On the 45th Anniversary of the Soweto Uprising: An Appeal to Young People
On the 45th anniversary of the school students’ revolt of 1976 we are re-publishing in a new booklet The Soweto Uprising by Weizmann Hamilton, general secretary of the Marxist Workers Party. Together with a number of comrades from Noordgesig, a township on the northern fringe of Soweto, Weizmann served two spells of detention in solitary confinement in 1975 and 1976. He was charged, alongside fellow comrades Johnny Ramrock and Chris Weimers, with conspiring to overthrow the state under the Suppression of Communism and Terrorism Acts. The case against them collapsed following the heroic refusal of Patrick McGluwa and Raymond Burgers to give evidence for the state. They were sentenced to twelve months in prison for contempt of court. Weizmann, Johnny and Chis were given five-year banning and house arrest orders in May 1976. To evade arrest after the outbreak of the 16 June uprising they went into exile shortly afterwards.
Weizmann’s 1986 article draws-out the lessons of the historic 1976 youth revolt. It was originally written to arm the working class youth struggling against apartheid with the ideas and method of Marxism. It is now more than a generation since the defeat of white-minority rule but the development of the youth movement of the 1970s and 1980s is still rich in lessons for young activists.
This new introduction by Shaun Arendse takes these lessons and applies them to the situation facing young people today. Central amongst these is the decisive role of the working class in the struggle to fundamentally change society. Understanding this is the key needed for today’s youth to unlock the programme, tactics and strategy that can build a movement to rival that of the 1970s and 1980s. It is only through struggle that the majority of the youth will be able to seize the bright future that should be theirs by right.
The 1976 uprising was prepared by important changes in the economy. The boom years of the 1960s and early 1970s saw the expansion of factories and a doubling of manufacturing. The white bosses’ demand for skilled labour grew. The size of the black working class in the cities and industrial areas swelled. The apartheid regime’s policies of national oppression increasingly conflicted with the need for labour ‘free’ from influx control and the pass laws.
The children of the workers were crammed in to underfunded and overcrowded schools. The curriculum was determined by the regime’s conflicting need to maintain the political oppression of the black majority while also increasing the supply of skilled labour. It was through the cracks prised open by these contradictions that the movement of the youth flowed.
The entire international situation fuelled the confidence of the youth. The waves of the Colonial Revolution were lapping at the shores of apartheid South Africa. The Portuguese Revolution of 1974 led to the loss of its colonial outposts – Guinea Bissau in West Africa, and, closer to home, Mozambique and Angola. The coming to power of Frelimo in Mozambique in 1975 sparked celebrations and the organisation of “Viva Frelimo!” rallies. The ring of steel protecting white minority rule was being challenged from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean by the growing successes of the liberation struggle in Namibia, Angola, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
The introduction of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in the schools was calculated to intensify the national oppression of the black majority. But it was imposed at the moment that the regime’s weaknesses were becoming visible on the borders. Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of ‘Bantu education’, had infamously proclaimed that education for blacks was aimed at turning them into docile “hewers of wood and drawers of water”. But the regime’s imposition of Afrikaans had the opposite effect. It provoked rage amongst the school students. On 16 June 1976 they rose-up against the latest manifestation of their national oppression.
The Youth in 2021
In 2021 apartheid and white-minority rule are gone. But the capitalist economy continues to determine the life-chances of the 38 million under 35 year-olds – 63% of the population. This is especially the case for the black and coloured youth. For this young majority South Africa is a hostile place where youth is endured rather than enjoyed.
The ANC is the only government the youth have ever known. But it is incapable of reviving the crisis ridden South African economy. Corruption, incompetence and general government dysfunction are an outcome, rather than the cause, of this simple fact. Even the most basic needs of the masses cannot be met. President Ramaphosa, his ministers and MPs have no solution to the disaster of mass unemployment or the crises facing young people in the schools, colleges and universities.
Millions of children grow-up in households existing below the poverty line. 50,000 of these are themselves ‘child-headed’. Hunger, malnutrition, poor quality housing, inadequate health care and social services blight the lives of millions of children before they even walk.
In poor communities, public schools are still overcrowded and under-resourced. Many lack basic infrastructure such as running water and flushing toilets, especially in rural areas. Many more schools lack libraries, text books and labs. Barely 40% of learners that begin school succeed in matriculating. School drop-out rates are around 40%. The Covid-19 pandemic has now added to this disastrous picture. Primary school children have been in class for just 20% of the usual time over the last fifteen months. School absenteeism is up across all grades.
But the ANC-government’s latest budgets have cut school infrastructure spending and money for new teachers. Spending per learner has decreased over the last decade by an average of 2% every year. Teachers pay, along with all other public sector workers, has been frozen. Even more disgustingly, ANC politicians and politically-connected business people are happy to exploit child poverty for self-enrichment. In the last year, both Gauteng’s school nutrition and school sanitisation programmes have been implicated in tender corruption.
The Technical and Vocational Education and Training colleges (the TVETs) are often no better resourced than the schools. They also suffer from poor management and corruption. Of South Africa’s fifty TVETs, nine have recently been in government administration due to financial mismanagement. Barely 11% of TVET students achieve a qualification even after six years of study! When they do, there is a huge backlog in issuing certificates. The picture does not improve much at the ‘historically black’ universities, the former Technikons. The small minority of young people who do reach higher education face enormous financial obstacles. The result is high levels of financial and academic exclusions.
The move to ‘online learning’ as a result of the pandemic has added further obstacles. Working class youth from poor schools where they have never had access to computers are forced to learn through university-based internet platforms in communities where there is frequent load shedding and poor internet connectivity. Less than 40% of TVET students have even been offered online learning during the pandemic.
The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) is in disarray. In May 2021,Yonwabo Manyanya, a young woman studying at the eThekwini TVET College died as a result. The withholding of NSFAS payments, together with the crisis of student accommodation, led to her being evicted from her room. She died of hunger and exhaustion after spending three days homeless. At the Eastcape Midlands TVET in Makhanda thirty students were forced to sleep rough. Even at elite institutions such as Wits University a staggering 72% of students require some form of financial aid.
But the ANC-government has cut R24 billion from the budget of the Department of Higher Education and Training, responsible for TVETs, universities and the already inadequate NSFAS. Former-ANC President Jacob Zuma’s 2017 ‘free’ education promise was nothing more than a factional manoeuvre in his (unsuccessful) struggle for control of the ANC. His corruption trial will begin soon.
The minority of young people with jobs are concentrated in casual, low-paid work in traditionally unorganised sectors. Here young workers face brutal exploitation at the hands of their bosses. The scramble to gain ‘work experience’ is exploited through unpaid internships and other so-called ‘on the job training’. Those that find better-paying skilled work often begin their working lives weighed down by student debts.
Many young people are failed by the education system and economy entirely. More than 8.5 million 15-34 year olds (42%) are so-called ‘NEETs’ – Not in Employment, Education or Training. Among 15-24 year olds the figure is nearly 75%. The lack of working-age social grants forces young people to remain dependent on their families. The pathetically small ‘emergency’ R350 Covid grant has already been cancelled.
Nearly one in five young people say the reason they have not continued with their education is that they have no money. Nearly one in ten name ‘family commitments’ as the main reason. Almost all of these are young women expected to take responsibility for childcare and domestic chores. Another one in ten simply say that education is “useless”.
Mass unemployment is the biggest disaster facing the youth. Not enough jobs are created to even keep pace with population growth. This hits young people entering the ‘job market’ for the first time hardest. Now the pandemic and the economic disruption caused by lockdowns has destroyed millions more jobs. An incredible 42% of the working-age population is unemployed.
The ANC government’s only answer to this has been the slave-labour of Expanded Public Works Programmes like the National Youth Service. So-called ‘participants’ are exempt from the protection of labour legislation and the minimum wage. The latest slave-labour gimmicks being rolled-out under the Presidential Youth Employment Intervention are more of the same.
Unwilling and unable to offer any real solutions to unemployment the government sells the youth fantasies. Government bodies, such as the National Youth Development Agency, sell dreams about entrepreneurship and ‘youth-owned’ enterprises. They are backed-up by NGOs and much of the mainstream media who endlessly bang the drum of “entrepreneurship”. If not this then become rich as a social media ‘influencer’! But most small, medium and ‘micro’ businesses (so-called SMMEs) do not survive in ‘normal times’. In 2020 as a result of the lockdowns it is estimated that 43% of SMMEs were wiped-out.
The enormous challenges faced by young people slowly kill dreams. When hope is smothered it should be no surprise that bullying in schools, drugs, crime and gangsterism become problems.
The youth are the future of every society. But a decent future is not on offer to the majority of young people. However the wealth and resources necessary to end poverty and unemployment exist. High quality free education, guaranteed jobs and decent wages are all possible. It is the economic and political system of capitalism that prevents society’s resources being used for this.
Capitalism is a system based on the private ownership of the economy. It dominates the entire world. All of society’s key resources are owned and controlled by the tiny capitalist class. The banks, the mines, the big farms, the factories, big shops, the cell phone companies etc. are run to make profits for their owners and not to meet the needs of society. The result is that in South Africa just 1% of the population owns 71% of all wealth and the three richest R-billionaires have more than the poorest 28 million people. Adding insult to injury, the profits of the capitalist class are all created by exploiting the labour of the working class majority. Profit is nothing more than the unpaid labour of the working class expropriated by the capitalists.
The ANC came to power in 1994 on the votes of the working class but representing the interests of the aspirant black capitalists. They not only preserved the capitalist system into which they wanted to be absorbed but embarked on a massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. Every expectation of the masses for jobs, housing, healthcare and service delivery has necessarily gone unmet. The World Bank itself, one of the main architects of the global capitalist economic order, has declared South Africa the most unequal country on the planet.
The ANC government, and all of the political parties represented in parliament, defend capitalism. This is the fundamental reason that they cannot solve the problems facing young people. The capitalist parties only disagree with each other over how to manage capitalism. Even their fiercest squabbles are often little more than disagreements about how to divide society’s wealth amongst themselves. Corruption and mismanagement are all symptoms of the fact that the capitalist politicians have no alternative to the profit system.
The youth will have to fight for their future. Like the youth of 1976 the entire situation facing young people today pushes them to take to the streets. In the townships, frustration and anger at unemployment and poverty often places young people at the heart of ‘service-delivery protests’. Protests by university students at the ‘historically black institutions’ (HBIs) have been an annual event for years. Since the 2015 #FeesMustFall student movement the ‘historically white institutions’ (HWIs) also erupt regularly in struggle. In January 2017 TVET students’ anger exploded in protests closing twenty colleges. The youth have demonstrated tremendous energy and courage. But these struggles have not yet coalesced into a more decisive uprising. The experience of the youth of 1976 and the unfolding of the class struggle thereafter can help explain why.
Lessons of the 1970s and 1980s
It was not just the international background that was crucial to shaping the militancy of the youth in 1976. A revival of the workers’ movement had also taken place in the years immediately before. The 1973 Durban strikes were a watershed in working class struggle. The strikes confirmed the return of the organised working class to the national stage and had a profound effect on the confidence of the oppressed masses. The repressive power of the apartheid regime had succeeded in supressing the mass movement of the 1950s culminating in a State of Emergency imposed in 1960. In 1973 the workers showed that the state was not all powerful after all.
However, as the working class youth in the schools began to move into action they did not at first look to the workers movement as a point of reference. The fusion of the workers and the youth movements required the experience of both. Instead they followed the lead of the small number of black university students and looked to the ideas of Black Consciousness (BC) for guidance and unity in struggle. As we explain in The Soweto Uprising the working class school students rapidly put these ideas to the test.
The racist regime did not hesitate to unleash brutal state repression on the protesters. The working class youth were forced to learn that on their own they did not have the power to defeat the regime. But their working class parents did. In the 1970s the youth learned a foundational lesson of Marxism, not in books, but through experience: the revolutionary role of the working class.
Workers then, as today, are organised by the capitalist economy. They are brought together in large numbers in mines, factories, on the farms, the construction sites and in the warehouses and big shops. They load and drive the buses, trains, trucks and ships that move people and goods. If workers withdraw their labour society’s economic heartbeat is stopped dead. The building of trade unions and strike action is the first step in workers translating their economic power into political power.
In 1976 the working class youth discovered where the real power of their class was to be found. Appeals to their worker-parents for solidarity succeeded in waves of strike action as early as August 1976 and continued in 1977. At their height 750,000 workers took part in a three day stay-away.
In the 1970s, as we explain in The Soweto Uprising, the ideas of Black Consciousness were generally progressive. All black people experienced racial oppression and humiliation under apartheid. In the face of this BC taught pride and confidence and the idea of ‘black power’. Amongst the youth in particular BC played a unifying role challenging the racial divisions the apartheid regime attempted to reinforce between coloureds, Indians and Africans. BC’s definition of ‘black’ encompassed all of the oppressed. This could seem adequate to young people with no direct experience of class exploitation in the workplace. But BC’s vision was limited to ending the racial divisions in society and insufficiently conscious of the class roots of these divisions. It proved inadequate to mobilise the youth’s worker-parents who experienced racial oppression as inseparable from class exploitation. BC could not give answers to workers looking to break free from both. Mobilisations of workers under the BC banner were attempted, for example the Black and Allied Workers Union. But this sought to draw the workers behind the youth instead of the other way round.
By 1980 a new strike wave was sweeping the country coinciding with a new round of school boycotts. By the late 1970s and early 1980s Black Consciousness was in serious decline. More and more youth turned to the task of building trade unions. Many former BC activists played a role in building new ‘general’ unions.
The youth played a key role in the uprisings of 1984-85. They consciously turned to the workplace and township organisations that had been painstakingly built. The largely-improvised turn to the workers organisations in 1976 was replaced with an increasingly conscious policy. At the end of 1985 workers launched the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). The new federation united trade unions from different traditions, including those that the youth of ‘76 played an important role in building. In doing so Cosatu married the energy and initiative of the youth who, as learners now turned into workers, had been baptised in the struggle against national oppression, with the social weight, workplace organising traditions and class consciousness of the workers. By the second half of the 1980s Cosatu was established as the decisive reference point in the struggle against apartheid.
The ideas of socialism and Marxism were the natural ideological waters in which the leaders, shop stewards and activists of the 1970s and 1980s workers’ movement swam. There were of course debates about the interpretation and precise meaning of these ideas. The liberation struggles in Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe also helped prepare the ideological ground. These had been fought under the banner of Marxism. Distorted as this version of Marxism was it nevertheless popularised it and socialism amongst the youth. The centrality of the class struggle and the link between racial oppression and capitalist exploitation was firmly established in the movement. Even at the height of the apartheid state’s racist repression Cosatu maintained that “capitalism was the enemy” and that “socialism means freedom”.
Workers understood that swapping white bosses for black bosses would make little difference to the class exploitation that they suffered. The ideas of socialism, and their most developed expression in Marxism (also known as scientific socialism), answered this. Private property in the commanding heights of the economy must be abolished. The dictatorship of the bosses in the workplace needed to be replaced with democratic workers’ control and management. Not only could this end workers’ class exploitation, it would unlock the resources necessary to raise living standards and develop society. With the abolition of private ownership in the economy, planned production for social need would replace the profit motive.
The unfolding of the class struggle in the 1970s and 1980s was decisive in the political clarification of the youth and their role in the struggle to change society. The forward march of the youth was clearly inseparable from the forward march of the working class as a whole. Indeed, it depended upon it.
The 2015 #FeesMustFall (#FMF) movement was the biggest countrywide youth uprising since 1994. It inflicted a major defeat on the ANC-government. Mass protests forced the cancellation of a planned university fee increase. The question of genuinely free education was placed on the agenda. At the time #FMF was endlessly compared to 1976. It remains the most recent reference point whenever youth protest is discussed.
Just as the 1976 youth uprising followed in the wake of the Durban strikes, #FMF followed a dramatic explosion of working class militancy in the preceding two years. In 2012 mineworkers demanded a living wage of R12,500. Their strikes reached near-insurrectionary levels. The ANC-government and mine bosses responded by shooting dead 34 strikers. As we explained at the time, the Marikana massacre “drew a line in the sand dividing the post-apartheid era into two epochs” – the first with massive illusions in the ANC, the second with massive disillusionment in it. To defend the bosses interests the ANC-government adopted apartheid-style repression. Over six months strikes rolled across the mining industry. At their height the movement embraced 200,000 mineworkers.
As 2013 began farmworkers in the Western Cape followed the mineworkers’ example in their own insurrectionary strike movement. As the year unfolded major national strikes took place in construction and car manufacturing. Even petrol pump assistants embarked on a national strike. In early 2014 70,000 platinum mineworkers began fresh action to complete the unfinished business of 2012. Their five month strike was the longest wage-strike in SA’s history. As the platinum strike ended a five-week strike of 200,000 metal workers began.
Far-reaching political conclusions began to be drawn, especially by the workers directly involved in these strikes. The capitalist character of the ANC-government, the class collaborationist-trap of the Tripartite Alliance and the now treacherous role of the Cosatu leaders were laid bare. They had condemned the mineworkers’ strikes and were silent on the Marikana massacre. The conscious intervention of Marxists placed the question of an independent working class political party on the agenda. This strike wave shaped the outlook of the most advanced youth too. The Marikana massacre was a reference point for students during #FMF.
In the years after 1976 the workers movement continued a forward surge that would last into the 1990s. The decisive role of the organised working class was repeatedly demonstrated in round-after-round of struggle, drawing the youth to the workers’ banner. However the ebbing of the 2012-14 strike wave gave way to a more complicated situation in the workers’ movement just as the students began rising to their feet. The heroic and determined strike wave had not been sufficient to fully overcome the crisis of working class leadership.
Important developments nevertheless continued within the workers movement. Cosatu split in the course of 2013-15 and in 2017 the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) was founded. This was an historic if belated step forward for the working class. But the ideological and political confusion of the leadership has so far prevented Saftu from playing a role similar to that of the early Cosatu. The ideas of Marxism are mangled beyond recognition in the hands of some Saftu factions, socialism buried entirely by others. A workers party has still not been formed. A struggle is currently underway within Saftu demanding the implementation of resolutions committing it to bring such a party into existence.
Unlike in the years after 1976 the workers’ movement has not yet established itself as a pole of attraction for the youth. Especially for the majority outside of the workplaces the trade union movement can even appear unattractive. On the surface it appears paralysed by divisions and disunity, scarred by corruption and led by careerists and opportunists. The largest federation, Cosatu, props-up the ANC government and has even collaborated in the introduction of strike-breaking legislation. The lack of action against the ANC government’s attacks on public-sector pay over the past 18 months has set a negative example of how not to approach struggle!
Although it has broken from the ANC, Saftu does not offer the youth clear revolutionary ideas or a bold socialist programme. The Saftu general secretary hesitates to follow through on the logic of the processes that brought the federation into existence by acting decisively to assist the creation of a workers party. The general secretary of Numsa, Saftu’s biggest affiliate, echoes the rhetoric of ‘Radical Economic Transformation’ used to justify corruption and looting. Yet he leads the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party that claims to stand for the overthrow of capitalism!
Workers are well aware of the weaknesses of the current leaderships and the entrenched bureaucracies that defend them. But trade union membership stubbornly sticks at around 25% of the workforce regardless. This reflects the elemental class consciousness of the workers and the understanding that in almost every case an ineffective trade union is still a better defence against the bosses than no trade union.
The Working Class Youth
The crisis of working class leadership is holding back the forward march of the workers’ movement. It is also the decisive factor holding back the development of the youth movement. It explains why after #FeesMustFall’s October 2015 high point it failed to develop further and in fact degenerated in the years after.
It is commonplace to talk about ‘the youth’ as if all young people have the same interests, concerns and priorities. But Marxists are clear that ‘the youth’ are not an independent social force. They are part of the classes from which they come, albeit with their own special concerns and interests shaped by that class background.
In 1976 the working class school students in the townships were the motor force. The solution to the impasse their struggle had reached when confronted with the armed might of the apartheid state lay close at hand. It was relatively straightforward to discover the source of the working class’s strength in the social-position of their worker-parents.
In contrast to 1976 the university students were the driving force of the #FeesMustFall protests. The class background of these young people is far more mixed. The richest 20% of schools account for half of all matric ‘bachelor passes’, i.e. grades qualifying learners for university. Just 27% of learners from the poorest 20% of schools even pass matric. In 2019 only 5.8% of 18-29 year-olds reached the universities. Whilst 20% of white youth attended university, amongst black and coloured youth, only 4.3% and 4.6% did, notwithstanding that the overwhelming majority of university students are now black.
Students from working class and poor backgrounds of course took part in #FMF. Some TVETs and even some school students joined the protests. But no township school organisations developed as they did in 1976. The schools are fertile ground for political organisation but that still lies in the future. The forward march of the workers movement itself will be a crucial stimulus to new working class youth organisations. But for now the working class youth are largely unorganised. In the townships the churches, school clubs, sports clubs, and charity and NGO campaigns bring some structure. But none of these offers a political alternative to capitalism or provides a vehicle for struggle. They are well-meaning sticking plasters to make a hostile world more bearable.
The schools, like the colleges and universities, bring youth together in large numbers. This at least provides a potential framework for organisation. But the millions of NEET youth outside of the institutions of education and the workplaces are isolated and powerless. This contributes to the chaotic character of service-delivery protests in which these youth often participate. Isolated, episodic and uncoordinated these protests are easily suppressed or weathered by the government.
The working class youth majority did not have its own political voice as #FeesMustFall began. This, plus the absence of the workers’ movement as a decisive reference point shaped #FMF and its politics. The more privileged students, especially from the ‘historically white institutions’, were able to set the political and ideological ‘tone’ of the struggle. This is still the situation today.
Marxists characterise the university campuses as a petty bourgeois milieu (or environment). Modern capitalism has two decisive social classes – the capitalist class (or bourgeoisie) and the working class (or proletariat). It is in the workplaces that the capitalists and the workers meet and where each recognises the source of its power. The capitalist class through its ownership and control of the production process (backed up by the armed power of the capitalist state). The working class through the power of its labour to set the economy in motion or bring it to a halt. It is in the workplaces that the working class creates society’s wealth and where the capitalist class appropriates it for itself. The centrality of class to social power is demonstrated daily impressing itself on the consciousness of the antagonists. Marxism explains that this relationship and the class consciousness that emerges out of it is the motor of the class struggle driving history forward.
But between these two powerful giants are many middle social layers (or petty bourgeoisie). These middle classes neither own nor operate the means of production that are decisive for modern capitalism. They are therefore economically weak even if they number many millions of individuals. Politically they swing back and forth (or vacillate) between the working class and the capitalist class, ultimately dependent on the power of one or the other.
The university campuses are several steps removed from the motor of the class struggle. This does not mean that exploitation does not take place on the campuses or that the universities stand ‘above’ the class struggle. Nothing in a class divided society can do that. The contradictions of capitalism and the changing balance of class forces that sits atop it is primary in shaping the university campuses.
Individual universities have their own ‘balance of class forces’ further shaping them. Larger or smaller numbers of students from poor and working class backgrounds; greater or fewer numbers of big business representatives sitting on university councils; the strength of working class methods of organisation among staff etc. But regardless of the details of each institution the petty bourgeois environment remains the dominant feature of the university campuses. This is true even of the HBIs with larger numbers of students from poor and working class backgrounds. The consequence is that the class struggle is forever given a distorted expression on the campuses, especially in the struggles of the students themselves.
The different class backgrounds of students thrown together in one institution can give the appearance of a ‘united youth interest’. On the most immediate issues, such as class sizes, qualified lecturers, availability of learning material, textbooks etc., this is of course the case. On the issues that most affect students from poor and working class backgrounds, such as unaffordable fees, student debt, access to NSFAS, etc., some unity can be maintained. This was one of the most important features of #FeesMustFall. But the ‘united youth interest’ breaks down around more fundamental questions about the nature of society and what its future should look like. Especially in the absence of a militant and ideologically clear workers movement these issues are typically shrouded in confusion.
The university milieu itself pushes class into the background. Different nationalist ideologies, including modern variations of Black Consciousness, and other identity politics find a more natural home on the campuses than in the class struggle.
But if BC was inadequate for the struggles of the 1970s and 1980s when the enemy was a consciously racist state violently defending white-minority rule there is little hope for its modern variations after 27 years of ‘black majority rule’. The composition of the ruling class is far more complex today. The capitalist state is now controlled by the black political elite of the ANC. They are more than willing to use deadly force against the working class as shown by the Marikana massacre and the suppression of strikes and service-delivery protests. Violence was even unleased against students during #FeesMustFall and since. Through tenders, BEE and other policies for a racial re-division of society’s wealth within the ruling class a new black elite and small black capitalist class sits alongside the established white (monopoly) capitalists. They are united by their simultaneous fear and contempt for the predominantly black working class.
Ultimately, political ideas and ideologies that do not have class as their foundation become weapons in the service of anti-working class agendas. Today’s campus nationalism has little in common with the Black Consciousness of the 1970s. It is petty bourgeois nationalism in the fullest sense. When stripped of its rhetoric its class content ultimately reduces to a programme for the blackening of capitalism.
Marxists often describe the nationalism of the oppressed as the “outer shell” of “an immature class consciousness”. This is what BC represented amongst the working class youth of the 1970s as we explain in The Soweto Uprising. It can still represent that today, especially amongst students from poor and working class backgrounds. However, the failure to break through that “outer shell” can cause the potentially progressive content within to rot.
Post-1994 this can, and has, happened quickly. Today Black Consciousness is a spent force. It is split amongst competing organisations claiming to be the ‘true’ inheritors of Steve Biko’s legacy. The creation in 1998 of the Socialist Party of Azania (SOPA) suggested that the progressive content of BC might be piercing its shell. But it and other remnants of BC failed to sustain their move to the left. SOPA has now been given a quiet burial, replaced with the Black Consciousness Movement United. Its willingness to share a platform with representatives of the Khoi San House of Traditional Leaders was a final repudiation of BC’s progressive legacy.
In the absence of a militant and ideologically clear workers’ movement the shell’s contents can rot within the short time-frame of a single university career. The struggle, for example, for “economic freedom in our lifetime” can take on radically different meanings for youth from different class backgrounds and with different class aspirations. In the 1970s apartheid restricted the social mobility of all black people and blocked entry into the upper levels of society’s elite. Then, as today, the overwhelming majority of working class young people were destined to remain so.
But today a university degree can offer the chance for a small minority of working class youth to ‘escape’ their class background. Enormous sacrifices are made by working class families to ensure their children receive an education. Registration weeks become stampedes for places. A university education is seen as the pathway out of poverty with good reason. Less than 2% of the 7.2 million officially unemployed are graduates. The extent to which such ‘upward social mobility’ – the chance to become middle class – is viewed as a possibility can shape the outlook of a section of working class young people (and their parents). Entry into the student political organisations can even open the door to joining the political elite. For those aspiring to this, “economic freedom in our lifetime” can mean entrenching and extending class privileges that depend upon defending capitalism’s class inequalities and continuing the exploitation of workers. Every university student knows where they have come from. But where they are going has not yet been decided. This reinforces the petty bourgeois milieu of the campuses and further fuels political confusion.
A leading UCT student activist during #FeesMustFall and its predecessor #RhodesMustFall, who describes himself as a ‘coconut’ (a privileged middle class black youth), made the following honest observations about the role of the young black elite in the student movements:
The threat to #MustFall movements by coconuts and the black elite is neither direct nor upfront. It is cerebral. Like any good poker player, we never reveal our cards, unless we intend to. We influence the natural logic of these movements in such a way that their actions will not jeopardise our own ability to achieve economic freedom on our own accord. Our self-interest nurtures a desire to utilise both our access to resources and proximity to whiteness to maintain and grow our endowment of privileges. Whether it is through their ability to take control of plenaries, to provide resources to the movement, or as part of the silent majority of the silent majority, the black elite use their unique position in society to reinforce their need to achieve their own economic advancement. We are subtle in our influence but pervasive in our overall effect.
I don’t trust the black elite… I don’t trust them because I grew up among them and I have come to the realisation that, once they achieve their goal, they may just become worse than those we currently despise.
Coconuts and the black elite continuously demonstrate their inherent bias to preserve their privilege yet seem to believe they are the great allies of the revolutionary cause.
We disrespect the movement not through our acts, but in our ‘true’ intentions, intentions that should be but are often not interrogated.Rekgotsofetse Chikane, Breaking a Rainbow, Building a Nation (2018). Emphasis added.
The campus struggles over financial and academic exclusions are ultimately about the allocation of society’s wealth across the classes. They are a distorted reflection of the struggle between the working class and the capitalist class. But the struggles over the ‘identity’ of the campus that do not link, for example, ‘transformation’ and ‘decolonisation’ to their roots in capitalist society’s class divisions are closer to giving a distorted reflection of the struggle within the ruling class.
It is not an accident that the ideas and language of campus nationalism are easily wielded by the aspirant black capitalists represented, for example, by the ‘forces’ of Radical Economic Transformation. The BC of the 1970s helped expose the role of apartheid collaborators in the black petty bourgeoisie. Today’s petty bourgeois nationalism is a disguise for the interests of the aspirant black capitalist class. This is why the latter must do everything possible to keep the nationalist “outer-shell” of the youth unbroken.
The leaderships of the student political organisations are of course agents of the ruling class on the university campuses. When their political party ‘mother bodies’ aspire only to the management of capitalism they could not be anything else. The student political organisations are training grounds for capitalist political careers. Their leaders are conscious of their desire to enter the ruling class.
Just as their ‘mother bodies’ posture before the working class as defenders of their interests at election time, the student political organisations posture as the defenders of students from poor and working class backgrounds. During registration week they will be found assisting new students with registration, accommodation etc. They use their access to resources to buy political loyalty. This is a mirror of their ‘mother bodies’ use of political office and tenders to build political patronage networks. Leading carefully limited protests has become a rite of passage and an accepted stepping-stone towards a future political career. The protests in early 2021 at Wits University were a very crude example of this.
The abysmal turnout in SRC elections however shows that the vast majority of students have no time for the student political organisations. Throughout #FeesMustFall they had to manoeuvre furiously to remain at the head of protests. They could only succeed in doing so by opportunistically reflecting back the anger driving students and suppressing their normal sectarianism. The ANC-aligned Progressive Youth Alliance, especially SASCO, nevertheless attempted to shield the ANC from students’ anger. They strove at every stage to make the failings of the state, or individual ministers, the focus, rather than the ruling ANC as a party. But they did not always succeed. The march of students to the ANC’s Luthuli House HQ and the humiliating demand that ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe sit before the students, was an example of this.
The PYA’s methods are a mirror for the treacherous role played by the deployees of the SA Communist Party in the ANC-aligned Cosatu trade union federation. The SACP’s “two-stage” theory of revolution plays a role in the workers movement similar to petty bourgeois nationalism on the campuses, disguising the real class interests lurking behind superficially radical rhetoric.
#FeesMustFall drew thousands of fresh students into political activity. This pushed forward a new layer of ‘independent’ student groups and leaders, especially at the HWIs. But as the mass student movement ebbed the most obscure and divisive forms of identity politics came to the foreground. Isolated from the working class these ideas were never put to the test outside of the campuses as Black Consciousness was in the 1970s. This reinforced the isolation of the ‘Fallist’ activists. Unlike the many youth veterans of 1976 who dedicated their lives to the workers’ movement most Fallists have gone on to elite careers in academia, the media, the NGOs etc. Again, the absence of a militant and ideologically clear workers’ movement was decisive in how ‘Fallism’ developed and ultimately degenerated.
Marxists take every struggle seriously and welcome radicalisation even amongst the most privileged youth at the most elite institutions. But Marxism is a ‘harder sell’ in the petty bourgeois milieu of the universities, especially at this stage of the class struggle. Nevertheless, Marxists must strive to build a base among university students, welcoming recruits from all class backgrounds. But this cannot be done by pandering to petty bourgeois prejudices. Watering-down key political and ideological ideas in an attempt to find a ‘half-way house’ between Marxism and the different versions of petty bourgeois nationalism will fail. Likewise, posing worker-student solidarity as a “reciprocal” relationship akin to ‘returning a favour’ cannot clarify students about the centrality of the class struggle and the central role of the working class in changing society. In other words, it will not teach them their place in the class struggle. Among some students this can encourage a sense of entitlement to lead workers.
An approach that is firm in political principle will get a response from politically genuine university students. It will also more quickly identify the careerists and those seeking to “preserve their privilege”. Following the advice of the Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky the university students wishing to join the workers’ movement must be directed into a workers’ organisation where they can learn from the working class.
The Economic Freedom Fighters has a small footprint in the townships and has some appeal for the working class youth there. Its Student Command has a presence in the universities. On some campuses it can rival SASCO. The ANC has been the main instrument of capitalist rule for a generation. The Democratic Alliance makes no attempt to hide that it stands for the defence of capitalism. But the EFF postures as a radical alternative. It has not yet been put to the test in the same way as other parties. However, the EFF’s willingness to enter coalitions with the DA after the 2016 local government elections, the exposure of EFF leaders’ involvement in the looting of the VBS bank, and Malema’s ‘tea with Zuma’, shows that the EFF do not offer anything fundamentally different.
Nevertheless some youth can still be willing to give the EFF a hearing such is the desperation for any alternative that promises change. Unfortunately, the class character of the EFF makes it incapable of delivering on this. The EFF is a petty bourgeois party. It too stands for the blackening of capitalism. It just wants this to be pursued more vigorously than the ANC has so far done.
The EFF is deeply suspicious of the organised working class and hostile to the democratic traditions of workers. They have undermined workers’ organising traditions by launching their own ‘Labour Desks’. These do not aim to build democratic worker-led trade unions. They are a conscious substitute for them. The EFF leadership wants to keep those few workers who do look to it for leadership dependent upon their party. These Labour Desks can have some limited appeal to the most downtrodden workers without a tradition of independent organisation. But this attraction survives only as long as these workers are not introduced to the genuine traditions of the workers’ movement. Overwhelmingly though, the organised working class reciprocates the EFF leadership’s suspicion.
Likewise, the EFF leadership has no interest in organising the working class township youth in their own mass democratic organisations. Instead, they again offer their party as a substitute for independent working class organisation. Local EFF leaders style themselves as mini-Commanders-in-Chief. Their interest in the youth is as “ground forces”. This too can only have an appeal amongst the most atomised and powerless youth. Not yet having discovered the power of their class they look for a messiah. But as with the few workers attracted to the EFF this can last only as long as the workers’ movement fails to establish itself as an alternative pole of attraction to these youth.
In general, the EFF vacillates like a typical petty bourgeois organisation. It was launched in 2013 in the middle of the 2012-14 strike wave. This exerted a gravitational pull on the petty bourgeois EFF leadership. They were pulled to the left claiming to stand for nationalisation, socialism, and even Marxism. Their first breakthroughs amongst the youth during this time were at the HBIs. Their semi-class rhetoric found an echo amongst poorer black students.
But with the ebb of the strike wave and the crisis of leadership in the workers’ movement, the EFF leadership swung back toward the ruling class. Or, more accurately, it swung back towards its aspirant black capitalist faction. This was where the ANC Youth League-schooled tenderpreneur EFF leadership originally came from. The left-populist rhetoric was steadily replaced with petty bourgeois nationalism and crude anti-white and anti-Indian racial rhetoric. Breakthroughs at HWIs came with this shift. The idea of requiring all EFF leaders to be university graduates was even debated!
The consolidation of the ANC’s aspirant black capitalist RET faction since the end of the Zuma-presidency has allowed bridges to be rebuilt between these ideological and political twins. For now, this is where the EFF sits on the political spectrum. But under the pressure of mass working class struggle and advances in the workers’ movement they can swing back… before swinging away again.
The youth of all backgrounds will be forced into round after round of struggle as the only response to the disaster of capitalism. The crises in the schools, colleges, universities and the crisis of mass unemployment demand a militant response. The youth cannot of course wait for the workers movement before organising struggle on these issues.
Young people can and will win important victories as #FeesMustFall did in 2015. Victories will be won in the future around free education, jobs and wages. But these gains will be bigger the more the youth are able to successfully link-up with and mobilise the working class. Mass workers’ struggle is a powerful stimulus to the struggles of the youth. The reverse can also be true.
Only in a socialist society can all the aspirations of the working class youth be met. But it is only the working class as a whole that is capable of carrying through the socialist revolution. The ultimate fate of the working class youth is therefore tied to the ebbs and flows of the class struggle in general and the advances and retreats of the broader workers’ movement. The youth must be educated with an understanding that the struggle to overcome the crisis of working class leadership is their task too.
Building an independent mass youth organisation that links the youth in the schools, the townships, the colleges, the universities and workplaces is the task of this generation. The ideas of socialism and Marxism will find a ready echo amongst the working class youth that will be attracted to it. The petty bourgeois nationalism of the universities, the EFF and others will be pushed aside and the careerist student political organisations side-lined. Such a youth movement must consciously build itself as the youth-wing of the future mass workers party and be in the front rank of those fighting for its adoption of a red-blooded socialist programme.
The millions of working class school students are the sleeping giant of this future youth movement. The nearly one million TVET students will also play a crucial role. They are the obvious bridge between the workplaces, the trade unions and the youth. Most TVET certificates for example require 2,000 hours of work placements. These young people must appeal for the doors of the trade unions to be opened to them. If there is no union on their placements they should campaign amongst the older workers for support to build one.
Everywhere young workers must be encouraged to join the trade unions. A flood of energetic working class youth armed with the ideas of Marxism would transform them from top to bottom. The youth can play a key role pioneering recruitment in unorganised sectors. The mostly moribund trade union youth structures can be revived. These can be made organising centres around which the unemployed youth can be gathered. . From within the unions, alongside older workers, a struggle for a Marxist policy of revolutionary trade unionism must be fought for. The university students must bring all their skills and talents to support this work.
The Marxist Workers Party’s appeal to the youth is to work with us to lay the foundations for this future mass youth movement. To rebuild the revolutionary traditions of the youth it is necessary to develop a youth cadre steeled in the ideas of genuine Marxism and organised in a Marxist Youth Movement. The members of such a Movement must take part in all genuine campaigns that take-up the issues facing young people, especially free education and jobs. Where they do not exist Marxists should initiate them. Whilst being the most dedicated fighters for victory on the immediate issues, the Marxist Youth Movement must build its membership in the schools, colleges, universities, townships and workplaces aiming to unite the youth under one banner. At every step the struggles of the youth must be explained in the context of the struggle for socialism and linked to the organisation and mobilisation of the working class as the only force capable of carrying through the socialist revolution.
Worldwide capitalism is in a dead-end. The system is incapable of offering a future to the youth. Mass movements and revolutions will be the norm in the 2020s. The task of Marxists is to prepare for these movements. The Upcoming Working Class Summit being convened by Saftu offers the possibility of taking a step forward toward re-uniting the struggles of workers and young people.
Continue to The Soweto Uprising.
What We Stand For
- For world class education! For a massive programme of investment in school and TVET infrastructure. For the full implementation of the SA Schools Act: Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure. Every school must have basic services like running water, flushing toilets, ablution facilities and electricity. All schools must have functioning classrooms with desks and chairs, white or blackboards in each classroom and fully equipped libraries and laboratories, including free Wi-Fi and sports facilities in all schools. For the establishment of a district level school transport system
- No profits from poverty! For the immediate insourcing of school feeding schemes. Establish canteens in schools linked to community food gardens.
- For a reduction in the teacher-pupil ratio from 40 to 30 students through a massive increase in teacher training of 10,000 teachers per year to make up for this annual shortfall. For a massive increase in TVET lecturer training and investment in infrastructure and facilities.
- For a public sector general strike! Reinstate the cancelled 2018 public sector pay rise and lift the three year wage freeze.
- For free education! Cancel all student debt and end financial and academic exclusions. Education funding to be sourced from tax revenues. Abolish NSFAS! All students to receive cost of living grants.
- For guaranteed work! Full wages for all students on work placements and the right to join a union. Guaranteed jobs at the end of all training and vocational courses.
- End the crisis of student accommodation and youth dependence on the family home! Nationalise the big construction companies, building wholesalers and big building retailers as the foundation of a mass decent house-building programme, including affordable single-person youth accommodation. Full community involvement in the design of houses and the planning of communities.
- Allow the youth to enjoy life! Massive investment in parks, youth clubs, sporting facilities, libraries, and other community infrastructure.
- Support mothers of all ages. For (i) an increase in the child support grant, (ii) free, accessible, secure and high-quality pre-school child-care and elderly-care centres to relieve the domestic burden on women, (iii) free, accessible and high-quality sexual health and family planning services to allow women genuine choice over if, and when, to have children, (iv) free, accessible, secure and high-quality network of women’s shelters for survivors of domestic abuse and rape, with provision for children, giving women the freedom to leave abusive relationships.
- Make communities safe! Organise against crime, drugs and gangsterism. Organise community watch programmes in every community, including patrols of crime ‘hot spots’; mass community mobilisations against gangsterism and organised crime. Campaign for free, accessible and high-quality community drug rehabilitation programmes linked to guaranteed jobs for recovering addicts. Trade unions and community organisations to campaign against gender based violence, LGBT+ hate crimes and xenophobic attacks, taking up the defence of women, LGBT+ people and foreign residents in workplaces and communities with their full involvement.
- Reject the ANC’s poverty-level minimum wage. Organise the workplaces to win a living wage of R12,500 per month for all full-time workers backed-up by a rigorous regime of workplace inspections under the democratic control of workers’ representatives. Nationalise non-complying big business; on the basis of proven unaffordability, subsidies and tax relief to small and family businesses adequate for the minimum wage to be paid.
- Workers’ economic planning to end unemployment. Struggle for a reduction of the working week to 30 hours with no cuts in pay. Demand democratic control of hiring and firing and the re-design of shift patterns by workers’ representatives. Share out the work with the unemployed.
- Abolish the ANC-governments slave-labour programmes! Make all EPWP workers permanent public sector employees on a living wage.
- Open the door of the trade unions to the youth. Re-build trade union youth sections under the democratic control of young workers.
- Unemployed must not mean unorganised! Organise those Not in Employment, Education or Training under the leadership of the trade union movement. Build unemployed-workers and unemployed-youth locals in communities. For a basic income social grant of R8,000 per month for all those not in work – unemployed, pensioners, disabled etc.
Mass Struggle for Socialism
- Build a Marxist Youth Movement. Lay foundations for a mass socialist youth movement uniting the youth of the schools, the colleges, the universities, townships and workplaces. Build direct links with workplaces and trade unions.
- Revolutionary in word AND Revolutionary in deed! Build the principled unity of the trade union movement on the basis of class independence from the bosses, democracy and workers’ control. Campaign in every federation and every union for a programme of revolutionary trade unionism that links workers’ struggles on day-to-day issues to the struggle for socialism. Cosatu out of the Tripartite Alliance.
- Struggle against bureaucracy and careerism! Trade union leaders are not CEOs! Salary and wage control of all trade union officials determined democratically sector-by-sector. Abolish trade union investment funds – cash-out all investments into fixed-interest savings to fund membership benefits, strike and solidarity funds.
- Forge the fighting unity of the working class in a party of mass struggle. Build a socialist mass workers party to unite the struggles of the workplaces, the communities and the youth as a vital step toward the creation of a mass revolutionary party.
- Implement the Saftu and Working Class Summit resolutions on the workers party. Build a unifying, democratic and open socialist mass workers party, allowing unions, community structures, youth campaigns and the existing working class political groups and parties to affiliate.
- Fight for a socialist economy to meet the needs of the working class majority. Nationalise under democratic working class control the biggest companies in all the key sectors of the economy: agriculture, mining, construction, transport, manufacturing, telecommunications, wholesale, retail and distribution. Integrate nationalised industry according to a democratic socialist plan of production to raise wages, protect and create new jobs and end poverty.
This further reading list will allow those determined to deepen their understanding to make a systematic study of the ideas it was only possible to briefly introduce here.
THE ANTI-APARHEID STRUGGLE. On the MWP’s website home page there is a section called “The Struggle Against Apartheid: A Marxist Analysis”. This contains material written during the 1980s analysing events as they unfolded. Included are the following sections: “Capitalist Power and ‘White-Minority Rule’” analysing the class foundations of apartheid; “The Armed Struggle”; “The 1973 Durban Strikes”; “The Youth Movement in the 1980s” bringing together a number of articles covering struggles and the evolution of Black Consciousness; “The Revolutionary Upsurge of 1984-85”; “The Trade Union Movement in the 1980s” covering the founding of Cosatu and the role of workers struggle. The Colonial Revolution is covered in Chapter 5 of “South Africa’s Impending Socialist Revolution”.
THE WORKERS MOVEMENT SINCE 2012. On the MWP’s website home page there are sections called “The Marikana Massace”, including the article that was quoted, “Lessons of Marikana” and “Marikana and the 2012 Mineworkrs’ Strikes” which explains the role of the MWP’s predecessor and the rise of the Amcu trade union; “Struggle for a Mass Workers Party” which brings together articles explaining the struggle within the trade union movement for the launch of such a party, including the role of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party and the background to the Working Class Summit. Our booklet “Revolutionary Trade Unionism” puts forward our programme for the trade unions and how Marxists approach building support within the workers’ movement (this includes a more detailed explanation of capitalism). Our “Open Letter to Saftu Members” gives an explanation of the development of the Saftu trade union federation over the last four years. Our News Bulletin #8 podcast gives our latest analysis of the public sector pay disputes. There is a section called “EPWP Workers’ Struggle” about our campaign to organise EPWP workers into the trade unions and lead struggle for permanent jobs which includes videos of the campaign.
#FEESMUSTFALL & IDEAS IN THE YOUTH MOVEMENT. On the MWP’s website home page there is a section called “#FeesMustFall & the Struggle for Free Education 2015-17” which brings together articles written as the movement unfolded; there is an article analysing campus nationalism “Marxism vs. Nationalism: what ideas do the youth need?” as well as other articles examining different nationalist ideas in a section called “Race & Class”; there is an article examining identity politics called “Identity Politics and the Struggle Against Oppression”.
THE ECONOMIC FREEDOM FIGHTRERS. On the MWP’s website home page there is a section called “On the EFF”, including our 2014 analysis of its petty bourgeois character written during its left-populist phase “The EFF: Populism Not Socialism”.
Please contact us to purchase printed booklets of all the material listed above.