SOUTH AFRICANS LEARN: BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), called the strike. COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi told demonstrators in Johannesburg there would be more protests in coming months unless government and business acted to stop job losses. "We cannot afford to let our lives go by in poverty, joblessness and despair," he said. "We must use this process of rolling mass action to tell the bosses and our own political leaders that much more must be done to address the crisis of jobs and poverty." According to the BBC, "Official figures suggest a quarter of all South Africans are unemployed, but some analysts put the figure at up to 40%." [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/4625135.stm]
In the years since the end of apartheid, South Africans who once viewed the African National Congress (ANC) as their champion for a better and more equal and democratic world have come to see that in practice it is actually hostile to their aspirations. It is now becoming more clear to more people why, in 1990, apartheid's leader, Frederik Willem de Klerk, declared himself in favor of a democratic South Africa, unbanned the ANC, released Nelson Mandela from his 27 years of imprisonment on Robben Island, and conducted secret negotiations with the ANC for a peaceful transition (supported, by the way, by 70% of white South Africans in a referendum) that led in 1994 to Nelson Mandela and de Klerk being elected President and Second Vice President, respectively, of the interim government, and with Thabo Mbeki elected First Vice President (and later President in 1999.)
De Klerk knew that world opinion would not long tolerate such a blatantly racist form of elite class rule as apartheid, which no longer enjoyed the minimum of legitimacy required to withstand the growing anti-apartheid militancy of South Africans backed by the boycott against South Africa by ordinary people all over the world. The capitalist class of South Africa decided to retain the inequality of capitalism by re-legitimizing it as an equal opportunity exploiter. Blacks would be allowed into the ranks of upper management and some even into the multi-millionaires club.
Here's how the pro-capitalist BBC described it back in September 2004:
"But Cosatu mistakenly thought majority rule would usher in a socialist, or at least a left-leaning economic regime. It expected the ANC to retain and even extend state ownership of key sectors of the economy, and to use its power for the benefit of black workers and the unemployed. It reckoned without Mr Mbeki's fiscal conservatism - essentially modelled on Tony Blair's "Third Way" - and his perspective of African nationalism, which focuses on the creation of a black ruling class...
"Its [the ANC's] policy towards the white business establishment has been cautious, aimed at encouraging racial asset transfers under negotiated industry charters, and the "greying" of corporate management.
"The foreign investment community and multilateral bodies like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund remain potent shapers of policy, making themselves felt particularly through Mr Mbeki's International Investment Council.
"Increasingly alarmed that the policy has simply given birth to a small band of black multi-millionaires, Cosatu has campaigned for "broad-based" black economic empowerment, under which companies improve working conditions while ceding equity to black entrepreneurs." [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/3662590.stm]
Like Iraq with its oil, South Africa has enormous natural wealth with its gold and diamonds and other minerals. And like Iraq, which, before the U.S. embargo under George Bush I and Clinton, had a very high standard of living, South Africans could also enjoy a high standard of living. More importantly, they could live in a society which aimed at sharing the wealth and benefits and responsibilities equally, not one like today in which government and economic elites enrich themselves at the expense of most people and say it's ok because now some of them are black.
Creating a good society in South Africa based on the working class values of equality and solidarity and democracy would require that the South African working class be in the driver's seat, not a capitalist class using politicians like Mbeki as front men for the international plutocracy and their World Bank and IMF. Of course this would require a revolution inspired by a vision of society very different from the vision that ANC leaders promulgated. It would require a vision that cared not about a person's skin color but about the values and the kind of relationships between people that the person stood for. A revolution based on such a vision would sweep away not only apartheid and other forms of racism, but also elite domination and privilege itself, no matter what color, gender, nationality or religion it comes in.
We need to be careful what we wish for. One of the elite's key strategies of social control is to make us wish for something that, even if attained, leaves elite power and social inequality intact. Apartheid bought time for the capitalist class in South Africa by delaying the day when South Africans would be clear that their real aspirations were deeper than just abolishing apartheid.
In the struggle against apartheid Israel we -- Palestinians and those who support them inside Israel and around the world -- face the same problem. We need to be careful what we wish for. Those who frame the conflict as one between Jews and Palestinians wish simply for Palestinians to come to power. But the important thing -- that which will actually determine the nature of society in Palestine -- is which Palestinians come to power, with what values and what vision of society? Who, after seeing what happened in South Africa, actually wishes for the defeat of Jewish power in Palestine if the wish is only granted with a Palestinian Mbeki in power? (The answer, of course, is people who wish to be the new Mbeki or rise in power on his coat-tails.)
Similarly, a struggle aiming at achieving a one-state solution, if defined simply as a state in which Jews and Palestinians have equal civil rights, would very likely end up like the one-state South Africa with a privileged wealthy ruling elite consisting of mainly Jews and some Palestinians, and still a Mbeki in power. No matter what the elites' composition or the ethnicity of the top politician, however, this would constitute a defeat for the working class. Like the South Africans, the Palestinian working class (including Jews now) would find it necessary to wage a general strike over unemployment and poverty. This is evident from the fact that currently Jewish workers have to wage such strikes against the Jewish ruling class of Israel, where inequality is growing rapidly and is second only to that of the United States in the West.
None of this, of course, means we should not fight to abolish apartheid Israel. And I am for a one-state solution. What it does mean is that it is important to frame the fight against apartheid Israel in terms of the conflict between working class values of equality and solidarity and democracy versus the opposite capitalist values of inequality, competition and top-down control. Apartheid is not the ultimate problem; it is a weapon that the capitalist elites use to strengthen their power over people by destroying solidarity across racial and ethnic lines. We need to keep clear that in fighting apartheid we are fighing a weapon used against us in the larger and much deeper class war over what values will shape society. If we fight apartheid in this way, then our movement will be aimed at making a social revolution against capitalism as the means by which to abolish apartheid as well as all of the other anti-human things our rulers use to stay in power. We won't fall into the trap of winning our wish one day, only to find ourselves the next day wondering why we wished for it.