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What are the lessons from South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle for Palestine?

It’s nearly 30 years since Nelson Mandela became the first black president of South Africa. Charlie Kimber looks at how apartheid was beaten and the lessons for today
Issue 2892
South Africa Palestine apartheid Apartheid

On an anti-apartheid demonstration on 16 June 1985

Mass action defeated the apartheid government in South Africa. Can the same methods win against apartheid Israel?

Certainly everyone should take heart that resistance can defeat the most ruthless regime, even when it’s bristling with weapons and has the backing of Western imperialism. But there are many myths about how South Africans broke apartheid, and some of them exclude the role of black people as the authors of their own triumph.

This truth, that working class people could transform the world through their own efforts, was systematically distorted and suppressed. 

It didn’t fit with the fashionable theories about the “disappearance of the working class” that emerged, for example, after the defeat of the British miners’ strike of 1984-5. 

Apartheid, codified in 1948 but building on decades of racial oppression, was a system of terror, brutality—and intensive bureaucratic regulation.

Everything from which beach you could visit to what job you could do was based on the designated colour of your skin.  It was illegal to have sex with the “wrong” person.

The whites, one in seven of the population, were the only ones with votes and full rights. The system locked black people into deep poverty.

For 45 years children were forced 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.

Cops and soldiers forced up to six million people from their homes and expelled them to distant townships or dusty country areas because they were deemed 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 were arrested.

Many forms of struggle contributed to the defeat of this vile system. One was international solidarity. Hundreds of millions across the world, particularly young people, backed the anti-apartheid movement as an inspiring symbol of liberation.

In Britain, people marched and protested, demanded their governments break links with South Africa and raised money for the liberation struggle.  

The boycotts and sanctions had an effect. Sections of bosses in South Africa and internationally feared their access to loans and investments would be squeezed and their profits imperilled.

In addition, the 1987-8 military defeat of South African troops at Cuito Cuanavale in Angola in southern Africa was described by African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela as “a turning point for the liberation of our continent and my people”. 

Black Angolan fighters, reinforced with Cuban forces, humbled the army of the white state. It was a shattering blow to the apartheid rulers’ sense of superiority and invulnerability.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 also played a role. The United States had feared that South Africa would fall into the “Communist” sphere of influence if apartheid went. Once that spectre had disappeared, it was easier for the West to talk about reform.

But all of these were auxiliaries to the decisive factor—the actions of black South Africans themselves and, crucially, the militant organisation by black workers.

Apartheid was not just the cruel creation of racists. It was a product of how capitalism developed. It was the way that 19th century mining bosses ensured a steady supply of cheap labour.

This system was, for many years, hugely profitable. International capital poured into South Africa to feast on the money extracted by this openly racist system.

The shareholders and chief executives of ICI, GEC, Shell, Pilkington, Cape Asbestos, General Motors, Mercedes Benz, General Electric, British Petroleum, Blue Circle, Cadbury Schweppes and many more cashed in.

But the problem for apartheid capitalism was that it couldn’t have the wealth without the workers whose sweat and intelligence produced it. 

Gold, diamonds and platinum had to be hewed from the earth in the most punishing conditions. All the industries and agriculture that fattened apartheid required workers. And the repression and attempts to co-opt a thin layer of complicit black leaders eventually fell apart.

The working class and the poor fought back in many ways. One was the organisation of the millions crammed into the giant townships on the edges of the major cities.

They battled the police and rejected the fake “democracy” that apartheid offered as a substitute for one person one vote. They rose over particular issues—housing, education, transport—and over the political system that ensured they would always be inferior.

They attacked the cops, sometimes murdered sell-out black councillors and policemen, and set up their own systems of alternative administration and justice. 

Revolutionaries unequivocally backed all forms of resistance, including violent struggle, even when the British Labour Party and trade union leaders would not. Politically much of this opposition looked to the African National Congress (ANC). 

In the 1950s the ANC had launched a series of mass, non-violent protests designed to attract black people of all classes into the struggle for democracy. During the 1960s and 1970s the ANC faced extreme state repression and was virtually annihilated. 

It revived only on the back of the rising worker organisation of the early 1970s and the Soweto school students’ revolt of 1976—even though it led neither the strikes nor the uprising. 

By the 1980s it had been firmly established as the leading anti-apartheid force, both nationally and internationally. But it always remained a nationalist rather than a socialist movement. 

It insisted the organised working class must moderate its demands to secure an alliance with the middle class and big business forces who wanted to end apartheid but maintain capitalism.  This ran directly counter to the revival of an independent workers’ movement in the 1970s. 

Beginning with the strikes in Durban in 1973, workers began to organise against their exploitation and the wider political structures that shaped it.

It was the great strikes of the 1980s in the mines and the metal industry that panicked the bosses into pleading for negotiations as an alternative to revolution. 

Zach de Beer, executive of the giant Anglo-American mining corporation, said in 1986, “The years of apartheid have caused many blacks to reject the economic as well as the political system. We dare not allow the baby of free enterprise to be thrown out with the bathwater of apartheid.”

The strikes were the dagger at the heart of apartheid, mobilising hundreds of thousands in repeated mass action. This collective power threatened not just to bring chaos and bloodshed but a conscious revolutionary reordering of society. 

The strike committees, activist networks and the beginnings of workers’ defence organisations gave a glimpse of an emerging power that could smash the state. 

It was a challenge to racist rulers—and the ANC. Instead of postponing the fight for workers’ interests, the best of those who led the strikes wanted to put class struggle at the centre of the battle against apartheid.

They tried simultaneously to push for workers’ power and to tear down the racist structures. But because they did not create a political organisation to challenge the dominant ANC, they were outflanked. 

The ANC absorbed the massive social power of the unions into its strategy of a “national democratic” transformation.

When the apartheid state was forced to offer compromise, the ANC led the negotiations that ended apartheid—based on instituting a non-racial neoliberal capitalism.

The result is that black people now have political rights and formal equality, but economically, many are as badly off as they were under apartheid. Palestinian workers do not have the same centrality to capitalist production that enabled the South African workers to win. 

Arabs make up only a small proportion of workers in Israel, and they are confined to the less crucial sectors. And no section of Israeli or international capital yet feels desperate to end Zionism.

But there are reserves of power that go beyond even those that were available to the South Africans.  Palestine is a focus for the tens of millions of workers and the poor in Egypt, Jordan, Iran and other nearby countries.

Uprisings in the Arab regimes could shake the whole region and liberate Palestine as part of a wider revolution. And because Israel is wholly dependent on support from the US, Britain and the European Union, the resistance in the West is more important than it was in dismantling South African apartheid.

If revolt in Britain and the US could break Western support for Israel it would demolish crucial props for Zionism. 

Palestinians also have the example of South Africa to reflect on—without revolutionary transformation, the end of apartheid is a victory but not full emancipation.

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