Russia and South Africa: the oppressors make a deal

The South African government of the African National Congress (ANC) has decided to join military exercises with Russia and China. They were announced during a visit to South Africa this week by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov – who was given a warm welcome by Nalendi Pandor, the South African foreign minister.

Lavrov denounced “colonialism” – and no doubt various “left” groups around the world will trumpet this accord as evidence that Russia, China and South Africa are “fighting imperialism”.

Last year, South Africa called on Russia to withdraw troops from Ukraine. But this week Pandor said it would be “simplistic and infantile” to ask for that now.

The ANC government uses its stance to bolster its own “anti-imperialist” credentials among its own people and among neighbouring African governments.

But this alliance is not “anti-imperialist” at all. It is an anti-working class alliance that actually has a long history.

The ANC emerged as a political movement in the early 20th century. It was the party of the small black business and professional class. With the rise of apartheid it fought for the rights of black business. It tried to appear as a spokesperson for all the oppressed black population, but there was always a problem with this as it had no interest in the real emancipation of black workers.

Two good examples of this tension can be seen in the period after world war two.

First, at the end of the war there was an upsurge of black working class militancy leading to a general strike of black miners. Nelson Mandela, at that time leader of the ANC youth wing, refused to support the strike, fearing it would undermine the ANC’s efforts to win concessions for black business.

Second, in 1957 a huge protest against bus fare increases took place in the black townships round Johannesburg.  For months on end, workers walked miles to work and home again rather than pay the fare increases. The ANC refused to support this bus boycott. Not surprising as one of the bus companies was owned by a leading ANC member.

In 1974 a spontaneous general strike swept South Africa’s black working class and this forced the apartheid regime to allow trade unions to organise.The Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) grew rapidly and soon had hundreds of thousands of members. The affiliated unions were non-racial, extremely democratic and very militant.

The ANC had no role in these unions. The union conference resolutions were clear that, while they supported the ANC’s campaign against apartheid, the workers had to have their own political perspective for the overthrow of capitalism which the ANC opposed.

At the same time, outside of South Africa, the ANC was being paraded by the Soviet Union as a revolutionary, socialist organisation and was declared to be the “sole representative of the South African people”. When the apartheid regime banned the South African Communist Party (SACP) in the early 1950s, its members had all joined the ANC and their masters in Moscow then promoted the ANC as a “revolutionary” organisation.

(Many people who were taken in by this were later puzzled, when Mandela was released from jail and declared he had never been a socialist or communist.)

South Africa then became a pawn in the Cold War battle. The Soviet bloc supplied the ANC’s armed wing with weapons and training. But this armed wing was a fraud, designed to boost the image of the ANC among black Africans and cause trouble for the west in southern African affairs.

Thousands of young black South Africans left the country to join the ANC military camps in Angola and Mozambique. But the weapons and military training in Eastern Europe were a trap. Not a single soldier or gun ever went back to fight in South Africa.

Year after year these troops were used to support pro-Soviet movements in neighbouring countries, but, despite the eruption of mass revolts in the South Africa townships, the black youth who had gone to get weapons never went home to join the fight.

Eventually there were mutinies in nearly all the ANC military camps, demanding democracy in the army so they could go back to join the fight against the South African regime. These mutinies were militarily suppressed by Cuban troops and most of the leaders were tortured, executed or jailed.

This refusal of the ANC to allow its troops to return to South Africa is no surprise. Behind the scenes the Soviet Union was holding secret talks with leading business figures in South Africa to negotiate the end of apartheid, a system that was hugely costly to South African mining industries whereby they had to pay large numbers of white workers high wages. The Soviet Union was trying to use its influence to end the struggles in South Africa in order to get favourable deals with the USA when the Soviet economy was collapsing.

But these negotiations to end apartheid faced a huge stumbling block. While the ANC was feted around the world amongst progressives and union organisations – thanks to the Soviet Union’s backing – inside the country it had zero organisation and little influence on the enormously militant working class who were not just against apartheid but against capitalism too.

No system change could take place in South Africa while this rampaging working class were beyond the ANC’s control.

Over a period of several years, the ANC worked hard to gain influence inside the trade unions. They proposed a merger between their own “unions” (that had virtually no members) and the FOSATU unions. This happened and the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) was formed.

At last the ANC and the SACP had a place in the leadership of the unions and with their years of experience of manouvering as well as murdering their opponents, they slowly took control of the unions.

Democracy in the working class was eroded. Union support for the ANC’s Freedom Charter was adopted by executive decision, without any debate amongst union members who had been pushing for a workers charter. Discussion was stifled. Militant action was stopped. Many workers could not understand what had happened to the organisations they had built, taking the ANC’s radical rhetoric at face value.

With the unions under ANC control, Mandela was set free, the black bourgeoisie finally allowed its freedom and apartheid was dismantled. In 1994, with full union support, the ANC won the first post-apartheid elections and set up a tri-partite alliance of the ANC, the SACP and COSATU. This “Alliance” was used as a command structure to push through the ANC’s pro-capital agenda.

Strike and militant action were condemned as anti-ANC.

Under apartheid there was mass non-payment of utility bills. But now, under the ANC, with ex-union leaders now chairmen of the private utility companies, troops and police were sent into the townships to disconnect non-payers.

It took nearly twenty years before workers began to articulate an understanding of the real nature of the ANC, and to start to rebuild their independent organisations. Some unions, like the metal workers, broke away from COSATU saying it was just a tool of the ANC and big business.

Thousands of miners left the pro-government miners’ union – which had been led by Cyril Ramaphosa, now a multi-millionaire and South African president.

When a some of these miners went on strike at the Marikana platinum mine in 2012, the ANC sent in troops to break the strike. On 12 August that year, they shot dead 6 miners and four days later they killed another 34 miners with many more injured. This was a repeat of the Sharpeville massacre, but under an ANC government.

This is only a tiny snap shot of the anti-working class actions of the ANC government.  The overall picture since they took power is that a tiny section of the black population have become fabulously rich as capital employs them to control the masses. A black middle class has flourished.

The vast mass of the working class have seen little real change in their conditions. The squalor of the township housing has not improved. Unemployment has risen, wages have fallen, violence, especially against women, has escalated. Anger has been channelled by the ANC and stooge unions against the millions of refugees from neighbouring countries.

Just before apartheid collapsed, the Soviet Union collapsed. Its state machine and its imperial ambitions were inherited by the Putin regime in Russia.

So this alliance between the Kremlin and the ANC is nothing progressive or “anti-imperialist”.

At one time the Soviet dictatorship, pretending to be “socialist” backed the ANC, likewise pretending to be socialist. Today, neither the Russian nor South African government claim the “socialist” title. Both are unashamedly capitalist but they are happy to come together to play the “anti-imperialist” card against the US.

And sections of the global “left” fall for this trick, hook line and sinker.

But this is an alliance against the working class of Russia, South Africa and the Ukraine. 26 January 2023

PS. Simon Pirani adds: Bob Myers writes that “left” groups will see the Russia-South African agreement as evidence that they are “fighting imperialism”. This logic has already been set out by Pawel Wargan of the Progressive International in the US-based journal Monthly Review. Wargan sees in the Kremlin “a state-capitalist tendency that sought greater centralisation of economic power and could, eventually, find its outlet in more socialised economic governance”, and that is being “pushed it into alignment with the broader Third World project”. Russia has “come to situate both its past and its future firmly within the Third World”. For Wargan, Ukrainians whose blocks of flats and electricity systems are daily targeted by Russian missiles are a “front line of [US] imperialism”. This disgusting logic is the antithesis of socialism, in my view.