After the Crackdown – How to advance?

Defy the bans! Build the locals! Build the ANC!

Originally published in Inqaba ya Basebenzi No. 26 (April 1988).

Editorial Board Statement

15 March 1988

Botha’s 24 February crackdown on 18 organisations including Cosatu, Sayco and the UDF, is not a sign of strength. It is a sign of the crisis of the government.

Behind it lies the collapse of Botha’s “reform” programme. It therefore marks a turning point of the greatest significance.

The crackdown confronts our movement with many additional problems, that is true. But, by defying the crackdown and fighting back, we can show where the real strength in this country lies. It lies with the millions of black workers and youth, women and men, who have begun rising to their feet and will not submit to slavery again.

A New Stage

Botha’s crackdown in fact marks a stage in the development of the South African revolution. It shows that the regime, for all its talk of “reform”, cannot live with any genuine democratic organisation of the black majority.

The UDF, Sayco etc. are only allowed to keep their books, look after the furniture, and consult the lawyers! Everything else is illegal (except with the Minister’s permission). In effect, they are banned.

The government aims to restrict Cosatu to the narrowest shop-floor issues. It is banned from campaigning for the release of prisoners or against death sentences. It may not resist apartheid constitutional schemes or puppet authorities. It may not call for protests on 16 June, or other days of historic significance to our movement. It may not demand sanctions. It may not hold public meetings to discuss any of these things.

The Sharpeville Six

We salute the comrades facing death by the hangman Botha.

They were found guilty, not of killing, but of “common purpose” with those who killed the puppet deputy mayor of Sharpeville, a hired gangster of the regime. We all have a common purpose with them in fighting for the overthrow of the regime.

We demand the executions be stopped.

By murdering these comrades, Botha wants to terrorise opposition to his black puppet authorities and get black people to vote on 26 October. The result will be the opposite.

If Botha rejects clemency, if the executions take place, we can best avenge them by ensuring the biggest boycott campaign SA has seen.

The message must be carried all across the country:

* Whoever registers for Botha’s elections will be registering in the blood of the Sharpeville Six.

* Whoever votes on October 26 will be making a cross in the blood of the Sharpeville Six.

The campaign for a total boycott must begin now.

In this way we can build a monument of struggle to all the martyrs of our movement.

Labour Relations Bill

At the same time the trade unions are threatened by coming changes in the Labour Relations law. These:

  • will make it impossible to call a strike legally so long as a government inspector wants to delay it;
  • will prohibit solidarity strikes;
  • will make it easier for bosses to victimise shop stewards after strikes;
  • will allow union funds to be seized, and make unions pay the bosses for losses during strikes;
  • will enable the bosses legally to recognise splinter unions and Uwusa when these are rejected by most workers.

All these measures against the unions and Cosatu show that the government simply cannot live with a workers’ movement that fights for – or even expresses – the most basic aspirations for freedom and a better life.

The latest crackdown, taken together with the State of Emergency and the Labour Bill, proves that the majority of the people of SA can expect nothing from this government but the boot. It must be overthrown. Millions more will see this clearly now.

Cosatu’s Tasks

We urge Cosatu to:

* Make the days of action proposed for 11-13 April a national protest strike (with Sayco and the UDF) to signal defiance of the crackdown and the Labour Relations Bill.

* Relaunch the Living Wage Campaign by naming a figure (e.g. R180 for a 40-hour week) as the national minimum wage demand.

* Speed-up mergers into big industrial unions. Complete the organisation of transport workers, as far as possible joined in one union.

* Step-up efforts to organise farm workers, and the unemployed.

* Set targets for doubling the strength of Cosatu over the next two years.

* Declare readiness to go on an illegal footing if the government continues to make lawful functioning of Cosatu impossible. Declare an intention to disobey the crackdown and the Labour Relations Bill. Implement the plans for meetings in every workplace to mobilise resistance.

* Threaten specific reprisal actions by workers in the factories, etc., if the Bill is implemented.

* Go further than the present demand that bosses state their opposition to the Labour Relations Bill. Workers should demand a public undertaking from every boss not to use the provisions of the new Bill against the unions. They should promise in writing not to sue unions for damages, not to victimise militants through selective re-hiring, not to recognise splinter unions or Uwusa, or take advantage of the new definitions of “unfair labour practices”. Denounce them strongly when they refuse to sign.

* Call on the township youth to join directly with shop stewards everywhere in building industrially-based locals to lead the campaigns.

Forward Cosatu!

Confession of Bankruptcy

The crackdown is a public confession that Botha’s stated policy of “power-sharing” is bankrupt. In fact it always was a lie.

No power has been given to the black people. Instead the white ruling class has merely “shared” the job of oppressing us with some black dogs.

For every welcome step away from old apartheid – in hotels and cinemas, job reservation, passes and so on – they have trampled further upon the basic human rights of the black majority. Repression is more savage, poverty worse, unemployment higher, exploitation more naked than ever before. White domination is just as bad as when the “reformer” Botha came to office, and all the more intolerable.

No genuine democratic reform is possible under this government.

Negotiation Useless

Those leaders in Congress who have argued that democratic progress could be won through negotiation are proved wrong. They should now correct their position. The Marxist Workers’ Tendency of the ANC has been right to insist all along that democracy through negotiation would be impossible.

It was said by some Congress leaders in the past that a policy of negotiation was all right because only the “handover of power” would be negotiated. Who in Congress could oppose a peaceful transfer of power to the majority? But it is not possible. The crackdown proves it. We should not spread illusions in the impossible. Those who would negotiate “a settlement” with this regime, will be negotiating their own surrender.

The regime and the ruling class cannot and will not concede power to the majority; they cannot even “share” it. They must be overthrown. That is the clear message of this crackdown.

We must have unity throughout Congress on the basis that our movement’s task is to prepare and organise the overthrow of the regime. It cannot be less than that.

Blunder by the Regime

The crackdown is in fact a blunder by the regime, which our movement must take advantage of.

With a stroke of his pen, Botha may restrict public leaders of the Congress organisations in SA, and hamper legal activities. But his laws cannot un-write what is written by the organised strength of the working class. This is the stronger law.

He seems to have forgotten something. We did not ask or get permission to build the youth and community organisations in the first place, or to make the schools centres of struggle, or to organise the boycotts and rent strikes.

We did not ask or get permission from the government or the bosses to launch industrial action or build independent unions, establishing worker organisation under democratic control in thousands of factories, mines and shops.

The strength of our movement comes from that. It has never depended on legality, or tolerance of the leadership by the bosses or the state. We have built our movement despite their laws, despite their repression.

We must show, by organising effective resistance, that they are trying to exercise a power against us which they do not have.

Then millions more black working people will take new confidence in their own strength; the enemy will be more deeply demoralised and split; new retreats will follow from a position of greater weakness of the regime; and the road towards victory in the revolution will open once again in front of our struggle.

Motive Behind “Reform”

It was when our enemies found they could not stop us by their old methods of repression, that they turned to “reform”.

The 1979 Wiehahn reform of trade union laws was brought in to try and control what they could no longer hope to crush. Their hesitation to ban the UDF over five years was because they knew they could not thereby stop the hundreds of grassroots organisations, built beneath.

The movement has used the space of legal “tolerance” to advantage. But (as the Marxists in Congress always warned), that situation could not last.

The millions of oppressed people entering the unions, the youth and community bodies, have seen the horizon of freedom lighten ahead – and have pressed forward again and again to use their new-found strength. But the government, the ruling class, and the whites generally, have no intention of giving up minority domination. They have tried to change some little things so the big things would not have to change.

This is what they hoped. But it has not worked. The confidence and determination of black people to struggle has risen again and again. For this reason each “reform” and retreat by our rulers has been matched by repression harsher than before.

Yet that too has not solved their crisis. In 20 months of the State of Emergency they have failed to make the black working people knuckle down again under their dictatorship. Tens of thousands of arrests, horrific tortures, massacres by vigilantes – for all the suffering and setbacks they have caused – have failed to instil a sense of defeat among us. Nor will this crackdown do so now.

Resistance Hardens and Spreads

1987 saw industrial battles unmatched in our history. The railway workers have risen; the mineworkers have tested their muscle; even shop-workers today can be proud of their power. The mood of industrial militancy continues now, helped by the present upturn in the economy.

The rural areas are seething. Farm strikes have already broken out in Natal and the Western Cape.

Round Pietermaritzburg since August, the armed defence and fightback of Congress youth against the Inkatha and Uwusa gangsters’ reign of terror, has broken the spell of Buthelezi’s “invincibility”. The regime has to send in police and kitskops by the thousand as a last hope of propping up their servant.

White supremacy has long leaned on the supposed “conservatism” of rural black people – in reality a reflection of the helplessness and isolation felt in rural life.

But the struggles of town and country are being drawn together as never before. The links of migrant labour, the breakdown of influx control, all strengthen the sense of a unified power and a common destiny as one proletariat and one people able to fight the miseries of the system.

At this very time the white state power is forced to compensate for its weakness of numbers by gathering round it, especially from the rural areas, unemployed blacks to serve as “greenflies” and kitskops against the movement. Brutal as their methods are, they remain a very unsure footing for the white regime.

That has been shown by the municipal police “riot” in Sebokeng; by the mutinies of SWATF troops in Angola; and above all by the Bop coup. It will yet be shown in Natal, and all over the country. It will turn into a factor of yet greater crisis for the regime, once these forces are shown our movement’s greater force, and helped to realise their common interest with the rest of their people and class in the overthrow of white supremacy.

Government Policy Crumbling

The building blocks of Botha’s policy are crumbling one by one.

In 1984-86, the township revolt shattered the system of black puppet councils. These discredited bodies survive now only by the strength of the white state. They have to be held together with clamps.

The revolts in the Winterveld, in KwaNdebele, and last year in Botshabelo, showed how far the foundations of the bantustan system have eroded away. The coups and attempted coups in Transkei, Ciskei, Venda and Bophuthatswana bear witness to the underlying instability.

Only 6% voted in the Bop “elections”. Now the February rebellion by troops in this “showpiece” bantustan, which had to be put down by the SADF, has exploded forever what remained of the myth of independence.

Centrepiece of Botha’s Policy Wrecked

The “tricameral” parliament, with its stooge chambers for coloureds and Indians, has already shown itself useless either to satisfy the needs of the coloured and Indian people or to save the regime from demands for full political rights for all blacks. Now the spreading revolt in the rural areas of the Western Cape indicates that new elections for the coloured chamber would produce an even more absolute rejection of Hendrickse and such collaborators than in 1984.

At the same time Botha’s “National Council”, planned as the vital next stage of constitutional “negotiation” and “reform”, has run onto the rocks. This fact is of the greatest significance, a turning point in the crisis of the present government and system.

Among the factors which have shipwrecked the NC is the heroic fightback of the Natal youth. With his political base evaporating, Buthelezi has feared all the more to expose himself by entering the NC now.

Not only Buthelezi, but even the head of QwaQwa, has declined to take part. Mayor Mahlatsi, the crawler who gave Botha the “Freedom of Lekoa” and was personally invited to participate in the NC, has also turned it down! Even the puppets refuse to be raised higher.

While they lick their lips at the thought of the rewards, they realise there is no real power on offer; they know they would be reviled everywhere; and they can see the scheme is unworkable and wouldn’t last.

They say that Nelson Mandela and other prisoners must first be released and exiles allowed to return. This is allegedly so that the Congress leadership would he “free” to enter the NC too! That would supposedly give Buthelezi and company their excuse. But this is a fantasy of the collaborators.

Regime Caught in Contradictions

The Botha regime would like to release political prisoners… if there would not be an upsurge of mass struggle as a result! But even the extreme caution of comrade Govan Mbeki after his release proved too “provocative” for Botha, who has restricted him again cruelly.

The regime would like to release political prisoners… if they would be prepared to negotiate a surrender to white supremacy in a disguised form! But it is hardly for that that Congress leaders have stayed steadfast in prison all these years.

The regime is not now, and never has been, prepared to negotiate a transfer of real power into black hands, let alone into the hands of the black masses.

Because of the revolutionary pressure of the black working class (on the one hand), and the reactionary pressure of the white Conservatives (on the other), the regime cannot now even afford to give the impression that real power is up for negotiation.

All they have hoped for in proposing the National Council was to ensnare African collaborators into the “reformed” structures of white supremacy at national level, into further constitutional organs of divide-and-rule, on the promise that something further would develop later by “evolution”.

They have hoped, once in that position, to try and entice more credible “black leaders” – even some Congress leaders – into the “reformed” constitutional system, on the argument that it had become established and could not be undone. That has been the scheme of deception. But in fact they cannot even achieve a respectable beginning for the National Council itself.

Some of the collaborators may yet enter the NC, to get their snouts deeper into the trough. But it will never amount to more than a stinking pig-sty, of no credit to the government or to them.

Division Among Whites

Botha’s regime is becoming reduced to tricks and dodges. He has made promises on all sides which he cannot keep. This is being exposed relentlessly.

He promised whites to preserve their supremacy by taming the blacks with “reform”. Instead he has inflamed black anger everywhere. Now his blunders will show up the fact, once again, that repression cannot tame the blacks either.

He promised that “reform” would improve economic growth, and enable the living standards of all to rise. Instead he has presided over a capitalist crisis of inflation, unemployment, hunger and industrial decay, which has spurred on the revolution.

While the rich get richer, it is not only black poverty which has worsened. There are now thousands of unemployed and destitute white families. Also, the wages of large sections of the white working class have begun to fall. Now Botha has imposed a wage freeze on the public sector!

The white working class can never again be reconciled to the Nationalist government, which presides over the most vicious anti-working class policy (against both black and white workers).

The blind revolt of the white ultra-right, under the Conservatives and the AWB, shows in outline the horrible race war that would be unleashed if the black workers’ revolution in South Africa does not triumph. But it is necessary also to point out that the advance of the ultra-right is a symptom of the break-up of the old cohesion of white society, and shows the underlying weakness of the white supremacist regime.

On the “left” of white politics there is an absolute farce of splits and splinters among liberals left high and dry as society polarises for revolution.

If the liberals are bankrupt, it is equally the case that the ultra-right fanatics cannot rescue white working people from the crisis of the system. This will be exposed in time. Even in the present struggles developing in the public sector many lessons will be learned, that racism offers workers no future.

Our movement has to show the white working class forcefully that their only way out lies in solidarity with the black working class, for a non-racial democratic and socialist future. Combined with armed self-defence of our movement, a policy of non-racial class struggle against the government and bosses is the way to defeat the Conservatives and fascists, and prepare the overthrow of the state itself.

The class division and revolt opening up among the whites meanwhile adds enormously to the contradictions in which the regime is trapped.

Fight the wage freeze!

Cosatu, SARHWU and POTWA should organise a public sector strike of black and white workers together

The crisis of Botha’s government and the capitalist system is shown by the wage freeze imposed on public sector workers. He has also called for the private sector to follow suit.

Inflation is running at 15%. Food prices have trebled since 1980. But this doesn’t count with the ruling class. People don’t count. Profits count.

There is a small upturn in the economy after years of recession and greater hardship. But the benefits are to be grabbed by the rich. Workers are expected to pay for increased government spending on police and military repression.

Workers are expected to tighten their belts and accept redundancies so the state corporations can be made attractive for private sale to the monopolies.

White public sector workers are in revolt. But their union leaders are weak and cowardly. They shrink from action. Where has their racism got them? The government no longer protects them. The ultra-right Conservatives stand for “the state and law and order”. Will they back an illegal strike on the railways, in the post office and other parts of the state?

Some white workers are beginning to look to SARHWU, to POTWA, to Cosatu. They admire the fighting strength of the black workers. We must show them that their future lies in breaking with racism, in fighting together with us.

There are more black workers than white workers in the public sector. Our wages are also frozen.

The wage freeze will mean black railway workers will lose the gains made in last year’s strike. Real wages will be back to 1986 levels.

Black postal workers’ wages will be less than half the value they had in 1986.

Our unions have to fight. So let us fight now! Take advantage of the revolt among white workers. Put the white union leaders and the ultra-right on the spot. Break white workers from the bad tradition of scabbing on black workers’ strikes.

Organise a national strike of public sector workers for higher wages. Call on the white unions to join in. Let the rank-and-file black workers go to their white fellow workers over the heads of the union leaders and urge them to take united action on a joint program of wage demands.

Organise solidarity action from all workers. Private sector wages will also be driven down if Botha’s wage freeze in the public sector succeeds. The freeze must be broken. All Cosatu unions should combine in a campaign of explanation and a program of action now.

Draw in the youth movement to help in the campaign. Strike a blow at Botha, the bosses and the ultra-right. Divide the white workers from their racist exploiters. Draw them into Cosatu. Draw them into the struggle against the Labour Relations Bill.

Against privatisation!

For a national minimum living wage for all workers!

Automatic increases in all workers’ wages to match inflation! Across the board increases to make up for past losses and get some benefit from the economic upturn while it lasts!

For non-racial unity in action of the working class!

Unbridgeable Gulf

The regime’s plans are wrecked in reality by the immense gulf in society which has been created between white and black, rich and poor, capitalist and worker. The interests of the masters and the slaves cannot be reconciled. Only a revolutionary reconstruction of society can reconcile the people of South Africa.

It is the determination of the black working class to fight for majority rule – the only road forward to freedom from oppression and exploitation – which ultimately bankrupts the schemes of the government and all its would-be collaborators.

This determination to fight is stronger than ever, needing only clear leadership and a definite plan of action to draw the forces together. It is upon this rock that Congress strategy for resisting the crackdown must be based.

We Can Defeat Botha’s Aims

The present crackdown on the mass Congress organisations is the direct result of the collapse of the government’s so-called “reform” programme. This understanding must be carried the length and breadth of South Africa, to help inspire confidence that a fightback can succeed.

Trying to make the best of the mess his policy is in, Botha hopes by displays of kragdadigheid to slow the drift of white voters to the right during 1988. At the same time, he cannot admit the failure of his “reform” policy. Therefore he is attempting to reconstruct what has already failed – starting with the local authorities due for election in October.

The main objective of the banning is to hamper Congress from campaigning effectively for a boycott of these elections, and of elections for the racist tricameral parliament which may have to take place before September 1989.

Despite the bannings – indeed, all the more because of them – we have every possibility of inflicting more humiliating defeats on this government by rousing and spreading mass opposition still further.

To achieve success, Congress needs to build on its real strength. By means of a clear plan of action, the thousands of grassroots working class bodies organised in the workplaces, townships and schools must be mobilised to the full and set to work without delay.

A position of absolute defiance of the crackdown by the whole Congress leadership is the necessary starting-point for a successful fightback.

A Strategy of Defiance

Since the 24 February crackdown, the most defiant attitude to the government has actually been expressed by bishops and priests.

The UDF’s proposals for a stay-away on 21 March, welcome as they are, could and should have been made a lot earlier. As of today, the call had still not been made public. Cosatu should urgently declare full support. Only a matter of days will be available for activists to organise a mass response.

It is urgent that our movement’s recognised leaders – if necessary, yes, by breaking the law – must give a clear signal to the entire movement that a policy of resolute defiance and resistance is the only realistic response to these attacks.

Secondly, clear guidance must be given to the tens of thousands of active strugglers in the Congress organisations, of what to do, when to do it, how to do it.

The emergency Cosatu conference of 2,000 delegates, called for 9/10 April, will be a good opportunity to spread the message and provide a co-ordinated national lead. But it is also possible that the conference may be banned. A fighting policy by the leadership should therefore be announced in detail, and discussed now in the workplaces without waiting for or simply depending on the conference to take place.

As it is impossible to operate effectively and comply with Botha’s law, the leadership of the movement will have to operate underground to a much greater extent than before.

The crippling of the UDF’s legal leadership by Botha’s restrictions makes it all the more important now for the African National Congress to directly assume the leading role in the movement from the underground.

The correctness of the Marxists’ slogan is confirmed. It is time to build a mass ANC!

Build Underground Cells and Networks

There should be ANC cells established in every workplace, every school, and every locality. These should usually consist of between five and ten comrades each.

These cells should take the lead in organising and guiding self-defence units to protect strikes, demonstrations and meetings against vigilantes like Inkatha and Uwusa, and against attacks by police and troops.

Many of the needed arms can be locally obtained, improvised, or even manufactured by workers. At the same time, it is now urgently necessary for the ANC leadership to begin supplying arms it has obtained over 25 years, to the developing self-defence organisations of the workers and youth.

ANC cells in the workplaces, schools, etc., should give constant attention to discussing developments in the political situation; consulting their fellow workers and youth; passing on their own and others’ opinions to the ANC leadership; and in turn receiving, discussing and passing on the advice of the leadership.

ANC cells should take an active part in gathering material for publication in the movement’s papers.

Unfortunately, over the past twelve years since the Soweto uprising, not enough has been done to prepare all the necessary facilities and networks for printing and distributing pamphlets and papers clandestinely, on a mass scale. We must turn all available resources towards doing so without further delay.

The ANC should be built to function as a revolutionary party organised among the mass of the black working class.

Build the locals as centres for the fightback!

The main strength of our movement is the organisations of the workers in the workplaces, where it is impossible for the enemy to root them out.

All organised workplaces, irrespective of union, should be linked together in every industrial area through the building of industrial locals.

While our enemies attack and restrict Cosatu from above, we can strengthen and build Cosatu from below.

Strong locals will mean an invincible Cosatu. Strong locals will be the most effective way of organising and leading the fightback against the crackdown and the Labour Bill.

The locals should be organised by workers and youth together. The township youth organisations, now forced underground, should be directly involved in and linked to the industrial locals nearest to them. Along with this, the women of the townships should be drawn in, to couple their fighting strength with the strength of the workers at the point of production.

Our workplace strength must reinforce the townships movement, while the revolution in the townships is carried to the workplaces.

The ANC cells, as they grow, would also be linked in at every point, able to guide and inspire the whole development.

By these means we can make the regime regret it ever imposed this crackdown on the legal Congress structures.

We can turn this blunder of Botha’s into a severe political setback for the regime and for the bosses.

We can make it a turning point for our movement, organising more strongly at the base, and preparing for a new advance.

Comrades, with the Congress leadership subject to heavy restrictions by the state, the responsibility rests directly on each and every militant in the workplaces, the schools, the townships and villages to act.

Defy the crackdown!

Fight the Labour Bill!

Build the locals! Build the ANC!

What We Stand For

The Marxist Workers’ Tendency of the African National Congress stands for the overthrow of the racist South African government.

We stand for the overthrow of the bosses, too, and for common ownership of their wealth.

We stand for national liberation, democracy and socialism.

We are part of the ANC, and of the Congress movement – Cosatu, Sayco and the UDF.

A “tendency” in politics means a definite line of thinking. The Marxist Workers’ Tendency is the group-name for comrades in Congress who share the following ideas, and work together to further them. We say that:

* Freedom for the black people can come only through majority rule.

* Majority rule will not be given by the racist oppressors or the masters we work for; it will have to be taken by force.

*This means armed revolution is necessary, and cannot be avoided by negotiations.

* Victory depends on the power of the black working class (workers united, together with youth) to conquer the state and the bosses.

* We must aim to split the white army, to isolate the bosses, pulling working class and other less-privileged whites towards our struggle.

* We will need an ANC government of working class power, based on an armed people.

* This will be necessary to crush the resistance of the racists and the bosses, so that the Freedom Charter can be carried out.

* Such a government alone can ensure democracy, and with such a government the socialist reconstruction of South Africa will begin.

* In this way, and by uniting with the working class worldwide to change society, we can build a future of freedom, prosperity, dignity and equality for all.

Do you agree? If so, we urge you to join us in building the ANC and the Congress movement to achieve these aims.

© Transcribed from the original by the Marxist Workers Party (2021).