South Africa: Liberation betrayed

FRFI 211 October / November 2009

Next year, on 11 February 2010, will be the 20th anniversary of the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in South Africa and the start of negotiations between the African National Congress (ANC) and the apartheid regime which culminated, in 1994, in the first democratic elections that brought the ANC to power and made Mandela President. BBC Radio 4 recently broadcast The Reunion, a programme to celebrate the release of Nelson Mandela. The main participants in secret talks between the ANC and the apartheid regime prior to Mandela’s release were invited to reminisce. This broadcast raised many issues about the role of the ANC. It is time to look back at the aspirations the black majority in South Africa had for freedom 20 years ago and measure how successful they have been.


Their struggle was a long one, spanning most of the 20th century. Thousands of people were killed in a bitter bloody battle to win liberation, not least at Sharpeville in 1960 and Soweto in 1976. Throughout the 1980s the black working class escalated their opposition to apartheid in the mines, factories and townships, built new representative organisations like the United Democratic Front (UDF) to lead their struggle on the ground, with the aim of making South Africa ungovernable. In 1986 in Alexandra township near Johannesburg the residents defended their community against attempts to demolish it: the local councillors were sacked, street committees and people’s courts were formed. The regime trembled as the uprisings spread across the country.

In response the regime declared a State of Emergency, unleashing new waves of barbarity and oppression, detaining thousands without trial and bankrolling gangs of vigilantes to undermine the integrity of the struggle. At the same time, international pressure against the apartheid regime was mounting (with the memorable exception of the British government led by Margaret Thatcher). International capital was feeling the pressure: reform of the apartheid system would be preferable to an intensification of repression and resistance. Apartheid had become an obstacle to the business of profit-making.

This was a watershed. Like at all critical turning points in history, movements and people reveal their real class interests and intentions. In the history of working class struggle there are many examples, good and bad – on the one hand, the capitulation of the Second International to the interests of their national bourgeoisies at the outbreak of the First World War; the failure of the Labour Party and trade union movement to block Britain’s role in the invasion of Iraq in 2003; on the other hand, the determination of unarmed Soweto school students to march through the streets against the armed might of the apartheid state in 1976. Most of the participants in the struggle against apartheid had no idea of the secret talks taking place behind their backs. In 1985 at the height of the township battles, senior members of the South African government began secret talks with Nelson Mandela in prison. It is not clear what they hoped to achieve, and it is by no means certain that they knew themselves. What is clear is that, over the next five years, Mandela was moved to progressively better prison conditions, ending up in the deputy governor’s cottage at Victor Verster prison, with its own swimming pool and gym. This is not, however, a simple question of buying collaboration.

The regime may have thought it could recruit Mandela to play a role similar to ‘tribal’ leaders like Mangosuthu Buthelezi, but Mandela was made of sterner stuff. What did happen was that, over time, the aims of the ANC were revised and moderated in secret. The goal of liberation, expressed at its simplest in the 1956 Freedom Charter, was watered down to the achievement of majority rule – bourgeois democracy.

The task of assuring the regime that Mandela was not a red-blooded revolutionary committed to communism was not pursued by him alone. A network of communications was established so that at least some of the ANC leadership in exile in Lusaka, Zambia, were aware of what was happening. Most of Mandela’s fellow prisoners, like Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki, from whom he was now separated, and certainly the local leadership in the UDF, were kept in the dark. On the government’s side, the chief negotiators were Kobie Coetsee, Minister of Justice, and Niel Barnard, director of the National Intelligence Service (formerly BOSS).

The BBC Radio 4 programme, The Reunion. brought together the chief players in another set of secret talks being held in Britain from November 1987 to May 1990, hosted by the multinational company Consolidated Goldfields in a stately home near Bath. The main participants on the South African side were Willie Esterhuyse, an Afrikaner academic who reported back to Niel Barnard, and various other members of the Afrikaner Broederbond, including the brother of FW de Klerk (elected South African President in 1989). For the ANC the main participants were Aziz Pahad, Thabo Mbeki (South African President 1999-2008) and Jacob Zuma (current South African President).

Readers who would like to sample the flavour of treachery, should listen to the Reunion programme (available on IPlayer). Pahad and Mbeki swap stories with Esterhuyse and Barnard, reminiscing about long evenings round the fire, basking in the warm glow of whisky and their blooming friendships. Mbeki and Pahad were, they said, very keen to keep these events a secret as there were sections of the ANC who would wreck the talks if they knew about them.

Reporting back to his brothers in the Broederbond, Wimpie de Klerk wrote: ‘The essence of my message was “Look boys, everything is OK. We can do business with the ANC. They are not that radical.”’ Allister Sparks, journalist and another participant in the Reunion programme, recollects in his book of 1994,* ‘one afternoon in January 1990, as the participants gathered in the bar for a sundowner, the conversation turned to the international sports boycott against South Africa and specifically to a series of demonstrations then disrupting a boycott breaking tour of South Africa by an English cricket team led by the England Test captain, Mike Gatting. One of the Afrikaners asked Mbeki, “Why don’t you chaps stop all that nonsense? All we want to do is watch cricket.” This triggered a discussion of the boycott, during which it was suggested... that they should negotiate an agreement – to stop the demonstrations in exchange for abandoning the second leg of the Gatting tour, following which the ANC undertook that if a political solution to the South African conflict were reached it would give its full support to South Africa’s re-entry into international cricket.’

The small treachery against anti-apartheid demonstrators internationally – among whom the Revolutionary Communist Group is proud to have featured – is insignifant compared to the bigger picture. The future of an entire nation has been sold out. Bourgeois democracy over the last 16 years in South Africa has created a small black bourgeoisie and a black political elite, entrenched in the corruption that accompanies treachery like the stench that follows a corpse. South Africa has the second highest HIV/AIDS infection rate in the world thanks to the backward leadership of Thabo Mbeki. Johannesburg is the crime capital of the world. Despite being the richest country in Africa, unemployment stands at about 25% and has barely changed since the apartheid era. The black majority still lives in shanty townships in dire poverty with no hope of change. The majority of the land is still owned by white people. What the ANC negotiated away was liberation: a socialist future for the South African people. That is still their only hope for change.

Carol Brickley

*Allister Sparks, Tomorrow is another country, Hill and Wang, New York, 1994.


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