Apartheid is Still Alive in South Africa


When the South African freedom fighters were still battling against apartheid, a dispute arose inside the Fourth International. Jack Barnes and the hijacked Socialist Workers Party in the United States argued that the ANC’s Freedom Charter was the program which would lead to the end of apartheid.

It is useful to remind ourselves of some of the contents of that historic document.

The Freedom Charter was full of promises. For the great majority of the people in South Africa, the Black working class and agricultural laborers, the most important clauses were those that proclaimed:

  • THE PEOPLE SHALL SHARE IN THE COUNTRY’S WEALTH. The national wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry, shall be transferred to the people as a whole.
  • THE LAND SHALL BE SHARED AMONG THOSE WHO WORK IT. Restriction of land on a racial basis shall be ended, and all the land redivided among those who work it, to banish famine and land hunger.

These promises, if carried out, though not fully socialist, at least promised the basis for building a socialist society. For Jack Barnes and his supporters, this was indeed the road to socialism.

On the other hand, the majority of the Fourth International took the position that apartheid and capitalism were inseparable. Capitalism in South Africa had developed on the basis of cheap Black labor, in the mines, on the white-owned farms, and industry. It was legally underpinned, first by the “color bar,” and then reinforced by apartheid.

Who was right?

In law, apartheid came to an end in 1994. The ANC and its allies swept into office with an overwhelming majority. There was nothing to stop them putting the promises of the Charter into law. What is the situation today?

Speaking at a meeting in Ilingi, in the Western Cape, the chairman of the Queenstown region of the South African Communist Party (SACP), John Kibi, called for pay parity among all races in the country, saying that Blacks continue to receive poorer wages than other race groups. Media reports, he said, tended to indicate that “we live in a very rich and happy land, but we know that it is a land of suffering and starvation.”

It was a land where a large number were murdered daily, said Kibi. “The fascist (sic) government and its friends abroad talk of the wave of prosperity in South Africa-prosperity for whom?”

Kibi seems to have forgotten that his party, the SACP, was an integral part of this “fascist” government.

He went on to say that while it was true that more goods were being produced than before, it was only the “big businessmen, financiers, mine owners, and (white) farmers who had managed to accumulate wealth, as had foreign investors in South Africa. White workers had also benefited from the boom, and had been given a monopoly of skilled jobs. But the masses of non-whites, especially Africans, have not benefited at all from this so-called prosperity.”

The payment gap between “white and African mineworkers was also widening and, on the whole, the annual African income was up to 15 times less than that of the annual white income.”

While Blacks in the cities were relatively better off than those in towns, a large percentage were living below the breadline. Prosperity, therefore, only meant that “more and more profit was being squeezed out of cheap Black labor.” The solution was equality of pay on all levels-from management to workers.

President Mbeki has poured a shower of cold water on those who expected him to move to the left of Nelson Mandela. Responding to big business claims that the Labor Laws introduced by the government had forced employers to cut their labor force and introduce mechanization, Mbeki agreed that these “restrictive” Labor Laws would have to be amended.

Business has blamed the legislation for not providing the proper environment to create jobs and for leading to higher labor costs. Unemployment is currently running at around 30 percent, and business has cautioned that it will rise if the restrictions are not eased.

Mbeki has set as his aim the creation of a Black bourgeoisie, not to oust the white capitalists but to compete with them.

A recent report from the South African researchers, Wharton Economic Forecasting Associates, an international economic consultancy, shows that the only Blacks to benefit since democracy were the top 10 percent. The rest got poorer.

While the Black share of wages, salaries, and other income in South Africa rose dramatically in the five years to 1996, almost all this increase occurred among the top 10 percent of Black earners, while poor Blacks actually experienced a decline in income.

While, of course, there has been some redistribution of income between the race groups, this has not affected the capitalist structure of the economy, nor the privileged position of the whites.

White share of total income declined from 59.5% to 51.9%. The proportion of white households in the richest 10 percent of South Africans declined dramatically from 95% to 65%. Over the same period the Black share of income rose from 29.9% to 35.7%, and the proportion of Black households in the top 10 percent of all South African households increased from 9% to 22%.

There was, however, a vast difference in the economic fortunes of Blacks over the period. The richest 10 percent of Blacks received an average of 17 percent increase in income, while the poorest 40 percent of households actually suffered a fall in income of around 21 percent.

While in the same period the “coloured” [mixed race] share of all income increased from 6.8% to 7.9%, and the Indian share rose from 3.8% to 4.5%, the inequalities of income between the richer and poorest segments of both communities increased at the same time.


Charlie Van Gelderen was a founding member of the Fourth International (FI) in 1938. A former resident of South Africa, he now lives in Cambridge, England, and is a frequent contributor to Socialist Outlook, the newspaper of FI supporters in Britain.

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