Where racism serves an economic purpose

19:47, Aug 20 2012

You can tell it's a hot day. The sky has that washed-out quality and all the shadows are tucked in tight. The ground is dusty. Sunlight shimmers on the leaves of the trees.

Judging by the distinctive styling of the parked cars, it's more than 60 years ago. In the foreground of the photograph, sprawled awkwardly in the midday heat, you can count more than 20 bodies. All shot in the back while running away. Discarded shoes and hats and handbags fill the spaces between the men and women who fell. Blood is mixed with the dust in Sharpeville, South Africa, March 21, 1960.

It's a famous photo - what the propagandists call a 'recruiter'. I can't have been more than 12 or 13 when my eyes first consciously registered all those motionless bodies baking in the Transvaal heat, but even then I knew such photographs are included in history books for a reason. Such images affront us; challenge us; dare us to do something about it.

And we did do something about it.

In the years after 1960, more and more New Zealanders voiced their opposition to the apartheid system of racial segregation and exploitation responsible for the Sharpeville Massacre.

In 1981 we astonished the world with the vehemence of our protests against the touring South African rugby team. And when, at last, the saintly Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress (ANC) was released from his Robben Island prison, and black South Africans won their freedom, we New Zealanders felt a special pride.


The new, non-racial, Republic of South Africa seemed to us the very epitome of Good triumphing over Evil. Sharpeville was avenged.

But, we were deceived.

White South Africa's racism - like racism everywhere - served a larger economic purpose. More than an exercise in racial segregation, apartheid was an exercise in the management and exploitation of black South African labour.

The ANC understood this. The Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) understood this. The Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) understood this. The young Soweto activists who risked apartheid's billy-clubs, bullets and bombs understood this. And, most importantly, South Africa's capitalists understood this.

Much as we would like to believe that it was the street protests of 1981 that tipped the balance against the apartheid regime, it was, in fact, the international boycott of South African exports that prompted the leading White politicians and businessmen to contemplate abandoning the increasingly unsustainable moral and material infrastructure of apartheid.

But, before they could act, they needed some iron-clad reassurances. The transfer of power from the old system to the new must be peaceful. The farms and businesses of the Afrikaner minority must not be seized.

And, most importantly, there must be no wholesale nationalisation of South Africa's key, export-earning, multinational mining operations.

That these demands would require the ANC to repudiate most of its core economic and social objectives was well understood by the negotiators on both sides, and yet the ANC agreed. Why?

Here we have to step back a little and ask ourselves what else was going on in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

That the release of Mandela coincided with the end of the Cold War was not accidental. While the world remained divided into two competing ideological blocs, both baring nuclear teeth, the radical socialisation of South Africa's economy was a viable proposition.

By the late 1980s, however, 'actually existing socialism' was everywhere in retreat, and, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 the ANC's economic and social programme became an instant anachronism. The global triumph of free-market economics left Mandela with no option but to limit the ANC's 'revolution' to purely political objectives.

South Africa's 1996 Constitution guarantees all South Africans formal equality under the law, but the economic realities - which drove the White minority to erect the institutions of apartheid in the first instance - remain in place.

The millions of black South Africans who queued for hours to cast their first democratic ballots in 1994 undoubtedly regarded the ANC as their liberator and guarantor of a free and more prosperous future.

In reality, however, the ANC Government could only be the protector of the economic status quo. The redistribution of wealth, which most black South Africans had assumed would follow the ending of apartheid, did not materialise.

Rustenburg, South Africa, Thursday, August 16, 2012. In the dust and scrub outside the British-owned Lonmin platinum mine a terrible silence has fallen. Clouds of tear gas swirl and mingle with the acrid smoke from discharged pistols and automatic rifles. Between the lines of armed police and striking miners lie more than a hundred dead and wounded South African citizens.

All are equal under the African sun, but some, in George Orwell's bitter formulation, remain 'more equal than others'.

The Press