The National Liberation Struggle. Some personal experiences from Southern Africa

Angry Workers recently published an editorial on the conflict in Gaza. There was widespread criticism of this piece online. Some of the criticisms of factual inaccuracies we accept, but the central thrust of much of the criticism we certainly don’t: namely, that by criticising Hamas and the PLO we were undermining the struggle in Palestine. This has long been a stance of sections of the radical movements of Europe and the US – that you must support the ‘national liberation movements’ unconditionally.

Submitted by AngryWorkersWorld on June 17, 2021

We support working class struggle against any form of state oppression and have no wish to defend the Israeli state or Zionism. At the same time, we think that an ‘unconditional’ and wholly uncritical support of ‘national liberation’ is naive at best and wilfully dangerous at worst. We take the many historical precedents of popular struggles, which were pushed into the same kind of nationalist framework and which resulted in working class defeats, as our justification here. We think we have a duty to interrogate the various class forces at work in relation to current struggles, in order to better support our fellow working class sisters and brothers against oppression and injustice. We think that the text below, written by an AngryWorkers comrade, recounting his experiences in Southern Africa during the struggle against apartheid, highlights some of the parallels and helps better explain our position on this point.

Many of the left like to think of people as ‘collectives of victims’. They speak of the ‘Palestinian people’, as if the experience and trajectory of a proletarian woman in Gaza was not fundamentally different from those of a state official of the Palestinian National Authority or a Palestinian boss. This same logic played out during the times of anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, which reduced complex social and political relations to an imaginary ‘Black community’. This is not only politically disastrous, it is pretty romanticising and patronising. The text also exemplifies why we think that the ‘two-stage’ process to socialism is a dead-end.

The recent working class struggles in the region, from Iraq, Iran, Lebanon to Algeria are probably the main forces able to break through the isolation of the dispute in Palestine - and their main obstacle are the self-proclaimed political, sectarian, religious leaders who claim to speak ‘for the people’. Some people highlight the exceptionalism of the conflict in Palestine. We still think we can learn some historical lessons. We hope the issues raised in this gripping, first-hand account of apartheid in South Africa will shed some more light on the thinking behind our perspective, and that practical, working class internationalism is the only way to really overcome oppression.[/i]

Post Colonial West Africa

In the 1980 novel, ‘Devil on the Cross’, by the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the heroine, a poor woman, is mistakenly invited to attend the Devil’s Congress of Robbers. At this congress all the high and mighty of the newly independent Kenya are there. The highlight of the congress is the annual award for new ideas on how to rob and cheat the masses. One man says, ‘we charge for water, why not charge for air?’ And so on and so on. Then a young man takes to the stage, bowing to the panel of distinguished judges who will decide this year’s winner, and also bowing to the table of white men from the International Association of Robbers. He makes his pitch. ‘We Kenyan Robbers’, he says, ‘use all our skill to take money from the people, but then we give 50% to the International Association. I propose we stop this and keep all the money ourselves.’

There is stunned silence followed by pandemonium. Security guards drag the young man from the hall. Slowly, order is restored. The Chairman nervously takes the stage and, turning to the table of white men, he apologises profusely, telling them that everyone knows that the Kenyan Association of Robbers can only function under the patronage of the international brothers.

African literature of the immediate postcolonial period is full of bitter disappointment and anger as the ‘heroes’ of the anti-colonial movements climb the greasy pole. Stories of the rural poor, thrown off their land by the British, only to see their farms end up owned by the new government ministers. These experiences from across Africa were not lost on the founders of the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU). In 1973, after two decades of repression in which all trade unions were destroyed, a massive spontaneous strikewave spread through the huge industrial region around Durban and then to the rest of the country. Workers poured out of the factories onto the streets demanding higher pay. This uprising of the working class led to the formation of new, worker-led and very militant unions that grouped together in FOSATU. At their 1982 congress, the general secretary, Joe Foster, gave an address in which he included the following:

‘Workers need their own organisation to counter the growing power of capital and to further protect their own interests in the wider society. However, it is only workers who can build this organisation, and in doing this, they have to be clear on what they are doing.
As the numbers and importance of workers grows, then all political movements have to try and win the loyalty of workers because they are such an important part of society. However, in relation to the particular requirements of worker organisation, mass parties and popular political organisations have definite limitations, which have to be clearly understood by us.
We should distinguish between the international position and internal political activity. Internationally, it is clear that the ANC is the major force with sufficient presence and stature to be a serious challenge to the South African state and to secure the international condemnation of the present regime. …..
However, this international presence of the ANC (African National Congress) ….. places certain strategic limitations on the ANC, namely: to reinforce its international position it has to claim credit for all forms of resistance, no matter what the political nature of such resistance. There is, therefore, a tendency to encourage undirected opportunistic political activity. It has to locate itself between the major international interests. To the major Western powers, it has to appear as anti-racist but not as anti-capitalist. For the socialist East, it has to be at least neutral in the superpower struggle and certainly it could not appear to offer a serious socialist alternative to that of those countries as the response to solidarity illustrates…
Internally, we also have to carefully examine what is happening politically. As a result of the state’s complete inability to effect reform and the collapse of their Bantustan policy, they are again resorting to open repression. Since 1976, in particular, this has given new life to popular resistance and once again the drive for unity against a repressive state has reaffirmed the political tradition of populism in South Africa. Various political and economic interests gather together in the popular front in the tradition of the ANC and the Congress Alliance……..
However, the really essential question is how worker organisation relates to this wider political struggle. I have argued above that the objective political and economic conditions facing workers is now markedly different from that of 20 years ago. Yet there does not seem to be clarity on this within the present union movement. There are good reasons for this lack of clarity.’

South Africa follows the same road

This lack of clarity was to prove disastrous for the working class. Within a few years of this speech, the new and rapidly growing independent unions came under the control of the ANC. Then, when Mandela formed the first post-apartheid government, the unions became tied into being a junior arm of the state. They rapidly became bureaucratised and spent their whole time defending the growing layer of corrupt, black millionaires in the ranks of the ANC. The pinnacle of the devestating effects of this tendency were seen in 2012 in Marikana, where striking miners, who had broken away from the pro-ANC miners’ union, were shot at by ANC government troops, encouraged by union leaders. 34 strikers were killed. [2] The ex-leader of the miners’ union, NUM, was Cyril Ramaphosa who is now the South African president and a wealthy businessman.
Only last month, a woman textile worker was shot dead in Lesotho as 50,000 industrial workers in the region went on strike demanding wage increases. [3] Looking back on their fight against apartheid, they must be asking the same question that workers across Africa have asked after their ‘liberation’: ‘Is this what we really fought for?’

A trip to South Africa

I first visited South Africa in the late 1980s with apartheid still in place, but under constant attack from the masses. My first meeting was in Durban with a group of industrial workers, mostly Zulus and Indians, men and women, most of them shop stewards in their factories. I asked them if they were in any political party. They replied, ‘no’, only their unions. ‘Are none of you in the ANC?’, I asked. A woman from a textile factory replied, “Why would we join the bourgeois party?” Now, this was a group of militants, not necessarily representative of the wider working class, but during this visit, I read in the newspaper that a survey of working people found 80% wanted a socialist society to replace the apartheid state. Clearly within the mass popular uprising against apartheid, a powerful part of the working class was establishing its own voice, distinct from the aspiring black capitalists, who, as Joe Foster said, had to try to keep the working class within their control.

Why was I (a white British worker) in South Africa? As an 11-year-old in 1960, I had seen the newspaper pictures of the Sharpeville massacre, of Hector Pieterson carrying his dead child. 69 people were killed, many shot in the back as police fired on a peaceful demonstration. [4] It had a big impact on me and, as a young teenager, I went on anti-apartheid demonstrations. My school satchel was covered with a slogan supporting the fight against Ian Smith’s white rule in Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe). I then spent 20 years in a political sect, The Workers Revolutionary Party, where most of my time was spent selling newspapers. In 1985, the sect’s leader, Gerry Healy, was expelled for the sexual abuse of young women members and the party fell apart. I was now free to get involved in all kinds of political activity, and I joined the non-stop picket outside the South African embassy in London’s Trafalgar Square, which went on day and night from 1987 to 1990, demanding the release of South African political prisoners. [5]

At this time I was working as a sheet metal worker in an artificial limb factory owned by the British Tyre and Rubber company (BTR). This same company owned a factory in South Africa, BTR Samcol, where a bitter strike was taking place. [6] Inkatha, an organisation of thugs loyal to a Zulu leader, Gatsha Buthelezi, had kidnapped and murdered several of the strike leaders. (The South African regime financed ‘tribal leaders’ in different parts of the country and created several ‘self-governing kingdoms’ to try to divide the masses). I helped organise a tour round the UK for some of the BTR trade unionists who put on a play called, ‘The Long March’ about their strike. Later I organised a similar visit by some of their wives and daughters - ‘The sisters of the Long March.’ This was the time of mass unrest in South Africa. Following the lead given by the industrial workers in the 1970s, every section of the non-white population were confronting the state. The townships, where most non-whites were forced to live in squalid conditions, were scenes of constant battles with the police. Strikes were taking place across the country. The United Democratic Front, an alliance of many political trends with the ANC at the heart, had raised the slogan, ‘Make the townships ungovernable’, to try and put pressure on the regime to negotiate.

The BTR Samcol workers had been members of MAWU, the metal workers union which had now merged into NUMSA, (National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa). Their president, Moses Mayekiso, was at the forefront of this uprising. He was arrested and charged with conspiracy. NUMSA asked if we could organise a speaking tour of the UK by his wife and another leading member of the union, Bongani Mkhungo. We set this up and, after the first public meeting in Manchester, Bongani stayed at my house. We sat up the whole night talking, finding so much in common. He left the next day to continue the tour, but on its completion, his union told him to stay in the UK as the South African police were looking for him. The Transport and General Workers Union in Liverpool gave him a temporary job and every weekend for about 2 months, he came and stayed with me and we became close comrades. He asked me to go down to South Africa to give talks, as he felt that the factory militants had been so isolated from global events and history. I went with a suitcase of illegal books (virtually all left-wing literature was banned in South Africa). Over the next few years I made numerous visits, and Bongani and I collaborated together on many projects.

The history of apartheid

First we looked at the origins of apartheid. I had always thought that the racist segregation policy was just a good way for the white bosses to get cheap labour. In a curious way though, the origins of apartheid in South Africa lay in the actions of militant white workers who were inspired by the Russian Revolution!Following the First World War there was major labour unrest in South Africa, especially amongst miners in the gold and coal mines. At this time, few black Africans were employed as industrial workers and certainly none as skilled men. These were overwhelmingly white and mostly British. The miners had come from Wales, Cornwall, etc. with their own experience of working class organisation. In 1922 a general strike spread across the mining region around Johannesburg and the miners, inspired by the 1917 Russian Revolution, set up a soviet. The mine owners first tried to break the strike by using African labour. The white miners, who came not just with their British militancy but also with British chauvinism, reacted to this with the slogan: ‘Workers of the world unite and fight for a white South Africa.’ [7] They saw the Africans only as scabs, not as potential allies.

The South African regime responded to the strike with great ferocity, sending in troops and even using aircraft to shoot at demonstrators. Many strikers were killed and others were hung from lampposts in the city. The strike was crushed, but, fearing more rebellions, the regime headed off further revolts by guaranteeing that all skilled jobs would be reserved for whites only. Apartheid was born from a revolutionary upsurge, but one with a terrible Achilles heel – racism. It was important to understand this origin. This was not the super exploitative system I had imagined. The white workers, totally secure in their jobs, got relatively high wages and did little work. They were mostly employed in one way or another to police the black workers. An expensive system that large sections of capital, especially mining capital, wanted to be rid of, particularly when the black workers began to organise against their oppression. But the problem for the ruling class was how to open up the road to political reform without opening the door to revolution; how to allow a dramatic change of regime without the masses taking advantage and trashing the whole system.

The African National Congress and the working class

My friend Bongani had been one of the workers who had taken part in the spontaneous strike of 1973. He went on to help unionise the Dunlop factory in Durban where he worked. Now, here was the most striking feature of my first visit. Outside of South Africa everyone knew about the ANC and Nelson Mandela. If you went to any kind of meeting or protest about apartheid, there would be the ANC representative. But, as I visited Durban, Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, meeting workers in every kind of industry and from the different ‘racial categories’ - African, Indian and Coloured - nowhere did I find the ANC amongst the unionised factory workers. Of course, the ANC had been banned since the 1960s, and most of its people had gone into exile. But now the revolt of the working class was creating the space on the ground for political activity of every kind, and still the ANC had no influence amongst the kind of people I was meeting.

The ANC had been formed in 1912 and was mostly made up of tribal leaders who would petition the British government for the rights of Africans. It was very conservative and mostly concerned itself with the position of small traders and business people. This was at a time when most blacks still lived in rural areas but, as industrialisation grew and a black working class emerged, the ANC became more and more estranged from most people. This was very noticeable after World War 2 when there was another wave of strikes in the mines, now by black workers. The ANC completely ignored the strikes. However, the youth wing of the movement, led by Nelson Mandela, was aware of this growing rift and he started to steer the ANC towards more popular causes, but he also refused to support the striking miners.

Under Mandela’s leadership, the ANC took up big public issues like the pass laws, but the tension between the essentially middle class and business orientated aims of the ANC and the militant working class were clear. A good example of this was the 1957 Alexander Township bus boycott. [8] Under apartheid, all non-whites had to live in designated areas – the townships. These were usually miles from the cities and factories, so workers had to rise at 5am and take hour long bus rides to work and back again in the evening.
Alexander township was outside Johannesburg and, when the bus company put up the fares, the township people refused to pay and boycotted the buses. For months, thousands of people walked miles to work and back rather than pay the increased fares. Where did the ANC stand on this? They opposed the boycott. The owner of the bus company was a leader of the ANC.

The ANC would probably have disappeared except for two things: Mandela’s efforts to re-orientate the organisation to give it some appeal to workers, and the assistance he got with this when the South African Communist Party (SACP) was ordered by the Russian leader, Stalin, to throw its weight behind the ANC. The SACP was banned in 1950 and when the ANC was also banned, the two organisations really became a single entity in exile. The alliance with the SACP brought great benefit to the ANC. The Soviet Union now classed it as ‘the sole authentic voice of the people of South Africa and, around the world in trade unions and anti-colonial movements, the world wide Communist Party network created platforms for the ANC. Everywhere, people were told that the ANC was socialist, which was why many people were puzzled when Mandela was finally let out of prison and declared that he had never been a socialist. So as Joe Foster reported, outside of South Africa, the ANC and Mandela became household names. Workers around the world who despised the racist regime would cheer when the ANC asked for their support, believing that not only were they fighting apartheid but marching towards socialism.

The ANC’s ‘armed struggle’ in the 1980s

Inside South Africa, as workers built their union organisations, many unemployed young people and students grew frustrated throwing stones at heavily armed police and troops, got tired of the endless beatings and jailings. They wanted guns and the word was out that if you managed to get out of the country into neighbouring Mozambique or Angola, then you could join the ANC’s army – uMkhonto we Sizwe.
In the early 1990’s I went to Nairobi, Kenya, to a refugee camp, to meet up with a group of men and women who had done just this – left South Africa to go and join the armed resistance. The ANC had then sent them to East Germany or the USSR for military training, then back to Angola and Mozambique. But they and many other soldiers became angry and frustrated. Their townships in South Africa were on fire, riots and battles going on everyday, but not a single ANC soldier ever crossed back into South Africa. Instead they were sent to fight in the civil wars in the neighbouring countries. In 1984 the uprisings in the townships were crushed by South African troops. Then, frustrations amongst the ANC soldiers spilled over into mutinies, and in many of the camps the soldiers rebelled. Their main demand was for a conference of all the soldiers to democratically decide the direction of the armed struggle. These rebellions were put down by a combination of an elite ANC ‘security’ force and Cuban troops, who were fighting in Angola and of course loyal to the USSR who largely paid their wages. Many of the rebellion leaders were shot, others, like the ones I had come to meet, were kept in a notorious prison in Angola for many years.

I stayed with them in Kenya for several days taking down their life stories. They had already written an account of the mutinies and their demands for democracy within the ANC armed wing. [9] I then headed back to South Africa. They had asked me to try to get people to meet them at the airport in South Africa on their return because some of their comrades who had returned earlier had been shot by ANC loyalists in the streets. I met with the South African group connected to the British SWP to see if they would help, but they refused. A small group of workers did end up meeting them to try protect them. Their account of the mutinies was a devastating critique of the ANC’s ‘armed struggle’, but they were mostly silenced not by guns but by poverty. With no money, no jobs, they had no choice but to return to their families in remote areas, and their demands for a commission of inquiry into the mutinies was silenced.

Here is an important aspect of international solidarity. In Europe and the US, millions of workers were giving money to the ANC, even if they probably didn’t know it. With the South African unions increasingly under ANC control, (which I will come to shortly), the European and US unions were donating money to the South African unions to help them organise, in reality to make them loyal servants of the state, just like the TUC (Trade Unions Congress) or the AFL-CIO. So, while this growing bureaucracy was well staffed and fed, these returning freedom fighters with their bitter experience of betrayal and their vital lessons for the working class, were silenced through poverty. Interestingly when I arranged for one of these soldiers to do a speaking tour round the UK, virtually all the anti-apartheid and leftie groups refused to meet him, something I encountered several times. He confronted Mandela at his first UK press conference and Mandela demanded to know why was he washing the ANC’s dirty linen in public? [10] It seemed the UK left shared this view.
The ‘armed struggle’ of the ANC was a fraud. The armed wing was simply a bait to entice young militants out of the country and even more importantly it was a component in the USSR’s Cold War with the US in Africa, to put pressure on western capital to do favourable deals with the USSR, but certainly not to support revolution.

New working class organisation 1970s-80s

So while the ANC/SACP were busy turning themselves into the ‘sole international representative’ for all South Africans, inside the country a new working class uprising began – with the strike in 1973. This movement of the class completely sidelined the ANC who played no part in the strike. On its international circuit the ANC claimed to have affiliated trade unions inside the country -SACTU – SA Congress of Trade Unions. If you were a union member in the UK and went to your union conference, you would usually have a speech from a representative of SACTU. But it didn’t really exist on the ground. I never met a single member of SACTU. No-one could tell you which factory they organised. Simply a name on paper to strengthen their international appeal. Meanwhile the working class formed its own new organisations and these were probably some of the most militant, democratic, worker-led organisations in the world.

On that first visit to the shop stewards meeting, I was very struck that everyone would be taking notes. ‘We have to report back to our shop floor on Monday’, I was told. This upsurge of the workers didn’t stop at the factory gates. The upsurge threw the state into chaos and panic and the rest of the class took advantage of this to erupt in every sphere of life, not just in the factories. I asked one group of young militants how they got into politics. ‘Through chess,’ they replied. Every aspect of life brought people up against the regime. Every day there were battles in the townships between the unemployed youth and the state forces and with the state-sponsored black movements like Inkatha. The more the working class emerged in its own name, the more violent these stooge organisations became, leading to the so called ‘black on black’ violence. But these black anti-worker organisations were totally created and funded by the regime and with mass unemployment, there were always people desperate enough to join these goon squads. It meant every demonstration and strike had to face armed attacks. The violence was terrible.

The ANC strangles the unions

A year later, on my second visit, it was immediately clear that a change was taking place in the unions. Now I met with shop stewards and militants who would ask me what was happening in their unions. At first I didn’t get it, why ask me? Then it became clear that their unions, previously so democratic, so worker-led, had undergone a dramatic change and they couldn’t understand what was taking place.
My friend Bongani explains it well in his memoirs. [11]

‘After the 1984 township revolt was crushed the only activity was in the unions. In the rubber industry, the management's intransigence made us set about forming a shop stewards combined committee to unite all the factories. The 1984 events had convinced us even more of the need for socialism. Joe Foster, one of the union founders, had talked about the need for a workers’ party, but we still thought the unions would get us to socialism. I organised classes for our union shop stewards. These meetings went on from 7pm Saturday night till 7am Sunday morning as this was the only time people could get together.

We discussed socialism. Speakers were invited to tell us about things like the Russian revolution. We had no books at all so we could only talk. The workers discussed the ANC’s Freedom Charter and we saw it was just minimum demands. It had no interest for us. We were interested in what had happened in Russia, because we thought there was socialism there. ... Although we had these discussions we didn’t get a clear picture of what was to be done... At the same time some ANC supporters were talking with us, trying to convince us that the ‘two-stage’ theory was right. This was the policy of the SA Communist Party, which said that the first stage was a democratic black capitalist government, which would create the conditions for workers to fight for socialism. As workers we said: ‘No, we can’t have that. Once you reach the first stage you never come to the second stage.’ These ANC people had no influence inside FOSATU. I was a delegate to our union’s first national conference, where everyone voted for socialism.

The exiled ANC was very influential in the United Democratic Front (an alliance that had sprung up in the townships on the back of the workers’ revolt). The UDF was trying to influence FOSATU but it couldn’t. So it started looking for another means to control FOSATU. There were unions outside of FOSATU. The biggest was the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), but there were many small unions too...The UDF had influence over these organisations. Of course, we all wanted a single union federation, especially with the NUM in it. ..Those little unions were crumbling. Everyone was joining FOSATU. So, before they vanished completely they moved to propose mergers. So then their leaders got influence in our unions. Now there was a proposed merger of all unions. This was done with the formation of COSATU, the Confederation of SA Trade Unions. When we formed our merged unions we were urged to adopt the ANC’s Freedom Charter, people from the UDF came to our conference to tell us it was impossible to go straight to socialism and that the only way to get our freedom was through the ANC. The workers didn’t agree to this. The UDF were shouting at the workers, but still they wouldn’t adopt the Freedom Charter.

In 1987 we took our Workers’ Charter to the congress of the new federation, COSATU. There was a big battle. Now there was something new in our unions. The leadership saw it could not get agreement with the workers on this issue, so they just appointed some committees to investigate and decide. Finally the union leaders adopted the Freedom Charter, but without ever going to the members. It wasn’t the workers who adopted the Freedom Charter. This was the first time things had not been democratically taken to the workers. Though the workers’ didn’t agree with the Charter they didn’t want to criticise the union leaders because they felt that would split the unions. Looking back I can see that in 1984 the ANC started having talks with the ruling class – with the Anglo-American Corporation, the biggest company in SA. Both sides in these talks were afraid of socialism. The only way to fulfil their aims was to take away democracy in the unions so that the workers could not question what was going on in the negotiations. So in the same way the Charter was adopted, now an alliance of the unions, the SA CP and the ANC was agreed without any reference to the shop floor. We were just told that they were in an Alliance. More and more decisions were reported back as already taken. In the past workers were always consulted. Now union democracy was vanishing. ‘

So, the shop stewards and workers asking me what had happened to their unions were trying to understand this ‘coup’ that had taken place in the independent unions. This was at the time when the leaders in the USSR, at the very brink of its own collapse, were writing that various ‘pointless’ clashes on the world stage, like South Africa, had to be overcome. They were signalling to the US their willingness to help the shift from apartheid to ANC black majority rule, in return for favourable deals between the USSR and the US. But, as Bongani said, this could not be achieved if the militant working class was not under ANC control. Mandela could only be released and the change of rule take place once the working class were excluded from the process. While this was happening, all around the world workers’ organisations and left-wing groups were all chanting: ‘Victory to the ANC’.

The clamp down in the unions was sudden and dramatic. I visited an NUM organiser in Johannesburg, a working miner who had mastered all the seven languages spoken by miners in the region. He told me there was now an atmosphere of fear in the union, no -one could speak their mind any longer. The only thing they could do was cheer Mandela and the ANC. This organiser went on to discover that union leaders were stealing the pensions of miners killed at work. Most of the miners came from neighbouring countries and their pensions should have gone to their widows. He demanded an inquiry but, before it happened, he was killed in a mysterious road accident.

The Triple Alliance of COSATU, the ANC and the SACP became an instrument of state rule once Mandela became president in 1994. The unions were now the conveyor belt of government decisions. Union leaders became ministers and business people. The leader of NUMSA, Moses Mayekiso, went on to head the electricity company and oversaw the growing disconnection of those communities that continued to boycott their bills, which had been widespread under apartheid. He was soon a millionaire. Another thing I noticed on my visits in the run up to the first majority elections was the previously invisible ANC/SACP was very visible. All the left groups joined it just like they did in the UK when Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party. All the resources and personnel of the unions were given over to ANC electioneering. The liberal, white, middle class jumped aboard and joined both the ANC and the SACP, which soon claimed a membership of 200,000 just at the time the USSR was collapsing. But everyone on the make or the deluded political left who swallowed the two stage theory, were out there on the streets electioneering for Mandela. The USSR as a useful backer was gone and Mandela was now throwing off his dependency on the SACP, backed as he was by the biggest sectors of South African capital, above all by the mining giant, Anglo-American.

Post Apartheid South Africa

During visits over the next few years of post-apartheid society, I saw the rapid rise of a black middle class and a black bourgeois, but also the impoverishment of much of the working class. Militant workers had pushed up wages, but industries like textiles now moved production to the far east leading to rapidly rising unemployment. The ANC government used the ‘Triple Alliance’ to make the unions police the working class, holding back wage claims and repressing the battle for better conditions both in the factories and in the townships. Most of the promises made in the ‘Freedom Charter’ remained unmet. After Mandela’s victory some changes were dramatic. Black presenters replaced white ones on the TV. Cities like Durban, which, in the evenings and weekends had been a whites-only preserve as blacks were not allowed to live there (except domestic servants), suddenly became black cities. People with money moved out of the squalid and violent townships and into the cities. White city people moved on to newly built gated communities. The ANC’s promises to build masses of working class housing came to nothing. People showed me they were still using the filthy public latrines as many township houses lacked water, electricity or sanitation.

But one of the most obvious features of the ‘new’ society was the collapse of working class militancy. Far from this ‘first stage’ creating the conditions for the working class to advance the struggle for socialism, the subordination of the workers’ movement to the ANC suppressed it for two decades. Not only were the unions, the backbone of the black revolt, now an arm of government, but every kind of community organisation fell apart. Many people had known nothing but uprisings and revolt all their lives, and now they felt that with Mandela’s election the problems were over, they just wanted to lead a quiet life. Things like community boycotts of rents and rates disappeared, either because people felt it was now ‘their government’ or because of police and army interventions.

On one visit I met many old militants who were now dispirited, angry and isolated, sacked from their jobs for protesting and disowned by their unions. And of course every opportunist, careerist and get-rich-quick merchant was busy climbing the ranks of the ANC. The politico lefties who had done the leg work to get Mandela elected were now criticising the government that they had helped to power. And a terrible consequence of this situation was a rapid rise of attacks on migrant workers and refugees. Previously the workers had been imbued with a sense of solidarity with the people of their neighbouring countries, who were also fighting for their own liberation. But as wars and poverty pushed hundreds of thousands of people over the border into South Africa, the ANC government and union leaders quite deliberately tried to turn the frustrations of their own people against the foreigners. ‘South African jobs for South African workers’. Gangs went up and down trains pushing people to their deaths. Refugee hostels and small enterprises were burnt down.

It has taken 20 years since the ANC’s victory for the working class to realise that their hopes and dreams are not going to be met. Ex- President Zuma, a one time ‘communist’ is on trial for corruption on a massive scale but his story is only one amongst many. All those who told the workers that it was necessary to go through the two stages to socialism ended up oppressing the poor and getting rich, maybe not as rich as Tony Blair or Obama, but certainly rich beyond the dreams of the workers. Hopes slowly turned to disappointment and anger but even then it has taken years to begin to rebuild the fighting capacity of the working class. Slowly, community campaigns began to re-emerge. Strikes started to appear. Tensions between the workers and the ANC government appeared inside COSATU where it became impossible for the ANC supporters to sell the line that progress was being made. NUMSA demanded that COSATU break away from the ANC Triple Alliance which, they said, was not an alliance at all, just a command structure with the unions being told what to do. When COSATU refused to break away, NUMSA left the union federation and called upon others to do the same. They also proposed the formation of a revolutionary workers party. The massacre at the Marikana mine came as thousands of miners left the pro-government NUM and joined other unions. The unions are in turmoil as workers try to make them defend their jobs and wages. Now some workers are rejecting the whole previous forms of organisation and relying solely on mass meetings and open air democracy. [12]

The experience in neighbouring Zimbabwe

The night Bongani and I first met, he said that in the mid 80’s he had been sent by his union to go to Zimbabwe to hold discussions with Morgan Tsvangarai, at that time a union leader. In Zimbabwe there was a bloody war going on between Mugabe and the workers’ movement. Mugabe had been forced to borrow from the IMF and in turn had slashed workers’ living standards. To give himself a bit of ‘left’ cover, he had supported the ‘Veterans’ movement’ to start seizing white-owned farms. This was a complete fraud. The ‘veterans’ were mostly not veterans at all, just poor, desperate people, and Mugabe made sure that the lands they seized were not from the big white-owned estates of people who supported him. More importantly, he then turned the ‘veterans’ against the organised workers. Army trucks would bring them to beat up pickets and demonstrators.

Tsvangarai told the South Africans not to make the same mistake that they had done in Zimbabwe – ‘ don’t think that the ‘liberation’ movements have the same interests as the workers. The working class must have its own organisation to fight for its interests’. When Bongani told me this I remembered the meetings organised by my old Workers’ Revolutionary Party where we had stood and cheered speakers from Mugabe’s ZANU party in London. (One of Mugabe’s first acts after taking power was to send his army to massacre thousands of workers in the Bulawayo mining region who had supported a rival liberation party, ZAPU.) When I visited trade unionists in Zimbabwe in the early 90’s, they told me that inflation was so bad their monthly pay didn’t even cover one weeks’ rent. Everywhere there were police and army road blocks to prevent protests. Many workers leaders were in jail.

A Similar Story in Namibia

The South African working class has been through a bitter experience, probably unavoidable. But that temporary defeat was made more likely, more possible, by the worldwide ‘anti-imperialist’, uncritical support for the ANC, the aspiring bourgeoisie. Just how uncritical this support was became very clear when I organised a speaking tour for the Kali sisters from Namibia. As teenagers they had left home to join SWAPO (South West African Peoples’ Organisation, very similar to the ANC) to fight against the South African regime which controlled the country. The twin sisters were sent to Cuba for training but there, along with several other volunteers, they were arrested and flown to Angola where they were kept for five years in holes in the ground at the ‘Centre for Marxist Education’. They were accused of being spies. Their real crime was that they were young, working class and intelligent and the corrupt and bureaucratic leadership of SWAPO feared such people. Hundreds of volunteers with similar backgrounds were tortured and killed. [13]
When I contacted various left groups in the UK, none of them would help organise the tour, a repeat of the response to the mutineers in the ANC. The sisters met with representatives from an African liberation network inside the Labour Party. They acknowledged that the sisters’ allegations were true. One of their own members, a Namibian, had gone back to Namibia and had themselves ended up in SWAPO’s prison. But this group refused to say anything in public for fear of harming the ‘armed liberation struggle.’ Instead they used private diplomatic channels to get their comrade released. They shook their heads and said sadly they could not help the twins in their campaign to expose the crimes of SWAPO. But in Namibia itself people were willing to speak out and hundreds of people, mostly relatives of the vanished fighters, took to the streets on a regular basis to demand to know the truth.

The 20th century myth of the ‘liberation struggle’

After scores of ‘liberation struggles’ in which the workers and peasants have been at the forefront of the fight and have then been thrown back into the gutter by the newly ‘liberated’ elite, people in Europe and the US still prefer to shut their eyes to this and continue to wave the flag for each new aspiring elite. It was not the ANC or Mandela who brought down the apartheid regime, it was the working class, especially the industrial workers who brought the society to the point of collapse. The ANC, the SACP and their USSR masters, simply used this struggle of the working class to get their people into power.

This gap between the experience of the masses on the ground and the European and US radicals showed up very clearly in a large conference I attended in 1999 in Senegal. It was called by the Senegalese coalition of women's’ groups to try to develop an All-African campaign to demand the cancelling of the African debt to the world banks. Two themes came out over and over during the 3- day conference that was attended by delegates from all over sub-Saharan Africa. Firstly, most Africans were only able to attend because they worked for western NGOs who paid their fares otherwise they couldn’t have got there. This meant they were prey to the agendas of the NGOs who they largely despised. A whole session was on how they could finance themselves in order to be free from these colonial masters. Second, and an even bigger point, was the role of their own governments. Most of the people attending from the US and Europe pointed the finger of blame at the World Bank, at the US and European governments but many of the Africans instead attacked their own governments. These governments, they said, loved this blaming the world banks because it got them off the hook. But they were totally part of the whole global network of forces that impoverished Africa, robbed the masses. Until people rose up against these local representatives of capital, no-one would be free.

So here was the same picture in the novel I started with – the International Association of Robbers with people like Mandela, the ANC, SWAPO, Kwame Nkruma, Robert Mugabe and a long list of other ‘liberators’, all cheered to ‘victory’ by much of the left, playing their part in the continued oppression and exploitation of the masses. In South Africa virtually none of the problems of daily life facing the masses have gone away, but all the people around the world who marched behind the banner of the anti-apartheid movement have gone silent. Why are they still not protesting? Mostly because, as Mandela became everyone’s favourite fantasy dinner guest, they thought the battle had been won. Because so-called ‘national liberation’ was highlighted while liberation from exploitation was sidelined.

So how to support the struggles of people against apartheid systems, foreign and/or military rule, like in Palestine, or Myanmar? By giving full support to the only section of the oppressed societies who will fight to the end against exploitation – the working masses. By trying to move the working people of the oppressing or neighbouring nations to directly support, in practical ways, the struggles of their brothers and sisters. By refusing to stay silent about the intentions of the aspiring bourgeois leaders of the ‘liberation movements’.
A century of the ‘two stage theory’ has shown that in a world dominated by the capital of the superpowers, nice new ‘democratic’ bourgeois societies do not emerge as they did in the 19th century. What comes out from the ‘liberations’ are mostly parasitic, client elites. Despotic and corrupt, far closer in every way to their old colonial masters than to their own masses. Why radicals feel they have to cheerlead for this bunch of wannabe gangsters reflects on their own concepts of liberation.

A Letter from Iranian Workers, 1991

On a visit to London, a group of South African trade unionists met with Iranian refugees and took home this letter written by the late Yadollah Khosrovshaki, who was on the executive committee of the Iranian National Oil Workers Union that led the strike which was at the heart of the struggle to overthrow the Shah. [14]

Dear Comrades,

We are anxiously following your struggle against the apartheid regime. We are aware that apartheid is not simply racial discrimination, to deny you your democratic rights, encouraging contempt and social degradation. Rather, alongside that, apartheid is meant to deprive you of your equal share of the social product, of which you are the main producer.
Ten years ago we rose up against the capitalist regime in the hope of emancipating ourselves from the same sufferings as yours. In the course of our revolution, in order to show our class solidarity we turned off the oil taps to the apartheid regime in SA.
During the revolution, a whole spectrum of political currents -ranging from liberal through reformist to Islamic – arose with the aim of stiffling the revolution. Those political currents had already started to make deals with the different government of the late Shah and their international allies before the revolution.
However the revolution swept away the Shah’s regime and inflicted a severe blow to the oppressive machine of the capitalist government. Workers’ councils mushroomed all over the country.
But a section of the capitalist class, using Islamic ideology, which was supported directly and indirectly by all the right and left political currents, came to power. Their goal was to re-harness the working class and crush the revolution. We were not class conscious and as a result we lost ground.
At the beginning of the revolution we were strong and the enemy was weak. The leadership of the Islamic regime flattered us. They shouted their support for the deprived masses.
But at the very same time the Islamic regime ordered its Revolutionary Guards to attack and arrest the homeless workers who were squatting in the homes left by the capitalists who had runaway. They fired on and killed marching unemployed workers. During these attacks we were told ‘Do not go on strike. Strikes, marching for wages etc. will weaken the government in the face of imperialism.
Today we understand, with much regret, that the only genuine struggle against imperialism is the unconditional struggle in support of our demands. The Islamic regime cleverly exploited our ignorance and swiftly established itself in office.
During the uprising we had taken over the army barracks, captured the weapons and handed them over. Then we found we were being punished because we had dared to challenge the sacred state of the bourgeoisie.
Using religion they sacked, arrested and executed communists and militant workers from factory councils because they were not Muslims. Our tragedy was complete when the regime restored the battered state of the Shah.
Today, under the Islamic regime, the working class is even deprived of the basic right to strike and have independent organisations.
Comrades, the bitter experience of workers in Iran shows that in SA too, the ANC and Nelson Mandela are playing the same role that the Islamic regime did.
We believe that the ANC is a bourgeois current. Now that apartheid is dying away, it aims to maintain the old order by generating illusions among the workers and getting some concessions for black capitalists. The ANC intends to get rid of some of the features of apartheid but keep in place the real capitalist exploitation of the workers.
Let us hope that you will organise your ranks independently of all non-working class currents and by raising immediate welfare, democratic and economic demands, ensure the most favourable conditions to march towards socialist revolution.
Workers of the world unite.

To me, this is the real voice of working class internationalism. Start with this kind of understanding of the real nature of things and try to build practical solidarity on the back of such an outlook.

Bob Myers


5 Objecting to apartheid: building a non-stop protest in 1980s’ London • V&A Blog (
6 LaJul85.0377.5429.010.008.Jul1985.17.pdf (
10 Challenging Mandela. P 103 Revolutionary Times, Revolutionary Lives. 1997 Index Books available to buy from
11 The Story of a South African Revolutionary. P 4 (Ibid)
12 Self-Organizing is Breathing Life into Workers’ Struggles in South Africa. Shawn Hatting and Dr. Dale T. McKinley. P218 Workers’ Inquiry and Global class struggle. LI-9780745340869.pdf
13 How SWAPO tortured its own Fighters. p32 Revolutionary Times, Revolutionary Lives. 1997 Index Books
14 letter from Iranian Oil Workers. p59 Is This What We Really Fought For. 1997. Index Books available to buy from
The two books, ‘Revolutionary Times’ and ‘Is this what we really fought for’ were edited by me in the final years of my attachment to Trotskyism. I wouldn’t agree now with some things I wrote then but this in no way detracts from the testimonies of the African militants that the books contain.



3 years ago

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Submitted by noslavery on June 24, 2021

I see some Marxian approach here, which is not productive. I think by anarchist point view, which is against any form of authoritarianism, understanding Israel/Palestine conflict is not complicated. Anarchism is against any form of authoritarianism. So, the only just struggle against invasion of Palestinian inhabitant is to build solidarity among victims in all sides. Victims are those who are in hierarchical entities, like capitalist organizations, religious sects, and military organizations. There is no other just way. Marxian approach is too complicated and historically obsolete.