In June 1976 the students of Soweto forced South Africa back onto the front pages of the world’s newspapers. Subsequently there has been a certain ebb and flow to the resistance in that country, but such has been the growth and consolidation of the forces pressing for change that it is now virtually impossible to keep the issue off those front pages. In this momentous decade, one particularly significant advance has taken place on the trade union front. Of course, the spontaneous resurgence of an increasingly organized working class had already made itself felt several years prior to the ‘Soweto uprising’, in the dramatic Durban strikes of 1973–74. The launching, in late 1985, of a new trade union central, cosatu (the Congress of South African Trade Unions), representing over half-a-million workers, is merely the most recent milestone in this continuing forward thrust. Considerable gains have also occurred on the terrain of political struggle more broadly defined. Not only have South African students remained a potent political force, but a whole panoply of additional organizations have surfaced in the black townships and elsewhere (the numerous ‘civic associations’, for example). Moreover, such tendencies have begun to find nation-wide, above-ground expression—above all, in the United Democratic Front (udf), which first emerged in 1983 to become an umbrella organization for well over five hundred diverse, more localized groupings and a crucial actor in a range of national campaigns. But perhaps the most dramatic development of all has been the revitalization of the African National Congress of South Africa. Never entirely moribund after being driven underground and into exile in the early 1960s, the anc was nonetheless fairly marginal to the events of 1976. Today, thousands more South Africans are identifying with the anc at each turn of the wheel, and nervous would-be power-brokers (from the business community and elsewhere) are beating a path to its Lusaka headquarters. In fact, the anc has reestablished itself as far and away the single most important force within the South African resistance movement.

How should we evaluate these and other actors in South Africa’s revolutionary drama? What role will each have to play—and in what combination with each other—in the ongoing struggle to overthrow the apartheid state? What is likely to be the import of their presence in post-apartheid society—in determining the future of socialism in South Africa, for example? This essay will address itself to some of these questions, primarily focusing on the role of the anc. To answer them is, of course, no easy task. Certainly we must avoid the kind of glib and wildly speculative scenario-mongering that too often passes for analysis in South Africanist circles. Some clearing of the theoretical ground will be necessary as well. Over the years, the Congress movement has produced a widely-used conceptual apparatus of its own, but it is one which can obscure as much as it illuminates. Even more misleading has been a recent tendency, on the South African left, to talk in terms of a fissure between ‘populist’ and ‘workerist’ currents within the resistance movement. These (and other) terms too readily lend themselves to the purposes of demagogy rather than analysis—and may also help blunt revolutionary practice.

Before taking a hard look at the resistance movement, we must carefully examine the terrain upon which it seeks to map its course.footnote1 Most general, but also perhaps most fundamental, is the unique manner in which the structure of racial oppression forged by colonial conquest has interacted with the structure of capitalist exploitation produced by the dramatic transformation of South Africa’s economy in this century. There has been considerable debate about the precise form of this interaction, and we shall see that it has implications for any attempt to characterize the composition of the movement (national-cum-racial liberation? class struggle?) that must form up to oppose the system. Here it bears emphasizing that for extended periods of time in South Africa racial hierarchization and capitalist relations of production have been mutually reinforcing. Thus, capitalist development has more than once breathed fresh life into the racial hierarchy, shaping it to its ends around the turn of the century, for example, the better to guarantee supplies of cheap labour in the crucial mining sector. For many analysts the term ‘racial capitalism’ has seemed useful in elucidating the complex nature of such a system.

It need come as no surprise that this linkage between racial domination and capitalist exploitation is as potentially contradictory as it has been mutually reinforcing. Indeed, one important dimension of the various crises in South Africa has been, precisely, the surfacing of a real strain between these two aspects. Severe crises must generally be resolved in one of two ways: either by revolution from below or by ‘formative action’ on the part of the dominant classes, designed to renovate and consolidate their rule. In the 1940s the response to crisis was a marked intensification of racial oppression—the apartheid option—which capital came to live with quite comfortably after an initial period in which at least some of its ‘fractions’ were tempted by other directions. In the 1980s, in contrast, the stripping away of certain racist dimensions of the system has begun to seem far more urgent a requirement to many in such circles, albeit formidably difficult to achieve.

In part it is formidably difficult to achieve because the racist project has taken on a distinct life of its own, rooted in the very ‘materiality’ of racism in the South African setting. For, as noted, racism and much of the concrete structure of racial oppression in South Africa stem from the global expansion of Western capitalism, and from the fact of colonial conquest that historically privileged the white population. Moreover, quite specific class forces and class alliances within the white population—fractions of capital (some more than others), many members of the white working-class, bureaucratic strata—have developed vested and eminently material interests in their privileged positions within the racial hierarchy per se. Finally, these processes have given substance to certain historically resonant ideologies (of racial superiority and ‘Afrikaner nationalism’, for example) and congealed political practices, in various state apparatuses and the National party itself, which retain relative autonomy and have social impact.

Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that there is no one-to-one correspondence between some ‘logic of capital’ and specific state initiatives. Historically, for example, important fractions of capital have found policies like the job colour bar to be a fetter on their manipulation of labour, and in recent years there has been an even more broadlybased unease within the camp of capital about the costs of apartheid. It is true that the economic crisis South Africa has been experiencing since the 1970s is not entirely self-inflicted. Given the country’s extreme dependence on the world economy—as exporter of minerals, secondary manufactures and agricultural products, as importer of oil and a wide range of technology and machinery—it has also reflected the negative impact of global recession. Nonetheless, many of the most overtly racist dimensions of South Africa’s ‘racial capitalism’ have begun to be seen as contributory elements of the crisis, constraining the size of the domestic market and the supply of black skilled and semi-skilled labour.

There has been movement—‘reform’—on some of these economic fronts. Unfortunately for power-holders in South Africa, however, these problems are not merely ‘economic’ in the narrow sense. What they face is an ‘organic crisis’, defined by a rising tide of mass resistance that has placed the entire racial capitalist system in jeopardy. Not that economic and political dimensions are easily disentangled here. Thus economic crisis—the rising level of black unemployment, spiralling inflation—has fed black resistance, which has in turn fuelled the economic instability that has begun to make South Africa appear a ‘bad risk’ to bankers and industrialists and further mobilized the international sanctions lobby.