My political development was partly honed in the anti-apartheid struggles of the 1970s. I recall organizing a rally at the University of Missouri—St. Louis comparing the anti-black violence occurring then in Boston (against racial integration of schools) with the violence in South Africa. Several times we showed the film Last Grave at Dimbaza, which made graphic the costs of the racist social and economic system, the high infant mortality, pervasive child hunger, slave-like conditions for miners in the great extractive industries of gold and diamonds, for black domestic servants, and for black workers in factories, the vicious apartheid laws—pass laws, homelands, identification checks—and white rule imposed to keep black workers down. In 1976 I was arrested along with three or four others as we tried to take an elevator to a Merrill-Lynch office to protest the sale of Krugerrand gold coins, used to fund the South African government. But the struggle against racism in South Africa was being led by South African children and youth, chanting “Liberation before Education,” leaving their classrooms to march in the streets against apartheid, refusing to be intimidated by police attacks. The townships, Soweto being the leading one, were centers of militancy, as police informants were “necklaced,” not a pleasant way to die.
In this context of mass struggle eventually Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years and led the African National Congress to power as the racist apartheid system, pass laws, and racial “homelands” were abolished. Now, with his death, he is being hailed around the world as a hero—by the capitalist press and other media. Why do the capitalists love Mandela so?
First, the transition from apartheid and white rule to a government elected with African suffrage was made peacefully. The struggle in the streets was replaced by political maneuvering and the ballot box.
Second, and most important, the control of the South African economy by corporations based in Britain, elsewhere in Europe, and the United States was maintained and expanded. Wealth from gold and diamonds still flowed into the capitalists’ coffers. Cars, steel, and other goods were manufactured profitably with black (and some white and “colored”) labor. The economy expanded under Mandela’s pro-business policies, and foreign investment increased.
Third, the social control of black labor was achieved more effectively and with less resistance when the visible political ruling class was composed of black Africans. A small African elite was allowed to prosper and share in the capitalists’ wealth. A somewhat larger African middle class was sustained. The vast majority of black workers toiled in extreme poverty. Along with Brazil South Africa today harbors the most extreme economic inequality.
Still, resistance continued. Workers are not easily denied. In 2012 miners at Marikana wildcatted. The response was violent suppression, leading to the deaths of at least 44 miners and shooting injuries to many others. Most were shot in the back. Many other South African miners went on strike.
So Mandela’s legacy is a racist South Africa where black miners and other workers still are violently suppressed to insure the capitalists’ profits. Still, the protests against these racist injustices are more muted than they were when the faces behind the guns killing black people were white. There is a lesson to be learned here, to fight racism regardless of the color of the face of the racist oppressor.
We experience racism at Chicago State as a thousand small slights, not mass shootings. Many things are inferior; these are racist conditions experienced by our students, mostly black: long lines for financial aid and at the bookstore, lost paperwork in the Cook building, chalkboards and whiteboards that have not been cleaned or maintained, broken concrete and stairs, bathrooms in need of repair. The need to focus on the racism of the oppression not the color of the oppressor applies to the struggle against the bookstore policy of excluding CSU students from the textbook aisles. The struggle against racism continues. Only ending capitalism and replacing it with a society run by and for the working class—communism—can end racism once and for all.