The word “apartheid” is used today to describe Israel’s racist treatment of Palestinians. But the word, meaning “separateness”, originates in Afrikaans, the language of the white minority who ruled South Africa until the 1990s. In the eyes of the Afrikaners, “apartheid” wasn’t a slur; it was their affectionate name for South Africa’s brutal system of segregation. For decades, children were subjected to pseudo-scientific race examinations and assigned to a “racial category”: “Black” (also referred to as “Bantu” or African), “White”, “Coloured” or “Asian” (mostly people of Indian background). These categories defined everything about a person’s life: what jobs they were eligible for, whether they could vote, where they lived and which toilet they could use.
South African apartheid wasn’t simply the result of white ideas of Black inferiority. It was a system that allowed a small ruling class of capitalists, who were white, to keep control over the mass of low-paid Black workers. The economic power concentrated in the hands of a few whites was immense: by 1994, six white-owned corporations controlled 90 percent of the companies listed on the Johannesburg stock exchange. Just 5 percent of white South Africans owned 88 percent of the country’s wealth.
In 1948, the National Party formed government and dramatically escalated the oppression of non-white South Africans, particularly Blacks. Apartheid, though a new word in 1948, wasn’t a completely new practice. It was an extension of the migrant labour system first implemented in the labour-intensive gold and diamond mines.
Most Africans in the region had been dispossessed through wars of conquest and high taxes on the peasantry, turning them into a source of cheap labour for the mine owners. They were treated as “temporary sojourners” in their own land, forced to commute to work in the mines, then herded back into the “reserves”—areas that comprised 13 percent of the land but were home to 70 percent of the population.
This system was extremely lucrative for the British and Afrikaner (of Dutch origin) capitalists, and led to a boom throughout the early twentieth century. But it came at a dangerous price—the growth of an urban Black working class, which started to get organised in the 1940s. White rulers feared that the Black workers’ militancy could rub off on the unions of skilled white workers. Apartheid was the solution to these problems. Trotskyist Darcy du Toit explains it in Capital and Labour in South Africa: “The massive growth of the African working class called for reinforcement of the measures designed to control it”.
The measures were extended beyond workers to the Black population in general. Concessions of any sort to the Black masses could, the ruling class feared, be taken advantage of by radical Black workers. What was fundamentally a method of labour control grew, after 1948, into a complex and arbitrary system that disenfranchised the entire non-white population, including Indian and “Coloured” people.
One of the central aims of apartheid was to control the mobility of Black people. Most Black people lived and worked in the urban centres formally declared “white areas”. But they were assigned, from birth, to one of the rural “homelands” or “Bantustans”, regardless of their birthplace or residence. They were allowed to venture outside their Bantustans only if they were employed elsewhere. In practice, the Bantustans became dumping grounds for “superfluous” Africans, including children, the elderly and the unemployed, where they were condemned to miserable poverty. Families were torn apart, forced to live at opposite ends of the country on the whim of the authorities. A set of “pass laws” was enforced. When police found Black people without the correct pass, they were fined, beaten, imprisoned and sometimes killed. Bosses could sack an entire workforce and have them bused back to their respective “homelands”.
The white ruling class justified the Bantustans on the basis of “separate development”, the idea that Black people had some degree of independence in “their” areas. But the Black councils that ruled the Bantustans were mere extensions of the central government, policing the Black population on its behalf—not unlike the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank today.
The rulers of apartheid lived in perpetual fear of the Black workers they exploited, so an important aim of apartheid was to keep Africans scared, powerless and quiet. Black trade unions and strikes were illegal, and all Black political activity was outlawed. Anyone who defied the state could become a “banned individual” and be prohibited from meeting in groups. Many Black leaders served long prison sentences, most famously Nelson Mandela. Some, like Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, were murdered in police custody. When masses of Black people resisted, they were met with bullets, tear gas and baton charges. An infamous example was the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, in which police gunned down a demonstration against the pass laws, killing 69 people.
Apartheid would not be easily overthrown, and it showed no signs of peacefully evolving away. Both the “liberal” and conservative wings of the political elite were committed to the system that underpinned their profits, even if the liberals occasionally criticised apartheid’s excesses.
Some opponents held out hope that the weight of international condemnation and sanctions would force change. But the “international community” could never be the decisive factor in the fall of apartheid. South Africa’s powerful trading partners—the US, Britain, West Germany and Japan—had no interest in rocking the boat and heartily approved of the National Party’s rabid anti-communism. Like Israel today, South Africa received no more than the occasional slap on the wrist during apartheid’s heyday. Only once the regime was on its last legs did countries like the US impose sanctions.
By contrast, millions of ordinary people around the world were disgusted by apartheid. As early as the 1950s, there were organised boycotts of South African products by unions and progressive organisations. The anti-apartheid struggle grew over the decades, culminating in mass protests in the late 1960s and early 1970s against the touring, white-only Springbok rugby team. In the 1970s, militant workers refused to handle South African goods. Dock workers and seafarers in Australia helped impose an embargo on oil and weapons to South Africa. In 1977, the British Union of Postal Workers refused to handle post to or from South Africa. These actions undoubtedly encouraged the struggle for freedom, but they could not substitute for a mass uprising within South Africa.
Initially it was the Black middle-class liberals who led the African National Congress (ANC) that seemed to offer hope for change inside South Africa. About 10 percent of the Black population were middle class, including professionals, intellectuals and small and medium business owners. Apartheid limited their careers, denied them educational opportunities, excluded them from power and targeted their political leaders. Despite this, they tended to be moderate, having the goal of ruling over the exploitative system of South African capitalism themselves rather than challenging it.
The Black middle class was extremely weak in relation to the white ruling class. The ANC’s turn to guerrilla struggle, a suicide mission against the ruthless apartheid state, reflected this powerlessness. The mass of Black workers, on the other hand, could shut down the engines of the economy. As workers’ struggles developed, the ANC increasingly leaned on the strength of organised workers but continued to represent the interests of the Black middle classes. A trade union newspaper, Workers’ Unity, summed up the tension in 1979: “Who will rule South Africa – the workers or the capitalists? Will our revolution against apartheid also bring an end to poverty and exploitation?”.
In 1973, a massive strike wave began in the eastern city of Durban, at the Coronation Brick and Tile Works. A report by the Institute for Industrial Education in 1974 contains this recollection: “Not one man from the main plant ignored the call to strike ... they were chanting ‘Filimuntu Ufesadikiza’, meaning ‘Man is dead but his spirit still lives’”.
Their fighting spirit spread. Workers on the docks, in manufacturing and in textiles joined the fray. Solidarity developed between Indian, “Coloured” and Black workers in many factories, despite attempts to keep them apart. In the Hammarsdale industrial area, strikes became general, and workers formed a single, unified coordinating body to run the town. Wages were the key issue everywhere; they were so low that workers demanded they be doubled or trebled. The strikes were illegal, so every dispute became a showdown between the working class and the apartheid state.
Black trade unions continued to grow in the mid-1970s, winning recognition and increased wages. The workers of Durban had sounded apartheid’s death knell, and it rang in the ears of the system’s apologists. “I am not a revolutionary”, said the Zulu chief minister of the Kwazulu Natal Bantustan and a collaborator with the apartheid state in 1976, “but I see a revolution coming”.
The next conflagration was started by children in June 1976. The school students of Soweto, a township outside Johannesburg, called a demonstration against their schools’ adoption of Afrikaans, the language of the oppressors. Police opened fire on a crowd of more than 15,000 students. The first to die was Hector Petersen, a 13-year-old boy who was shot from behind.
Hundreds were murdered by police, but the protests didn’t stop; they became an uprising. The students erected barricades, set vehicles alight and attacked government offices, churches and shops. The uprising spread across the country.
A group of workers on their way home to the township of Alexandra were met by student demonstrators. One pointed to the burning township and said, “If you go down there, you will see what Black power means”. Thousands of young workers joined students on the barricades.
Many students realised they wouldn’t win through street battles alone and began to call for workers’ strikes. Workers answered with huge general strikes in the major cities. The strikes were aimed at overthrowing the whole apartheid system. A Cape Town strike pamphlet read: “The racists do not spare the bullets. Their guns try to cut down our march for freedom. But the march to freedom must not end. Reject all concessions that the racists grant us. Concessions are crumbs. We want freedom not crumbs ... Strike!”
In the following years, the anti-apartheid struggle reached its zenith. Workers struck and formed new unions, including, in 1985, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which was allied to the ANC. School students boycotted their classes and barricaded the universities, demanding free tuition and an end to educational apartheid. In 1987, Black miners embarked on the biggest strike in South African history.
By the late 1980s, the white ruling class was in turmoil. It faced a choice between transitioning to majority rule and the very real prospect of revolution from below. Better to allow Black elites a seat at the negotiating table than risk further rebellion.
Negotiations between Mandela and President F.W. de Klerk began in 1989. ANC leaders wanted to use the mass movement as a bargaining chip to squeeze concessions out of the whites in the interests of the emerging Black bourgeoisie. They were willing to trade away parts of the ANC program, which promised workers’ rights, wage increases, nationalisations and wealth redistribution. To them, the working class, whose militancy had forced the government to the bargaining table, were mere pawns.
The union bureaucrats of COSATU agreed with this approach. In the early 1990s they began negotiating with the government and employers’ organisations to establish a “social contract” that would tie up strikes in state-managed bargaining in exchange for limited reforms.
But Black workers, sensing victory at last, had other ideas. After Mandela’s release from prison, townships across the country went into open revolt. Workers unleashed their fury on the corrupt Black Bantustan leaders who had spent decades collaborating with the regime. Ciskei’s president-for-life, Lennox Sebe, was overthrown. The president of Gazankulu went into hiding. The northern Bantustan of Venda erupted into a general strike, with workers demanding better pay and that their nominally “independent” state be reincorporated into a free South Africa. On top of the township revolts, the strike rate shot up as workers downed tools across multiple industries.
The government tried to use the negotiations to calm things down. Before he had granted a single concession to the movement, de Klerk demanded that Mandela call off protests and suspend the armed struggle. Mandela agreed without any debate among ANC members. In the same vein, one of COSATU’s affiliate unions, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, called off a planned strike in August 1990 that 80 percent of its members had voted for.
While the negotiations dragged on, the government played its last card: brute force. De Klerk sent the police, army and right-wing paramilitary groups into the townships to put down the rebellions. He collaborated with Buthelezi’s Zulu nationalist party, Inkatha, which slaughtered people in the streets of Kwazulu Natal. The South African Communist Party (SACP), for years the loyal shadow of the ANC, urged workers not to strike lest they contribute to the “violence in the country”. This was a betrayal—a general strike could have disrupted Inkatha and the government forces, by uniting Black workers across the ethnic divisions stoked by Bantustan leaders.
Thanks to COSATU, the ANC and the SACP, the strike wave collapsed by the end of 1990, strengthening the government’s hand. Mandela’s program for post-apartheid South Africa became even more moderate. In July 1991 he assured the US Congress that the ANC “held no ideological position that dictates it must adopt a policy of nationalisation”. He consoled the “monopolists”, reassuring them that “as investors in a post-apartheid South Africa you will need to be confident about your capital and a general climate of peace and stability”. To South Africa’s political elites, he promised a power-sharing “government of national unity” regardless of election outcomes.
Unfortunately, no organised political force existed to the left of the ANC that could press working class struggle forward and demand serious economic reforms and redistribution. The SACP, for its part, supported Mandela’s sell-outs.
In 1994, South Africa held its first democratic elections. The ANC won an overwhelming victory, and apartheid laws were scrapped. But 1994 was not a revolution. It represented a compromise between the Afrikaner ruling class and the emerging Black elites: the latter promised not to touch white wealth so long as the ANC could rule South Africa. Despite the decisive role played by militant Black workers in the fall of apartheid, the new government did little to improve their dire economic situation.
Today, most Blacks continue to live in poverty while a layer of Black elites has enriched itself. White faces no longer crowd out the halls of power, but there is still an intense concentration of wealth in white hands.
The struggle against racism and exploitation in South Africa is far from over. Now, as in 1990, the Black working class remains the only force capable of winning true freedom.