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Longer, analytical article.  The Struggle for South Africa’s Liberation: Success and Failure

Summary & Comment: " This paper was presented at a seminar at the University of Johannesburg on Wednesday, August 5, 2015. Albie Sachs and Ben Turok served as discussants and a lively, disputatious but comradely exchange followed - with some challenging interventions from the large audience as well." Saul outlines the positive and negative effects of liberation; politically and culturally some racial gains; in class and economic terms the divisions are even more apparent. JK

Author: Prof. John S. Saul Date Written: 5 August 2015
Primary Category: Southern Region Document Origin: Author
Secondary Category: Economic Justice Source URL: http://www.africafiles.org/article.asp?ID=27826
Key Words: South Africa , liberation, Fanon, Cabral, race, economy. politics.

African Charter Article #20: All peoples shall have the right to existence and self determination and the right to free themselves from the bonds of domination. (Click for full text...)

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It is true that I’m from Canada and only arrived in Africa, in Tanzania to be specific, in 1965 at the age of 27; nonetheless, it was in Africa that I grew up, at least politically: not, initially, in South Africa but in Tanzania where I taught for many years and in working with Mozambique’s FRELIMO in exile in DSM; in visiting the liberated areas of a new Mozambique in Tete Province in 1972; and, later, in teaching in a liberated Mozambique at the Universidade de Eduardo Mondlane.

    Of course I visited South Africa throughout these years too, even once, in the 1980s, doing so illegally (having been refused a visa), I’ve had books banned by the apartheid government, and I’ve taught here in Jo’burg, just down the road at Wits at the turn of the present century. But, in the 1960s and the 1970s, my “African education” began not with the Freedom Charter but with Fanon, Cabral and Nyerere. We were aware of what the Freedom Charter had to say in 1955 needless to say and honoured it. But in Dar es Salaam we were beginning to judge movements throughout the continent not by what they said in the heat of struggle but by what they actually did once they were in power. And we were looking for voices – Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral and Julius Nyerere were three such voices - within the camp of liberation that could instruct us.

    Let me also make a further specific introductory point if I may. Let me, in fact, pick up from where I left off my brief appearance at the South Africa Book Fair last weekend and, assuming that there’s not too much overlap of audience, even use the same entry point. It seems appropriate to do so in part because I have been instructed by my old friend David Moore to change my topic from the one I had proposed (that being entitled "The Struggle for Southern African Liberation: Success or Failure") to “South Africa’s Freedom Charter and its legacy: reflections on anti-colonial programmes, post-colonial practices, and possibilities for the future” - in order to fit in with the broader topic of the 60th Anniversary of the Freedom Charter already established as to the overall theme of the seminar series of which my presentation now makes a contribution.

    I shall do so, albeit only in part. As you know the launch of the Freedom Charter occurred in June, 1955, and the anniversary occurred a month ago. But since I wasn’t here a month ago to sample the full range of opinion expressed, I felt free to harken back to an earlier occasion, precisely 30 years ago to be exact - to the moment of the 30th anniversary of the Freedom Charter and to a book of the time, one edited by Raymond Suttner and Jeremy Cronin, that marked that event. And in that book was a text by Steve Tshwete, a Robben Island graduate and an ANC National Executive Committee member who died in 2002. This important text, although it is little noted now, was entitled “Understanding the Charter Clause by Clause,” and it is one that can help me to bridge from the Charter to the present moment of possible recasting of the politics of a new South Africa. For Tshwete, speaking of the Freedom Charter, pointedly wrote:

This is a document of minimum and maximum demands – maximum for the progressive bourgeoisie...and minimum for the working class [and the poor?]. In other words, the bourgeoisie would not strive for more than is contained in the Charter, while the working class will have sufficient cause to aspire beyond its demands.

What happens after the implementation of the people’s charter – whether there is a socialist democracy or not – will certainly depend on the strength of the working class itself in the class alliance that we call a people’s democracy.

If the working class is strong enough, then a transition to a working class democracy will be easily effected. At that point in time there will be realignment of forces. Mobilization will be on a purely class basis and the working class ideology will constitute the engine of transition.

But if, on the other hand, the working class has not been prepared for this historical role and is thus weak in the people’s democracy, the bourgeoisie will turn the tables. There will be a relapse to pure capitalist relations of production. The Freedom Charter takes the working class a step nearer to its historical goal, while it does not tamper much with the bourgeois order.[i]

I also found a further quote to my purpose from no less an authority than Thabo Mbeki – Mbeki as cited by William Gumede in his book entitled Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC:

Thus as early as the late-1980s (writes Gumede) Mbeki could be found “privately telling friends that he believed the ANC alliance with the Communist Party would have to be broken at some point, especially if the ANC gained power in a post-apartheid South Africa...[T]he ANC would govern as a centre-left party, keeping some remnants of trade union and SACP support, while the bulk of the alliance would form a left-wing workers’ party”![ii]

    Let me suggest then: Is this not, in South Africa, precisely the moment, anticipated by both Tshwete and Mbeki(although they would not have phrased the point quite as I do), when the country must choose between, on the hand, the “exhausted” and, for many intents and purposes, “failed” nationalism of the ANC and, on the other, and however unclear its precise outlines may still be, the broad and inchoate movement-cum-party-in-the-making that is seeking to grope its way forward towards focusing the new and much more radical politics of South Africa’s proletariat and precariat[iii] (what the Democratic Left Front/DLF, for one, is always careful to term, precisely, the politics of “the working class and the poor.”

    In short, I feel compelled, in talking about South Africa, to step outside the Freedom Charter (while also acknowledging the resonance of Tshwete’s point that the Charterm is, first and foremost, most promising to an aspirant South African bourgeoisie). For far more promising of producing a deeper understanding of just what happened here was to invoke the names and writings of militants from the sixties, in particular those of the aforementioned Fanon, Cabral and Nyerere. Recall, for starters, Fanon’s perspective on apparent African independence, an “independence” that in his mind had merely produced a “false decolonization.” For he found that little had changed, with the new African elites comfortably stepping into privileged positions as mere “intermediaries,” acting in their own class interests but also on behalf of capital:

The national middle class discovers its historic mission: that of intermediary. Seen through its eyes, its mission has nothing to do with transforming the nation; it consists, prosaically, of being the transmission lines between the nation and a capitalism, rampant though camouflaged, which today puts on the masque of neo-colonialism. The national bourgeoisie will be quite content with the role of the Western bourgeoisie’s business agent, and it will play its part without any complexes in a most dignified manner. But the same lucrative role, this cheap-jack’s function, this meanness of outlook and this absence of all ambition symbolize the incapability of the national middle class to fulfil its historic role as a bourgeoisie.[iv]

Indeed that, in Fanon’s eyes, is why decolonization came so quickly in the end in Africa north of the Zambesi:

  [A] veritable panic takes hold of the colonialist governments in turn. Their purpose is to capture the vanguard, to turn the movement of liberation to the right and disarm the people: quick, quick, let’s decolonize. Decolonize the Congo before it turns into another Algeria. Vote the constitutional framework for all Africa, create the French Communauté, renovate that same Communauté, but for God’s sake let’s decolonize quick.


On this model, one might hypothesize, that when a capitalist-friendly ANC was beckoned, as Fanon had once said, to “settle the problem” around “the green baize table before any regrettable act has been performed or irreparable gesture made,” the stage was also being set for just such eventual accession by the ANC to formal power.  

    For consider also Cabral’s skepticism about many if not most national liberation struggles themselves. Indeed, he went so far as to wonder whether, in the form it took, the “national liberation struggle [was] not [in fact] an imperialist initiative,” suggesting that

  ...there is something wrong with the simple interpretation of the national liberation movement as a revolutionary trend. The objective of the imperialist countries was to prevent the enlargement of the socialist countries, to liberate the reactionary forces in our country which were being stifled by colonialism, and to enable these forces to ally themselves with the international bourgeoisie.[v]

      Moreover, I also once heard Julius Nyerere make the following very Fanonist statement (as summarized in the TANU newspaper, The Nationalist, of the time) at a large outdoor meeting in Dar es Salaam: in 1967 in invoking TANU’s new Arusha Declaration, itself designed to begin to chart a socialist future for Tanzania,

  “Nyerere called on the people of Tanzania to have great confidence in themselves and to safeguard the nation’s hard-won freedom. Mwalimu [Nyerere] warned that the people should not allow their freedom to be pawned as most of their leaders were purchasable. He warned further that in running the affairs of the nation the people should not look on their leaders as saints and prophets.

  The President stated that the attainment of freedom in many cases resulted merely in the change of colours, white faces to black faces without ending exploitation and injustices, and above all without the betterment of the life of the masses. He said that while struggling for freedom the objective was clear but it was another thing to remove your own people from the position of exploiters.[vi]

      Are such images of a presumed African liberation north of the Zambezi not also more accurate about what has actually happened in South and southern Africa than anything to be found in the Freedom Charter. Indeed, one could start to paint a clearer picture of the liberation struggle and its outcome in South Africa not with the Freedom Charter but with something once said by - this time by a South African - Steve Biko, the key intellectual force behind the Black Consciousness Movement here in the 1970s.

      Thus, in an interview of the time,[vii] Biko was asked to identify “what trends or factors in it ... you feel are working towards the fulfillment of the long term ends of blacks,” and he responded that the regime’s deep commitment to a racial hierarchy had actually acted as “a great leveler” of class formation amongst the black population and dictated “a sort of similarity in the community” – such that the “constant jarring effect of the [apartheid] system” produced a “common identification” on the part of the people. In contrast, he suggested that in the more liberal system envisaged by the Progressive Party of the time, “you would get stratification creeping in, with your masses remaining where they are or getting poorer, and the cream of your leadership, which is invariably derived from the so-called educated people, beginning to enter bourgeois ranks, admitted into town, able to vote, developing new attitudes and new friends ... a completely different tone.”

      For South Africa is, he continued,

  "one country where it would be possible to create a capitalist black society. If the whites were intelligent. If the Nationalists were intelligent. And that capitalist black society, black middle-class, would be very effective at an important stage. Primarily because a hell of a lot of blacks have got a bit of education – I’m talking comparatively speaking to the so-called rest of Africa – and a hell of a lot of them could compete favorably with whites in the fields of industry, commerce and professions. And South Africa could succeed to put across to the world a pretty convincing integrated picture with still 70 percent of the population being underdogs. "

  Indeed, it was precisely because the whites were so “terribly afraid of this” that South Africa represented, to Biko, “the best economic system for revolution.” For “the evils of it are so pointed and so clear, and therefore make teaching of alternative methods, more meaningful methods, more indigenous methods even, much easier under the present sort of setup.”

      Yet it is of crucial importance to note here that Biko was both correct and incorrect at the same time. “Apartheid” did not in fact stay in place so firmly or so long as to teach the black population that “black consciousness” would be, had to be, a necessary vector of transformation in South Africa. At the same time, he was correct in seeing that the one way open to the dominant classes was that of defusing black anger and growing *

This paper was presented at a seminar at the University of Johannesburg on Wednesday, August 5, 2015. Albie Sachs and Ben Turok served as discussants and a lively, disputatious but comradely exchange followed - with some challenging interventions from the large audience as well.

  [i]. Steve Tshwete, “Understanding the Charter Clause by Clause” in Raymond Suttner and Jeremy Cronin [eds.], Thirty Years of the Freedom Charter (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1985), p. 213.

  [ii]. Thabo Mbeki as quoted in William Gumede, Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC (Cape Town: Zebra Press, 2005), p. 38.

  [iii]. For a careful definition and discussion of “the precariat” see my A Flawed Freedom: Rethinking Southern African Liberation (London, Toronto and Cape Town: Pluto Press, Between the Lines and Juta/UCT, 2014), ch. 5, “The New Terms of Resistance: Proletariat, Precariat and the Present African Prospect”; there (p. 108) I also speak, in addition to a proletariat, of the existence of “‘a people’ – poor people, marginalized in both urban and rural settings – who are as capable of socio-economic upsurge as those engaged in socio-economic confrontation at the workplace. These latter can perhaps be called an ‘underclass’ /precariat (or even, in a far more metaphorical and much less scientific way, seen as members of ‘the working class’). In short, a politics that seeks to engage in broad-based mobilization of both proletariat and precarist could indeed, if mounted deftly, have cumulative, very real and entirely positive revolutionary potential.”

  [iv]. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (Penguin Books: Harmondsworth, 1967), p. 122.

  [v]. Amilcar Cabral, Revolution in Guinea: An African People’s Struggle (London: Stage 1, 1967), pp. 57.

  [vi]. Julius Nyerere as paraphrased in The Nationalist (Dar es Salaam), issue of September 5, 1967.

  [vii]. The following quotations are from an interview of Steve Biko carried out by Gail Gerhart on October 24, 1972, and available from the Aluka e-collection of anti-apartheid-related materials atnwww.aluka.org/action/showMetadata?doi=10.5555/AL.SFF (document accessed 30 September 2013).  

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