First published in the Socialist (paper of the Socialist Party England & Wales)
The victorious strike of the Marikana mineworkers has transformed the situation in South Africa and heralded an upturn in workers’ struggle.
The strike has spread like wildfire to other mines and enormously boosted the confidence of workers in South Africa. It has ignited a new stage in the South African revolutionary movement.
The massacre of over 40 mineworkers in "scenes reminiscent of the worst of the apartheid era massacres" (Business Day 17/08/2012) shocked to the core South African society, catapulted South Africa to the forefront of international workers’ struggles and enlisted the solidarity and support of workers worldwide.
The struggle has brought back memories of the fight against apartheid for older workers and an interest in the struggle for young people.
It was in 1994 that the black majority population finally secured one person, one vote and ended apartheid with the election of the first black African National Congress (ANC) government, under a negotiated settlement.
The whole world held its breath on 11 February 1990 - that historic day when Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years.
The hopes and dreams of the majority for a new South Africa rested on his shoulders: a new South Africa freed from ferocious and pitiless oppression and exploitation by white minority rule.
His release was secured after decades of bitter struggles when the apartheid regime attempted to drown the revolution in blood.
The Sharpeville massacre in 1960 and the heroic Soweto uprising of the youth in 1976, when up to 100 young people were shot dead by police, (see box below) showed the determination of the masses to overthrow apartheid.
The adoption of the Freedom Charter by the ANC in 1955 was an expression of workers’ demand for a revolutionary change in society.
The charter called for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy: "The national wealth of our country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people, the mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole."
Between 1961 and 1974 the number of black workers employed in South Africa’s manufacturing industry doubled.
It was the explosion of the organised working class onto the scene, carrying on the banner of the dockworkers’ strikes in 1973, that rocked the whole of South Africa and brought a qualitative change to the struggle.
These mass strikes fired the imagination of workers internationally who gave solidarity to the struggles through marches, lobbies and boycotts and lead to many workers becoming politically active as they supported their brothers and sisters in South Africa.
The 1980s workers’ movements lead to the birth of the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) in 1985.
Cosatu adopted the Freedom Charter in 1987 under the banner ’Socialism means Freedom’. Its largest affiliate, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), led by the then militant Cyril Ramaphosa, was at the forefront of mass strikes, and Cosatu began a series of general strikes which made the country ungovernable and ushered in the end of apartheid.
But 20 years after the end of apartheid what has happened to the hopes and dreams of the workers encapsulated in the Freedom Charter?
The Socialist Party and the CWI have explained that following the collapse of Stalinism the white regime of FW de Klerk recognised the potential for a power-sharing agreement with the ANC.
The fundamental economic interests of capitalism would not be threatened because of the ANC leadership’s shift to the right, betraying the revolutionary struggle.
Failure of ANC
South Africa is now the most unequal country in the world with the wealthiest 10% of the population taking 60% of its total income while the bottom half of the population earns less than 8%.
Almost one quarter of South African households experience hunger on a daily basis. An average worker lives on R18 (£1.30) a day but 44% of workers - six million workers - live on less than R10 a day. Unemployment is 25% with 50% youth unemployment.
This means workers continue to live in crushing poverty. "A mineworker outlined his working and living conditions: ’We spend eight hours underground.
"It’s very hot and you can’t see daylight. There is no air sometimes and you have to get air from the pipes down there.’ His shack has no electricity, no running water, and the outside toilet is shared with two other families" (the Guardian 7/9/12).
Apart from the short-lived reconstruction and development programme in their early years in government, which saw limited improvements for the black working class, the ANC has pursued an aggressive neoliberal economic programme with mass privatisations of public utilities like electricity and water which has led to the increased pauperisation of the working class.
This has fuelled a myriad of community struggles for housing and delivery of services for many years.
For example, the ending of subsidised water supply in Kwa Zulu Natal in 2000 lead to the biggest cholera epidemic in the country’s history as workers went to the dams and rivers to drink as they couldn’t afford to be reconnected to the new more expensive supply.
Mass public sector strikes against privatisation in 2007 and 2010 shook the ANC government which has been ruling in a tripartite alliance together with Cosatu and the South African Communist Party (SACP).
Divisions have widened in the alliance as the ANC effectively abandoned the working class and became conscious agents of the big bosses and capitalism.
Some Cosatu leaders have also been assimilated into the ranks of the elite and have abandoned the struggle.
Cyril Ramaphosa was paid £61,000 as a Lonmin non-executive director last year and has come to symbolise the gap between a new black elite and the poverty-stricken majority.
Following the Marikana massacre the credibility of the ANC has now been shattered. It has demonstrated that it shares with the capitalist class the same fear and loathing for the working class.
"The ANC was in the black mind, the black soul, it took on an almost mystical quality. But now they’ve lost faith in it. The bond is shattered and it happened on television" (the Guardian 7/9/12).
As the global economic recession deepens the bosses, backed by the ANC government, will continue their attempt to load the burden onto workers’ shoulders.
So the scene is set for not only continued explosive struggles but a split in the tripartite alliance and the ANC itself.
The Democratic Socialist Movement (the CWI section in South Africa) are proposing a Rustenburg general strike, to be followed by a national strike and demonstration.
International pressure by workers and activists must also be maximised. The enthusiastic response to the ideas of the DSM among workers indicates the great potential for the development of a new mass workers’ party with a socialist programme, to defend and further the interests of working class people in South Africa.
Soweto uprising 1976
In 1976 South Africa’s vicious apartheid regime was shaken by a heroic uprising started by thousands of school students in the black ’township’ of Soweto near Johannesburg.
The police killed at least 140 people on 16-17 June 1976, mostly in Soweto, and 600 more as they tried to put down the year-long revolt.
South Africa was then still under the apartheid regime which used ’separate development’ to disenfranchise, racially segregate and keep down the country’s black majority and to ensure plentiful cheap labour.
The ruling Nationalist government insisted that school lessons in certain subjects must be taken in Afrikaans - associated with white minority rule and particularly with the oppression of apartheid.
Students had begun boycotting Afrikaans classes and elected an action committee that later became the Soweto Students’ Representative Council (SSRC). The campaign started with a demonstration on 16 June.
The police fired tear gas into the crowd, estimated at 12,000 strong. The students replied with a volley of stones.
The police then fired directly into the crowd. 13-year-old Hector Petersen was one of the first victims, being shot down in front of his sister and friends.
The education system was the spark but there were many such grievances throughout apartheid South Africa, especially in the townships.
Militant (the Socialist’s predecessor) described Soweto as a "powder keg waiting for a match to set it alight" with "virtual concentration camps".
"A million Africans are packed into Soweto. Half the population is unemployed and therefore without permits to stay, at the mercy of any police raid."
The article contrasted the dreadful conditions of the townships with the privileged life of many middle class whites.
The Soweto uprising changed the political consciousness of South Africa’s black working class.
Youth in Alexandria township, north of Johannesburg, had seen that they couldn’t beat the apartheid state forces by themselves and appealed to their parents at work to back them.
By 22 June 1976, over 1,000 workers at the Chrysler car factory had stopped work in the first strike action consciously held in support of the students.
In Soweto, the SSRC took on the responsibility of organising for a student march into Johannesburg on 4 August and, for three days, the first political general strike since 1961 took place.
The government conceded on the Afrikaans issue but the revolt had gone too far and was now clearly aimed at the regime itself.