Letter to the editor: On the stage of revolution in South Africa

Dear Comrades

I write with reference to the article in your last issue (Lalkar, March/April 2012), ‘The decay of the revolutionary leadership in post-Apartheid South Africa’, being the text of the speech delivered by Comrade Khwezi Kadalie, Chairperson of the Marxist Workers School of South Africa, to CPGB-ML public meetings around the country in February.

Whilst welcoming the friendship and solidarity of the South African comrades, and above all their heroic efforts to build a genuine Marxist-Leninist party in South Africa, it is my contention that Comrade Kadalie’s speech contains a serious political error, one which can but serve to misinform comrades here and, much more importantly, misguide the revolutionary movement of the South African revolutionary proletariat and oppressed masses, by preventing the Marxist-Leninists from giving correct leadership to the struggle.

Comrade Kadalie contends that with the end of the apartheid regime, and the formation of a government under the leadership of the ANC liberation movement in 1994, the national democratic revolution was completed and the main contradiction in South Africa became that between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.

For example, he states: “Within four years of this change, the apartheid system collapsed and a democratically-elected ANC government was ushered in.

This new government took over the old state machinery, with all its structures, complete with the old civil servants who had served the apartheid system. In addition, the new dispensation was based on a bourgeois constitution, which had been negotiated between the rising ANC and the then ruling National Party in 1992/3.

Since 1994, therefore, South Africa has been a bourgeois democracy, in which the property rights of the ruling capitalist class are enshrined in the constitution and upheld through the laws of the country, as enforced by the police and the judiciary. It is precisely for this reason that, since 1994, the main contradiction in South Africa has been between the ruling capitalist class and the working class

After 1994, when apartheid was defeated by the national liberation struggle, the main contradiction in South Africa became the contradiction between the ruling capitalist class and the working class.”

He further states: “The working class is told that the present stage of the revolution is the national democratic revolution. In reality, this line is nothing but a call for open class collaboration with the ruling capitalist class, and therefore all policies and programmes, all campaigns that have been developed in South Africa over the past 17 years, are nothing but attempts to perfect the machinery of the capitalist state and increase the efficiency of the capitalist system of exploitation.”

Yet despite such assertions, Comrade Kadalie himself actually makes crystal clear that the tasks of the national democratic revolution have by no means been completed – rather they very much remain on the political agenda. For example, he states:

The Freedom Charter laid the basis for a free and democratic South Africa, in which black and white, coloureds and Indians would live as equals. The Freedom Charter demanded that the land should be given back to the people, and that the mines and the banks should be nationalised.

Clearly, neither the land issue has been solved nor have the mines and the banks been nationalised.”

In plain words, therefore, the national democratic revolution remains uncompleted. It remains on the agenda.

Apartheid was a particular (and particularly evil and obnoxious) form of special oppression. Its removal, of its own, does not signify the completion of the national democratic revolution by any means, but merely of its first and initial phase. The main and fundamental tasks of this revolution remain – specifically land reform (a universally central question of the national democratic revolution and of particular significance in the region as the revolutionary struggle in Zimbabwe – which is not one between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie – precisely demonstrates) and the struggle for control of mineral wealth, exactly as envisaged by the Freedom Charter, adopted by the Congress of the People in June 1955 in Kliptown as the programme of the liberation movement.

There are, of course, legitimate questions to be raised with regard to the ANC, its leadership and political trajectory – questions of policy decisions, failures and shortcomings, corruption and unprincipled factionalism, and opportunist compromises and betrayals at both home and abroad, the latter most starkly illustrated by the standpoints adopted by the South African government with regard to first Libya and then Syria.

But such questions relating to the ANC merely address the extent to which the movement (and above all its leadership) are capable of leading (or participating in) the revolution at its present national democratic stage. They have no bearing at all on the wider question of what the revolutionary stage is. For example, the appalling Shanghai massacre, carried out by the Chiang Kai Shek-led Kuomintang in 1927, something that goes way beyond any negative action by any section of the ANC to date, meant that the once revolutionary party founded by Dr Sun Yat Sen could no longer lead the national democratic revolution, that task passing to the Chinese Communist Party. It did not, however, alter the stage of the revolution in China or the main class contradiction in that country.

Moreover, revolution is advanced according to the concrete realities of each country. In the case of South Africa, the reality is that, whatever the shortcomings or errors of that movement, the ANC still retains its leading role as the political representative of the oppressed masses. Even Comrade Kadalie, speaking of the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP), admits: “The social base of both organisations is made up of ordinary working class people and their families.”

As should already be clear, this does not mean that proletarian revolutionaries in South Africa (or their comrades internationally) should uncritically tail the ANC leadership when it is manifestly wrong. But it does mean that the centre of gravity of the class struggle is, to a great extent, to be found in and around the ANC and its allied organisations, the SACP and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

The political struggle, which led to the toppling of President Thabo Mbeki and the elevation of Jacob Zuma, precisely illustrates this, as more particularly does the current struggle centred on Julius Malema and the ANC Youth League. In raising the issues of expropriation of white-owned farmland and the nationalisation of the country’s vast mineral wealth, Malema and his comrades are precisely calling for the completion of the uncompleted national democratic revolution.

Proletarian revolutionaries should not simply abandon this field of struggle, as it is precisely where the fate of South Africa will likely be determined for the next historical period.

Adopting a contrary position can only serve to isolate revolutionaries from the masses. In this context, one should note that, whilst the ANC retains majority electoral support, to the extent that it has shed votes, it has been to parties to its right, such as the Congress of the People (COPE) and the Democratic Alliance (DA). Parties that more closely reflect the militant sentiments of the masses in their programmes, such as the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC), Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo) and the Socialist Party of Azania (Sopa), remain marginal in electoral terms, precisely because the masses still see the ANC as their party. In the last national elections, in 2009, the ANC secured 65.9 percent of the vote on an 80 percent turnout.

A further argument is sometimes advanced that the problem in South Africa is that the liberation movement abandoned the armed struggle prematurely rather than seeing it through to completion. For example, the introduction to the Youtube presentation of Comrade Kadalie’s speech on the CPGB-ML website states:

Since the ANC did not follow the armed struggle to the point of the revolutionary overthrow of apartheid, but negotiated the transfer of power from the Afrikaner state to the ANC-led government, bourgeois democracy has become more secure, but the principle beneficiaries of capitalist exploitation of the workers of South Africa remain firmly in place.”

Leaving aside the stark fact that the armed struggle in South Africa never got beyond being a pale reflection of that in the neighbouring countries of Namibia, Zimbabwe, Angola and Mozambique, the reality is that, once the government of FW de Klerk declared that it would free Nelson Mandela and all political prisoners; that it would unban the ANC, PAC, SACP and all the organisations of the liberation movement; that it would end apartheid and hold democratic elections; and also taking into account the concurrent collapse of the Soviet Union and the European socialist countries – which had been by far the biggest external backers of the liberation movement – there was simply no basis and no mandate, whether nationally or internationally, for a continuation of the armed struggle.

In fact, the real issue of political violence and armed conflict at that point was whether or not the Afrikaner right wing, which was both well-entrenched in the powerful and undefeated armed forces and state machinery, as well as having a mass base armed to the teeth, would accept a democratic transition or whether it would bloodily plunge the country back into fascism. It required the consummate political skills of Comrade Nelson Mandela to defuse this very real threat, a process explained in detail in John Carlin’s book, ‘Invictus – Nelson Mandela and the game that made a nation’.

Comrade Kadalie, as quoted above, provides no reason or context as to why “the apartheid system collapsed and a democratically-elected ANC government was ushered in”, yet, for some reason, this new government apparently just “took over the old state machinery, with all its structures, complete with the old civil servants who had served the apartheid system”.

To make sense of this, we need to turn to a previously published article in Lalkar (‘52nd National Conference of the ANC – A great step forward for the national democratic revolution’, March/April 2008), which explains:

As Comrade Mao Zedong famously observed: ‘You cannot win at the negotiating table what you have not already won on the battlefield.’

This observation is particularly apposite to the circumstances of the ANC’s 1994 triumph. On the one hand, the apartheid regime had been significantly weakened by a combination of mass and armed struggle, defined by Nelson Mandela, in a famous letter smuggled out from Robben Island, as the hammer and anvil between which apartheid would be crushed, which were increasingly fusing into a single mighty stream of resistance. The key turning points were the uprising led by the school students in the Johannesburg township of Soweto in June 1976, whose brutal crushing led to a huge influx into the ranks of the ANC and MK [Umkhonto we Sizwe, its armed wing]; and the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale in Angola more than ten years later in 1987-8, when a combined military force of Cuba, Angola, the former Soviet Union, the ANC and the Namibian liberation movement SWAPO decisively routed the South African racist army, shattering the myth of white invincibility, expediting the liberation of Namibia, and thereby moving the frontline of the struggle to the borders of the apartheid state itself.

However, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the east European socialist states, a few years later, after decades of revisionist degeneration, deprived the ANC of its strongest source of external support and pushed it, along with many other national liberation movements and progressive governments in the Third World, in a necessary direction of compromise.

For its part, feeling that the threat from communism had at last abated, imperialism increasingly found its apartheid client state, with its crude racism and brutish methods, an unnecessary embarrassment, especially when confronted both by the risen South African people and the moral repugnance against apartheid that increasingly gripped working and progressive people in their own countries. In fact, the system of open and institutionalised apartheid had to a great extent been the response of the Afrikaner section of South Africa’s white community to their own relatively subordinate position within South African white society and hence within the wider global imperialist system. The multinational companies and monopolies, such as Anglo-American, Oppenheimers and De Beers, that dominated (and continue to dominate) the mining and mineral industries that are the mainstay of the South African economy as well as the key to the country’s vital importance to imperialism, were more closely aligned to US and British imperialism than to its local surrogates, and were increasingly of the view that apartheid had actually become bad for business. Faced with preserving apartheid or preserving imperialist super profits, there really was no contest. Apartheid had to go.

Hence, there was a situation where some but not all of the necessary components for a revolutionary change were in place. The masses were no longer prepared to be ruled in the old way. The ruling class was no longer able to rule in the old way. However, the enemy, whilst significantly weakened, was far from smashed.

The resulting, inherently unstable for the long-term, compromise therefore saw the political representatives of the oppressed people, the ANC, assume the leadership of the state, whereas the economy and much of the governmental, military, security and judicial establishment remained to a great, although not total, extent untransformed and unreformed.

In such a situation, a transition to socialism was clearly not on the immediate agenda.”

Some 18 years later, due not least, but by no means entirely either, to the mistakes of successive ANC leaderships, this remains the essential political situation in South Africa – a situation where the national democratic revolution remains to be completed and where yesterday’s freedom fighters now sit in government office, but where they must coexist with a state machinery essentially inherited from the old regime and retaining the closest ties with, and backing from, both domestic big capital and Anglo-American imperialism, to whom that big capital is in fact inextricably bound. Such arenas of struggle are difficult and complex, even when the task falls upon proletarian revolutionaries guided by the science of Marxism-Leninism, as the current situation in Nepal demonstrates.

In his famous March 1926 article, ‘Analysis of the classes in Chinese society’, Comrade Mao Zedong began:

Who are our enemies? Who are our friends? This is a question of the first importance for the revolution. The basic reason why all previous revolutionary struggles in China achieved so little was their failure to unite with real friends in order to attack real enemies. A revolutionary party is the guide of the masses, and no revolution ever succeeds when the revolutionary party leads them astray. To ensure that we will definitely achieve success in our revolution and will not lead the masses astray, we must pay attention to uniting with our real friends in order to attack our real enemies.”

This is the context in which it so vital to determine the principal contradiction in South Africa and the current stage of the revolution. These criticisms and observations are offered in the comradely spirit of wishing our dear comrades in the Marxist Workers School of South Africa every success in the vital work of forging a genuine Marxist-Leninist party of the South African proletariat and leading their glorious revolution to victory.

From Lalkar reader in South London

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