On the occasion of his death Dec. 5 at the age of 95, capitalist media around the world, including in South Africa, are using their tributes to falsify the history of that uncompromising struggle, how it was won, the role of the toiling majority and what it opened up for development and organization of the working class.
Often glossed over is the intransigent and bloody war waged against the revolution by the South African rulers backed by Washington until the bitter end. Buried is the role of the working people of socialist Cuba, who shed blood for the cause of African liberation and were decisive in hastening the downfall of the apartheid regime — a major defeat for U.S. and world imperialism.
“The country’s peaceful transition owes a huge debt to the apartheid era’s last white president, F.W. de Klerk, who in 1990 ordered an end to Mr. Mandela’s 27-year imprisonment,” wrote the New York Times in a typical example of attempts to depreciate the struggle under the pretense of supporting it.
Mandela joined the African National Congress in 1944 and together with Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and others, helped form the ANC Youth League. They pushed for the ANC to organize more militant opposition to the segregation and racial discrimination that was well underway in South Africa.
In 1948 the National Party won the elections to the South African government and began to consolidate the apartheid state based on the complete expropriation of the African people and control of virtually every aspect of their lives. Every individual was assigned to a race category: White, Indian (many of them descendants of indentured servants brought to the country), Colored (of mixed race), Black, each with a different status and rights.
Apartheid denied Africans — the overwhelming majority of the country’s inhabitants — the most basic rights: where to live, who they could live with, the right to change jobs, to own land, to farm, to vote, to protest. Even the right to stay in a city after sundown depended on the shading of your skin, as defined by the country’s laws and regulations.
“The apartheid system had one central and overriding purpose: to organize and perpetuate the superexploitation of African labor by capital,” wrote Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party, in a 1985 article titled, “The Coming Revolution in South Africa.” (See excerpt on page 7.)
One especially hated aspect of apartheid was the pass system — a system of internal passports that Africans had to have with them at all times. And any cop could demand to inspect it day or night. “It is truthfully said that it is impossible for Africans to walk from one side of town to the other without ‘breaking the law,’” wrote Barnes.
When Mandela first joined the struggle he considered himself an Africanist, skeptical of whether or not Indians and Coloureds “could truly embrace our cause” and was “firmly opposed to allowing Communists or whites to join” the ANC. But through experiences in the struggle, Mandela changed his views and organized to overthrow apartheid by helping to mobilize a mass movement of all those who opposed it.
In 1952 the ANC and the South African Indian Congress launched the Defiance Campaign, the first large-scale, multiracial mobilization against the apartheid laws imposed by the National Party. Mandela was its central organizer. More than 8,000 were thrown in jail.
The new laws were not overturned “but the Defiance Campaign marked a new chapter in the struggle,” Mandela wrote. “Our membership swelled to 100,000. The ANC emerged as a truly mass-based organization with an impressive corps of experienced activists who had braved the police, the courts, and the jails.”
The Freedom CharterIn 1954, the ANC together with the Indian Congress, the recently formed South African Coloured Peoples Organization and the Congress of Democrats, made up of white opponents of apartheid, issued a call for a Congress of the People, which met June 25-26, 1955, attended by more than 3,000 delegates. “Although the overwhelming numbers of delegates were black, there were more than three hundred Indians, two hundred Coloureds, and one hundred whites,” Mandela said.
Before the police broke up the gathering, participants approved the Freedom Charter. “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white,” the charter said. It put forward a series of demands. The first four headings were: “The people shall govern! All national groups shall have equal rights! The people shall share in the country’s wealth! The land shall be shared among those who work it!” The charter called for the nationalization of the banks and mines.
The Freedom Charter triggered a sharp debate, including in the ANC itself where a minority, which soon split from the organization, backed the view that “South Africa was for Africans, and no one else” and considered whites and Indians “foreign minority groups.”
In 1962 Mandela was arrested after returning to South Africa from a tour of African countries where he sought financing and military training for the newly formed armed wing of the ANC, Spear of the Nation. The next year Mandela and seven others were convicted on charges of sabotage and conspiracy and sentenced to life in prison.
In October 1975 the South African army invaded Angola, hoping to crush the liberation movement against Portuguese rule there, deal a blow to the anti-colonial revolution on the continent and thereby strengthen apartheid rule at home.
At the request of the newly independent Angolan government, thousands of Cuban volunteer combatants went to Angola and in less than six months stopped the South African invasion in its tracks. The myth of the invincibility of the apartheid regime was punctured.
In June 1976, high school students in the Soweto township of Johannesburg initiated protests against the apartheid government’s decision to impose compulsory teaching in Afrikaans, seen as the language of the oppressor. Growing youth demonstrations were met with a bloody crackdown by the regime in which more than 700 were killed. The rebellion, known as the Soweto Uprising, became a turning point that brought new young forces into the struggle.
By the 1980s protests were sweeping townships in South Africa. Actions against apartheid and demanding freedom for Mandela were spreading around the world, including demonstrations of tens of thousands in the United States. Within South Africa the United Democratic Front brought together hundreds of groups organized around support to the Freedom Charter. And in 1985 the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the first nonracial trade union federation in the country, was formed.
Based on the rise in the struggle, the ANC took a step forward in building a multiracial organization, expanding its leadership council and bringing Indians, Coloreds and white South Africans on to it for the first time.
In 1987 South Africa invaded Angola again. And again Cuba responded with even larger numbers of internationalist volunteers. Together with Angolan combatants, they decisively defeated the South African forces at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale in March 1988.
As the struggle advanced on the heels of the victory at Cuito Cuanavale, Mandela was released from prison on Feb. 11, 1990.
“The combined struggles of our people within the country as well as the mounting international struggle against apartheid during the 1980s raised the possibility of a negotiated resolution of the apartheid conflict,” Mandela said in a speech in Matanzas, Cuba, on July 26, 1991. “The decisive defeat at Cuito Cuanavale altered the balance of forces within the region and substantially reduced the capacity of the Pretoria regime to destabilize its neighbors. This, in combination with our people’s struggles within the country, was crucial in bringing Pretoria to realize that it would have to talk.”
“Everywhere that workers are fighting for their own rights, they will be attracted to the freedom battle that is being waged today by the toilers in South Africa,” wrote Barnes. Demonstrations around the world demanded Washington and other backers of the racist regime impose sanctions and end all aid to apartheid.
Although forced to negotiate, South African President de Klerk did whatever he could to preserve the apartheid state. His government took part in or encouraged a reign of murderous violence that killed 2,000 ANC supporters in the first half of 1991 alone and another 8,000 in the preceding seven years, Mandela pointed out in Cuba.
Obstacle of the Communist PartyThe struggle also faced political obstacles from the South African Communist Party, a mass, multinational party with thousands of dedicated members who were part of the anti-apartheid struggle. Like other Stalinist parties, it veered between ultraleft actions that put working people at risk and class-collaborationist politics that took pressure off the racist government. Its bureaucratic and heavy-handed role in Spear of the Nation, including agent-baiting, torture and worse, was in large part responsible for the marginalization of the armed wing from the growing popular movement in the 1980s.
In the midst of negotiations in 1992 between the ANC and the de Klerk government, Joe Slovo, a member of the ANC National Executive Committee and a leader of the CP, published a document titled “Negotiations: What Room for Compromise?” proposing that the ANC make a series of concessions. “We were clearly not dealing with a defeated enemy and an early revolutionary seizure of power by the liberation movement could not be realistically posed,” he said.
Mandela on the other hand called for an intensification of the struggle on all fronts that forced the de Klerk government to cave in and agree to dismantle all apartheid laws and hold elections based on one person one vote. An interim constitution was approved in 1993 and Mandela was elected president in 1994.
The overturn of apartheid was a huge advance for the people of South Africa and the world. South Africa was no longer a bastion for the most reactionary forces bent on maintaining the imperialist domination of Africa.
Blacks no longer needed passes. They could go where they pleased, live wherever they could afford, sell their labor power to the highest bidder. They could buy land, if they could pay for it. The African Farmers Association of South Africa says it now has some 12,000 members.
The South African revolution took place following the defeats of revolutions in Nicaragua, Grenada and Burkina Faso. And it faced the counterrevolutionary role of Stalinism in the world. In 1991 the Soviet Union shattered after decades of rule by a privileged bureaucracy. The regimes established in Russia, Eastern Europe and Asia out of its dissolution moved rapidly to accelerate the introduction of capitalist market methods. Similar developments marked Stalinist-led governments in China and Vietnam, which urged South African revolutionaries to stick with capitalism.
The African National Congress was transformed from a national liberation movement into a bourgeois electoral party and then the party of the capitalist government. And many leaders of the ANC and the South African Communist Party are big capitalists today.
Cyril Ramaphosa, for example, a former leader of the National Union of Mineworkers and of the ANC, is part owner of Lonmin, a platinum mining corporation, and one of the richest men in Africa. In August 2012, 34 Lonmin miners were mowed down by police during a strike that ended in workers winning a substantial wage hike. Former CP chair Gwede Mantashe is a director of the mining company Samancor. Jacob Zuma, current president of South Africa and the ANC, has extensive business interests.
The strike wave by tens of thousands of miners and farmworkers in South Africa at the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013, challenging the miserable conditions millions of workers face in South Africa today, would have been inconceivable during the apartheid era. This highlights both what was gained by overthrowing apartheid and the opportunities for building a revolutionary workers party made possible by that victory.
South Africa revolution: Historic victory for working class
‘Cuito Cuanavale was milestone in struggle for African liberation’
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