Originally appeared in Inqaba Ya Basebenzi No. 18-19 (February 1986) under the pen name Basil Hendrickse

by Weizmann Hamilton

In the preface to his masterly History of the Russian Revolution Trotsky wrote,

The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the intervention of the masses in historic events. In ordinary times …  history is made by specialists in that line of business – kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for the new regime… The history of revolution is … first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.

The events of 1984-85 have not been, in the full sense, a revolution: the apartheid regime, though shaken, remains essentially intact. Yet a revolution there has been – measured in the scale and intensity of the movement of black working people. In the consciousness of the black youth and massive sections of black workers, the South African revolution has begun.

The movement of 1984-85 has been characterised above all by the absolutely heroic role of the youth. Arrested, tortured, maimed and murdered in the most cowardly fashion by police and troops on the streets during the day, and by hyenas concealing their faces in balaclavas at night, the youth gave to the UN-declared ‘International Year of the Youth’ a meaning this impotent body never intended. They achieved in action in eighteen months what decades of resolutions declaring apartheid a crime against humanity could never do.

Paradoxically, it is the attacks of the state which forced the youth more firmly and more consciously into the leadership of the movement. The imprisonment of the national UDF leadership, far from halting the movement, brought to the forefront, from the ranks principally of the working class youth, fresh leadership. This leadership has shown itself far more militant and willing to engage the state in a head-on confrontation and go to the end in this. For this reason, it has been far more capable of awakening to political life the most downtrodden and, hitherto, least politically conscious.

The ruling class, in their own perverse and barbarous way, have recognised the central revolutionary role of the youth. Youth have borne the brunt of brutal state repression – approximately 80% of those detained, tortured and killed.

Despite the repression and the banning of Cosas, the youth remained undeterred. As one activist said, “ban or no ban, the struggle for a people’s democratic education is on. It will be on until our demands are met. And our demands go far beyond our classrooms. We will find a way. It is a matter of changing our tactics, of working out alternatives. Organisations, like leaders, come and go but the ideals and aspirations of the people remain.”

Working Class Masses

Spearheaded by the working class youth, the struggles of 1984-85 have confirmed that the South African revolution is and will be a movement of the working class masses.

In comparison with 1976 and even 1980, the level of co-operation in 1984-85 between youth and workers, and the identification of workers with the struggle of the school youth, has represented a qualitative leap forward.

From Pietersburg in the Northern Transvaal to Atlantis in the Cape, the youth have carried the flag of organisation. By building not just youth organisations, but community organisations to draw in workers in the remotest towns, by actively campaigning against tribalism as well as recruiting for trade unions of which they themselves are not members – in short by building on the recognition of the decisive weight of the working class in the struggle in SA – the youth helped thousands of adult workers overcome the doubts which marked their attitude in 1976.

In fact, so much has the whole black working class been infected by the revolutionary spirit of the youth that, as one student activist pointed out, “We have grannies and oupas flocking to us saying ‘we want to be members of Cosas’. We would have to tell them Cosas is for students.” (“State of the Nation”, Saspu National, Oct/Nov 1985)

The basis for this advance in working class unity lies above all in the social issues, which have been to the fore like in no other struggle in South African history. Campaigning on the issues of high rents, bus and train fares, CST, etc., the youth have instinctively used the method of the transitional programme explained by Trotsky. They have campaigned on the basis of explaining that all these vitally necessary struggles can be lastingly won only by uniting them into the political battle for the socialist transformation of society.

In the Vaal Triangle, where the movement found its launching pad, more than 350,000 people continue to refuse to pay rent, despite threats and blackmail.

The high point of co-operation between workers and youth was the successful two-day regional general strike in the Transvaal in November 1984. Organised at the initiative of the youth – itself inspired by previous youth-initiated stay-sways on the East Rand and in the Vaal Triangle – it drew the workers and the youth together in action as never before.

It is in action, or under the impact of great events, that the masses learn rapidly. In the last eighteen months a colossal transformation in class consciousness has taken place.

Never before have the enormous chasms which separate the classes in real life, penetrated so deeply into the consciousness of the working class and, indeed, the rest of society.

A survey by the Community Agency for Social Enquiry in conjunction with the institute for Black Research, revealed that no less than 77% of blacks favour socialism. Remarkably, this survey found support for socialism to be 70% even amongst Gatsha Buthelezi’s supporters despite Gatsha extolling capitalism as “the best economic system which man has ever devised”! (Weekly Mail, 11-18/10/1985)


Initially, the movement gained momentum from the clashes with the state forces thrown against it. When troops were first sent into Sebokeng and other townships (as Inqaba pointed out in a November 1984 Editorial Board statement) this failed to intimidate the mass movement, but rather “enabled the embattled working class to take the measure of the state’s forces more precisely”, and thus “to begin to evolve tactics and methods for coping with this new stage.”

The sense was that far greater forces of the revolution were still to be mobilised and tested in action against the enemy.

In the face of the most formidable clashes, the movement continued to spread and mount, and was then sustained at a peak of intensity far longer, in fact, than even the most seasoned activists could have expected.

This is a decisive indicator that a revolutionary earthquake in the depths of society has taken place.

The first task taken up by the youth was to remove all points of support for the regime within the black townships. What has been achieved in this respect is an important conquest for the movement. Of the 103 community councils planned by the regime, very few are still functioning – the rest destroyed.


More than thirty black policemen have been killed and hundreds driven out of the townships. The network of informers which has had such a debilitating effect on the movement in the past has been virtually paralysed, and in many areas eliminated almost entirely. This will save thousands of lives in the future.

In the Eastern Cape, where the movement has advanced furthest, there developed not only temporary no-go areas for the state’s repressive forces, but even embryonic soviets in the form of committees, elected on street and zone bases. Through them, thousands could be summoned to meetings within hours.

At demonstrations, at the funerals, the assembling of the people took on the character of the massing of a proletarian army, its battalions running in formation.

But as the movement systematically dealt with the first and simplest obstacles in its way, the most formidable central task began to pose itself in starker terms: the state has to be smashed.

A movement of this scale and intensity would have proved powerful enough to bring down virtually any other regime. But not the South African regime. In this fact all the problems of our revolution are knotted together.

From the revolutionary onslaught upon it, undoubtedly the government was shaken. But – though the points of support upon which it relied within the black community were extensively crippled – the state remains essentially intact.

The defeat of the community councils, the inability of the state to collect rent: these represent the paralysis of only part of the administrative machinery of the state, important though this is for displaying to the black working class what power lies in its hands, and important though this administrative machinery is for maintaining the bosses’ rule, it does not go to the heart of the question of state power.

The state, as Engels explained, is in its essence, armed bodies of men – primarily the army, but also the police. It is upon this that, in the final analysis, the capitalist class depends for the defence of their wealth, their property and their rule.

To sustain a reliable state machine, the ruling class depends on a base of support in society.

In this sense the state in SA does not differ from any other capitalist state, including those in the advanced capitalist countries which still conceal their armed defence of the dictatorhip of the capitalist class behind the skirts of parliamentary democracy.

What sets the state in SA apart is the racist composition of its social base. It is a state not simply of capitalist dictatorship, but of capitalism basing itself on white minority domination.

The armed bodies of men in the SADF – the main instrument for the defence of capitalism – are overwhelmingly white.

The police forces, though increasingly black in the make-up of their ranks, are largely officered by whites and will remain under effective white control.

Around this apparatus of repression, the whole bureaucratic machinery of administrative control is welded together as an instrument of white domination and capitalism intertwined.

The overwhelming majority of whites of all classes regard this as their state – even those dissatisfied with the present regime.

The whites may be a minority, but they are a substantial minority of five million. So long as the whites of different classes are cemented together in common allegiance to the present state and system, they provide it with a strength and cohesion without parallel in any country.

Only this explains why the regime has emerged essentially unscathed from the onslaught of a movement which reached insurrectionary proportions in the black townships almost country-wide.

Only this (together with the fact that the movement remained unarmed) explains why the state has used only a fraction of the power at its disposal – why the ruling class has not considered it necessary (yet) to deploy tanks, or use helicopter gunships, or aircraft on bombing raids against the townships.


Nobody can have any illusions, after the display of state savagery in which babies and the old alike were killed without remorse, that the armed forces would use these methods if called upon to. In 1922 the ruling class did not hesitate even to bomb white residential areas in suppressing an uprising by white workers.

Of course there is a whole complex of pressures, political and economic, nationally and internationally, which deter the regime from resorting at this stage to measures of unrestrained civil war against the black working people. But we must distinguish what is secondary from what is primary. Once the ‘chips are down’ – with a movement on twice or three times the scale of 1984-85 (which will occur in future) – the level of state violence will escalate beyond anything yet imagined.

The ruling class has held back so far – because the state has not yet been fundamentally challenged in its heartlands – the ‘white’ centres of industry, finance and power. In fact, at the first opportunity, once the movement appeared to be “under control”, it has resumed its efforts at combining repression with “reforms”.

In the townships, the people emerged on the whole the stronger out of the trial of strength with the state. Yet for the state to be fundamentally challenged, the struggle has to move beyond the townships.

How to do this effectively became the central problem facing the activists – especially the youth. For experience showed that whenever it was attempted to take the insurrectionary movement of the townships beyond the confines of those areas, the balance of advantage swung in favour of the state.

This was demonstrated in the abortive march on Pollsmoor which was initiated (without prior consultation and discussion in the movement) by Allan Boesak. It was demonstrated also in the efforts of some of the youth to take revenge for police killings by entering white residential areas in order to “take the struggle to the Boers”.

The obvious impotence of these ventures, the resulting backlash, and the dangers of demoralisation within the movement which they posed, drove many activists towards a more careful assessment of the real relationship of forces still weighted in SA in favour of the ruling class and state. What tasks had still to be tackled if the relationship of forces was to be changed decisively in favour of the revolution?

Firstly, it is clear that even within the black townships (not to mention the rural areas) vast forces remain to be mobilised in the struggle. In 1984-85 the movement did not yet become, in full measure, a movement of the whole of the oppressed people.

What to many seems the continuing “invincibility” of the apartheid state, engenders passivity among wide – generally older – layers of the black population. That in turn makes it difficult to drive-out entirely from the townships all collaborators and conscious agents of the regime – and enables the regime more easily to re-establish some points of support and control within these areas whenever the movement loses momentum for a time.


Thus, for example, while many black policemen may not be able to live in the townships any longer, it is still the case that blacks constitute more than half the police force. There have not been resignations en masse. When that happens it will be a sign of a fundamental shift in the relation of forces taking place. Meanwhile the intention of the regime is to increase the numbers of police by 11,000.

The ability of the regime to make use of ‘vigilantes’ such as the ‘A-team’ and so-called ‘fathers’ in the recent period against militants in the townships; the clashes stirred up along tribal and racial lines between blacks in some areas; the remaining hold of Inkatha in large parts of KwaZulu/Natal – these are indicators of the organisational and political conquests which our movement still has to make before a fully mobilised and united struggle of all oppressed people can be concentrated against the state.

To defeat the state will require a far stronger, and far better organised force than the movement has yet built. It will also require methods of struggle going beyond township-based insurrection – methods of struggle by which the full social and organised power of the black working class can be engaged in action against the state and capitalist class.

Moreover, the defeat of the SA state, entrenched as it is with the support of the whites, will depend not only on building the mass working class movement. A pre-condition for the collapse of the SA state is the crumbling and disintegration of the ruling class as a result of the deepening economic, political, and social crisis.

This in turn will sap the confidence of the ranks of the whites, opening-up confusion and division, weakening the state machinery itself.

The necessary conditions for this are being prepared in South Africa, through the whole process of unfolding shocks, struggles and crises. But it will require still a period of years for all these conditions to fully mature.

The South African revolution will not be won in a single head-on confrontation, however heroic, but through a series of explosive revolutionary movements, extending over five, ten, or possibly more years.

Inevitably the movement will pass through tidal flows and ebbs – periods of gigantic advance followed by lulls and even phases of setback and partial defeat.

This is altogether in the nature of every great social revolution, and all the more so in South Africa, where such immense forces are pitted against each other.


To sustain the momentum of the struggles of 1984-85 further, the masses would have had to feel there was the prospect of inflicting at least a wounding blow if not a crippling defeat upon the state.

In the class struggle, nothing remains static. The movement reached a situation of stalemate against the forces of the enemy – undefeated, yet unable to move forward in a decisive way.

Thus, over a period, despite continuing explosions and confrontations, a turning-point has undoubtedly occurred. In the townships, the mood of the masses is no longer at the same pitch of white heat. On a national scale, in comparison with the high points, the movement has begun to ebb.

The imposition of the State of Emergency, in itself, had no more immediate intimidatory effect than did the introduction of troops into Sebokeng in October 1984. The mood of the masses became, if anything, more defiant. Struggle spread uncontrolled to areas not covered by the State of Emergency.

Nevertheless the declaration of the State of Emergency did mark an important change in the political situation. It represented a clear declaration by Botha that the revolutionary movement would be faced down with uncompromising state violence, and that further ruling class retreat or ‘reform’ would be postponed or relegated to secondary importance until ‘law and order’ had been re-imposed.

To the extent that the fiasco of the new constitution, the successful boycott of the coloured and Indian parliamentary elections, and the various partial retreats by the regime on apartheid laws had given a signal of its weakness to the masses and so emboldened the movement and aroused new layers – Botha was now concerned above all to convince people of the formidable, entrenched strength of the state. ‘There will be no pushover!’ That was his message – which was emphasised in the intransigent tone of his August speech in Durban, the ‘Trojan horse’ massacre in Athlone, and in a whole accumulation of brutal incidents.

It is the main historical accomplishment of the movement of 1984-85 that it has brought out so clearly in the consciousness of the masses that the fundamental issue is no longer whether it is necessary to overthrow the state – but how to overthrow it.

Yet, precisely because the movement still lacks at the present time the necessary strength of organisation, clarity of revolutionary programme and strategy, unity of forces, and firm revolutionary leadership at national level to carry out this task – precisely for this reason and by virtue of the stalemate of contending forces that set in, a turning-point was inevitable and has occurred.

The movement has passed the peak of the present revolutionary wave. This turning-point is not associated with any one particular event, but with the cumulative effect of a series of events.

Recent Eruptions

This characterisation of the overall situation is not refuted by all the most recent eruptions: Mamelodi for example, or Alexandra.

Where the masses have entered the arena of struggle later than in other parts, this reveals, on the one hand, the thoroughness of the historical process in preparing ever wider layers of society for participation in the revolution – and, on the other hand, the preparedness of wider layers to stand-up and be counted.

At the same time, activists in many areas, reading the mood of the masses cooling around them, are continuing to engage in heroic clashes with the police – who are seizing every opportunity to crush them by beatings and massacres.

The phase of relative ebbing which has now begun will not at all be a period of tranquillity. On the contrary, because the turning-point has been brought about by stalemate rather than defeat, continued upheavals are inevitable.

But the workers and youth face this period of ebb – as they faced the period of revolutionary upsurge – without the benefit of clearly worked-out perspectives. They are compelled, instead, to improvise strategy and tactics “on the wing”.

The particularly intractable problem of the SA state could not have been spontaneously foreseen in advance by the black working class as a whole. For the nature and scale of the tasks to be appreciated, the class bad to go through the experience of measuring the strength of the state in battle.

However, the point of theory and perspectives is to arm the advanced section of the class, the activists, with foresight and a scientific guide to action – to guard against both utopian expectations and unnecessary despair when the road forward seems blocked by (temporarily) insurmountable obstacles.

The responsibility to guide the movement through the revolutionary events of 1984-85 was, above all, with the leadership of the African National Congress.

One of the historic consequences of the 1984-85 movement has been the open reassertion by the black working class masses, on an unprecedented scale, of their allegiance to the banner of Congress as the organisation through which the struggle for national liberation, democracy, and socialism can be carried to victory.

This has been reflected in the sea of ANC flags that are hoisted at the funerals and demonstrations. It has been shown in the naming of all the most important mass organisations that have arisen openly: the Congress of SA Students, the regional Youth Congresses and now the Congress of SA Trade Unions.

This does not reflect a passive acceptance of middle class predominance in the Congress leadership, or policies of class compromise ‘traditional’ among this leadership. On the contrary, the aim of the masses is to build on the best of the working class traditions created within the movement itself under the banner of Congress in the 1950s. Nevertheless, it is naturally towards the established Congress leadership that the majority of workers and youth have looked for clarity and direction.

In these conditions, the responsibility of the ANC leadership was to explain the protracted character of the South African revolution, and the reasons for this, and put forward campaigning tasks which would mobilise and unite the whole movement, and which were achievable with the forces presently at its disposal.

Had the necessary guidance been forthcoming from the ANC, there can be no doubt that the UDF at national level would have acquired a far clearer and firmer direction, despite all the arrests and bannings, and could have drawn the unions, youth and community organisations together in effective national action campaigns.


But what guidance came from Lusaka?

At the beginning, the exiled leaders were, by their own admission, caught by surprise by the scale and explosiveness of the struggles. Then, throughout 1985, they made call after call for the launching of an immediate lran-style insurrection.

But, because of the present resilience of the state machine, such an insurrection was completely ruled-out at the present stage of the balance of forces in South Africa, as Inqaba has explained (See Workers’ Revolution or Racial Civil War, Supplement to Inqaba No. 16-17, May 1985).

With enormous self-sacrifice and heroism, the unarmed youth were already in all-out battle with the state’s forces. The reckless call of the exiled ANC leadership drove the youth further forward – in uncoordinated actions going beyond the force at their command. What they and the whole movement encountered was the insurmountable obstacle of the armed forces of the state, without the means to overcome it.

The youth, feeling all the sacrifices that had been made had not landed the movement the prize of the state, became increasingly frustrated. Beginning to sense the turning-point and the cooling of the masses, the youth looked in desperation for ways to blow new life into the flames of revolt and to give the struggle a new impetus.

To this, as the ebb began, the exiled ANC leadership responded by calling for ‘taking the struggle into the homes of the whites’ – and into the shopping centres and holiday resorts.

As if this was where the real power of the state could be found or successfully fought!

As late as November, a “discussion article” in Sechaba, was putting forward the position that (in the words of its title) “The moment of the revolution is now – or never in our lifetime.” “ln the present political climate at home and abroad”, it stated, “a month (!!) of sustained …. armed action may well prove to be the abracadabra (the actual word used!) for the dawn of freedom in South Africa.”

For the youth looking for a way to take an ebbing movement forward, it is difficult to conceive a more irresponsible perspective to put across. Freedom, needless to say, will not be magically speeded-up through the spells of a sangoma, or rhetorical exhortations to action. It requires hard-headed and scientific perspectives and strategies.

At the end of the year the youth themselves began to launch a serious discussion on the strategy to be adopted in the schools during 1986. The advice they received from the ANC leadership was to maintain stay-away from schools permanently, in order to continue the head-on confrontation with the state in the streets of the townships.

The December issue (No. 4) of Congress Review, published in the Western Cape, and reflecting the official line of the leadership at that time, maintained that “the racist government has lost all political control over the entire country … it is unable to govern.” Only the bourgeoisie, it continued, “insists that ‘revolution is not around the corner’. Hence the youth must remain away from the schools on indefinite boycott: “Freedom Now, Education Later.”


But the youth have shown greater maturity and wisdom than their elders. At a conference on December 28-29, of 161 youth organisations, with 312 delegates and 300 observers, convened by the Soweto Parents Crisis Committee, the decision was reached to return to the schools as a body, placing demands on the government with a three-month ultimatum.

The ANC leadership in Lusaka announced that it accepted the decision of this meeting.

The return to school has taken place nationally. Explaining the reasons, 137 Western Cape organisations released a statement which points out:

While it is true that the apartheid state has never been as weak and open to internal and external pressure as at present, it is a disastrous illusion to believe that the government is on its knees.

This may not be the popular thing to say, but it is the correct and responsible thing to say. There is no moral, political or educational reason for continuing the boycott of classes indefinitely.

Indeed, to do so would be like plunging a knife into the heart of our struggle.

Reported in Weekly Mail, 31/1-6/2, 1986

Inqaba supports this position, and Inqaba supporters played a role from the outset in putting it forward and gaining support for it within the movement.

Now the youth will remain determined to use the schools as centres for revolutionary discussion and organisation, and to continue the struggle against the authorities – with the option of resorting to a renewed boycott when it becomes necessary.

But it is not only the ANC leadership who were unable to provide the necessary centralised and national direction to the straggle. The leadership of the trade unions also, on the whole, did not respond adequately.

The two-day Transvaal general strike in November 1984 had the potential to be a springboard for further and still more effective action, establishing the organised workers together with the youths as the driving force and leadership of the struggle against the state.

Unfortunately, however, this potential was wasted.

This is not because the organised workers were not willing to struggle alongside the youth. Trade union members in their thousands have participated in many momentous political struggles in the past eighteen months. But on the whole they have not carried with them the banner of the independent trade unions, or brought the full power of the unions to bear within the general mass movement in the townships.

The unquestioned success of the Transvaal general strike lifted the morale and confidence of the working class enormously – and encouraged especially the activists both within and outside the trade unions. Very rapidly, the idea began to spread that it was possible to repeat its success on a national scale.

Every reason for such a national action existed, not only in support of the political and economic demands of the Transvaal strike, but in defence of the 6,000 Sasol workers dismissed as a result of it.

During 1985, on several occasions – after the Uitenhage massacre, for example, and when the State of Emergency was declared – the conditions and the mood for a nation-wide strike recurred. But, on every occasion, the trade union leadership recoiled from it.


In November 1984, trembling at the prospect of a nation-wide repetition of the successful Transvaal action, the state, using its dirty tricks department, contrived to associate rumours of a national strike with fake leaflets and stickers which it distributed with the theme “Rape a white woman; kill a white child”.

Quite correctly, the trade union leadership condemned these leaflets. But at the same time sections of the trade union leadership “disowned and denounced” (Guardian, 28/11/84) rumours that a national general strike was being planned!

No doubt there was room for debate in the movement over the timing, the duration, and the demands of a national general strike. But by denouncing the very idea at that time, the trade union leadership missed an opportunity – at that early stage of the struggle, when the movement was clearly still in its ascendancy – for the organised workers to place themselves firmly at the head on a nation-wide basis of the struggles unfolding in the townships.

Not only would a public demonstration of the might of the organised black workers have been important in strengthening the confidence of the workers themselves. The process of organising a national strike, if systematically undertaken, would have drawn the youth close to the unions. This could have had a profound influence both in revolutionising the unions’ ranks and in infusing the township struggles with greater proletarian discipline.

Boost Strength

Equally, the organised workers missed an opportunity to boost the strength of the trade unions themselves, through the increases in membership which would have resulted from a well-prepared national general strike.

Moreover, an opportunity was missed also to demonstrate, in the eyes of the whole of society – and of the white workers in particular – that the black workers are the most powerful political and social force in the country.

This would have made an important contribution towards eroding the confidence of the whites in their traditional representatives in the racist trade unions as well as the government – a confidence already beginning to be undermined by the attacks which the economic crisis is forcing the bosses to carry out against white living standards, by the dithering political policies of the government, and by the open revolt of blacks against the regime.

It would have helped to prepare the ground for splitting the whites by more resolute action in the future.

Undoubtedly, from after November 1984 and on a number of occasions in 1985, there would have been a massive response to a call for a national general strike of limited duration. This is shown by the fact that in town after town, area after area, localised general strikes took place: Grahamstown, Cradock, Port Elizabeth, Pietermaritzburg, Cape Town… etc.

Yes, these high points of action were reached at different times in different areas. But the point of a nation-wide general strike, thoroughly prepared and campaigned for, would have been to generalise out of the multitude of local and national grievances a unified national momentum for action rather than leaving each area to take on the regime in its own time in isolation.

One of the arguments used by Thembinkosi Mkalipi, Fosatu chairman in the Eastern Cape, against support for the March 1985 stay-away in that area, was that “the general sales tax and petrol increases were national issues and required a national response”. (South African Labour Bulletin, September 1985)

Precisely! But it was Fosatu which was best placed to organise – together with the UDF a national response on these issues – and others – through calling a national general strike.

Yet, after November 1984, it was only in Maritzburg that the Fosatu unions took the lead in organising general strike action.

Within the ranks of the unions the trade union leaders advanced, from November, various explanations of their unwillingness to prepare a national general strike. These arguments surfaced more openly in the Eastern Cape in March.

Trade union leaders argued that the unions had been “hijacked” into the November action by non-trade union (i.e. community and youth) organisations. They argued that these organisations had no consistent membership, were not accountable to anybody and by implication were irresponsible.


Undoubtedly these arguments gained an echo because of the justifiable pride which trade union workers have in the solid organisations which they have built over the past decade and more. The degree of democratic control and accountability achieved in these unions is the envy of workers in countries with an incomparably longer tradition of working class organisation. That the workers should want to jealously protect these historic gains is entirely understandable.


But those who use this argument about “hijacking” and “lack of accountability” against participation of the unions in mass actions with the working class youth and township communities, are really putting up a smokescreen to defend political passivity among the leadership. If trade union leaders gave clear political direction, and themselves – after thorough democratic discussion, yes, as far as possible throughout the unions – had initiated action against the government, who could doubt the willingness of the youth and working class generally to support it.

It is only when a lack of clear political leadership is manifested in the unions, that any question of political “hijacking” of the membership by other organisations or leaders arises. But is it “hijacking” if the pilot of a plane becomes paralysed and others on board take over the controls to avoid a crash? It is a necessity.

For the messes, including for the mass of union members, political leadership is a necessity – and if they cannot find it in and through their union organisations they will find it outside.

This was the case, for example, in the Eastern Cape – where trade union members overwhelmingly supported the March stay-away although the trade unions refused to join in leading this struggle.

Underlying the argument about “lack of accountability” is in fact a different argument – that non-trade union organisations are dominated by the middle class. The same arguments were used by the same trade union leaders to oppose the affiliation of their trade unions to the UDF.

But really, we have heard enough moans and groans about the middle class! The black middle class constitute a tiny minority within society. The black workers are eight to nine million strong; the black working class as a whole make up two-thirds of the total population of South Africa.

If there was decisive political leadership forthcoming from the workers’ organisations, can anyone doubt that the problem of “middle class domination” in mass politics could be eliminated with ease?

The trade unions have come into existence against the formidable opposition of the state and of a powerful capitalist class. By putting forward class policies – for democracy and socialism – in a determined way the organised workers are surely in a strong enough position to assert their leadership of the movement as against middle class politicians – at the same time winning support from most middle class people.


The coming into existence of the trade unions over the last twelve years has given confidence to far wider layers of working people that they are quite capable of organising themselves along democratic lines.

Within the mass youth and community organisations, where they are organised thoroughly at grassroots level, there is constant struggle from below to ensure accountability and control of the leadership. Whenever working class people rouse themselves to action and enter in force into organisation, democratic methods come to the fore.

It is false to draw an absolute distinction between trade union and community organisations in this respect. Are trade unions never and to no degree manipulated from the top or dominated by petty-bourgeois intellectual elements? Are community organisations always or uniformly under middle class leadership?

Clearly it is more difficult in youth and community organisations to establish and maintain a continuity of democratic structures and methods, in comparison with unions which have a more stable basis in workers organised at the point of production.

But for trade unionists to continue to talk glibly of “middle class domination” of the youth and community organisations is to dismiss the enormous transformation which has taken place in many local areas and even regions as a result of the revolutionary character of the mass movement in 1984-85. Especially among the youth, the identification of the class issues has increasingly become paramount.

In many local Congress youth organisations, middle class politicians who argue against socialism or who advocate a ‘two-stage’ theory are denied a platform. The essential working class character of the mass community organisations has likewise come to the fore.

lf, particularly at national level, middle class leaders still exercise political influence in the movement out of proportion to the mosquito weight of the middle class in society, this has little to do with ‘sociological’ differences between community organisations and trade unions. Its fundamental cause is the lack of a clear alternative provided by the organised working class.

Thus, in reality, a position which is put forward with the ostensible aim of protecting the organised workers from following the unreliable and ‘unaccountable’ leadership of middle class politicians – has the consequence that the workers, organised and unorganised, are left vulnerable to such leadership, because no alternative is being offered by the workers’ organisations.

Into the vacuum thus created have stepped the priests. On two occasions now – it is painful to have to say this – Bishop Tutu has put the trade union leaders into the shade.


Sensing the mood among the workers for political strike action, and hoping to use it as an alternative to township ‘violence’ which could be diverted into ‘peace’ and ‘prayer’, Tutu took the initiative to call unsuccessfully – for action on the so-called Day of Reconciliation (9 October). Now, even after Cosatu has been born, Tutu has repeated the threat of strike action in support of the educational demands of the youth movement.

Tutu has got no authority and no ‘right’ to make these calls. But the way to deal with this is not to wail about “unaccountability”, but to provide instead a fully accountable, clear and unequivocal political leadership through the mass workers’ organisations, to the class as a whole – which the mass movement will accept and understand.

The fact that Tutu’s calls have not at the present time been supported, shows that the mass of workers are looking to the unions for a lead. But the trade union leaders cannot suppose that this will necessarily always remain the case. If they do not provide a lead, even Tutu cart generate support for strike action in the future.

If middle class leaders are allowed to get away with placing themselves at the head of the movement in this way, serious divisions can open up among the masses – between those feeling the need to follow, and those repulsed by, leadership of this character.


The trade union movement cannot escape political responsibilities as the revolutionary crisis unfolds. But this does not mean that the forces of the organised workers should be thrown full-scale into every political battle at every moment in time.

As far as possible the ground for battle must be chosen. Preparations must be thoroughly made. And, at times, the ability to call an orderly tactical retreat becomes as important a part of revolutionary leadership as to launch a bold offensive.

In this respect the experience of the NUM, in its confrontation with the Chamber of Mines in 1985, is very useful. The NUM clearly has enormous potential power – more than any other single trade union.

Thus, as the dispute built-up, an enormous amount of expectation was generated among NUM activists, trade union members generally, and the youth in particular, that here was the struggle that would bring the organised workers into the forefront of the entire movement and deal a blow against the ruling class.

In the immediate sense, such an all-out strike could have raised the whole struggle against the state to a higher plane, and rallied other forces of the movement to its support nation-wide.

Nevertheless, an all-out strike by the NUM in 1985 would, most likely, have had the end result of setting the movement back rather than taking it forward.

An all-out confrontation between the most powerful section of the SA working class and the most powerful employer (the Chamber of Mines) – a confrontation involving the fate of SA’s key industry – poses a similar kind of challenge to the whole ruling class and the state which is posed by an indefinite general strike.

At least to some extent, it puts in issue who has power to rule society. Therefore it is very likely to lead to massive use of repression by the state, if it is not settled by compromise at a relatively early stage.

In 1985, the NUM itself was not yet strong enough in numbers or depth of organisation to enter willingly into such a battle if it could be avoided without severe loss to the union in membership or morale. Nor, at that time, was the trade union movement as a whole sufficiently united, mobilised, or prepared to give the necessary backing to the NUM.

An all-out conflict would very likely have involved mass deportations of the mineworkers, and possibly the destruction of large parts of the NUM’s organisation. Such risks have to be faced when the alternative is humiliating surrender without a fight, for there is nothing more difficult for the workers’ movement to recover from than that. But all the factors have to be – and had to be – soberly weighed-up.

A severe defeat of the NUM could have set back by several years organisation on the mines (never easy at the best of times), and seriously affected the confidence and morale of the mineworkers.

More than this, such a defeat in 1985 would have had big repercussions for the whole movement. If the present ebb country-wide had come about through a serious defeat, rather than through a virtual stalemate of forces, the ensuing reaction would have been far deeper and more severe than is now proving to be the case.

In these circumstances the tactics of the NUM leadership – of securing the maximum gains out of the dispute without resorting to an all-out confrontation – have in our view been correct overall.

This is so despite the fact that these tactics involved acceptance of a settlement with Anglo-American only, so that the minority of workers on other mines struck in isolation and were quickly defeated, without any real possibility of mounting an effective solidarity strike.

Nevertheless, during the build-up of the dispute towards possible all-out action, the NUM leadership could have been much more energetic on the question of encouraging the building of solidarity committees within the trade union movement and in the community at large.

An all-out mine strike could only have had prospect of victory in the context of country-wide solidarity action by workers and youth culminating in a national general strike.

To prepare the ground for this systematically should have been a top priority of the NUM leadership. And in such a situation, reliance on the maximum initiative locally (within dear guidelines centrally laid down) should always be encouraged, so as to mobilise the energies of the youth, the shop-floor activists in other unions, and so on.

It is usually a mistake to attempt – as the NUM leadership did – to establish administrative control over all solidarity efforts through a small central body. This can only have the effect of stifling the local initiatives which are vital for success.

In particular, the huge potential of support from the Congress youth organisations, rallying under the banner of the UDF, was not tapped.


Nevertheless, even many activists who regarded the outcome of the dispute as a defeat at the time, may now weigh up matters differently. From the point of view of the NUN, the major concessions won from Anglo represented a substantial victory – outweighing, on balance, (and for the time being) the setbacks suffered on other mines. From the standpoint of the movement as a whole, the strength of this key union has been preserved for coming battles.

The preservation of the forces of the NUM has allowed the union to play a decisive role in bringing Cosatu into existence – thus establishing a far stronger bastion of protection for the movement in the present period of relative ebb.

All these advantages should now be consciously used in systematic preparation for the next inevitable conflict with the mine bosses. It will not be possible to avoid indefinitely a large-scale baffle on the mines. Possibly even this year, the full forces of the NUM will have to be launched into action – and that will need the solid backing of every section of the movement to see the struggle through.

Main Point

But to return to the main point: the failure of the trade union leadership as a whole to mobilise for a national general strike of limited duration during the whole period of nation-wide revolt in 1984-85 produced definite negative effects.

On the one hand, the state has not been made to feel the full power of even the existing strength of the working class – and has sustained an unwarranted degree of confidence because of this.

On the other hand, the whole movement is only too painfully aware that event after event has been allowed to pass by in which the power at the disposal of the unions was not deployed in answer to the provocations of the state.

The youth in particular feel bitterly and justifiably frustrated over this. It is the reason why the potential for a disastrous and dangerous split between the youth and the organised workers opened-up – to the extent that in the Eastern Cape youth threatened to burn down the houses of workers who did not respond to a call to occupy their factories.

It would be an absolute disaster if the youth thought that these are the methods by which the problems within the independent trade union movement can be overcome.

Any such attacks by youth on workers will widen a rift that can still be healed quite easily – and wipe-out all the gains in worker-youth co-operation that have been achieved since 1976.

They would be a gift to the state, which fears a united movement led by the working class more than anything else – and which would actively encourage and take advantage of such clashes.

The experience of the role of Inkatha in Natal, and of vigilantes in many other areas must serve as a serious warning to the movement as to the state’s enthusiasm to sow division where it does not exist, and to intensify it where it does.

But the rift has developed – and needs to be healed.

On the one hand there is a sense among many workers that the youth have been insufficiently weighing-up the factors in the situation, and have a readiness to run ahead of the movement – and in these feelings there is a partial truth.

On the other hand the youth blame the organised workers for being too slow and cautious in moving into action, particularly political action and there is a truth here too.

The feeling of frustration at the failure to deploy the full potential political power of the organised working class, while strongest amongst the youth, exists also amongst rank-and-file trade union activists.

This frustration, for example, was strongly expressed by Fosatu members when the Fosatu leadership cancelled the mass education workshop due to be held at the Jabulani Amphitheatre in Soweto on the eve of the State of Emergency.

Now the responsibility for mobilising the political potential of the working class organised in the trade unions – and for healing the breach between the trade unions and the youth – is thrust decisively on Cosatu.


1985 ended with the birth of Cosatu, the biggest organisation of black workers in the history of the SA labour movement. This has ushered in a new era.

Cosatu would have come into existence eventually – the objective situation was pregnant with it. But its birth had to be induced. That it was born at this particular time is attributable to the risings in the townships. In that sense the youth have acted as the mid-wife of Cosatu.

Cosatu has been born as the movement is temporarily in ebb. Yet the birth could not have been more timely. The whole movement has looked to Cosatu to throw its weight into consolidating the existing forces of the movement, healing the breach between the organised workers and the youth, and blunting the drive of the ruling class towards reaction.

Despite the ebb, a decisive political initiative by Cosatu from the moment of its birth – a well-prepared campaign for an achievable goal could even have turned the temporarily disadvantageous position of the movement into a disadvantage for the state.

Elijah Barayi’s ultimatum to Botha – that if the pass laws were not abolished within six months, the passes would be burnt – provided the basis for just such a campaign.

The ruling class themselves immediately saw the dangers. On 3 December Business Day editorialised:

The threat of a civil disobedience campaign by Cosatu … could be serious. It wasn’t too successful in the time of Albert Lutuli, but that is not to say it couldn’t be better organised now.

Quite simply, what does government do if half-a-million black people start burning their passes, especially if they are joined by many non-union members?

If, in other words, it was not merely half a million, but ten million passes which were burnt!

To carry forward this struggle, thorough preparation and campaigning would have been necessary – and, above all, the Cosatu leadership needed to name the date for the burning of the passes.

Unfortunately, from the time of Barayi’s speech, there were indications that the conservatives in the trade unions were seeking to block this campaign. “After a night-long debate on policy” reported the Cope Times (3/12/85),

Cosatu’s executive appeared to back-down art some of the hardline statements made on Sunday by its president, Mr Elijah Barayi.

Mr Barayi’s call for a pass burning campaign if influx control was not scrapped in six months was clarified as ‘merely expressing the feelings and aspirations of our members’.

Cosatu’s assistant-secretary, Mr Sydney Mafumadi, said the federation had not decided on a specific deadline on the pass laws.

Shift to Left

On the whole, the formation of Cosatu has represented an important weakening of the influence of reformism within the trade unions: leadership has shifted to the left.

Yet even the mast radical trade union leaders appear to have been cautious about plunging Cosatu’s resources into a political campaign at this stage.

Cyril Ramaphosa was correct when he pointed out at the launching conference that, while Cosatu must strive to make the politics of the working class the politics of the liberation movement, it must not neglect to strengthen its base in industry.

But, taken forward with thorough preparation from December, a campaign based on the pass law ultimatum would have strengthened Cosatu enormously. With the main burden of organisation carried by the energies of the youth, acting with the authority of Cosatu, it could have helped to double the membership of the trade union movement in the course of the campaign.


At the same time, through this campaign, the energies of the youth, straining at the leash, many tempted to engage in adventures, could have been channelled into constructive political activity which would strengthen their bonds with the workers and set their sights on a realistically achievable goal.

When comrade Barayi’s initiative was not taken forward by the whole Cosatu leadership, the ruling class undoubtedly heaved a sigh of relief – and the reaction gained encouragement from what was taken as a sign of weakness.

It was after the trade unions failed to give active leadership to the Eastern Cape general strike last March that striking mineworkers were dismissed en masse at Vaal Reefs. In the same way, the political hesitation of the Cosatu leadership coincided with Gencor’s mass dismissals at lmpala platinum mine in Bophuthatswana.

Without industrial strength, the political potential of the trade unions is weakened. But equally, unless the trade union movement deploys its political muscle, the ruling class grows bolder on the industrial front as well.

Moreover, January saw the biggest death-toll since the revolutionary upsurge began – mostly through the reactionary activities of Bantustan thugs and township vigilantes, grown bolder because of the loss of initiative by the movement.

Buthelezi too, took confidence from the situation to go onto the offensive against Cosatu in Natal.

Nevertheless, the regime has not felt confident enough to rest exclusively on repression and reaction. Botha’s “Rubicon II” speech at the end of January, while hopelessly trapped within the framework of maintaining white domination, nevertheless in its tone signalled a renewed search for a “path of reform”.

One of its most significant features was the position on the pass laws, in the full-page advertisements which followed it. Botha stated “Well, I can tell you the pass system will be scrapped by 1 July this year.”

Undoubtedly, the overwhelming reaction among the masses to this statement is “But with what new scheme for controlling movement and enforcing divisions are you intending to try and replace it?” Influx control has been, for generations, a central mechanism of the capitalist class for enforcing cheap labour – and a document carried by black workers, whatever it is called, is indispensable to enforce influx control. The ruling class will not give up this mechanism lightly.

Nevertheless, can it be denied that it is unprecedented for the regime to define a date so precisely for one of its “reforms”, even before carrying through the necessary legislation?

Would Botha have needed to do this, had it not been for the ultimatum issued by Elijah Barayi, and the echo which the regime’s intelligence network undoubtedly detected that this ultimatum was gaining among the rank-and-file of Cosatu?

In the weeks before Botha’s speech, there was growing support among trade union and youth activists in several regions for the naming of a date for pass-burning, as advocated in Inqaba’s 2 December editorial statement. Unfortunately, the Cosatu leadership has not acted swiftly to back-up comrade Barayi’s ultimatum with a definite challenge to Botha in this way.

Botha has attempted to steal back from the Cosatu leadership the initiative for scrapping the ‘dompas’.

As if to underline this, the Financial Mail (7/2/86) wrote:

Government has announced that SA’s pass laws are to be scrapped by 1 July.

Whether President Botha’s commitment will pre-empt a Congress of SA Trade Unions threat to launch a mass burning of the dompas in time remains to be seen.

The tone of “Rubicon II”, the new discussions regarding the release of Mandela, and this statement on the pass laws, all reveal that – despite the immense force at the disposal of the state and the temporary ebbing of the movement – there has not been a decisive shift in the underlying balance of forces against the working class. The ruling class feels vulnerable and lacks confidence.

But it is not enough for the leadership of the movement merely to rest on this underlying balance of forces. In contrast to the situation that would have obtained had Cosatu from December been engaged in mobilisation on the question of the passes, Botha can even gain some temporary credit among the unorganised mass of workers if he carries out the abolition of the present pass laws and exempts many Africans from any new system of influx control.

Yet what will still be preoccupying the masses is the question “what does the regime intend after 1 July as regards influx control?”

Influx Control

Even now, the initiative can be recovered. As General Secretary Naidoo said following the February Cosatu CEC, Botha’s “announcement of a uniform ID document for all races did not change the fact that black people’s movements would still be restricted – influx control had been institutionalised through the homeland system and the system of labour bureaux for recruiting workers. ‘Pass laws, influx control and other apartheid laws are all interlinked’.” (City Press, 16/2/85)

Botha – a statement of the CEC added – “cannot be entrusted with the task of dismantling a system of national oppression and economic exploitation.”

Comrade Naidoo went on to promise that “A specific anti-pass law program of action is to be devised by the executive soon.”

Botha’s 1 July deadline could, for example, be turned against him, if Cosatu together with the UDF, declares that on that date all passes will burn – and, with that, calls a one or two-day national strike to declare that influx control is dead.

The purpose would be to demonstrate that the oppressed will accept no alternative measures which restrict freedom of movement in the country, including from the Bantustans.

This would require the mobilisation of the youth and workers to begin campaigning as soon as possible, preparing for the event by means of mass explanation and organisation, building the unions and consolidating the community organisations.

However, the longer that there is delay in setting a date and publicising details of the campaign, the more difficult it will be to recover and build the necessary momentum. Every day is precious now if such a campaign is to be a full-blooded success.


Despite the immense power the trade unions can wield in the political struggle, they are not, as trade unions, equipped to lead the political struggle as a whole – to prepare the working class and all the oppressed for the conquest of state power.

To wage the political battle against the state, to unite the whole movement around revolutionary policies, the working class needs to build mass political organisation.

Moreover, it is only through revolutionary workers’ political organisation within the trade unions that they can be consistently defended as instruments of the working class against the bosses and the regime – and the conservative influence of reformists among the trade union leaders combatted.

As Inqaba has explained in previous material, this political organisation will not come about on the basis of simply declaring a “workers’ party”.

More than ever before, the experience of the last eighteen months has reaffirmed that, as the masses move into revolutionary struggle, it is towards the ANC that they turn to carry to victory the struggle for democracy and socialism.

Because the black workers and youth are rallying to build the ANC as their own revolutionary organisation, the ‘liberal’ bourgeoisie and its agents have rushed to have consultations with the ANC leadership in exile, hoping to ensnare them into some compromise “resolution” of South Africa’s political crisis.

The ‘liberal’ SA mining bosses are the most calculating section of the ruling class. It was the needs of their industry which laid the basis for apartheid and the cheap labour machinery which the state protects now on behalf of the capitalist class as a whole. Their hands are dripping with the blood not only of the black workers of South Africa, but of the whole of Southern Africa, including Kaunda’s Zambia where they held their talks with the ANC.

Less than eighteen months ago, legally striking mineworkers were killed and maimed by police called in to Anglo mines. Just months before the ‘talks’ Anglo sacked 14,000 mineworkers.

To a man, they, and every spokesman of the capitalist class, have declared their implacable opposition to any political “solution” in South Africa based on one-person-one-vote in an undivided country.

The ruling class knows full well that, for the working masses, the struggle for national liberation is a struggle for the power with which to end poverty wages, joblessness, homelessness, and so on – in short, to implement the Freedom Charter as a living reality. This, they will strive to prevent with all the means at their disposal.

Recently, a publication of the so-called “liberal” capitalists – the Financial Mail (6/12/85) made their position quite clear on this question. It pointed out that “interventionist military action in a last-ditch attempt to retain the status quo … has not been totally discounted in some quarters.”

At the present time, of course, this is not what the decisive sections of the ruling class want. The monopoly bosses, presenting themselves as liberals, seek to distance themselves from the repression of Botha’s regime in the hope that through “reforms” that accommodate “moderate” black leaders, they can hold off the revolution.

Nevertheless, the Financial Mail concluded,

Just which would be the worst-case scenario – a dictatorship of the Left or one of the Right – is open to conjecture. Few, however, who have any insight into the ideological drift of the African National Congress Freedom Charter and its talk of nationalisation have any serious doubts on that score. Anything would be preferable to seeing SA’s economy decimated by such crude attempts at ‘wealth redistribution’ implicit in the doctrine of the Charter. [Our emphasis.]

Faced in the future with an increasingly powerful movement of the working class struggling under the banner of the ANC for the demands of the Freedom Charter, the ruling class have already declared that, rather than give in, they will opt for “a dictatorship of the extreme Right” – by which they mean something far more ferocious and reactionary even than the current regime.

The present state machine is the only and final defence of their welth, power and ownership of industry, and they depend utterly upon it. They are clear that they will never entrust its government to the African National Congress supported by the full-weight of the revolutionary proletarian masses.

It is clear that a “negotiated solution” to the movement’s demands for democracy – however much it may be sought after – is ruled-out.

If the capitalists don their liberal mombakkies and fly to Lusaka to shake hands with the ANC leaders – it is not in order to discuss how they can make a contribution to the Freedom Charter by handing over their wealth to the people.

On the contrary, it is out of their terror of the hostility to capitalism that exists in the movement – where the slogan that “big business and the state are two sides of the same bloody coin” has become a commonplace and out of their hopes that the ANC leaders will assuage these fears by entering political compromises on the basis of capitalist interests.

Among activists in the country, the manoeuvres of the bosses are increasingly transparent.


“Big business”, states Saspu National (October/November 1985) “is worried that worker, youth and township action may threaten capitalism itself. If there was no resistance … affecting their profits, they would not be clamouring at PW’s door for action. Nor would they see much point in meeting the ANC”.

Even a priest, Father Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, a patron of the UDF, is clear on the businessmen’s motives: “They want to create a healthy climate for profit-making. They are not really against apartheid. But they realise the township unrest is against their interests.” (Weekly Mail, 13-19/9/85)

The experience of the last eighteen months has confirmed in the eyes of wider and wider layers of working people, that the burdens loaded upon them cannot be removed unless the apartheid regime is destroyed root-and-branch – through a struggle to the end against the capitalist class whose wealth and power that state defends.

Workers’ Power

The way forward to this is through the mobilisation of the masses led by the organised working class around perspectives, programme and strategy of uncompromising struggle for workers’ power – to dismantle the state and replace it by the democratic rule of the working class, and to take the big monopolies out of the hands of the capitalist class and bring them under democratic workers’ control and management.

The ANC leadership is called upon to show the way forward in this struggle.

But while on the one hand, throughout 1985, the exiled leadership has been issuing absurd exhortations for the carrying through of an immediate insurrection – on the other hand they have been prepared to talk with the big businessmen, and other spokesmen of the capitalist class.

It has been disturbing to read that the businessmen, while not crowing about the outcome of the talks, certainly did not emerge from them as unhappy men with an ill foreboding about the future of their system.

Tony Bloom, Chairman of Premier group, and a member of the delegation, wrote in the Financial Mail (11/10/85):

I was surprised (almost overwhelmed) by the cordiality of the meeting … I sometimes worry that we got on a little bit too well!…

Clearly there are fixed positions on either side that are diametrically opposed to each other, but this is the position in many negotiations. I believe that there could be room for compromise and I would unhesitatingly support any initiative to get the SA government and the ANC into contact with each other.

What do the ANC leadership regard as the justification for these talks? On their own account, they have not been very forthcoming on this question. However a recent article by Howard Barrel in Work in Progress, No. 39 (October 1985), written on the basis of extensive and sympathetic presentation of ‘ANC sources’, claims that “there are several relatively constant over-riding principles guiding the movement’s tactics on the question of talks.

Among these, he maintains, are “the need to build maximum unity between all sections and formations of the oppressed, other democrats and progressives”; “to win over to its basic outlook as many potentially amenable whites a possible”; “at least to attempt to neutralise some hitherto reactionary elements, and thereby as much as possible to isolate politically the die-hard defenders of what it sees as a racist and exploitative state power”; to “weaken the ranks of the ‘generalised enemy’”;  to “engage in talks which may offer a reasonable prospect of reducing the extent of people’s suffering in achieving state power”; to encourage “a new legal climate” which “may enable a number of other progressive and democratic formations to hold similar talks”.

Maximum unity around the goals of our movement, and the reduction of the suffering of the people, are important tasks. But they will not be carried forward by these talks.

In reality, by engaging in these talks, the leadership is creating illusions in the possibility of a negotiated settlement – even in the prospect of a transfer of power to an ANC government on this basis.

Surely the task of the leadership is to use every opportunity to bring it home to the masses that liberation will not be brought to them through negotiations or by any other class except the working class – and that this requires the mobilisation of millions into a conscious revolutionary struggle for power.

The task is to mercilessly expose the fraudulence of the “progressive” and “democratic” claims of big business; to point out that the regime has been shaken but is far from being overthrown, and to put forward a programme of action with uncompromising democratic and socialist aims as the basis for mobilising the millions of black workers and preparing for the armed seizure of power by the organised working class.

Only the organisation of such a struggle – by confronting all supporters of the state power with an implacably determined and organised alternative power – can “weaken the ranks of the generalised enemy”, “isolate politically the die-hard defenders of the regime”, win over “as many potentially amenable whites as possible”, “build maximum unity between all sections and formations of the oppressed”, and “offer a reasonable prospect of reducing the extent of people’s suffering”.

To defeat and dismantle the apartheid state of the bosses it will be necessary not only for the oppressed to become mobilised, organised, and armed under the leadership of the working class, but for this movement to remove from the ruling class the support that they enjoy among the working class and lower middle class whites who provide the regime with its social base, and who, as the active arm of the state machine, are the source of its continued strength.

An attitude of vacillation, temporising, or compromise with the capitalist class not only serves to disarm the movement of the black majority – but will have a profoundly negative effect on the consciousness of the white workers.

White Workers

The effects of capitalist crisis, and the challenge of the black working class to white domination, are awakening the white workers and lower middle class out of the long slumber they have enjoyed in their privilege. Most, blaming the government for ‘betraying them to the liberal capitalists’, will initially move further to the right, as is plainly already taking place. They will try to find a way out by going further down the blind alley of racist frenzy.

Yet, no more than the present regime or the “progressive” businessmen, can Treurnicht or Marais or Terreblanche or even a military dictatorship, restore the living standards of the whites, or guarantee their political privileges.

With the advance of the revolution, with degeneration of the SA situation into chaos and horror seemingly without end, the whites will look more and more desperately for some solution – for some real alternative. If they do not rind it in the forces of the revolution, they will cling more and more desperately to reaction.

The least appealing alternative for the whites is the prospect of a toenadering between the big capitalists and the leaders of the black masses; of being “sold out” by secret deals. The ranks of the whites will not be persuaded to believe that out of such negotiations, any agreement can be arrived at which offers them a future.

Rather than undermining the support amongst the white workers for the extreme right, such negotiations will increase it.

If the white workers and middle class are left in the clutches of the ultra-right reaction, it is the prospect of a bloody racial civil war which would be increased.

The task is to convert a struggle which will inevitably all along have elements of a racial civil war into a class war led by the working class against the capitalist class and all its supporters. A key to this will be the firm pursuit of non-racial class policies by the powerful movement of the black working class majority towards their lost white working class brothers and sisters.

This is the best, and in the end the only, guarantee for weakening and isolating the enemy and thus reducing the peoples’ suffering.

Armed Struggle

Never before has the demand of the youth and workers for arms been so urgent as in the insurrectionary struggles of 1984-85.

In Tembisa, at the beginning of the year, youth were chanting “Mkhonto we Sizwe! Mkhonto we Sizwe! We are waiting for you! We are unarmed!” ln Queenstown, at the end of the year, Congress youth donned military-style uniforms, and marched in formation carrying AK47s carved out of wood and plastic!

The need for ‘armed struggle’ has been proclaimed by the ANC leadership for the past twenty-five years: MK was formed in 1961. Yet, at the same time as calling for an immediate insurrection in 1985, ANC broadcasts on Radio Freedom made it plain that the movement could not look to the organisation for the necessary arms. Clearly no serious preparations for arming an insurrection had been made.

In reality as we have discussed previously, calls for immediate all-out insurrection to overthrow the state were ridiculously premature and adventurist.

But what has been necessary at this stage is to organise and develop the capacity of the youth and workers, fighting on the township streets, to defend themselves more effectively against troops and police and deliver, from a defensive position, punishing armed blows against their attackers.

Once again, however, as in 1976, when the need for armed self-defence arose against the murderous forces of the state, neither the arms nor the practical policies for doing this have been forthcoming from the underground leadership. This is despite a debate within the ranks of the ANC in exile – reflected in articles in Sechaba and the African Communist – on the question of arming the masses.

At root, the paralysis of the leadership stems from uncertainty over a fundamental political question: whether ‘armed struggle’ is to be seen as a means of ‘pressurising’ the ruling class towards a ‘negotiated settlement’ (a utopian conception which leads, in practice, to holding back the arming of the revolutionary mass movement); or whether the course should be set firmly towards organising and preparing the forces, consciousness and material means necessary for an armed conquest of power by the black working people in future.

On the question of armed struggle, as on every other question, our movement needs to take as its guideline the principle: what develops the self-confidence and consciousness of the working class in its own power to confront and defeat the vicious apartheid regime and the bosses through an eventual mass armed insurrection. For only by these means can national liberation and democracy be secured, and the road opened to the socialist transformation of society.

As Inqaba has consistently explained, the ANC leadership has failed to adopt a working class approach to the question of armed struggle.

Despite the talk of “Iran-style insurrection” and “people’s war”, the leadership have, over 25 years, based their conception of ‘armed struggle’ on the methods of guerillaism: the activities of small armed groups, detached from the mass organisations, and operating independently of the rhythm of the movement.

In the armed confrontations which have taken place in the townships in 1984-85, guerrilla tactics by youth and workers have had an essential role to play. Small groups in particular areas, organising to engage in hit-and-run battles with the police and troops, are necessary particularly at the early stages of any mass insurrectionary movement.

In contrast, a guerrilla strategy is based on the wrong idea that, when it comes to challenging the power of the state, a guerrilla ‘army’ – such as MK – can substitute itself for the power (eventually, the fully armed power) of the mass movement of the working class.


In South African conditions – with a high level of industrialisation, and a peasantry virtually eliminated – a guerrilla war has no prospect of winning state power. To the extent that illusions have been created in the ability of guerrilla forces to substitute themselves for the power of the working class in confronting the state, they stand in the way of the working class identifying and preparing to take on the tasks which it alone can carry to victory.

In periods of forward movement, such as the revolutionary upsurge of 1984-85 – and, indeed, the whole period since about 1980 – this is not so apparent. In fact, during 1984-85 actions by MK have been dwarfed by the spontaneous battles conducted by the masses themselves, and in particular the youth.

But in phases of relative ebb, such as we have now entered, it is the danger of fostering illusions – and further dangers too – which are opened-up by the pursuit of a guerrilla strategy.

In such conditions, sabotage, bombings, etc. have a heightened, and sometimes even a briefly spectacular, visibility. Because the masses no longer have the same sense of power as in the period of advance, such actions can win applause as “at least a blow against the state”.


However, the state uses the occurrence of these actions as a pretext for stepping up repression, not merely against “terrorists”, but against all the organs of the mass movement – and as propaganda for hardening the support of whites for the regime.

It is essential to see that armed struggle conducted by formations of the mass movement – including guerrilla tactics by groups of youth and workers on a wide-scale during a phase of general advance – has an entirely different effect politically than military actions concluded by a few guerrilla detachments operating independently of the mass movement, especially in a phase of ebb.

Unfortunately, such debate on the strategy of armed struggle as has taken place among the ANC leadership in exile in the course of 1985 has not involved any fundamental reappraisal of approach, but merely on how far the range of guerrilla targets should be extended to so-called “soft targets”, including white civilians.

This has coincided with the bombings in Natal, and landmine explosions on the borders, in which even small children of whites have been killed. To say that many black children have died, and that whites should also be made to suffer for apartheid, is to miss the essential political point as far as revolution is concerned.

White armed power is the basis of the SA state. To defeat the state, that white armed power will need to be defeated. There is no other road to that except by raising the movement of the black working class, and all the oppressed, to its full revolutionary strength and consciousness.

In the coming waves of revolutionary upsurge support for the ruling class can be stripped away only through a combination of clear working class policies for democracy and socialism – and the emergence of an unconquerable revolutionary force capable of defending itself with arms against the state and white reaction and moving from there towards the conquest of power.

The lessons of how to engage in armed struggle against the state have had to be learned virtually from scratch by the youth – with enormous ingenuity and resourcefulness – first in 1976, but above all in the uprisings of the last eighteen months.

This experience is a precious resource for the future – and will need to be developed in a scientific way through assimilating the history of insurrectionary experience of the whole international working class movement.

With these lessons properly digested and applied, the movement can be better equipped even in the next insurrectionary wave for armed defence against the death-squads, the police and the army.

This in turn, will steel and prepare ever wider layers for conducting the future mass armed insurrection to overthrow the state.

Armed struggle, however, is only the continuation of the political struggle by other means.

Nine-tenths of the necessary preparation for the armed defence of the movement, and for the insurrection, consists in building the mass movement under the leadership of the working class around scientific perspectives and clear political policies for democracy and socialism.

The South African revolution will be protracted, bitter, and bloody. But, alter the struggles of 1984-85, who can doubt that the revolution has begun?

It will be carried to victory by the heroism of the youth and the uncompromising determination of the whole black working class, building mass trade unions and a mass ANC on a socialist programme, through absorbing and developing the time-tested revolutionary methods of Marxism, the international inheritance of the working class.

© Transcribed from the original by the Marxist Workers Party (2019).