Originally published as a supplement to Inqaba ya Basebenzi No. 15 (September-December 1984)
Editorial Board Statement
12 November 1984
The magnificent struggles of the black proletariat in South Africa – unsurpassed in heroism and sacrifice anywhere in the world – have undoubtedly opened a new stage on the road to revolution.
The mass movement against the state is now more widespread and sustained, better organised and more politically conscious than at any time in generations of resistance to the racist dictatorship.
To many comrades, the inability of the regime to crush the rebellion may suggest that its actual downfall is imminent. Equally to many, a further savage escalation of state violence, massacres, mass detentions wholesale bannings of organisations, etc. – which is possible in the next period – may lead to the view that the regime will indefinitely remain “too strong” for the mass movement to overthrow.
How is the present situation to be understood? What stage are we passing through? How close are we to revolution itself? What tasks are now posed?
General Features of a Revolutionary Situation
Lenin defined three general features of a revolutionary situation:
(1) when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the ‘upper classes’, a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure [crack] through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for the lower classes not to want to live in the old way: it is also necessary that ‘the upper classes should be unable’ to live in the old way;
(2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual;
(3) when as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncomplainingly allow themselves to be robbed in ‘peace time’, but, in turbulent times, are drawn both by the circumstances of the crisis and by the ‘upper classes’ themselves into independent historical action.
South Africa is characterised today, to some degree, by all these features. The capitalist ruling class, unable to defend its system adequately by the naked white supremacist methods of the past, has been forced to try to adapt and “reform”, to draw in layers of collaborators from among the black middle class, hoping to ward-off the demands of the working class masses by new schemes of divide-and-rule.
This is a confession of the bankruptcy of the “old way”. Yet it has plainly failed to bring about a viable new method of rule. The built-up pressure of the mass movement, for national liberation, for equality, for an end to poverty and exploitation, cannot be contained now by any concessions possible within the framework of capitalism.
As serious economists and political commentators among the bourgeois themselves now admit, capitalism cannot afford the “social costs” of genuine democratic changes. The economy is in the grip of long-term economic crisis. With unemployment, inflation, debt, and deficits mounting-up, the attempts of the ruling class to change even some of the methods of its rule have turned into a crisis of racist and capitalist rule in its entirety.
Through this “fissure” the mass movement pours, now beginning to take on the proportions of a flood. Anger over worsening daily hardships – especially the rising cost of food, the rent, water and electricity increases, and the rises in GST – combines with a growing sense of the enormous revolutionary power latent within the urban black population and above all within the industrial working class.
Pre-revolutionary Situation Arising from a Decade of Struggle
The tremendous strength and confidence of the movement today has been built upon more than a decade of bitter battles – of black workers, of youth, of women, of whole working class communities against every aspect of oppression. The organising efforts of tens-of-thousands of activists have prepared the way for the political crisis of apartheid and capitalism, which is now approaching what can best be termed a pre-revolutionary situation.
It is a situation in which the elements necessary for revolution are definitely coming together – but when the revolutionary crisis is not yet fully matured.
1984 has been marked by an industrial strike wave which, by mid-year, had already set a record for the number of work-days lost. It has seen the successful boycott of the coloured and Indian “elections”, leaving the government’s bought stooges doing an absurd “parliamentary” puppet-dance with no shred of credibility.
It has seen concrete steps towards the launching of a united trade union federation. It has seen the historic challenge by the NUM force a partial climb-down by the Chamber of Mines.
It has produced waves of school boycotts involving nearly a million students at its height. It has wrecked, with the utter humiliation of the collaborators, the regime’s community councils scheme.
Despite thousands of arrests, despite nearly two hundred shot dead by the police and thousands gravely injured, resistance his spread untamed from East London to Pretoria, from Vereeniging to Grahamstown.
Now, most significantly of all, there has been the two-day political general strike in the Transvaal, called by the major unions and youth organisations, and supported by the UDF. This combined political and economic demands, and was 80-90% solid in the key industrial areas.
Regime Turns to Relying on Troops
Predictably, the regime has now pushed repression into a higher gear. The use of 7,000 white troops, many of them conscripts, to surround and search Sebokeng and other townships is a sign of the enormously raised stakes in the struggle.
The intimidatory effect of this action has amounted to a round zero. Instead, it has enabled the embattled working class to take the measure of the state forces more precisely, and to begin to evolve tactics and methods for coping with this new stage.
Thus the state begins to raise in the mind of the masses the eventual exhaustion, of its repressive force. The fighting resources of the working people are correspondingly strengthened.
The PFP, from its liberal-bourgeois standpoint, solemnly warns the government that using troops will end up “dangerously” politicising the army, opening it to division, and so ultimately affecting the reliability of the state forces on which capitalism relies. And they are right!
(PFP chairman, Eglin, not one to shirk dirtying himself with a “practical” suggestion on behalf of the bosses, advises instead that the police be reinforced. How every real class battle exposes the reactionary core of the liberals!)
Now the regime moves to arrest trade union and other leaders accused of calling the general strike. UDF and Fosatu offices are raided, 6,000 workers at Sasol are sacked for striking and deported under police guard to the reserves.
The refusal of the working people to be cowed by these measures is itself plain evidence that a pre-revolutionary crisis is opening-up.
A New Phase of Massive State Repression Would Not Alter the Situation Fundamentally
If not immediately, at least in the period ahead it is quite possible that the regime may decide to ban the UDF and youth organisations, and carry out large-scale arrests of trade union and other leaders, as in the early 1960s.
But the effect on the movement, despite temporary complications, would be very different from that time.
Then there was a sense that the mass movement had given its all but had been held back by its own leadership from exerting its full strength in action – now the prevailing sense is of a massive reservoir of forces still to be drawn into straggle.
Then the movement was largely unprepared for the frenzy of state violence and repression – today it has been a hundred times tempered in fire.
Then it had reached a peak and, lacking a revolutionary leadership with a scientific perspective and policy, had succumbed to bitter infighting and division – now, whatever weaknesses of leadership and divisions over policy and strategy there may be (a serious matter not to be glossed-over), yet the sense is of many battalions marching towards a meeting point where they have yet to give decisive battle against the enemy.
In the early 1960s the movement lacked strong and self-sustaining organisation at the base and depended dangerously on middle class leaders anxious to pander to the liberals. Today, however, there has been an enormous growth of youth and community organisations, while the working class has gained an historic advance in building strong, independent unions under a significant degree of democratic worker control.
Most important of all, the organised working class has begun to establish itself as the decisive force for revolutions and is winning recognition of this among the revolutionary youth.
Previously the system rested on an economic base still sustained by the post-war upswing of capitalism. Now its foundations are becoming worm-eaten with economic crisis.
In these circumstances, the increased use of repressive powers by the state will not buoy-up, but on the contrary will further weaken the morale of the ruling class and middle class, for it plainly offers no way forward.
Even wholesale arrests and bannings of organisations now would be unable to demoralise the movement and could not eliminate the basic structures of factory, school and township organisation.
For these reasons, further desperate moves towards even more vicious repression by the state would prepare the way for new retreats by the regime and splits in the ruling class.
But equally, every new lurch in the direction of further “reform” will bear the hallmark: “Too little, too late”, thus stirring up the struggle even further, and promoting demoralisation in the bourgeois camp.
The Cohesion of the Ruling Class and Morale of the State Forces is Not Yet Sufficiently Undermined
The long-standing strength and rigidity of the system of white domination – the existence of a powerful, steeled state apparatus built almost entirely on the privileged minority – mean that the maturing of a revolutionary crisis, and the preparation of conditions for the collapse or overthrow of the regime, is an unavoidably drawn-out, bitter and bloody process.
In fact, a fundamental split in the ruling class, paralysing the regime and reflecting itself aka in deep divisions in the middle class and unreliability within the state apparatus, is the most important “missing element” in the situation now. Once this materialises, however, it will signal the onset of a revolutionary situation, spurring into action millions of so far inactive working people.
A key part of revolutionary strategy must be to prepare and produce such a split of the ruling class, and to systematically undermine and strip-away its support within society.
The long-standing division between liberal and right-wing capitalists, and today between “verligtes” and “verkramptes” in SA does not amount to a split of a fundamental kind. In times of relative “peace” the capitalists argue among themselves over different long-term strategies for holding down and exploiting the working class. Those in the movement who argue for compromise with the liberals merely aid the strategy of the most cunning and deceptive wing of the class enemy.
In a revolutionary crisis all the groupings within the capitalist camp are thrown into turmoil, lose direction and begin to break-up under the pressure of events, thus spreading demoralisation throughout bourgeois society.
What will produce that situation and lead eventually to the disintegration of the state (preparing its forcible overthrow) will be the proven bankruptcy of ALL the blows and manoeuvres of the ruling class in the face of a yet more persistent, uncompromising and conscious mass working class resistance.
Revolutionary Policy of the Working Class
The basic policy of the black working class should be two-fold.
On the one hand: to maintain its non-racial class attitude, and to extend this from the industrial field to the political field also, making a constant, unyielding, firm but fraternal class approach to working class whites. Only in this way can we strip away the social support on which the state power of the bosses rests, and begin to affect the loyalties of the white middle class also.
Black workers and youth should not waver in this attitude even under the provocation of the most vicious right-wing racist movements developing among the whites – for that will itself be a symptom of the underlying revolutionary crisis and the break-up of “official” society.
On the other hand: the policy should be to turn our backs on the liberals, rejecting collaboration with any section of the capitalist class, whatever overtures they may make, and to draw the movement together behind a conscious struggle for workers’ power, linking the task of winning national liberation and democracy, as well as all the social and economic demands, to the necessity of overthrowing capitalism itself.
Non-racialism and hostility to liberalism are twin features of one and the same revolutionary class policy, which alone can carry forward the unity of the oppressed people in action.
More and more, the decisive test of any leadership, programme and action will be its contribution to preparing the working class for power.
Trade Unions and Political Organisation
The present situation bears out Inqaba’s argument that the trade unions could not avoid a strategy of rapid growth, despite all the difficulties of consolidation which this entails, because of the speed with which political tasks would inevitably be thrust upon the workers’ movement.
The need for clear working class leadership of the struggle has never been greater. As the Transvaal general strike showed, the trade unions are forced into a position of having to give a lead in action – by the intensity of the general struggle against the state, and by the determination of the workers to use their organised strength for political ends.
Clearly a mass workers’ party is needed, to lead the movement of all the oppressed. Were it to arise, it, would mean a tremendous advance. But the route to creating this directly out of the unions is strewn with enormous difficulties and the likelihood of paralysing delays.
Our view remains that the most effective route to the same end would be for the unions to move into the UDF (and later the ANC) with the conscious purpose of organising the mass of workers politically and establishing democratic workers’ control and leadership on a fighting socialist programme.
Events have forced the trade unions and the UDF together. If the UDF were transformed by workers’ organisation and leadership, this would help ensure the political independence of the working class from the hitherto dominating influence of the middle class, while maintaining the unity of workers with the youth and all strugglers in the face of the enemy.
Marxists must join forces
Today the movement combines open and underground elements, with the emphasis on the former. Tomorrow, depending on the state’s actions, the emphasis may have to shift rather more to underground work for a time.
In either case it is necessary without delay for Marxists to join together in each area, wherever possible – within the unions, within the youth organisations, within the UDF – to build a conscious cadre, working-out and arguing the case for Marxist policies in a systematic way.
For a Two-Day National Strike
After the success of the Transvaal strike, the movement should set its sights – not immediately on an all-out general strike (although if that erupts spontaneously, as is possible, we would obviously give it full support) – but first on a two-day national general strike.
To the demands put forward in the Transvaal should be added a specific demand for a national minimum wage.
Such a strike would increase the pressure on the regime, further polarise the classes, and allow a testing of organisation and forces on a wider front. Then the weaknesses will be brought to light, and attention can be directed to overcoming these in preparation for further actions.
There cannot be a swift climax to the revolutionary struggle in South Africa; what is necessary are further well-prepared and thought-out actions building towards revolution.
The Transvaal strike will have driven home to many unorganised workers, especially in the state sector, the need for unionisation. To crack the problem of organising the railway workers will be especially important in the next period.
This should be possible with the resources of the new federation, whose launching is needed without delay. A target for the federation to grow to a million members within a year or two years should be seen as entirely realistic, and indeed vitally necessary, in the situation now opening-up.
In Natal, the problem of defeating the reactionary influence of Buthelezi should be made a top priority, or this will grow into a much more serious source of division and of strength for the regime.
While the industrial cities will be the main arena of the revolution, the situation also shows the necessity of establishing organised links between farm workers and industrial workers. In fact, to stretch the state forces beyond their capacity in future, and to give more impact to the struggles in the industrial areas, the movement must become generalised all over the country.
An extended period of thorough organisation, propaganda and agitation will be necessary to prepare for this, and the urban youth, together with the migrant workers, could play a key part in carrying it out.
If several thousand troops are needed to contain just one township – and then in a surprise manoeuvre and for just a few hours – how many would be needed to deal with simultaneous country-wide revolt? (With its conscript reserves fully mobilised, SA has just one soldier for every two-and-a-half square km, or one for every 50 of the black population.)
Conditions for Revolution Will Ripen
Over the next few years, although events will not progress in a straight line, the conditions for the outbreak of revolution in South Africa will surely ripen.
Once the movement gains real national cohesion: once the working class establishes its political leadership in a clear and organised way over the whole struggle; once the regime and the ruling class are thrown into hopeless disarray, and the middle class is torn in all directions; once the state forces are so stretched and divided that even the worst brutalities cannot sustain their morale or ensure their effectiveness: once the black youth and workers have gained the means of using armed force, at first in organised self-defence of townships, meetings, picket-lines and demonstrations – then the way will be prepared for the downfall of the regime.
That in turn will open the floodgates of revolution.
While there is still a way to go before that stage is reached, the magnificent struggles of the South African proletariat – an inspiration to oppressed and exploited people around the world – have certainly advanced society to the point where the light of victory is visible at the end of the tunnel.
© Transcribed from the original by the Marxist Workers Party (2020).