Millions strike in South Africa

(The Workers' Advocate, September 1, 1992, p. 12)

Millions of black people went on strike in South Africa for two days on August 3 and 4. They were protesting the De Klerk government's complicity in racist massacres and demanding an interim government which would include black representatives.

During the strike, urban areas throughout the country were turned into ghost towns, as workers refused to show up for work. Industrial production came to a stop nearly everywhere.

The strike was followed by a third day of demonstrations in major cities. Some 100,000 marched in the capital, Pretoria. There was also a march of 50,000 in Cape town and smaller demonstrations in Port Elizabeth, Durban, and Pietermaritzburg.

The strikes and demonstrations showed, once again, the black people's ability to bring the South African economy to a halt, and their desire for equality and freedom.

But the strike was toned down.

The actions were organized by the African National Congress (ANC) and its trade union allies. Nelson Mandela and the other ANC leaders began to think about striking after the ANC withdrew from negotiations withthe government in June, accusing De Klerk of refusing to budget on any issues of substance. They were also impelled to call large actions after the Boipatong massacre of June 17, when 42 people an ANC-affiliated township were murdered. The hand of South Africa's security forces was seen in that massacre.

The thorough sweeping away of the racist system in South Africa would require a revolutionary struggle. Even the reforms that have come to South Africa so far only took place because of the huge mass upsurge of the mid-80's. After that upsurge was repressed, however, the racist establishment in South Africa realized -- both due to the mass upheaval and international isolation -- that it could no longer maintain the racist system as of old. It decided to begin talks with the anti-apartheid opposition for a reformist deal, one which would allow blacks a share of political power but which would still keep the levers of economic power in the hands of the white elite.

But even as De Klerk began those negotiations he also sought to gain the biggest advantages for the white minority. Racist elements within the security forces fomented black-on-black violence in order to weaken the ANC, and De Klerk refused to take any action, much less even acknowledge government complicity. De Klerk dragged his feet in the talks, refusing to make serious concessions.

When talks broke off, the ANC leaders spoke loudly about mass action. And they spoke of an extended strike to force De Klerk from power. But the ANC leaders are reformists, not revolutionaries. They do believe in mass actions, but only if they are straitjacketed. They see mass actions simply as a means of putting pressure on De Klerk for concessions, but not as the centerpiece of a policy of developing the revolutionary struggle.

So, as they drew closer to the strike deadline of August 3, ANC leaders scaled back the strike and turned it into a largely symbolic act -- an exercise to let off steam rather than as part of a serious struggle to force De Klerk to go.

Why, in preparing for their strike, the ANC leaders even carried out negotiations with the big, white capitalists. The capitalists are anxious to secure a political settlement that provides some stability to the economy and gives them a chance to recover from teh three-year-old recession. They offered to hold a joint shutdown of the economy with the ANC to get negotiations restarted. The two sides were not able to agree on a common set of demands, but no doubt these negotiations helped push the ANC into further moderating their plans.

Despite the ANC's scaling back of the strike, its size showed against the enthusiasm of South Africa's black population for ending racist oppression. And many displayed enthusiasm for mass action. Many demonstrators carried homemade signs appealing for militancy. In some areas young militants insisted on marching against police stations to confront the forces of apartheid, even though ANC local leaders tried to dissuade them. Poor laborers who could barely afford to miss a day's work were among the most enthusiastic supporters of the strike, their main criticism of it being that it was too short. Better- off sections of blacks also supported the strike, though their support was reported to be more lukewarm.

World capitalism worried about the crisis

One part of the reason De Klerk launched the negotiations a couple of years back was that imperialism, in Europe and the U.S., decided that if a revolution were to be avoided, the racist system in South Africa had to be reformed. The capitalists in Europe and the U.S., who had long propped up apartheid, had investments in South Africa which were being affected by continued political instability. So some limited economic sanctions were imposed. Though most of these sanctions have been lifted, the fact that a political solution has not been reached between the government and the ANC has meant that little new investment and loans have been made to South Africa.

The recent breakdown of talks has made world capitalism neervous. And the ANC -- in the face of De Klerk's stubbornness -- has renewed its appeals to imperialism to use its influence on the South African government.

In mid-July ANC leaders got the UN to debate the issue of South Africa in the Security Council. There they explained how De Klerk has been holding back from serious negotiating. De Klerk had been proposing a new government structure with strong powers for regional governments, so that white enclaves will retain power while black enclaves remain poor. Also, De Klerk insisted that amendments to the constitution require 70% aproval, making it difficult for the black representatives to push through reforms.

In the UN debate, the imperialist powers, without cvriticizing the apartheid masters, expressed concern about the deterioration of the situation in South Africa. Bush's representative played dumb, saying he didn't know if any of the accusations of the ANC were correct. Bush has been one of the closest friends of the De Klerk government.

In the end, the UN decided to send a team of observers. UN envoy Cyrus Vance -- a former U.S. Secretary of State -- arrived the third week of July in time to witness some sharp confrontations between protesters and police. Vance also held talks with the major political forces.

At the conclusion of his visit, Vance issued a report calling on De Klerk to issue a general amnesty for those arrested in the anti-apartheid struggle, and to investigate the security forces.

De Klerk makes some concessions

De Klerk immediately accepted the idea of a general amnesty but interpreted this to also cover white policemen convicted of torturing and killing prisoners. This was justly opposed by the ANC as equating those who fought against racist tyranny with the criminals who defended that tyranny.

One the proposal to investigate security forces, De Klerk held back for a month, but finally at the end of August announced a shake-up of the security forces. Under this plan many of the older facist generals will be retired, there will be a general investigation of the forces, and discrimination inside the security forces will supposed by stopped. (Sixty percent of the police are black, but in the past they have not been allowed promotion to higher positions.) This is just a reshuffling of the same security forces which oppress the black people.

This does not mean that De Klerk has now enthusiastically embraced reforms. He continues to drag his feet, and meanwhile the killings continue. In late August, an important informant about killings by white security forces was murdered on his farm. This white man, a former security officer himself, had implicated a number of higher-ranking officers in plans to massacre blacks and anti-apartheid activists.

But even the limited concessions De Kloerk has promised came only because of the mass struggle. It showed against that a few months of demonstrations and strikes led to more gains than two years of smling and fawning between Mandela and De Klerk.

Talks expected to resume

But the ANC has had its show of force, and they're now impatient to get back to the negotiating table and reach an agreement witrh De Klerk. No new plans have been announced in the mass action campaign to force De Klerk out.

With pressure from the UN and other capitalist outfits like the European Community and the Commonwealth of Nations, it looks like negotiations will be starting again soon. But even if they do come to agreement on a new government structure, the recent crisis has shown that while changes are coming to South Africa, they will not be coming through handshakes and smiles but through a series of clashes between the contending forces. <>


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