Communists and the revolution in South Africa

Pin It

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no 62 - September 1986

On 30 July 1986 the South African Communist Party celebrated its 65th anniversary at a rally in London's Conway Hall. Joe Slovo was the main speaker. David Reed analyses the issues raised in Slovo's speech: issues at the heart of the South African revolution.

Everywhere communists are watching, assessing and analysing the South African revolution. Its outcome will have a dramatic, perhaps decisive, impact on revolutionary developments worldwide. This fact alone would give enormous significance to the speech* made on 30 July 1986 by Joe Slovo, chairman of the South African Communist Party (SACP), Chief of Staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe, and member of the National Executive Committee of the ANC. That this speech was commemorating the 65th anniversary of the SACP and was given in London, the political centre of the imperialist power which is the main backer of the apartheid regime, would add to its significance for British communists.

Over 700 people filled every bit of available space in the large Conway Hall for this meeting. A speech from a leading communist in the SACP could be expected to give an incisive analysis of the latest developments in the South African revolution. Further, given the speech was being delivered in London, an urgent call to British communists to step up the struggle in Britain in solidarity with those fighting for liberation in South Africa was also to be expected. In fact there was neither. Rather we were offered a political standpoint which did not go, in any serious sense, beyond the ANC's Freedom Charter, together with a crude political defence of the SACP against a number of alternative political trends.

The key issue for communists in the South African revolution is the relationship between the national democratic revolution to overthrow the racist apartheid state and the socialist revolution. The SACP holds to a theory that South Africa is a colony of a special type. According to this position, the relationship between the dominant white minority and the oppressed black masses in South Africa reflects the typical pattern of relationships between the imperialist states and their colonies or neo-colonies. It is this, says the SACP, which makes 'the main content of the immediate struggle for change the national liberation of the African people and with it the destruction of all forms of racial discrimination' (Slovo, South Africa —No Middle Road, 1976).

The view that South Africa is a colony of a special type cannot be sustained in a Marxist understanding of capitalism and imperialism**. However such a theory serves the purpose of breaking the necessary historical link between the development of capitalism in South Africa in the epoch of imperialism and the brutal oppression and exploitation of the black masses under the apartheid system. This can be seen in the following remarkable passage from Slovo's speech:

'In general, capitalist exploitation and race domination are not symbiotically linked. But the historically-evolved connection between capitalist exploitation and racist domination in South Africa creates a natural link between national liberation and social emancipation; a link which is virtually too late to unravel.'

But we are not dealing with capitalist exploitation 'in general'. We are dealing with capitalist exploitation under imperialism and have been since the turn of the century. And under imperialism capitalist exploitation and race domination are symbiotically linked. The link between national liberation and social emancipation is not 'natural', whatever that is supposed to mean, but social, rooted in the development of capitalism in South Africa in the epoch of imperialism. Whether Joe Slovo wants it to be or not that link cannot be unravelled.

This loose language is not accidental. What are we to make of 'a link which is virtually too late to unravel'. Is it too late or not? And why is the point being made? Do we want to unravel it? And if so, why? What is at stake is the precise relationship between national liberation and the socialist revolution in South Africa. And on this question, at this time, Joe Slovo simply refuses to be precise.

'We believe that the kind of victory to be aimed for in the coming struggles must provide a launching-pad for the creation of conditions which will make it possible to work for a socialist future.'

Before you have a chance to work out what this deliberately vague formulation can possibly mean, Slovo immediately goes on the offensive. He attacks unnamed critics who oversimplify this process, use rhetorical flamboyance and simplistic sloganising of 'class against class' and want to take the Party back to the days of 'splendid isolation from the national movement and the black working population'. To use such demagogic and rhetorical methods of arguing against unnamed critics is an unacceptable way for a communist to deal with a crucial political argument. Clearly Slovo feels vulnerable on this issue and doesn't want his argument too deeply probed. As he goes on it is easy to see why.

There is some difficulty in following Slovo's argument from now on as he continually switches back and forth from the role of the Party in the ANC-led liberation alliance to the measures to be taken after that alliance has attained political power. He does this to avoid confronting the problem of power — the fundamental problem of all revolutions. Nowhere in fact does Slovo tell us how power is to be transferred from the white racist regime to the ANC-led liberation alliance. The socio-economic programme of any revolutionary democratic government in South Africa will be determined, as Slovo later says, by 'the actual correlation of class forces which have come to power'. However, what Slovo does not say is that this 'correlation of forces' will depend on the political struggle waged by the working class and its allies among the oppressed strata now until the seizure of power. The task of the vanguard party is to fight for the best possible conditions for the working class in alliance with the oppressed masses so that it is able to impose its interests on any revolutionary democratic government after the seizure of power.

Slovo argues that the main thrust of the immediate struggle is to implement the ANC's Freedom Charter— 'a minimum platform for uniting all classes and groups for the achievement of a non-racial, united democratic South Africa based on the rule of the majority'. It is imperative, Slovo continues, to create the broadest possible front against the `racist autocracy'. This front would 'contain disparate forces', however, the ANC-led liberation alliance, representing the main revolutionary forces, is 'clearly the key sector of this front'. Included in these 'disparate forces' will be a 'variety of other groupings' including recent 'defectors from the white laager', who favour a 'far-reaching shift away from apartheid' . While not part of the 'revolutionary forces', they obviously 'contribute to the weakening of the main enemy and some of them are clearly part of the opposition line-up'. Who these 'disparate forces' are and which class interests they represent is left to the imagination. Will the demands of even the Freedom Charter be diluted to include them? After all a 'far reaching shift away from apartheid' is very different from its revolutionary overthrow.

The ANC-led liberation alliance, as Slovo states, also represents 'different classes and strata (overwhelmingly black)' and while all may subscribe to `the slogan of People's Power they cannot be expected to share exactly the same vision about its content and the future', since they suffer varying degrees of national oppression and exploitation. Only the black working class is the most consistent guarantor of genuine liberation as 'it has the smallest stake in the status quo'. However, not to worry, both the ANC and the Party 'emphasise the dominant role of the working people in the coalition of the class forces which constitute the liberation front'. Nevertheless the ANC 'does not and should not commit itself exclusively to the aspirations of a single class', so only the Party can safeguard the dominant role of the working class in the ANC-led liberation alliance. How will it do this? Apparently by not seeking itself 'to occupy the dominant position in the liberation alliance'. This can only mean that the SACP will attempt to contain the demands of the working class within the political limits already set by the ANC. And that is presumably what Slovo is getting at when he says

'if correct leadership of the democratic revolution requires the strengthening of the national movement as the major and leading mass organisational force, then this is precisely the way in which a party exercises its van-guard role in the real and not vulgar sense of the term.'

In other words, the SACP will refuse to play a vanguard role and refuse to fight for the independent interests of the working class in the national movement.

This conclusion is reinforced once Slovo leaps forward and discusses the socio-economic measures that a revolutionary democratic government led by the ANC would take on coming to power. In one case Slovo seems to back track on even the demands of the Freedom Charter. The Freedom Charter says that 'the mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole' . This surely means the expropriation of land, the mines and monopoly industry. In his speech, however, Slovo is again deliberately imprecise and speaks of 'immediate state measures on the land question and against the giant monopoly complexes which dominate mining, banking and industry' after a 'democratic victory'. Slovo then goes on to state that partial measures to redistribute wealth do not in themselves point in a socialist direction. Even Gavin Relly chair of Anglo-American, says Slovo, thinks such measures might be necessary 'albeit in truncated form'. But then the Freedom Charter is not a programme for socialists but a 'common programme for a free, democratic South Africa, agreed on by socialists and non-socialists'. The issue now, it seems, is how far these 'non-socialists' stretch.

Any concessions Gavin Relly could be forced to make would only be in the interests of maintaining the massive profits of Anglo-American — profits wrung out of the super-exploitation of black workers in South Africa. There is one way and one way only to deal with Anglo-American and that is to nationalise it transfer it to the 'ownership of the people'. A communist should be absolutely firm on this issue. In his speech Slovo is not.

In spite of the fact that Slovo has stated that the future socio-economic programme will be determined by the 'actual correlation of class forces which have conic to power', this does not stop him from giving clear projections for the relations between private and social property after the seizure of power.

'For some while after apartheid falls there will undoubtedly be a mixed economy, implying a role for levels of non-monopoly private enterprise rep-resented not only by the small racially oppressed black business sector but also by managers and business people of goodwill who have or are prepared to shed racism.'

Anyone who questions this projection becomes 'an indigenous representative of the disastrous Pol Pot philosophy who can project a pole-vault into socialism and communism the day after over-throw of white rule'. Again Slovo deals with potential critics by demagogic and rhetorical methods.

But no one can really be deceived. Slovo's imprecision, his use of the unscientific term 'mixed economy' — Britain is said by many to have a 'mixed economy' — his failure to specify that the land and monopoly industry will be expropriated and so on, is telling those `disparate forces', especially 'recent defectors from the white laager', that it is safe to join the liberation front led by the ANC. Their interests will be safeguarded. The involvement of the SACP is no problem. They can see it is a very reasonable and respectable Party. The same message is being put over to the international 'community' more precisely international social democracy, including our very own home-grown reactionary Neil Kinnock. Finally, in order to cement the relationship with all these 'disparate forces', Slovo tells us that the drive towards a socialist future in South Africa 'within a truly democratic framework, could well be settled in debate rather than on the streets'. The SACP is in fact laying before us the prospect of a peaceful road to socialism.

At the heart of this discussion is the relationship between the national democratic and socialist revolution. Slovo is forced to discuss this in the form of 'the hardy perennial — the so-called "two-stage theory" of the South African revolution'. It is said that his Party's

'preoccupation with the national democratic objectives of the immediate anti-racist struggle has led to an abandonment of socialist objectives. We are alleged to believe that in the interests of the popular alliance, the working class should not assert its primacy and should forget all about socialist perspectives until apartheid has been overthrown; a scenario which would leave the way open for the revolution to be hijacked by exploiters with black faces who will ensure that it is stopped in its tracks'.

Our analysis of his speech does show that this seems to be the case. It is true as Slovo says that revolution is a continuing process. It is also true that it goes through strategic and tactical phases —including a national democratic phase in the case of South Africa. But 'the ingredients of the later phase' will only `mature in the womb of the earlier' if the Communist Party asserts and defends the independent interests of the black working class at each and every turn. Communists neither put forward the demand for a socialist republic now in South Africa (Trotskyism) nor fail to assert the primacy of the working class until the victory of the national democratic revolution (Menshevism). The alternative to the Trotskyist and Menshevik positions is the Leninist standpoint of continuous revolution.

This recognises that you cannot go on to socialism except by the revolutionary democratic path — through the national democratic revolution. But neither can the national democratic revolution be completed nor its gains defended without going on to socialism. Between the two stages there is an indissoluble connection, they are facets of one revolution and not two revolutions. In 1976, Slovo appeared to recognise this when he said:

'There is objective ground for the belief that "under South African conditions the national democratic revolution has great prospects of proceeding at once to socialist solutions". This follows from the undoubted reality that no significant national demand can be successfully won without the destruction of the existing capitalist structure . . . National liberation, in its true sense, must therefore imply the expropriation of the owners of the means of production (monopolised by a bourgeoisie drawn from the white group) and the complete destruction of the state which serves them. There can be no half-way house ... ' (South Africa — No Middle Road)

In 1986, ten years later, Slovo has retreated far from his earlier position. As the victory of the national democratic revolution draws closer so Slovo seeks to contain and restrict the demands of the only class that can ensure its victory; the black working class.

Now it becomes clear why we heard no incisive analysis of the latest stage of the South African revolution. To give such an analysis, Slovo would have had to point to the significance of the new organs of working class power developing in the townships, the dramatic rise of trade union organisation, power, and struggle, the critical role played by black youth and students and the vital necessity of arming the working class if the national democratic revolution is to be victorious and its gains defended. For a communist analysis of the South African revolution would have made no concessions to the very forces Slovo is now trying to woo — the 'disparate forces' in South Africa. It is also clear why there was no call to communists to step up the solidarity struggle in Britain. For such a call would demand a political struggle against the Kinnock-led Labour Party in Britain.

David Reed

* All quotes from the speech are taken from the pamphlet published by lnkululeko Publications

** See 'An Analysis of South African capitalism — Neo Ricardianism or Marxism?' by Michael Williams in the Bulletin of the Conference of Socialist Economists February 1975