The Nature and Tasks of the Revolution

In South Africa, the industrial powerhouse of the sub-continent and bastion of white privilege, the ruling class is faced with a rising tide of revolt. More and more it overshadows even the greatest struggles in the neighbouring countries.

The working class has recovered from the wounds of old defeats, helped by the rise of a fresh generation hardened from birth under the hammer of state repression. The new spirit of determination and confidence which characterised the class in the 1970s was shown first in the Durban dock strike of 1969. This encouraged a national upsurge of strike action which reached its peak in the Natal strikes of 1973 and spread among the migrant mine workers in 1974 and 1975.

The movement of the workers stimulated the youth, who in return re-invigorated the older generation. Sullen resignation gave way to a new defiance.

Among the workers, demands for wage increases were linked to the demand for trade union rights and recognition as a safeguard for the future. Black trade union membership doubled and trebled. In parallel, there developed an increasingly militant and widespread movement of the youth.

In 1976 it was the high school youth – the first generation of workers’ children at the high schools – who seized the initiative and hurled themselves against the forces of the state with a burning anger unsurpassed in the history of mass struggle anywhere.

The Soweto uprising confirmed the central role of the working class in South African society.

The actions of the youth were the spark that set off political general strikes involving up to a million workers – the greatest mobilisation ever achieved so far in the struggle for liberation in South Africa. Aimed not simply against the apartheid regime, but at the capitalist class sheltering behind it, these actions by the workers shocked South Africa’s rulers more than anything that had gone before.

The murderous response of the state in 1976 – at least a thousand people were massacred by the police in that year alone – completely failed to break or tame the movement.

In the relative lull that followed the mighty battles of 1976 – as is always the case after great but inconclusive efforts – the workers and the youth paused to assess and digest their experience, before moving forward again on a wide front. The trade unions were taken up and expanded as a partial weapon; political leaderships and organisations were cautiously tested; new methods of struggle were forged.

In 1979 and 1980, with a temporary upturn in the economy, the workers once again advance confidently on a mass scale in one area after another. New heights of tactical skill and maturity were revealed; a greater sophistication of the workers’ underground networks became clear.

Yet the movement was still characterised chiefly by its spontaneous aspects; by rapid changes in the form and focus of the struggle; by a succession of explosive but uncoordinated movements, each attracting briefly the spotlight of national attention.

In some places small strikes in strategically weak sectors have taken on a protracted character, showing the enormous determination and self-sacrifice of the workers even against overpowering odds. In other places the strike movement has embraced whole sectors of towns, drawing from the bosses and state officials a confusing combination of conciliatory and vicious responses, and testing to the full the abilities of the workers’ leaders.

The centre of activity has shifted rapidly from one part of the country to another; it has turned from factory struggles over wages and trade union rights to struggles in the townships against rent and fare increases – and then back again to the factory.


1980 saw the mass resurgence of the youth movement, centred on the boycott of the schools, but intermeshing on all sides with the rising struggles of the workers.

In 1979 there had been 101 strikes officially recorded, costing the employers 67,000 worker-days in lost production. In 1980 the figure rose to 207 strikes and 175,000 days. In 1981 there was an average of about one strike a day, with nearly 100,000 workers involved in strike action. In October alone, 20,000 workers were on strike in 40 firms.

1979-81 marked a qualitative step forward also in worker organisation. The independent unions swelled dramatically in numbers, more than trebling again to 200,000 members. As whole sections of migrant workers and other hitherto unorganised workers joined the unions, the more bold and militant of these organisations sprang to the forefront, attracting national attention.

The non-racial character of these unions has been emphasised as coloured and Indian workers have been drawn towards the strength in action of their African brothers and sisters. Some unions have also experienced a small influx of white members for the first time since the 1930s and 1940s.

With the class issues and the class power of the workers strongly to the fore, this in turn has had a profound influence on the youth and students, searching for a revolutionary way forward.

Increasingly, the black youth have looked beyond the limits of ‘black consciousness’ ideas, emphasised the working-class character of their movement, and sought to cement links with the workers’ organisations. Radicalism among sections of white students has itself been expressed in a turning towards the power of organised labour.

The growing awareness that capitalism lies at the root of racist oppression, and that the workers’ movement possesses the decisive power to change society, is now the common language of discussion among the politically active youth and workers.

Further emboldened by all these developments, the rank and file of the independent unions have raised a constant pressure for trade union unity across the country. The Cape Town conference of unions in August 1981 marked a very important advance which needs to be carried far further in action in the period ahead.

As the workers’ movement mushrooms again and again in the coming years, it will prove to be the decisive rallying point for the struggles of all the oppressed against capitalist exploitation, white domination and dictatorship.

Greater and greater explosions of the mass movement in confrontation with the bosses and their state lie ahead. The experience of these struggles will emphasise the need for clarity of ideas, strategy and tactics.

As South Africa – and with it, Southern Africa as a whole, passes further into the throes of a revolutionary crisis, the task will be to link up all the particular struggles of the workers and the youth, in town and countryside, in mine and factory, farm, school and township, into one combined movement with a central direction and programme of action.

The underground organisation, co-ordination and leadership, which will be vital in the next period, needs to be built on the firm foundations of a scientific understanding – about the nature of the enemy; about the system’s strengths and weaknesses; about the class forces that can be drawn to our side; above all, about the nature and central tasks of the revolution which confronts us.

Capitalism Has Shaped South Africa

To an extent unknown elsewhere in Africa, the South African economy is based on large-scale industry and mining, and on agriculture which is itself capitalist in character. In a world where manufacturing industry has become the main source of wealth in society, South Africa has developed over the last hundred years out of rural backwardness to enter the second rank of industrialised countries.

In 1980 South Africa’s production (GDP) totalled R62,400 million, comparable to that, for example, of Yugoslavia or Argentina (which have similar-sized populations). Already in 1965, manufacturing industry accounted for nearly a quarter of GDP – more than mining and agriculture combined.

In the context of under-developed Africa, South Africa is a giant industrial power. With only 6% of the continent’s population, it produces 42% of the motor vehicles; 50% of the electricity; 74% of the railway trucks; and 94% of the books and newspapers.

Working class

This powerful development of the forces of production has meant the corresponding growth of the working class. What Marx anticipated as the result of capitalist development generally, is amply borne out in South Africa. Society is increasingly polarised between two classes – the capitalist class and the working class. It is the working class that now forms the backbone of the entire population.

With a population of 29 million people, South Africa has approximately 9 million wage-workers. In addition, an estimated 2 million workers are unemployed. Workers and their families form the absolute majority of the population. The black working class is the overwhelming majority of the oppressed.

Up to a million workers from surrounding countries are drawn to the mines and farms of South Africa as migrant workers, giving the working class a tremendous social weight in the whole Southern African continent.

From the 1930s to the early 1970s, fuelled by the long post-war boom in the major capitalist countries, the South African economy grew steadily, with only short-lived downswings. Production increased seven-and-a-half times, while population increased three-and-a-half times. In the 1960s, the growth rate rose as high as 8% a year. Yet from this whole period of development, the black workers derived few gains.

Wealth was concentrated steadily in fewer and fewer hands. By the 1970s the richest 10% of South Africa’s population was receiving an estimated 58% of total national income – compared with 27% in the USA!

Luxury mansions, private swimming pools, teams of servants, lavish consumption and entertainments, chauffeured limousines and even private airplanes for the ‘cream’ of the business establishment became the conspicuous symbol of capitalist success. At the same time the wage gap between white and black, between skilled and unskilled workers widened enormously. The standard of living of the average white worker rose to levels as high as those achieved by any section of the working class in the advanced capitalist countries.

At the same time, the lot of the black workers throughout these decades was unrelieved poverty. According to the figures supplied by the Prime Minister himself in parliament in 1972, the average real wage of an African factory worker only increased from R254 a year to R276 between 1948 and 1970. And factory workers fared better than others.

In the mining industry, real wages for African workers in 1971 were no higher than they had been in 1911 – and roughly 25% lower than they had been in 1890! Moreover, in 1969, after years of boom, and in a year when the growth rate reached 7%, more than a million Africans could find no work at all. These were the grim conditions prevailing at the outset of the capitalist crisis of the 1970s.

We shall return below to the features, and the consequences for the working people, of the new period of economic decay of capitalism. Here the point is that even under the most favourable circumstances for this system, it could offer only growing inequality, generalised hardship and degradation for the masses.


Had the socialist revolution been carried through in the major capitalist countries after the First World War and then spread world-wide, Southern Africa’s industrialisation – along with the colonial world as a whole – would have been accomplished on the basis of an integrated world plan of development, through the harmonious co-operation of democratic workers’ states. On this socialist basis, the advancement of technology and the production of goods and services to meet the needs of the people would speedily have surpassed even the most spectacular heights that the capitalist economies have anywhere attained.

Instead, the people of Southern Africa have lived and laboured through the modern epoch under capitalist rule. The extent to which the industrial economy in South Africa has grown in the epoch of imperialism has been exceptional when compared with the colonial countries in general.

This growth had its material foundation in the vast reserves of gold and other minerals which allowed for the rapid accumulation of capital and provided the bourgeoisie with a launching pad for the rise of manufacturing industry, commerce and capitalist agriculture. But the necessary social foundation for the development of capitalism in South Africa has always been the extreme exploitation of the working class.

Depending absolutely on cheap labour in order to generate profits, the capitalists and their state were able to find and form the means of compelling and controlling labour. They have constructed a system of oppression so ruthless in its efficiency that South Africa is scarcely equalled today as a chamber of horrors of the capitalist world.

Understanding the process by which capitalism, in the entire course of its development, has shaped the development of society in Southern Africa, provides the key to understanding all the tasks of the coming revolution.

On the African scale, the South African capitalist class has become a giant. But measured on a world scale, it came to life belatedly and has remained a dwarf. In contrast with the bourgeoisie in the epoch of capitalism’s rise, the bourgeoisie in South Africa could develop the forces of production only by stunting and warping the development of society as a whole.

In this lie the material roots of the apartheid system, and of all the grotesque features which characterise South African life. From this stem the contradictions of desperate poverty side by side with dazzling wealth; the brutality of the capitalist dictatorship resting on white supremacy and the national oppression of the blacks; the tyranny of the migrant labour system and the pass laws; the landlessness and ruin of the rural people; and the general lack of democratic rights.

South Africa’s Growth Under Imperialism

South African capitalism has never been able to provide for the basic needs of the working people. By the time that the bourgeoisie had established itself in South Africa, capitalism already existed as a world system and was already entering its highest, convulsive stage of wars and revolutions: the epoch of imperialism. The world market was already under the domination of monopoly capital, and was in the process of being carved up and recarved in the competition between the imperialist powers.

Then and since, there has been no possibility in South Africa of the development of an autonomous ‘national economy’. This is true of all capitalist countries in the epoch of imperialism. With the development of monopoly capitalism, the whole world economy fell under the domination of the main industrial powers.

To accumulate wealth, the SA capitalist class has always been compelled to buy, produce and sell commodities on the terms laid down in the world market – terms over which it could have little influence. The possibilities for the development of capitalism in South Africa have been shaped within these limits.

The capitalists were fortunate that South Africa possessed natural resources – gold and diamonds – which have given them special access to the world market. But the mining of gold and diamonds could create only a limited base for capitalist development. More and more in the modern world, economic progress has come to rest on diversified industrial production, on the manufacture of an increasing range and volume of commodities.

Each section of the capitalist class internationally must compete on the world market in order to increase, or even maintain, its sale of manufactured products. To compete effectively on the world market has increasingly required economies of scale – that is to say, huge concentrations of investment, using the most advanced machinery and technique, to produce goods as cheaply as possible for mass markets. On this basis, the giant monopolies of the imperialist countries have come to dominate not just their own home markets, but the world market as a whole.

The present-day society in South Africa has developed entirely in the shadow of international monopoly capitalism. South Africa’s dependence on the world market is shown in the fact that its foreign trade (which is largely with the major capitalist countries) has for several decades amounted to one-third or more of total production – among the highest ratios in the world.

While South Africa is today an industrialised country, in its relations with world capitalism it retains many of the features of the under-developed countries. Overwhelmingly, its imports consist of industrial products, in particular machinery and other capital goods. Exports, on the other hand, consist overwhelmingly of mineral or agricultural products – raw materials or semi-processed materials. Throughout the 1970s, gold alone has contributed more than a third of the value of export sales. In 1980, all minerals and mineral products accounted for roughly three-quarters.

South Africa’s industrial development has only been accomplished by the bourgeoisie on the twin pillars of cheap labour and state intervention in the economy.

Like all the weaker sections of the capitalist class internationally, the SA bourgeoisie has been unable to achieve the economies of scale needed to compete with the imperialist monopolies in manufacturing. To establish even a foothold in the market for manufactured products, they have had to seek other means of cutting their costs. In particular, wherever possible, they have savagely held down the wages of the workers.

Even to develop gold-mining on a profitable basis, the capitalists in SA from the start condemned the majority of mineworkers – the blacks – to conditions of poverty and inhuman exploitation. It took the mighty struggles of the mineworkers and large-scale withdrawals of labour in 1974-1975 to achieve any appreciable increase in real wages – and then against the background of a sharp rise in the world price of gold.

Similar pressures on profitability have governed the development of manufacturing industry, with the capitalists holding the wages of the workers to bare survival. Despite the Riekert Commission’s claim of a 53% increase of real African wages from 1970 to 1976 (almost all of this the product of the strike wave of 1973-74), average black wages have remained well below even the miserly estimates made by bourgeois economists of what it takes a family to live.


From an early stage the state intervened to protect the development of capitalist industry. By imposing tariffs against some cheap imported commodities, it has assisted the local bourgeoisie to sell their higher-priced products on the domestic market. Light industry, in particular the consumer goods industry (e.g. textiles) has been protected in this way since the 1920s.

Capitalist farming, too, has been developed on the basis of state protection, especially by means of subsidies, price fixing and negotiated export markets.

In areas vital to the growth of industry, such as electricity and iron and steel, the enormous outlays required made it impossible for the capitalists themselves to undertake the necessary investment. Already private ownership and private profit stood in contradiction to economic progress. Thus the capitalist state intervened to build the transportation network and to construct ESCOM and ISCOR, and later SASOL (for oil-from-coal), FOSCOR (for chemical production) and ARMSCOR (for military hardware and munitions). Today the state is the largest single investor and employer. 57% of plant and machinery etc is under its control.

On these foundations of cheap labour and state intervention, capitalist production has undergone enormous expansion. But far from freeing South Africa from imperialism, this very development has locked the SA capitalist class all the more tightly into the imperialist network.


Despite all the endeavours of the South African bourgeoisie to establish their ‘economic independence’ (one of the principal goals of Afrikaner nationalism in the past), economic growth in fact has resulted only in the closer integration of the national economy with the world economy, subjecting it all the more directly to the upswings and downswings of world capitalism.

Industrial growth in South Africa – as in all the younger and weaker countries – has required the importation of ever-larger volumes of sophisticated machinery. South Africa imports 90% of the machinery needed for production. But these imports, of course, must be paid for or financed. Relative to imports, South Africa’s exports have generally grown more slowly. At the same time the prices of raw materials have tended to lag behind those of manufactured goods, subjecting South Africa to similar inequalities in the terms of trade to those experienced by the whole of the ex-colonial world.

Thus, while South Africa’s exports increased four times in value in the boom period between 1960 and 1975, imports increase six times over the same period. To compensate for the imbalance, the economy has fallen chronically into debt to the major imperialist countries. South Africa’s total foreign debt amounted to R11,180 million, or 23% of annual production, at the end of 1979. Just the interest payments on foreign loans increased from R28 million in 1966 to R759 million in 1979.

The dramatic increase in the price of gold (notably in December 1979-January 1980, when it peaked at $850 an ounce) temporarily eased South Africa’s balance of payments difficulties and the pressures towards adverse terms of trade. But, for reasons which we shall explain further on, SA’s gold wealth cannot alter the fundamental and chronic ailments built into the capitalist economy. Least of all can it overcome the dependence of manufacturing industry on imported capital goods.

The expansion of production in South Africa has gone hand in hand with the growth of an interlocking partnership in the ownership of the means of production between the imperialist investors and the SA bourgeoisie – English speaking and, to an increasing extent, Afrikaans-speaking as well. The concentration of capital into fewer and fewer hands has proceeded apace.

Almost from the outset, mining fell under the control of huge monopolies, especially the De Beers company and, later, the Anglo-American Corporation (which later merged together). In time, with the development of manufacturing, the monopolies moved in there as well to take control of the most profitable opportunities. So today in South Africa, for example, around 90% of all sheet and plate glass, breakfast foods, engines and turbines are produced by the three largest firms in each industry.

Of the top 100 industrial and commercial companies, one-third are controlled by only six monopoly groups. The Anglo-American Corporation alone controls over 600 companies involved in virtually every sector of production, and commands assets of more than R14,000 million.


Especially since the 1960s foreign investment has poured into the country, its total rising from R3,109 million in 1964 to R22,886 million in 1979. Aided by the banks and finance houses, bigger SA companies gobble up their smaller rivals and enter partnerships with foreign investors. Even agriculture falls increasingly under the domination of big corporations.

More and more, the biggest SA monopolies – Anglo-American, Barlow-Rand, Rembrandt, for example – take on the character of multi-nationals, venturing out from their base in the SA nation-state to seek profitable avenues for exploitation around the world.

The tendency towards greater concentration and greater integration of the productive forces within each country and beyond national borders is inherent in economic development itself. It is because of the capitalist basis of the system that development turns into a crushing burden on the backs of the working people.

Unless capitalism is overthrown, there can be no escape from the stranglehold of imperialism and monopoly capitalism.

The very growth of capitalism has stored up huge contradictions in the economy, which are now becoming acute. The need of the bourgeoisie to maintain the system of cheap labour has placed narrow limits on the home market for products which the bourgeoisie needs to sell. What workers are not paid they cannot spend! The expansion of production thus runs up all the more quickly against the confines of the nation-state, and adds to the importance of the export market for the capitalists.

The regime’s policy of ‘import substitution’ has largely exhausted its effectiveness. This has been an attempt to stimulate SA industry by barring the import of certain consumer goods and light component parts, and requiring a rising proportion of ‘local content’ in manufacturing. This has had some effect, particularly in developing motor vehicle production. But the SA market has proved too limited for import substitution to be carried forward profitably in crucial spheres of machine production, electronics and other sophisticated goods which are of growing importance for economic development.

The economies of scale necessary to make production even remotely competitive in these fields, require a vast and expanding market – something which neither South Africa nor the impoverished Southern African region as a whole possesses. Thus even the rise of South Africa as a minor imperialist power, dominating the sub-continent, has not released the SA bourgeoisie from the pressures of world capitalism. They are forced to scramble out beyond their so-called ‘natural market’ in Southern Africa – where they also face growing competition from stronger imperialists – and swim for their lives in the shark-infested waters of the world market.

Even during the period of the post-war boom, when the world market was expanding rapidly, the SA capitalists could succeed in gaining only a limited foothold for their manufacturing exports. Now, as the world market stagnates in the developing crisis of capitalism, and as competition intensifies between the major powers, the future prospects for the development of SA industry on a capitalist basis grow dim.

This will be the case under and government in future – white or black – that remains on a capitalist basis.

The incapacity of the capitalist system to provide for the needs of the people will be more starkly revealed in the years ahead. As surely as night follows day, the decay of world capitalism, inevitably infecting also the SA economy, will be translated into catastrophic conditions for the masses – if we allow ourselves to remain at the mercy of this system.

The Revolution on the Land

The need to overthrow capitalism lies at the heart of all the specific tasks facing the working people in the revolutionary struggle in South Africa. All the accumulated historical burdens which the people bear, all the inherited residue of colonial conquest – in the landlessness and poverty of the masses and the national oppression of the blacks – all these are drawn together by capitalism and tied with a single knot.

Every tendency opposed to Marxism poses the land question as something distinct from the question of capitalism – and hopes to solve it by some means other than the socialist revolution. This is characteristic of the various black nationalist groupings, the Communist Party and the so-called ‘Trotskyists’ of the Unity Movement alike. Marxism, in contrast, explains that there is no solution to the land question in South Africa apart from the overthrow of capitalism. This flows inescapably from the whole development of the economy and the class forces at work.

The industrialisation of South Africa has led to the carrying through of a capitalist transformation on the land. The effect has been to complete the destruction of independent tribal and peasant agriculture, and to limit increasingly the scope for small-scale farming in general.

Today, as a result, the overwhelming bulk of agricultural production is carried out on the basis of large-scale mechanised farming under the control of capitalist landowners, companies and even multi-national corporations.

Wherever modern industry has been developed on a capitalist basis, the mass of the population have been robbed of the land and forced as wage-workers to the cities, the centres of industrial production. For a long time in South Africa the nature of the capitalist transformation which was taking place on the land was overshadowed by the monstrous form in which it was imposed. Yet, as Marx explained in relation to the dispossession of the peasantry in Britain in the 18th century, the capitalist takeover of the land is always and everywhere accomplished by the most brutal methods of armed force.

In South Africa, the process began with colonial conquest – with the outright dispossession of the tribes from their grazing and agricultural land by the combined forces of the colonial settlers and invading armies. But the process did not stop there. It has been carried to completion through the development of capitalist agriculture – aided by the forcible mass deportation of millions from their land under military and police supervision.

Using as its basis the system of ‘reserves’ created during the period of conquest, the ruling class set aside for white ownership no less than 87% of the land area of the country. Particularly in the first half of this century, the capitalist state propped up and subsidised on this land a class of white farmers who distinguished themselves by their massive, gross and brutal exploitation of black labour. The original African possessors of the land – now prohibited from owning it – were subjugated under the heel of the white farmers in serf- and slave-like relationships.

The direction of development, however, was towards fully-fledged wage labour – towards the transformation of the rural population in the white-owned areas, passing through various forms of ‘squatting’ and ‘labour-tenancy’, into a modern agricultural proletariat. This development ran in step with the rise of large-scale capitalist farming.


This process, already well under way in the 19th century, has become increasingly clear in recent decades. Greater mechanisation of agriculture, greater concentration of land-holding in fewer and fewer hands, and greater proletarianisation of the rural population have been its simultaneous features.

The average investment of R43,500 per farm in 1959 rose to R317,000 in 1979, while over 100,000 jobs in agriculture were destroyed over the same period. Between 1937 and 1976, for example, the number of tractors in use on white-owned farms increased from 6,000 to 174,000 – a graphic indicator of mechanisation. South Africa has 40% more tractors than the rest of Africa put together and three times as many as India.

The concentration of land-holding has taken place particularly over the past three decades, with the total number of (white owned) farms dropping from a peak of 120,000 in 1952 to little over 70,000 by 1981.

With the development of industry, the ruling class has turned increasingly towards investment in agriculture also. The demand for cheap labour in industry produced a clamour from employers for a relative cheapening of food, and the state began to edge away from subsidising uncompetitive white farmers.

By the early 1970s, 70% of total agricultural production was coming from 11% of the farms. Meanwhile, the smaller white farmers have slid increasingly into debt, falling prey to the bankers and the industrial capitalist class. The total indebtedness of white farmers has almost doubled from R15,216 million in December 1972 to R29,941 million in June 1979. As more and more fall into bankruptcy, greater and greater areas of land are concentrated in the hands of the financiers and monopolists.


For the workers, this means only that their generations-old enslavement to the barbarity of the small white farmers gives way to new forms of misery at the hands of the big agricultural capitalists.

Farm wages remain an abomination. In the Western Cape (one of the ‘better paid’ areas), for instance, the average farm worker gets R18 per month plus a bag of mealie-meal.

As farming becomes more and more mechanised and concentrated, more and more of the black workers are rendered ‘redundant’, forcibly removed from the farms and ‘resettled’ in utter destitution in the dumping grounds of the reserves. The current ‘Economic Development Programme’ projects a further shedding of over 200,000 farm workers’ jobs by 1987.

Within the reserves – the ‘Bantustans’ or ‘homelands’, as the bourgeois plunderers mockingly call them – the population suffers in poverty, without a plot to till, without water or implements, without social amenities and, worst of all, with no hope of a job. Vast rural slums serve as concentration camps for the unemployed.

Between 1960 and 1980, the regime carried out the forced removal of over a million black people from so-called ‘white’ land. At least another 750,000 still face removal to the reserves under the ‘Bantustan consolidation’ schemes.

The basis of an independent peasantry, which only ever existed on the most slender foundations in the reserves, has been further eroded by the heaping up of ‘surplus’ population, deported and dumped there by the ruling class, and imprisoned there by the pass laws.

Small-scale production on the land has been almost completely ruined and eliminated in the reserves. The eroded lands and poor herds can maintain only a tiny minority of the people at the level of bare subsistence. The use of the term ‘peasantry’ to describe the mass of the population in these areas simply empties that term of all scientific content. The overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of the reserves are now part of the urban proletariat – the families of urban workers and the unemployed.

Capitalism has squeezed the peasantry virtually out of existence. The significant exception to this process is the tiny minority of land-grabbers who are the new Bantustan elite – parasites willing and able to enrich themselves within the confines of the reserves while serving as the eager lackeys of the SA ruling class.

The task of the revolution in South Africa is both to liberate the land for the people, and to liberate the people from those shackles which tie them to the land.

The land question is bound together with both the national-democratic and the socialist tasks of the revolution. On the one hand, the land question, in the consciousness of the masses, is inseparable from the issue of national oppression, of colonial conquest and dispossession by the whites. On the other hand, the development of large-scale capitalist agriculture firmly links the land question to the need for a planned economy – the need to free all the essential branches of production and distribution from the anarchy of private ownership and profit.

The revolutionary programme for the land must embrace both these sides of the question in order to give scientific expression to the struggle to ‘take back the land’.

The agricultural sector of the economy produces the food on which the survival of the whole population depends. With the massive concentration of the population in industrial production in urban areas, only large-scale, mechanised farming guarantees the necessary food supplies to the towns.

Especially to the workers on the big farms it is clear that combined labour in large-scale production increases output. Those who work every day with tractors, combine harvesters, irrigation schemes, crop spraying and the numerous other applications of modern science and technique will not want to abandon these advances. In the course of struggle, experience will more and more show the need to seize the land from its current capitalist owners and to reorganise agriculture collectively under workers’ control and management. A revolutionary organisation would foster that consciousness of the workers and help give it firm and clear expression.

Rural poor

Nevertheless, there will be among some sections of the rural population a hankering after land – a belief that through access of the family to direct production from the land a way can be found out of poverty and exploitation. A demand for land among the rural poor in the course of the revolution can be satisfied through the distribution of small-holdings.

This would have to be decided democratically by committees of the working people in the local areas. In that way land-grabbing by the better off can be prevented, while the big farms in the main crop-producing areas are taken under workers’ control.

For the majority of the population of the reserves, in fact, the crux of the social issue is no longer land – for they can see the ruin of the petty producer all around them. For them it is now a question of the right to work – of a secure job and home in the town and the right to live there in freedom with their families.

The solution of the land question – the future of the rural population – is thus bound together with the need to smash the Bantustan system, to end the pass laws and migrant labour, and to solve the problem of unemployment. Only the socialist revolution, consciously led and organised by the working class, can carry through these tasks.

The victory of the revolution would lead rapidly to the depopulation of the reserves, with the workers and their families able for the first time to build a settled life together in the towns. Thus, paradoxically, the socialist revolution would open the way to the emergence for a period of small peasant farming mainly in the area of the present-day reserves – where capitalism and national oppression have now effectively wiped the peasantry out.

Nationalisation of the land under democratic control is the cornerstone of a revolutionary programme on the land question in South Africa. This would provide the basis for a combination of large-scale state farming under the direct control of the workers; for some redistribution of land for small-scale production; and for inducements towards collective farming on this land, with state assistance in the provision of tractors, implements, fertilisers, irrigation, etc.

The key to this whole programme is the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the seizure of state power by the working class. The petty-bourgeois nationalist demand simply for ‘redivision’, with which the CP also concurs, is incapable of resolving the land question. And in fact there is no way in which redivision could be carried out without nationalisation of the land, and thus expropriating the capitalist class.

The historical tradition of the African people’s resistance to conquest in South Africa has been carried forward from the land to the city. It does not belong, however, to the middle-class nationalists who claim it for themselves. Rather, the heroic traditions of Isandhlwana, and the other great battles of the past, are carried forward today in the mass movement of the dispossessed – in the resistance against forced removals, against the enforcement of the pass laws, and against the bulldozing of the ‘squatter’ camps.

The modern proletariat of town and country is the true inheritor of the resistance struggles of the past. Those struggles will find their modern expression – and their real fruition – in the years to come, in the struggles of the toilers to regain the mastery of their country and all its productive forces.

The Migrant Labour System – Bedrock of Capitalism

From the beginnings of capitalist development in South Africa to the present, the migrant labour system has been the bedrock of wage slavery.

This system came into existence in the course of colonial conquest, and was based on the ‘native reserves’ into which the remnants of the dispossessed tribes were driven and confined. The colonial rulers had shattered the foundations of the tribal economy, but discovered they still needed the institutions of the tribe in order to perpetuate their social control.

An army of occupation is too expensive a means for a ruling class to maintain its power in the longer term. Yet the white settler population alone, still raw, unruly and divided within itself on class and national lines, provided at first too weak an instrument for the sure dictatorship of capital over the indigenous people.

So the mine-owners looked to the countryside to find a pillar for their rule. Having started to separate the African people from their land – thus creating a potential proletariat of mass proportions – the bourgeoisie did not want a large-scale immigration to the new towns. Instead, they wanted a system of drawing black labour to the centres (primarily to the mines) under the strictest regulation. This was the origin of the present migrant labour system.

Originally the migrant labour system was useful to the capitalists also for economic reasons – as a means of compelling the family of the worker to toil on the land in order to supplement sub-starvation wages. But above all its purpose had been political – as a method of social control; as a mechanism for maintaining the ‘tribe’ which could not, of course, be maintained in the township.

The reserve system was not devised by the ruling class as a means of livelihood for the African people – of that matter they have always show the most callous disregard. The purpose of the reserves has been to house labour, and to govern it under a ‘tribal’ structure dictated and financed by Pretoria. The so-called ‘tribal’ populations of the reserves have survived not by tribal production but by the wages of migrant labour.

Willy-nilly, however, capitalist development concentrates the working class in large-scale production in the towns. Capitalism in South Africa has proved to be no exception.


Official statistics concede that the percentage of Africans living in the towns doubled from 17% in 1936 to 33% in 1970. Despite 12,5 million pass arrests in the last 30 years, and all the other vicious measures of the regime to halt African urbanisation and confine workers’ families to the reserves, researchers estimate that about 50% are now living in the urban areas.

In the process of growth, capitalism has sucked into the cities workers from all over Southern Africa – at one time from as far afield as Tanzania and Angola.

Vast concentrations of workers are congregated in the main industrial centres of the Witwatersrand, Durban-Pinetown, Port Elizabeth, East London and Cape Town. Thus capitalism has brought into being the grave-digger of the system, which the bourgeoisie has always feared.

Nevertheless, the migrant labour system continues to serve the capitalist as their most vital instrument in the oppression of the African working class. From the pass laws written by the Chamber of Mines for the Kruger government in 1894, to the ‘Wiehahn-Riekert’ strategy of the regime today, the method of the ruling class has not altered in its essentials: the mass of the black workers in the cities must remain ‘temporary sojourners’, present only so long as they are needed to supply their labour power.

A working class entrenched in the cities can more easily create the stable organisations – trade union and political – needed to struggle against its exploitation and oppression. The mass of the African workers in South Africa have to build their organisations against the enormous obstacles of the pass laws and migrant labour. Militant workers’ leaders are regularly banished to remote country districts; workers on strike are ‘endorsed out’ of the towns and forcibly deported to the reserves in their thousands.


The separation of the worker from the family, and the confinement of the latter in the reserves, reduces the pressure on the capitalist class to concede housing, amenities and welfare for the aged, the sick and the unemployed. Barrack accommodation and compounds, long hours of overtime work, hazardous conditions of health and safety, and perpetual insecurity of employment – these are the consequences of the system for the migrant workers themselves.

At the same time, the extreme exploitation and oppression of migrant labour undermines the organising power and the bargaining power of the whole of the black working class. It provides the basis for cheap labour in the entire economy.

The migrant labour system is the central pillar in the national oppression of the black people, enormously strengthening the hand of the ruling class against the struggle of the masses for industrial and political rights.

The migrant labour system is indispensable to capitalist rule and capitalist profitability. No section of the capitalist class, and none of its political defenders, is prepared to break unequivocally with this system. The Progressive Federal Party, for example, while weeping crocodile tears over the evils of the pass laws, defends the idea of influx control.

All the ‘federal solutions’ which the bourgeois politicians devise for South Africa have as their unspoken purpose the maintenance of the migrant labour system, and the defence of direct bourgeois control over the urban industrial centres of power.

So important is migrant labour to capitalism in South Africa that every political tendency which makes a compromise with capitalism must inevitably compromise on the issue of migrant labour as well.

There will only be one guarantee in the battles to come that this system, the foundation stone of national oppression and capitalism in South Africa, will be thoroughly destroyed. That is for the working class of town and country to take power into their own hands, root out capitalism and organise the new society.

It is to this end that the struggles of the oppressed against the pass laws, forced removals, confinement in the compounds and all the related features of the migrant labour system must be consciously directed.

Migrant workers are the most oppressed and exploited section of the South African – and Southern African – working class. From the turn of the century the migrant workers have proved over and over again their militancy and huge potential power. The development of capitalist industry has integrated the migrant workers more and more closely with the life of the other workers in the towns.


The struggles of the migrant workers have long disproved the claims that they are ‘peasants’ or ‘peasant-workers’. Yet these terms remain the intellectual currency of the ANC and CP leadership (and also of the Unity Movement fragments which falsely claim the heritage of Trotsky).

This shows a failure to understand that the basis of tribal and peasant agriculture has been destroyed in South Africa and can never be restored. Consciousness has a certain life of its own and can linger long after its objective basis has been removed. But the consciousness of the migrant workers has been melted and recast over and over again in the course of the most militant class struggles, in which the classic weapon of the working class – strike action – has been prominently to the fore.

At the same time, on the land, within the confines of the reserves, the institutions of ‘tribal’ government have been thoroughly exposed as part and parcel of the system of national oppression. With the chiefs transformed from leaders, advisors and representatives of the rural communities into paid puppets and police agents of the oppressor, the people have turned massively to outright opposition to their authority.

From the 1940s onwards, the general struggle of the people against the chiefs signalled the historic change which had come about in the consciousness of the population in the reserves. The Pondoland uprising at the outset of the 1960s marked not the beginning but a dramatic climax of this struggle.

The self-organisation of the people separately from the ‘tribal’ councils, and the decision systematically to eliminate the chiefs, showed that the tribal shell could never again be filled with living content. The task, as the emerging rural proletariat recognised, was to unite with the workers’ movement in the towns. Common organisations of the settled and migrant workers were – and are – essential.

Yet, in 1963, Congress leaders were still mistakenly calling for the formation of separate ‘peasant committees of migrant workers in the towns’! Unfortunately, despite all the development that has taken place since then, this approach has never been corrected.

Instead the conception of a mass ‘peasantry’ is defended, especially by the CP leaders, in an attempt to justify a ‘two stages’ approach to the South African revolution. But in fact, as explained in previous chapters, even the existence of a large peasantry would in no way justify the theory of stages.

Today the mass struggle itself is undercutting these false ideas. The reserves are bursting at the seams and have begun to seethe again with open resistance. Defying arrest, imprisonment and deportation, the unemployed return again and again to the cities, seeking work and demanding the right for their families to reside with them. In the growing ‘squatter’ settlements of the Cape and Natal, a stubborn and increasingly organised resistance is maintained against the assaults of bulldozers, pass inspectors and the police.

All the efforts of the ruling class to divide the people along ‘tribal’ lines, between ‘urban’ and ‘rural’, ‘settled’ and ‘migrant’ are collapsing in the face of the laws of capitalist development and the rising consciousness of the mass of the working class. In the coming struggles, the migrant workers will more and more come to play a central role in the movement of the whole working class. And in the coming revolution, the liberation of the migrant workers will provide the surest measure of the liberation of the whole society.

Capitalist Power and ‘White Minority Rule’

Full equality and an end to all race discrimination, freedom of movement, the right to meet and organise freely in trade unions, the right to elect the government – these are the immediate democratic aims for which the oppressed people are fighting.

For the working people, these rights are not ends in themselves but means for defending and advancing their material conditions of life. In capitalist society a democratic system of government can endure while the capitalist class is able to stabilise its rule by conceding tolerable living conditions and material improvements to the working class. When the workers’ basic demands cannot be met, even previously ‘democratic’ capitalists reveal themselves as hostile to democracy.

In South Africa, as we have shown, capitalism depends of necessity on the system of cheap labour. The inability of the capitalist class in South Africa to concede material improvements to the workers beyond the most narrow limits has meant, correspondingly, the inability of capitalism to afford concessions in the sphere of democratic reforms.

Thus every struggle of the ever-growing working class, even for the smallest advances, has brought it directly up against the repressive machinery of the state – against the police, the state officials and the army. The reliance of the bosses on naked dictatorship against the workers is brought home daily in the class struggle.

Over the decades, the preservation of capitalist profits and capitalist rule has required the constant strengthening, refining and expansion of the repressive machinery of the state. The rapid development of the economy during the 1960s which brought with it the massive growth of the working class, found its necessary counterpart in the cancerous growth of bureaucratic and police tyranny, and in the new barbaric nightmares devised by the Special Branch in the torture chambers of the prisons.

Over generations capitalism has proved to be the enemy of democracy in South Africa, and remains so.

All along, the bourgeoisie in South Africa has been too weak to maintain its dictatorship by its own resources alone. Indeed, without the armed assistance of imperialism, the SA bourgeoisie would have been unable even to create a unified state for itself.


The Union of South Africa, which it inherited in 1910, was a state largely fashioned by British imperialism, and resting on imperialist support. Despite all the beatings of the drums of ‘national independence’ by sections of the SA bourgeoisie, their state remains today dependent in critical respects on reinforcement by world capitalism.

Even today, the claims of the ruling class to ‘independent’ arms production or to the ‘independent’ development of nuclear power fail to conceal its continuing military and technical reliance on the major Western powers. And equally apparent is the continuing political support which imperialist governments provide for the South African capitalist state.

But, in contrast with those colonies where there was very little economic development, support from beyond the borders of South Africa has been an insufficient basis for the ruling class to construct and stabilise its dictatorship over the rising working class. Capitalism has been compelled to seek a social footrest within the population of South Africa itself.

Over the generations, the bourgeoisie has cultivated the support of the white middle class and the white labour aristocracy against the black workers, setting the whites apart and granting them privileges and an elevated status over the black people. In this way the capitalist dictatorship in South Africa became consolidated as the system of apartheid – of national oppression and white privilege.

The raw material for the system of national oppression lay in the old colonial situation itself – in the conquest of the indigenous people; in the existence of a white settler community on the land and in the towns; in differences of culture and language; in the importation of skilled whites earning wages many times the wages of the unskilled blacks.

But this raw material of prejudice and privilege was systematically moulded and developed by the capitalist class and its successive governments. The divisions within society were deliberately hardened and deepened so as to bring into being the modern apartheid system with all its savage refinements. In the process the emerging black middle class also was subjected to many of the burdens and humiliations that are the lot of the black working class.

Both the strength and the weakness of the capitalist class in South Africa is revealed in the character of its social base.

On the one hand, the support of the white middle class and the white aristocracy of labour has given the SA capitalist class generations of political stability – and even a certain room to manoeuvre within the domination of imperialism. Out of these white layers the army, the police force and the state bureaucracy have chiefly been filled, and factory foremen and supervisors drawn. Stampeded behind barriers of racial privilege they have formed a bastion of reaction, millions strong, against the mass of the working class.

At the same time, the racist character of capitalist rule – directed of necessity against the entire black population – reflects the weak position of the South African bourgeoisie.

In the older capitalist countries of Europe, where capitalism arose out of petty production over a long period of time, broad layers of the middle class provided the initial buffer for the bourgeoisie against the emerging proletariat. Only with the transition to imperialism did the capitalist class begin to extend the base of its support among the upper layers of the working class. We have explained already the conditions in Europe which made this process necessary, and possible.

In South Africa, on the other hand, the late but meteoric development of capitalism rapidly polarised society between the monopoly capitalists on the one hand, and the mass of the working people on the other. From the start, the middle layers of society were relatively insignificant. No room existed for a middle class to develop a substantial role in production. This was especially true of the black middle class which, from the beginning, was stunted in its development.

The social weakness of the middle class ruled out the possibility for the bourgeoisie to rest its rule simply on this layer. The bourgeoisie turned increasingly towards the development of its dictatorship on the basis of divisions of race, with the cultivation of a white aristocracy of labour to supplement the white petty bourgeoisie.

Wherever it exists, capitalism engenders lines of competition and division among workers which cannot be overcome by purely spontaneous struggles. It is precisely the development of class-conscious leadership within the ranks of the workers’ movement which is needed in the struggle to bring about the unity of the working class. The weakness of the forces of Marxism in South Africa and internationally left scope for the bourgeoisie to carry out its policies of divide-and-rule with deadly effect upon the working class.

Yet the creation of a privileged section of the working class – the whites – did not take place without conflict. At every stage the bourgeoisie was obliged to balance its need for a stable basis of support among the whites against the imperatives of profit.

Racial protection of jobs, access to collective bargaining mechanisms, increased material welfare, have only been extended to the white workers with reluctance. This has only been done – as is clearly shown by events from the 1890s to 1922 and from the 1930s to the 1950s – to ward off greater dangers from the mass of the workers (the blacks), only in conditions of economic advance for capitalism, and only on the terms laid down by the ruling class itself.

The privileges granted to the white workers were preceded by the repression of their sectional class action (most decisively the crushing of the 1922 Rand Revolt). Conversely, those layers of the white working class who were denied special treatment by the ruling class – such as the women garment workers during the 1930s – remained open to a programme of struggle on the basis of working-class unity.

A crucial role in this system of rule has been played by the reactionary leadership of the white workers’ organisations. From the treacherous, vacillating ‘liberals’ such as Anna Scheepers to avowed reactionaries such as the racist Arrie Paulus, these leaders have consistently collaborated with the capitalist class in maintaining the divisions of colour and privilege within the working class and in supporting the regulation of trade unions by the state.

That is the elaborate structure of class collaboration that forms the foundation of what appears as ‘white minority rule’.

Capitalism and National Division

As the forces of production have developed, as the strength and militancy of the black majority of the workers have increased, the ruling class has been forced, at greater and greater cost, to try to strengthen its base of support and deepen the divisions within the proletariat. In this process, white racial privilege and the acute national oppression of the African majority have been only the most extreme poles in the general capitalist policy of divide-and-rule.

Among the oppressed, Indian has been separated from Coloured, and both from the African masses. Among the Africans themselves, divisions have been created or reinforced between previously existing ‘tribes’; and wedges driven in an increasingly systematic way in an effort to separate the migrant workers from the settled urban population.

At the same time, to prevent any form of leadership from emerging that might serve as a rallying point for broader masses of the workers, the ruling class has attempted likewise to fragment the black middle class into the same ethnic and ‘tribal’ categories that have been devised for the fragmentation of the working class.

To permit the breaching of sectional barriers at any level of society would be to expose them in the eyes of the workers and render them useless as instruments of division. Likewise, if political freedom were extended to even a privileged minority of blacks, this would inevitable sharpen the demand of black workers for the same. Black middle-class politicians would come under pressure from the workers to voice radical demands within the bosses’ parliament.

Since the early colonial period, the geographical fragmentation of South Africa and the creation of the African reserves has been a central component in the system of division and oppression. While the development of the South African economy has brought about greater and greater integration and inter-dependence of all parts of the country and all sections of the population, the South African ruling class had to double and treble its efforts to separate and fragment.

But the tide of history cannot be rolled back. Bantustan ‘independence’ and the stripping of the African people of their legal status as South African citizens is only the latest, extreme measure of the ruling class to shore up an apartheid system whose foundations are cracking. These new ‘states’ are a fiction, having no economic viability, no basis of allegiance among the people, and totally dependent on the South African state for survival. They will be swept away in the revolution to come.

National Liberation and Workers’ Power

Grinding poverty side by side with astronomical wealth, the destitution of the rural masses, the migrant labour system, the grip of imperialism on the country’s economic and political life, brute dictatorship, national oppression, white privilege, the fragmentation of society; all these are the fruits of the present economic and class system in South Africa.

The struggle to remove these burdens is inseparable from the struggle of the black working people for democratic control over their lives.

Marxists join uncompromisingly in every fight for national liberation, equal rights, majority rule, and all the democratic demands raised by the oppressed in struggle. At the same time Marxism brings to the struggle the understanding that, to carry through the democratic transformation of society, capitalism must be overthrown.

Because national oppression is fundamental to capitalist rule in South Africa, the struggle of the oppressed people for national liberation strikes at capitalism’s very roots. The demand of the black people to govern themselves comes in conflict not only with ‘white minority rule’, but with the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. This determines the character of the South African revolution.

Forty-seven years ago Leon Trotsky, while exiled in France, wrote a letter in answer to questions addressed to him by a group of supporters in South Africa. He pointed out that he was only slightly acquainted with South African conditions, and in relation to some issues he had been misinformed. But his central passage on the standpoint of Marxism in the national liberation struggle in South Africa would require only changes of terminology and detail to bring it fully up to date:

Three-quarters of the population of South Africa (almost six million of the almost eight million total) is composed of non-Europeans. A victorious revolution is unthinkable without the awakening of the native masses. In its turn, that will give them what they are so lacking today – confidence in their strength, a heightened personal consciousness, a cultural growth.

Under these conditions, the South African republic will emerge first of all as a ‘black’ republic; this does not exclude, of course, either full equality for the whites or brotherly relations between the two races – depending mainly on the conduct of the whites. But it is entirely obvious that the predominant majority of the population, liberated from slavish dependence, will put a certain imprint on the state.

Insofar as a victorious revolution will radically change the relation not only between the classes but also between the races and will assure to the blacks that place in the state that corresponds to their numbers, thus far will the social revolution in South Africa also have a national character.

We have not the slightest reason to close our eyes to this side of the question or to diminish its significance. On the contrary, the proletarian party should in words and deeds openly and boldly take the solution of the national (racial) problem in its hands.

Nevertheless, the proletarian party can and must solve the national (racial) problem by its own methods.

The historical weapon of national liberation can be only the class struggle.

These long-neglected words are more relevant than ever to our movement today.

The struggle for workers’ power holds the key to the national liberation of the black people. Marxism stands for the carrying to completion of the most thorough-going revolutionary struggle for national liberation, consciously linking it to the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the creation of a democratic workers’ state. Only by these means can the national and democratic aims of the masses – including the aims of the majority of the black middle class – be achieved.

It is through the overthrow of capitalism that the root causes of racial domination, division and privilege can be eliminated. Thus, too, the way will be cleared, within an undivided South Africa, for the unity of all the South African people as a single nation.

At the same time, in a democratic workers’ state, all minorities and national groups would have the right to their own languages and cultures, without discrimination.

The victory of the workers’ revolution will both carry to completion all the national and democratic tasks and begin the process of transition to socialism.

Yet the revolution in South Africa will not stop at the Limpopo River. All the countries of Southern Africa, by one means or another, will be embroiled in the conflict in South Africa. Likewise the defeat of the South African apartheid state and the South African bourgeoisie, under the combined weight of the Southern African working people, will shake all these countries from top to bottom.

The socialist revolution will extend throughout Southern Africa, and will spur on the struggle of the masses against the decaying capitalist regimes throughout the continent.

For the people of Southern Africa it will mean the end of imperialist domination. For the countries of the region now under capitalist rule, it will mean the end of wage-slavery and the rise of democratic workers’ states. For the people of the workers’ states of Mozambique and Angola, it will mean the end of their extreme isolation and a way forward out of poverty and bureaucratic rule.

The Marxist programme defends the right of the people of the various countries of Southern Africa to independent states of their own. This right will not be diminished by the Southern African character of the socialist revolution which impends. But at the same time it will be the revolutionary duty of the South African working class, in the course of the struggle and once in power, to offer to their neighbours a union of Southern African workers’ states, in which the resources and industrial power of the whole sub-continent may be shared for the common progress of all.

That unity, attainable only between workers’ democracies, would be a giant stride for all the peoples. Together with the advance of the workers’ revolution in the industrialised capitalist and Stalinist countries it would open the way to a socialist federation of all Africa and advance all humanity towards a socialist world.

These are the revolutionary possibilities and tasks with which the struggle in South Africa today is pregnant. By these means and these alone will our struggle end capitalism, achieve the national emancipation of the South African people, and transcend the antiquated barrier of the bourgeois nation-state.

Continue to Chapter Nine