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The neoliberal policy stance of the African National Congress and the socioeconomic consequences of these policies mark the death of the conservative Black Nationalist movement. The working class and the revolutionary Left must now move away from ‘black consciousness’ to ‘mass consciousness’ to challenge social injustice.

The South African struggle spawned an illustrious list of revolutionary leaders. From the early socialists such as the renowned author Olive Schreiner to Yudel Burlak, Clare Goodlatte and Charlie Van Gelderen of the Trotskyist Movement; Isaac Tabata, Jane Gool and Benjamin Kies of the Unity Movement; Govan Mbeki and Matthew Goniwe of the Charterist Movement; Robert Sobukwe of the Pan-Africanist Movement; Ruth First and Bram Fischer of the Communist Movement; Steve Biko, Onkgopotse Tiro and Strini Moodley of the Black Consciousness Movement and - last but not least - Neville Alexander of the Socialist Movement.

The youthful Nelson Mandela, of course, was determined to overthrow apartheid and was even willing to engage in armed struggle. However, from an ideological perspective, Mandela is more suitably situated in the context of the Black Nationalist political current of the Charterist Movement. After being released from prison, Mandela went on to become the first president of a post-apartheid and liberal-democratic South Africa – a country which was notorious world-wide for its policies of racial discrimination. What is indisputably a major aspect of the Mandela legacy is the image of an audacious and self-sacrificing leader that successfully overthrew a hated system of formalised racism. But why was it Mandela, amidst so many other remarkable political personalities, who became the source of adulation in the mass media?

There exist particular political themes that ought to be problematised regarding the Mandela legacy, as it is hardly as unblemished and as distinguished as usually portrayed. For example, firstly, Mandela’s approach to the national question was especially dubious and, secondly, the popular characterisation of the transition to a post-apartheid South Africa does not reveal the actual role played by a political actor like Mandela. In addition, these contentious matters also hold imperative implications for the continuing relevance (or not) of Black Nationalism.


While on Robben Island, Mandela wrote an essay in 1978 entitled ‘Whither the Black Consciousness Movement? An Assessment’. The purpose of that writing was to remonstrate with the political line of the younger Steve Biko generation towards the national question. The Mandela essay (2001) proclaimed that:

To say that race is a myth and that in our country there are no Africans, Coloureds and Indians, but only blacks, is to play with words. The main ethnological divisions of mankind (sic) are acknowledged by bourgeois and Marxist anthropologists and those from the so-called uncommitted world. People can observe them with the naked eye… What is a myth is the theory that there is a pure race, for miscegenation has taken place throughout the world since the dawn of history… But race as such exists in the world, and in our country there is nothing wrong with using the terms African, Coloured and Indian in appropriate cases. p. 49

Mandela was writing in defence of the African National Congress’ (ANC) position on the national question that there existed four nations in South Africa in contrast to the thesis of the Biko generation that ‘black’ people, i.e. Africans, Coloureds and Indians, should unify. What was consistent throughout Mandela’s writings and pronouncements was a political competitiveness with the Black Consciousness Movement. Of course, to have argued for ‘black’ unity at the time was not merely a play on words, but lay the groundwork for the 1976 uprising and the eventual overthrow of the apartheid regime. Moreover, Mandela does not clearly distinguish between ‘race’ as a biological entity and ‘race’ as a social construct. A radical anthropologist like Ashley Montagu definitely did not acknowledge ethnological differences and called ‘race’ the most dangerous myth. And, as is now known, due to the research of biologists like Stephen Jay Gould and the human genome project, the concept of ‘race’ is indeed a biological fabrication.

Mandela’s enlightened statement on the falsehoods around the fascist notion of a ‘pure race’ – whether ‘white’ or ‘black’ or ‘brown’ – can only be lauded. However, the question of ‘race’ as a social construct is for sure a subjective subject and is linked to a political actor’s attitude to the national question. For those political activists who dispute the ANC’s thesis of many nations in South Africa – and who encourage the far more progressive proposition of one nation - Mandela’s assertion about there being nothing wrong with these ethnic categories is undoubtedly contentious. Furthermore, it should be underscored that Mandela’s use of the term ‘African’ – if truth be told – is as an ethnic label, not some imagined geographical or continental category that came into being after the construction of the Suez Canal in 1869.

Besides, it is also extremely ironic that, at the time of writing that essay, Mandela’s organisation was not yet formally a non-racial party. The ANC only belatedly declared itself to be a non-racial formation in 1985. So it would perhaps not be unfair to typify Mandela’s essay as a case of the conservative black nationalism of the older generation debating with the radical black nationalism of a younger group. Or was it, in the memorable phrase of Daniel Bensaid (2013), an instance of ‘generational hijacking and confiscation’ which usually replace the class struggle?


The transition to the post-apartheid society is usually simplistically - though contradictorily - presented as both a miracle and as the outcome of the daring struggle of Mandela’s ANC. Yet, the real political picture is far more intricate. We can do no better than to quote Professor Sampie Terreblanche (2013) on the real post-apartheid transition process:

‘The whole transition process was orchestrated by the minerals-energy-complex (MEC) with Harry Oppenheimer and to a lesser extent Anton Rupert. They organised everything. Early in the 1990s there were regular lunches between Mr. Mandela and Harry Oppenheimer... But these lunches developed into regular meetings at Little Brenthurst - it is the estate of Harry Oppenheimer. When too many people (attended the) secret meetings, the meetings were shifted to the Development Bank between Johannesburg and Pretoria, normally at night.’

The representatives of Big Business – in particular the Anglo-American Corporation (in which JP Morgan Chase has a significant share) – started surreptitious discussions with the ANC leadership in the mid-1980s. It could hardly be a coincidence that this was around the same time that the ANC was informed by the Soviet Union that, in the context of the rapprochement of Gorbachev and Reagan, it would no longer provide material assistance to the ANC (and Swapo) and that the liberation movements would have to negotiate with the Pretoria regime. As a consequence, the ANC held a conference in 1985 to address the changed situation, including the need to insert itself into the widespread and deep-rooted 1984-6 revolt inside the country. It was here that the very belated decision to formally become a non-racial organisation was made. Around this time, the ANC – with its security department headed by Jacob Zuma - was brutalising its revolutionary members who demanded an escalation of the struggle, instead of sitting idly in the Angolan camps far away from the country. In any case, it took the ANC more than 60 years to formally move from being an organisation of conservative Black Nationalism to declaring itself to be a formation of non-racialism – which was probably done to make the ANC palatable as a post-apartheid governing party.

Besides the compromise with big business, it should be admitted that the ANC was completely outmanoeuvred by the apartheid regime itself in their secret economic negotiations. Mandela’s organisation did not, for example, have a counter proposal when the Pretoria regime – apparently with the assistance of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) - suggested that the Central Bank should be privatised (giving the ANC very limited control over the economy). The apartheid regime (and big business) allowed the Mandela leadership to bask in the glory of the so-called miracle of a minimalist liberal-democratic state, but undoubtedly defeated the ANC as far as socio-economic disparity is concerned. Was the Mandela leadership naïve or willing partners in this?

The clandestine exchanges between Mandela and the apartheid regime had already commenced in 1983, and Mandela, without consulting with his comrades at Pollsmoor Prison, began to engage the regime on crucial issues. This was the same kind of behaviour later displayed by Mandela with the lapsing of the key clause on nationalisation from the Freedom Charter, the ANC’s political programme. What exactly happened in Davos where Mandela alone decided to cease nationalisation as an ANC policy would probably never be revealed. Nevertheless, what is certain is that the Mandela government was in favour of economic apartheid, i.e. encouraged the faster implementation of the neoliberal policies demanded by the World Bank, blocked a wealth tax on the corporations at the farcical Truth and Reconciliation Commission and eventually allowed the Anglo-American corporation and others to relocate their headquarters to London - in the process taking massive wealth out of the country. This wealth, combined with a prevention of the enduring duplicitous schemes of the corporations, such as the enormous transfer-pricing and other tax evasion methods (Bracking, S & Sharife, K, 2014), could have provided the means for the construction of a socially just society. It was estimated in the early 1970s already, for example, that 30-40 percent of the profits of multi-nationals derives from the transfer price mechanism (Gorz, 1980: 120).


The end of formal apartheid served as a pretext for the perpetuation of immense social inequality. On the one hand, the cult constructed around the Mandela personality by the liberal mass media was a consequence of him being willing to preserve the interests of big business. A radical Mandela, on the other hand, would have been vilified and demonised if he had served the aspirations of the working class.

The deeper issue is that the rule of the ANC, the oldest organisation of conservative Black Nationalism in the world, represents the final nail in the coffin of this colour-based philosophy. Black Nationalism’s embrace of neoliberalism exemplified the ultimate kiss of death. Globalised capitalism means that the working class is worse off under the ANC government with regard to, for example, the privatisation of water. The working class of South Africa/Azania now fathoms that the skin colour of the ruling elite does not matter; indeed, that Black Nationalism sounds hollow in the context of persistent capitalist exploitation with the co-management of the ‘black’ ruling elite. It reminds of Amilcar Cabral’s (1980) insightful articulation that ‘we do not want any exploitation in our countries, not even by black people’. Of course, anti-racism remains a matter of political principle, but the class dimension has pushed itself fully to the forefront and it is high noon for the entire working class to move on to being a class-for-itself.

Given the current situation of the ANC, the organisation does not seem to have succeeded in transforming itself into a non-racial formation and is absolutely in a state of organic crisis. The self-destruction of the Charterist Movement has played itself out, for example, in some of their members appealing for a spoiled ballot in the 2014 national elections without having to examine the whys and wherefores around the failure of their movement and their role in it, as well as not unambiguously committing themselves to a radical alternative. As a matter of fact, in the absence of a credible left-wing option, the perception that the ANC brought about the demise of apartheid means that the working class would continue to vote for that organisation. With these latest national elections, about 41 percent of registered voters stayed away from the polls – which significantly included two-thirds of the eligible youth. At the same time, the ANC registered a 10 percent decline in Gauteng, the industrial heartland of the country. As in countries like Zimbabwe, the ANC’s waning will continue to be steepest in the urban areas. The only way to hang on to power will be to strengthen their political message in the rural areas through an emphasis on political narrow-mindedness – which is already observed in Zuma’s open flaunting of tribalism. The supposed political party of non-racialism is slowly decaying into an organisation of chauvinism. But it also speaks generally to the thin line between the actual conservative black nationalism of the ANC and ethnocentrism.

In the final analysis, however, the Mandela legacy has been dealt a fatal blow by the Marikana carnage of 16 August 2012. Despite the illusions of the political miracle stitched together by Mandela, the militarised police force of the post-apartheid ANC government shot down in cold blood the platinum mineworkers who were engaging in industrial action for the legitimate demand for a decent wage of R12,500 ($1,200) per month. In fact, what is of utmost significance in present-day South Africa is the ongoing and uncompromising 18-week old strike by 80,000 mineworkers in the platinum sector. The mass action is a continuation of the militancy of not only the Marikana workers, but also of those of the 1984-6 uprising that actually led to the downfall of apartheid. The current work stoppage is being led by the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) and - on behalf of the Marxist Group of Namibia - we would like to make a clarion call to this Left Forum to support – in any way possible - the platinum mineworkers in this historic strike, the longest in the history of South Africa. This direct action is an upshot of the Marikana massacre and epitomises an uncompleted two-year period of increasing radicalisation of the working class. This combativeness of the South African working class will undoubtedly persevere.

Another major challenge also awaits the ANC in the form of the National Union of Metalworkers’ (Numsa) which did not support the ruling party in the recent national elections. With regards to a new workers’ party, however, Numsa’s Co-ordinator of its United Front declared just a short time ago that there has not yet been a resolution to form a new workers’ party by the union, but rather a movement towards socialism. And, for the sake of posterity, it ought to be highlighted that this appeal for an (independent) mass workers’ party is a realisation of the political message of the Workers’ Organisation for Socialist Action (Wosa) more than 20 years ago, when there already existed considerable support for this amongst Numsa’s shopstewards. Nevertheless, despite the adherence of Numsa’s current social-democratic leadership to the obsolete Freedom Charter, their plans to pursue a united front of left-wing forces during this year would signify the intensification of working class politics in the country.

Instead of an imprudent focus on the Freedom Charter, however, it would be more meaningful if Numsa, Amcu and community-based organisations were to unite to form a non-sectarian workers’ party. What has been most disconcerting about the strike of the platinum mineworkers is that not a single affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) – including Numsa - has come out in solidarity with them. This could conceivably be clarified by Amcu’s association with the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu), but it is unquestionably also a sign of the reformist character of the Cosatu leadership.

Whatever the case might be, the persistence of economic apartheid exposes the deceptions of conservative Black Nationalist politics which only benefit the tiny ‘black’ elite. There is indeed no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for the working class. If anything, it is high noon for the left-wing to shift from ‘black’ to ‘mass’ consciousness if leftists are going to be able to accurately analyse the balance of class forces. The essentialising of skin colour traps the left-wing in an ideological cage and should have no place in a contemporary leftist or non-racial dialogue. Moreover, the Left are duty-bound to demystify skin colour and to more readily give expression to a social class discourse.

This suggests that the left-wing had better demand the radical taxation of multi-national corporations as a starting point for the redistribution of wealth, but also ought to fight for comprehensive nationalisation - under the self-management of the workers - as a process towards the abolishment of private property (Sassoon, 2014). Rather than being distracted by a personality cult or the essentialising of skin colour, the leftists are supposed to keep their gaze firmly fixed on the unjust social project and to deepen the struggle for a truly non-racial and post-industrial socialist society.

* The author was born and raised in Cradock, South Africa. He was a member of the Workers’ Organisation for Socialist Action (WOSA) and is currently with the Marxist Study Group (Namibia). The MSG can be contacted at [email protected]


Bensaid, D. 2013. An Impatient Life – A Memoir. London: Verso. “The ‘problem of generations’ has sometimes provided a clever pretext for replacing social classes with age classes” p. 6.

Bracking, S. and Sharife, K. 2014. Rough and polished - A case study of the diamond pricing and valuation system. LCSV WORKING PAPER SERIES NO. 4. The Leverhulme Centre for the Study of Value, The University of Manchester.

Cabral. A.1980. Unity and Struggle – Speeches and Writings. London: Heinemann

Gorz, A. 1980. Ecology as politics. London: Pluto Press.

Mandela, N. 2001. Whither the Black Consciousness Movement? An Assessment. In: Reflections in Prison, ed. M. Maharaj, 21-64. Zebra and the Robben Island Museum.

Sassoon, D. 2014. One Hundred Years of Socialism – The West European Left in the Twentieth Century. London: IB Taurus

Terreblanche, S. 2013. White South Africans Will Have to Make Some Sacrifices. South African Civil Society Information Service (SACSIS), 7 August.



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