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Wednesday, October 5, 2022


Here is a little report I wrote on the state of political affairs in South Africa as I saw it during a visit in 1994. 


Robert Paul Wolff


On August 6, 1990 I left Boston for my third trip to South Africa in the past four years. Having started an organization entitled University Scholarships For South African Students [USSAS], dedicated to raising money from the American academic community to fund scholarships in South Africa for Black university students who have been active in the anti-apartheid movement, I needed to make the personal contacts that would enable me to set up selection committees there to choose the recipients of the USSAS scholarships. As I arrived in Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela was announcing the suspension of the armed struggle. When l left South Africa, two weeks later, violent battles in the townships had cost five hundred lives. My trip this time took me to Johannesburg, Cape Town, Umtata, and Durban. I met with students, professors, university administrators, former Robbin Island prisoners, labor organizers, and community activists. What follows is a subjective, personal reading of the South African situation. I emphasize the subjectivity, in order to alert readers to the partiality of my perceptions. It should be kept in mind that I speak only one of the vernacular languages of South Africa - namely, English, which is perhaps the fourth or fifth most widely spoken first language, after Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, and Afrikaans. I emphasize too the fact that my three visits to South Africa have totaled only about two and a half months in all.

I begin with the topic that has dominated news from South Africa since early August - the violence in the townships. First, a word about the term "tribal" in the phrase "tribal violence" that is endlessly repeated in even the most sophisticated South African reporting. "Tribe" is a word with Middle English and Latin roots, thought to be related to the root for "three," used originally to refer to the tri-partite division of the Roman people into Latin, Sabine and Etruscan groupings. It is thus quite obviously not a word with etymological grounding in any of the vernacular languages of South Africa save English and Afrikaans. Zulu and Xhosa speakers do not, in their own language, refer to themselves as tribes, any more than do Cree, Sioux, or Apache. The term "tribe" has acquired overwhelmingly powerful connotations of primitiveness, in which are Included scarcely concealed racist presuppositions about the cultural inferiority of non-Caucasians. People who can be described as living in tribes, we automatically conclude, cannot plausibly be supposed to be guided by considerations we would call "political," in the full sense of the term. When reporters write of clashes between members of the Zulu and Xhosa tribes in South African townships, we are ineluctably drawn to envision half-naked savages jabbering in primitive - i.e., inferior - languages, acting out of passions or superstitions beneath the notice of, say Lewis Namier or even Theodore White.

There is no way in which we can even begin to understand what is currently happening in South Africa until we shed these often unexamined prejudices and presuppositions, and try to understand the struggles in the way they are understood by the participants themselves - as essentially political struggles, whether wisely or unwisely undertaken, in pursuit of recognizable political goals.

A word too about the phrase "black on black violence," which crops up equally often in accounts of South African affairs. South Africa has a population which the current regime officially classifies as roughly 5/6 Black - where "Black" is a term used to include all those residents in South Africa who have been assigned to African, Colored, or Indian racial categories. The puppet governments set up by the state in the ten "tribal homelands" are entirely staffed by Black South Africans, and until quite recently, most of the homelands regimes were firmly in the camp of the Nationalist Party. There are a number of Black members of the South African police force, and in the townships, the local administrations have been placed in the hands of cooperative Black South Africans. In light of the sheer overwhelming preponderance of "Black" South Africans, and the existence of Black homeland and local administrations, it is neither surprising nor particularly significant that much of the violence occurs between groups both of which are composed of Blacks. Indeed, in a perfectly integrated and non-racial South Africa, sheer statistical probability predicts that 72% of all human interactions would be either between two "whites" or two "blacks," even leaving to one side economic and other considerations. The term "black on black violence," like the term "tribal," serves the ideological function of denying the genuine political content of the current struggles. Its covert significance, as we shall see, is to send the message that the "Blacks," the "tribes, the "natives" cannot manage their own affairs, and need the guidance of a firm and benevolent "White" government, representing civilized values and a higher stage of cultural and political development.

The current outbreak of violence, like the much bloodier violence that has taken thousands of lives in Natal Province over the past four years, is part of a struggle for political ascendancy in South Africa that has taken on new urgency, and a particular shape, because of the imminence of negotiations for a new constitutional order. A little history is needed to set the situation in perspective.

When F. W. de Klerk succeeded P. W. Botha as President of South Africa, he embarked on an effort to contain the growing anti-apartheid movement and reverse the disastrous decline of the economy by releasing a number of senior ANC prisoners from Robbin Island, eventually by releasing Mandela himself, by unbanning the ANC and the South African Communist Party, and by entering into pre-negotiations preparatory to the writing of a new South African constitution. Having just been elected to a five-year term, he appears to have believed that he could carry through a gradual elimination of legal apartheid and emerge from the process of constitutional reconstruction with some sort of coalition government in which the Nationalist Party would continue to play a significant role in the administration of the state. In view of the enormous numerical preponderance of non-whites in the South African population, this plan obviously involves - in addition to what may be a wildly self-deceiving optimism - some real success in simultaneously splitting the Black population politically and holding together the increasingly fragile coalition of white groups whose disaffection from the Nationalist party has threatened its success in the recent elections.

A great deal turns on just exactly who gets to participate in the negotiation process. A previous constitutional revision created a Tri-Cameral structure in which Indian and Colored South Africans were given a sort of quasi-representation, but the participation of these groups in the election process has been so low as to rob it of any political legitimacy whatsoever. The complete lack of citizenship for African South Africans has the consequence of depriving them of democratically chosen representatives.

De Klerk's first thought seems to have been to convene the leaders of the ten Homelands - four of which had actually been declared independent countries - as representatives of the Black population, a mechanism which would have insured him of a circle of friendly faces at the negotiating table. But the release of Mandela and the growth of hopes for an end to apartheid triggered a series of popular uprisings and military coups in the homelands. The result is that there are now only two homelands whose rulers De Klerk can count on - Bophutatswana and KwaZulu, headed by Lucius Mangope and Gatscha Buthelezi.

Once it became clear that he could only lose by convening a meeting of the ANC and the ten homelands rulers - eight of whom have now publicly declared their allegiance to the ANC - De Klerk shifted to an alternative tack, talking about "national leaders." It was at this point that it became vitally important for De Klerk and Buthelezi to establish the proposition that any negotiation must include Buthelezi. As ruler of KwaZulu and leader of lnkatha, the political-cum strong arm-cum protection racket organization established by him in Natal Province, Buthelezi is the most powerful Black friend the Nationalist Party has. Buthelezi has long been engaged in a struggle with the ANC-affiliated United Democratic Front forces for leadership of the Black population of Natal Province. Buthelezi even started a rival "union" to challenge the Congress of South African Trade Unions [COSATU] in Natal, endearing himself to business interests by placing business men in positions of leadership and calling for a policy of no strikes.

The violence in Natal has had the (intentional] effect of making it appear that Buthelezi would have to be a part of any negotiated settlement. The repeated calls for a meeting between Buthelezi and Mandela are a transparent attempt to elevate Buthelezi to a position of equality with the ANC leader, so that he will have to be included on an equal footing in any process of constitutional negotiation.

The violent confrontations that broke out in the townships around Johannesburg during the middle of August were abetted, not to say actually instigated, by the South African police, who supplied weapons to the Inkatha forces of Buthelezi, ferried them to hostels inhabited by ANC supporters, and in some cases participated in the shootings. The political purpose of this instigation of violence was two-fold: first, to strengthen Buthelezi's claim to be an essential part of any settlement; and second, to strengthen the government's claim to be a mediator between warring Black factions. Several composite photos appeared in South African newspapers during my visit showing De Klerk positioned between Mandela and Buthelezi, but slightly higher. The visual message was clear: we need a white government to keep these Black folks £rom killing each other.

Dramatic, terrible, and newsworthy though the township violence is, it clearly is less important than the substantive issues of policy and strategy facing the anti-apartheid forces as they prepare for what now seem to be inevitable constitutional negotiations. There are two sets of issues actively under debate in South Africa [as always, when I speak of what is going on in South Africa, I mean primarily what is going on in the 5/6ths of the population that is non-white, together with the relatively small segment of the white population that has allied itself with the anti-apartheid forces. The excessive attention given to splits within the 1/6th of the population that now has the right to vote is yet another manifestation of the distortions wrought by apartheid and reinforced by the habits of reporters and observers of the South African situation.]

The political issues are a good deal easier to discuss than the economic issues - hardly surprising, in light of the desperation of the economic condition of the majority of South Africa's population. In a nutshell, the ANC demands a simple, straightforward one-person/one-vote democracy "based upon a unitary voter's roll" [this last clause a reference to the Tri-Camera! structure mentioned above, which allowed Indians and Coloreds to vote, but only for Indian or Colored candidates £or the Indian and Colored branches of the Legislature]. The numerical superiority of the Black population is such that any conceivable set of constitutional arrangements must necessarily result in a Black president [Mandela, surely, if he is still alive] and a majority Black legislature. The Nationalist Party talk of "Group Rights" and the importance of securing a political system in which no one group can determine the fate of another [White South Africans are not big on irony] is clearly a combination of bravado and pandering to its constituency. Any compromise with the principle of one-person/one-vote would cost even the ANC and Mandela their legitimacy in the eyes of the Black population.

De Klerk's recent opening of the Nationalist Party to Black membership [the notion of a political party some of whose members cannot vote is, to put it mildly, rather odd] looks like an attempt to lay the foundation for a multi-racial or, in South African terms, non-racial] Nationalist Party that might at least play a role in an initial coalition government led by Mandela. Conceivably, De Klerk, who is not a fool, hopes that the Black vote will be sufficiently split that he can play a king-maker role.

But the important, and genuinely divisive, issues are economic. The ANC's original position, as set forth in the now famous Freedom Charter of 1955, takes a very strong line on collective ownership of the national wealth and redistribution of the land. "The national wealth of our country, the heritage of all South Africans, shall be restored to the people; The mineral wealth beneath the soil [i.e., the gold and diamond mines], the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole; All other industries and trade shall be controlled to assist the well-being of the people; etc." "Restriction of land ownership on a racial basis shall be ended, and all the land re-divided amongst those who work it, to banish famine and land hunger.”

In 1988, a revised version of the Freedom Charter, under the title "Constitutional Guidelines For A Democratic South Africa," was put out by the ANC headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia. Under the heading of "Economy," this new document takes a long step backwards from the socialist principles of the original Freedom Charter. Now, we find the ANC asserting that "the private sector of the economy shall be obliged to co- operate with the state in realising the objectives of the Freedom Charter in promoting social well-being." The next clause states that "the economy shall be a mixed one, with a public sector, a private sector, a co-operative sector and a small-scale family sector." As for land reform, we now find only a vague reference to a Land Reform Programme which shall implement reforms "in conformity with the principle of Affirmative Action, taking into account the status of victims of forced removals."

In this post-Reagan era of resurgent laisser-faire capitalism, in which Milton Friedman has replaced Karl Marx as the guru of all Europe east of Galway, these words may sound progressive, even radical. But they represent a major shift in ANC policy, in reaction to which very deep splits have opened up in the anti- apartheid coalition of forces.

Put simply, the ANC has decided to strike a deal with the white ruling class in South Africa: democracy, in return for the continuation of capitalism. Give us the vote, and you can keep your capital, the ANC has said to the bankers and miners and corporation chiefs. This is clearly an acceptable deal for the capitalists - they have long since learned that the color of the President's skin is of no importance, so long as the profits are assured, and since they are experiencing a severe shortage of middle level managerial and technical personnel, they would be quite happy to help pay for upgrading the educational system and opening job opportunities to well-trained, docile Blacks. The attractiveness of the deal to the leadership of the ANC is equally obvious. There never was much of an armed struggle, the white government had an overwhelming monopoly of the means of violence, and was clearly willing to use it, so the best hope for some amelioration of the condition of the Black population must have seemed to Mandela, Sisulu, and the others to be control of a capitalist state and the possibility of welfare state measures for housing, health care, and education. The Nationalist Party, I have already suggested, hopes to preserve some sort of minority status as a coalition partner in a post-apartheid South Africa.

But objectively speaking, such a deal leaves unattended the interests of large segments of the Black population. It serves best the interests of the small but growing Black professional and managerial class. To some extent, it serves at least some of the interests of the urban industrial Black work force, although this is a matter open to bitter debate in South Africa. But it does little or nothing for the interests of the enormous population of rural poor, millions of them in the barren homelands and dependent for survival on the money sent home by men working in the factories and mines. Not surprisingly, the Black population of South Africa has deep class divisions which make it inevitable that as "liberation" gives way to concrete planning for a post- apartheid South Africa, political conflicts reflecting those divisions will become more prominent.

The ANC has come to occupy what might be called the establishment or right-center position among anti-apartheid forces. Despite Mandela's enormous popularity, there is wide-spread uncertainty about, dissatisfaction with, or outright opposition to the present policies of the ANC. During my visit to South Africa, the government arrested and detained several of the leading figures in the movement, including Jay Naidoo, leader of COSATU [Naidoo was accused, among other things, of "kidnapping," which was widely viewed as simply nutty.] Despite these detentions, Mandela and the ANC continued to meet with De Klerk. Increasingly, the PAC [Pan-African Congress] and the Black Consciousness Movement, along with such small groups as the newly formed Workers' Organization for Socialist Action [WOSA], have begun to argue that the movement is not strong enough to enter into negotiations - that any agreement arrived at under the present conditions must necessarily reflect that weakness, and indeed, that De Klerk's willingness to negotiate arises out of his correct assessment that the Nationalist Party has the upper hand and will emerge from the negotiations victorious.

When I questioned the leaders of WOSA, of the Unity Movement, and other left groups about what realistic alternatives they could see to negotiations, I received very little but familiar Marxist rhetoric in response. Developments in the South African economy, while strengthening the hand of organized labor, do little to mobilize the rural poor. I could see very little reason to hope that a delay of some years in the start of negotiations would significantly improve the deal that could be struck. Nevertheless, in assessing from afar the developments in South Africa, it is, I think, important for American radicals to keep these problems in mind. At the very least, it will allow us to anticipate and understand the divisions that will inevitably surface as negotiations draw near, and then begin.

As this report is being written for the SOCIALIST REVIEW, it is perhaps appropriate to conclude by asking what the prospects are for something resembling socialism in South Africa. I still think Marx was really correct when he forecast that socialism would grow in the womb of capitalism. Inasmuch as South Africa is a moderately well-developed, but hardly advanced capitalist economy yoked, by peculiar and special circumstances, to a virtually feudal economy, I conclude that the chances for the development of socialism in South Africa are, at this point, vanishingly small. The most we can hope for - and I do hope for it fervently - is the advent of genuine welfare state capitalism, with major housing, public health, and education programs, financed by taxes on the wealthiest portion of the population and by economic growth. To be sure, this will merely move South Africa in the direction of Western Europe and the United States, but to the millions of men, women, and children living in utter poverty and degradation, that would be a dramatic improvement indeed. Like Marx, I combine a deep belief in the superiority of socialism over capitalism with an equally deep belief in the great superiority of capitalism over feudalism! Sufficient unto the day, if the shack-dwellers in South Africa's shantytowns get running water and decent sewage. 


LFC said...

The line about Lewis Namier and Theodore (or Teddy as some called him) White is great. Haven't read beyond that (as yet).

Anonymous said...

If possible, I'd appreciate an afterword on pieces like this, giving a brief uo-to-the-moment evaluation of where things stand today. My own, likely flawed understanding of contemporary South Africa is that it is a very troubled place where something like economic apartheid still prevails for the great majority of its non-white population.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Good point. I will try to do so where appropriate.

Anonymous said...


John Rapko said...

Thanks so much for putting that up! I found it extraordinarily interesting.--Beyond what 'everybody' knows, I know very little about South Africa. To my mind one great puzzle is why the arts in South Africa are among the contemporary world's greatest: the greatest visual artist (William Kentridge); one of the world's leading novelists (Coetzee); the only recent popular international hit, Master KG's 'Jerusalema' with vocals by Nomcembo Xikode (the dance was added early on by a troupe from Angola, Fenomenos do Semba); and arguably the world's most inventive and vital popular dance culture. I'll do my non-political part with some links to some of my favorites: (a) Miriam Makeba with the Manhattan Brothers in Come Back, Africa (1959); (b) a stupefying school gqom joyous dance near-riot; (c) a recent (though now an outdated style) display of pantsula; (d) the original Jerusalema dance: (a) (b) (c) (d)

s. wallerstein said...

John Rapko,

As I'm sure you are aware, Coetzee no longer lives in South Africa and now resides in Australia.

His novel, Despair, depicts a very negative picture of South Africa post-apartheid (an evil which he opposed) and if what the novel relates is an accurate picture, something went wrong in South African society.

s. wallerstein said...

My error: the novel is titled "Disgrace".

LFC said...

John Rapko

I've never heard of William Kentridge, so now I'm intrigued. (I happen to be very well acquainted -- through no virtue or accomplishment of my own -- w a curator at the (U.S.) Natl Gallery, and that person, as far as I can recall, has never mentioned Kentridge. Which proves abs nothing but is just a pt of anecdotal data.)

John Rapko said...

s. wallerstein--Yes, Disgrace is one of the most disturbing novels I've read by a living author. I've only read it once, maybe 25 years ago, but I think about it regularly; it's one of my recent chief points of orientation, along with Roberto Bolaño's 2666, for reflecting on social evil.

LFC--Kentridge is best known for a series of (what he calls) 'stone-age' animated films, mostly done from the early 1990's-early 2000's, that present a kind of alter ego 'Felix' and explore the social traumas of South Africa. Kentridge is immensely intelligent and articulate, and there are numerous interviews with him on YouTube, as well as several books on published interviews. His Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard were published as a book, Six Drawing Lessons, which to my mind are the great meditation on artistic creation of our time. He's also done prints and drawings. He's worked with a South African puppet theater to do a production of Monteverdi's The Return of Ulysses, and more recently has designed and produced various opera productions, including Wozzeck, The Magic Flute, and Shostakovich's The Nose, as well as presenting various performances of his own work. His artistic sources are most evidently Tatlin, Dziga Vertov, and Max Beckmann. From among the huge amount of available material, I would strongly recommend starting with the documentary Drawing the Passing, which I (and other teachers I knew) would regularly show in class:

John Rapko said...

LFC P.S.--Here's part of Kentridge's 'Shadow Procession', the most moving piece of contemporary visual art I've ever seen:

LFC said...

John R.
Thanks. Very helpful.