A recent UN report found that 1.4 million children live in homes that rely on often dirty streams for drinking water and 1.7 million live in shacks, with no proper bedding, cooking or washing facilities.
Such conditions provoke resistance. And because the state is determined to face down the resistance rather than confront capital, it also means the ANC has turned to repression.
The Marikana massacre is therefore a continuation of a wider process, not a break from it. But the fightback will not go away. South Africa has more explosions of revolt per capita than anywhere else—strikes, township protests, roadblocks and occupations.
Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, warned two years ago, “We are already sitting on a ticking bomb. The poor are already getting restless. They are tired of watching and reading about the elite blacks or whites parading wealth a few kilometres away from where they live in squalor.”
He was right. The challenge now is to use the methods that brought down apartheid to fight for immediate demands, to unify the working class against the bosses and the state but also to confront capitalism itself.