One of the numerous commendable causes to which the late Robert Fine committed many years of his life was anti-apartheid activism. Accordingly, our series of book reviews to commemorate Fine continues with Beyond Apartheid: Labour and Liberation in South Africa (Pluto Press 1990). Fine embarked on this project in collaboration with Dennis Davis during the final years of apartheid. Although both are credited as authors, Fine wrote the text itself, whilst Davis helped shape the main contours and ideas of the project, and commented on the drafts.
Fine long sought to counteract the tendency to view the liberation movement in South Africa as simply an “elemental” struggle against oppression. In doing so, he drew repeated focus to the importance of militant, independent, labour organising, as one can see from his 1982 pamphlet A Question of Solidarity: Independent Trade Unions in South Africa, co-authored with Lawrence Welch for the Socialist Forum for Southern African Solidarity (SOFSA).
Beyond Apartheid seeks to explore “afresh the relationship between nationalism, socialism and democracy in the anti-apartheid struggle”, and to “challenge prevailing views on the subordination of socialism to nationalism”, including the prevailing views within the alliance of the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) (p. x). In other words, the book offers a class struggle socialist perspective that stands in sharp contrast to the received wisdom about anti-apartheid strategy in Stalinist, African nationalist, and Orthodox Trotskyist circles alike.
Beyond Apartheid focuses on two key periods. The first spans from 1939 to apartheid’s emergence in 1948; the second from apartheid’s emergence to the liberation movement’s defeat in 1964. From this crucial juncture in the history of the liberation movement, Fine and Davis sought to draw lessons for contemporary anti-apartheid struggle. This was because the periods in question saw distinct visions of the organisation, strategy, and nature of the liberation movement collide and interpenetrate in highly consequential manners.
South Africa experienced continuous industrial growth in the 12 years following the Great Depression, which meant the expansion of the black working class in towns. Labour organisers recognised the special role of this emerging section of the South African proletariat. According to Fine, the “key point” in this rise and reconstruction of black labour organising is that “[b]lack workers developed some experience of trade unionism in the 1920s, but prior to the mid-1930s all attempts to establish a stable form of trade union organisation among black workers had failed”. (p. 8)
Despite its massive growth, black trade unionism was defeated before rise of apartheid. Fine argues this was because “the social weight of the black working class far less developed in the 1940s than is usually represented in the literature”. (pp. 12-13) Although the period in question saw the “three key markers” of modern capitalism, namely prolaterianisation, urbanisation, and industrialisation, begin to set in place, one should appreciate that this represented “only the beginnings of modern industry in South Africa and the genesis of the black industrial proletariat”. (p. 15) After all, Black African peasants in the country still numbered at three-quarters of a million and the black industrial workforce “peaked at only a quarter of a million workers out of a total of around five million economically active black people”. (p. 16)
Whilst black urban workers generally lived in better conditions than their rural counterparts, they still faced poverty and overcrowding to the point of widespread malnutrition. When these harsh economic conditions are viewed alongside such external factors as “the growth of state repression and the corresponding political collapse of the liberal wing of the ruling class” (p. 18), one can begin to understand why organised black labour stalled even where it was most concentrated.
Nevertheless, even these internal and external factors do not explain why unions in this period adopted such a legalistic approach and proved so reluctant to support industrial action: one also needs to consider the central role of political organisations in determining union policy. Here the alliance between the ANC and the CPSA was crucial.
Like other parties in the Comintern, the CPSA adopted a popular front strategy after the “Third Period” of 1929-1934, followed by an anti-imperialist front to establish a South African republic independent from the British Empire and, after the German invasion of USSR, a national front of all anti-fascist forces. The Party showed venomous hostility to Trotskyists throughout this period, who tended to support direct action by workers.
The CPSA “was able to construct an alliance with the ANC on the basis of their common support for the war effort and common policy of subordinating mass action to legal lobbying”. (p. 46) Before the 1940s, the ANC was a predominantly liberal organisation rooted in the aspirant middle classes, who favoured the gradual extension of suffrage to “civilised” Africans. During World War 2, “the ANC and CPSA were able to work together on a programme which might be summed up as one of liberal-democratic reform from above and restraint from below”. (p. 50)
In this alliance, the CPSA actually helped support the ANC’s older, liberal leadership against the growing radicalism of the ANC youth. Nevertheless, the presuppositions of the CPSA-ANC alliance “that the rulers of South Africa were ready to reach an accommodation with the black working class and that the black working class had the social weight to force an accommodation on the rulers” proved horribly mistaken: “[t]he state turned against consensual politics, directing its fire instead to extinguishing the threat posed by black workers, while black workers themselves lacked the power to resist the attacks mounted on them”. (p. 56)
Although there were divergent political currents on South African left with common criticisms of the leadership of the people’s front throughout the 1940s, the left opposition was divided and weak. Amongst the Trotskyists, the central defect “lay in their tendency to equate stalinism [sic] with two-stage theory, popular fronts and capitulation to the bourgeoisie”, instead of recognising how Stalinism could be ruthlessly anti-working class and anti-capitalist at the same time. (p. 68) Additionally, there were serious internal divisions “between nationalists and socialists”, and further divisions still “between different varieties of black nationalism and different varieties of socialism”. (p. 79)
Despite the syndicalists’ attempts to rebuild the unions’ strength from within, the overall fragmentation and decline of the labour movement continued. In due course, the left opposition succumbed to the broader drift from class politics to nationalism. Whilst the left opposition could put forward a sharp, “negative critique of the liberal-democratic strategy of the ANC-CPSA leadership”, it found itself unable to provide a positive alternative to this strategy. (p. 79)
The liberation movement also missed opportunities to build its fragmentary links with the white labour movement and “[t]he defeat of independent trade unionism among white workers increased their receptivity to the appeals of afrikaner [sic] nationalism”. (p. 94) Major structural changes within South African society further isolated the black labour movement as “[s]ignificant numbers of white workers began to be drawn into the ranks of the middle classes and black workers began to form a bigger majority of the industrial working class as a whole”. (p. 94)
The politically significant point here is that “[t]he failure of South African socialism to attach itself to the organic development of the proletariat, through both its defeats and victories, did not derive from the inherent irrationality of socialist politics in a racially divided country but rather from the defects of South African socialism itself”. (p. 101) In other words, whilst the socialist movement encountered unusual and tremendous pressures in South Africa, it still failed to respond to these pressures in a socialist way and lost its historic opportunity to lead the liberation struggle.
In the 1950s, both the ANC leadership and the Communists ultimately recoiled from mass mobilisation. Even at that time, there was a possible “third road” which “embraced neither the liberal pacifism of the [ANC] majority nor the revolutionary romanticism of the minority but which embraced working class organisation in order to build a more powerful reform movement from below”, but it received only marginal political support. (p. 126)
The restructuring of the liberation movement in this period saw the CPSA make rightward turn, subordinating class politics to nationalism by postponing working class forms of struggle until after national liberation was achieved. This approach failed to account for facts that “first, the great majority of the people oppressed by apartheid was working class and, second, in the ordinary sense, the colonial question had long since been resolved by the withdrawal of British imperialism”. (p. 130)
In 1956, the Congress Alliance formed. Its National Consultative Committee had representatives from all four “national” organisations, as well as the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). However, SACTU members were instructed to direct their specifically political activity through the racially-defined national organisations. Whilst the Congress Alliance achieved a major political advance by drawing up the Freedom Charter, the Alliance’s own formation as a “multi-racial” alliance “reinforced the ethnic fragmentation of the working class on colour lines” and “reflected the racial categories of state within the democratic movement itself”. (p. 137)
This created problems when deciding “how to respond to the upsurge in working class militancy in the latter half of the 1950s”. (p. 137) Leaders of the national liberation movement “enjoined workers not to conceive of themselves as a class with its own distinct interests cutting across racial lines, but rather to develop a ‘national’ consciousness of themselves” as Africans, Indians, and so forth. (p. 158) This left the black labour movement in no position to take advantage of the economic boom of the 1960s, including the rapid growth of the manufacturing industry.
Congress policy remained constrained by attempts to reconstruct a “united front” strategy against the National Party. When the liberation movement made its eventual turn to armed struggle, workers were left “to fend for themselves in an increasingly hostile environment” and could be only “passive observers of an armed struggle carried out in their name”. (p. 252)
Whether through revolutionary means or not, the working class could only fight back “by rebuilding its base in the unions, community organisations, rural associations, and women’s groups, and by reconstructing its socialist forms of political expression”. (ibid) Instead, the liberation movement – including its socialist forces – made the major error of trying to bypass the working class in the struggle for political emancipation.
Beyond Apartheid provides a valuable critical analysis of the liberation movement in South Africa. It offers insights into ways in which radical elements within the base of the ANC, and the labour and women’s movements, produced some viable space in which to build social democracy in its classical Marxist sense, but the opportunities were squandered because of the failure to build independent working-class organising.
The key lesson is that South African socialists might have been able to take the lead in the liberation movement from a position clearly rooted in class struggle rather than national identity, but were unable to do so because of their effective subordination of socialism to nationalism. In Fine’s own words, “[i]t is one thing for socialists to recognise the progressiveness of nationalism in South Africa; it is another simply to welcome nationalism as ideology and programme”. (p. 266) In a time like now, when the international left is often undiscerning and uncritical in its political support for popular movements with deeply nationalist elements, Fine’s words resonate as strongly as ever.