Apartheid: Colour of class & colour of skin

Published: November 5, 2012 - 17:22 Updated: November 5, 2012 - 17:33

In South Africa, apartheid still exists. And workers suffer the most, exploited in sub-human conditions by white multinationals 

Ajay Kumar Johannesburg (South Africa) 

Rabindranath Tagore, as early as in 1940, wrote a poem titled ‘Gandhi
Maharaj’ which started with the
following lines:

We who follow Gandhi Maharaj’s lead

Have one thing in common amongst us:

We never fill our purses with spoils from the poor

Nor bend our knees to the rich 

Roaming on the streets and in the bylanes of Soweto, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, where a majority of the population lives in thatched houses and unemployment is 46 per cent, one sees women cooking on the dusty pavements. One tends to remember with despair Tagore’s lines about Gandhi, who came to South Africa as a barrister. When he left the country, he was popularly known as the ‘Mahatma’ for his non-cooperation with the apartheid system enforced by the regime.

The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg is a shrine to the struggle of the African National Congress (ANC) and Nelson Mandela. The allies of the ANC, that is, the South African Communist Party (SACP), and its trade union federation, COSATU, took part in it and led the working class against the minority white regime. I visited a small restaurant near Mandela’s house which used to be run by his father. They were ordinary people but possessed in abundance the zeal to start a democratic revolution.

But, today, even after 18 years of the ANC government, South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies on earth. In the Sandton area of Johannesburg, one can see the palatial houses of gold-mine owners, all white, which are guarded by British security agencies. In the five-sq km area around Sandton, you can see probably one of the largest concentrations of luxury cars in the world. The hatred displayed by some of these rich whites towards the blacks in signs posted on the windows of their luxurious cars is transparent: ‘My other car is in Soweto’.  This implies that blacks living in the much poorer neighborhood of black-dominated Soweto have stolen their cars. Seven-star and five-star hotels in Sandton and even most shops in the sprawling malls are owned mostly by whites. Land continues to be in the hands of whites.

A big contrast is apparent when you compare South Africa with neighbouring Zimbabwe where ambitious land reforms were executed by Robert Mugabe and Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) in spite of severe economic sanctions and slander against the national leadership. In South Africa, whose mass struggle to overthrow the apartheid system inspired the world and the African continent, the goals of the ‘national democratic revolution’ remains unfulfilled. The liberation agenda laid down in the ‘Freedom Charter’ in 1955 insist that land and all the mineral wealth stored therein shall belong to the people. Yet, South Africa remains a playground for multinationals.

The exploitation of the masses, the majority of whom are black, by multinational companies such as Lonmin, who loot the country’s mineral resources and transfer the lion’s share of the profits to metropolitan centres of imperialism, continues. The scale of privatisation can be gauged by the fact that all roads in Johannesburg are constructed by the government, using public money, and when they are complete, are then handed over to private contractors for maintenance who charge hefty toll from the users.

All decent hospitals are privately owned and their admission fees can be afforded only by the whites. All good schools are run by whites and only their children can afford admission in these schools. After the end of the apartheid regime, the colour divide has ended but the class divide continues. As per law, no hospital, school or restaurant can prohibit any black person from entry. The rates or fees are kept so high that only whites can afford it.

Apartheid still exists. There is a minuscule percentage of middle-class blacks who have prospered while the remaining blacks continue to live in appalling conditions in South Africa. It is intriguing that some of the most unfair laws related to workers’ rights which existed under the apartheid regime remain in force. One of them is a legal doctrine called ‘common purpose’. If, during a protest demonstration, the police resorts to firing and kills some workers, under this doctrine, the onus of such killing will lie on the rest of the workers or their trade union which gave the call for demonstration. This discredited doctrine was frequently used in the waning days of apartheid to charge members of protesting crowds or mass movements with serious offences committed by a few individuals who may have had nothing to do with the protest.

The news of the killings spread like wild fire in the working class areas of South Africa. Workers were outraged that many had been shot in the back

The world was stunned by the scenes of August 16, 2012, when police fired on striking workers in a platinum mine in Marikana in the Bojanala district of the North-West Province which is home to the richest platinum deposits in the world. The firing resulted in the deaths of 34 platinum miners and injured another 78.

The mine owners at Marikana, Lonmin, are just one of a number of huge multinationals making vast profits on the back of exploited labour and looted resources.

Lonmin is the world’s third largest platinum producer. Mine workers in Marikana have to endure appalling conditions and suffer a high rate of fatalities. This is also attributed in part to Lonmin’s heavy reliance on poorly trained contract labour. Some casual workers are also brought in from outside the area. Such tactics are deliberately adopted by the companies to divide the workforce and place obstacles in their path to unionisation.

The news of the killings spread like wild fire in the working class areas of South Africa. Workers were outraged at the news that a number of the dead had been shot in the back, refuting the police’s claim that it acted only in self-defence. Following the killings, the striking workers were visited by President Jacob Zuma, who abandoned the regional summit in Mozambique. He promised an inquiry while the workers announced that they would not go back to work without a substantial pay increase which they had been demanding for the last 10 weeks. At the other end, the South African police outrageously announced that 270 strikers arrested at Marikana would be charged with the murder of their 34 colleagues, in spite of the fact that everybody was aware that they were killed by the police. They were threatened with the previously mentioned ‘common purpose’ legal doctrine.

Justice Minister Jeff Radebe had to intervene and said that the “decision of the police had induced a sense of shock, panic and confusion within the members of the community and the general South African public”. The minister demanded an explanation from the public prosecutors. His pressure worked. Some of the arrested miners were released, though belatedly. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) launched investigations into alleged brutality at five police stations involving 194 cases of assault and attempted murder.


Lonmin is not the only MNC facing strikes over issues such as pay and work conditions. At the Gold Fields mine near Johannesburg, nearly 15,000 workers have downed tools. Anglo-American Platinum, the world’s largest primary producer of platinum, bypassed its unions in wage negotiations, resulting in massive strikes. Estimates put the total number of striking workers in the gold and platinum industries at a whopping 75,000.

These strikes have yielded mixed results till now. While Lonmin was forced to offer substantial concessions to the Marikana miners such as agreeing to a 22 per cent pay increment and a one-off payment of approximately £149, firms such as Gold Field and Anglo-American Platinum have resorted to evicting workers from company dormitories and mass sackings, respectively.

COSATU, the trade union wing of the ANC, is of the opinion that the union, AMCU, which led the strike at Marikana, has been acting as a pawn in a game to undermine the collective bargaining power of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). However, others are of the opinion that after capturing power from the white regime, both ANC and COSATU have neglected the task of organising the lower levels of the ‘proletariat’.

ANC, SACP and COSATU face a major challenge to make good on their promises to deliver economic as well as political freedom. They have to listen to the voices of many within their own organisation who call for mines to be nationalised, land to be redistributed and to carry forward the tasks of the larger democratic struggle. Only by moving along this road will today’s ANC prove itself worthy of the mass support its revolutionary history had previously secured.  

The writer is editor of Hindi bimonthly, Udbhavana

In South Africa, apartheid still exists. And workers suffer the most, exploited in sub-human conditions by white multinationals 
Ajay Kumar Johannesburg  (South Africa) 

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