Black on Black

R.W. Johnson in South Africa

‘Of course, liberal English-speaking whites like you are really the worst sort,’ said my dinner guest, Mr Precious Tshabalala, glaring at me with real hostility. ‘Most of us black revolutionaries’ – he broke off to complain to the wine waiter that his claret was slightly corked – ‘actually prefer straight talk with Afrikaners. At least you know where you are with them.’ Actually, Precious (despite that opening gambit we were quickly on first-name terms) seemed to know just where he was with me – he knew his way round the plush hotel we were in as if he lived there, the hotel staff greeting him with deferential familiarity wherever he went. Precious had been a personnel manager in a large firm, but was now in business on his own as a personnel consultant. An articulate, educated man, he is in great demand, taking part in any number of the where-do-we-go-from here conferences that white business anxiously sponsors. Before the end of the month he was due to give talks about South Africa’s future in Toronto, Washington and New York, for the coming South African revolution has frightened many people with large financial or political interests here into creating an international jet-set circuit of concern on which able and intelligent blacks are sought after.

Like so many other educated blacks, Precious is a strong believer in Black Consciousness (BC). Indeed, one of the many traps facing the interested white here is that the blacks he talks to belong to the intelligentsia and it is easy to come away from these conversations with the notion that BC and its political wing, AZAPO, has massive support. ‘We control the Eastern Cape and at least half Jo’burg,’ said Precious firmly, ‘and our comrades in the Unity Movement and the National Forum run things in the Western Cape.’ Precious spends a great deal of his time talking to white businessmen, exhorting them, usually in vain, to put black directors on their boards. ‘They’re such fools, these people: can’t they see how they will look when there’s a black government? What they need is to have a few black rising stars on their boards. There could be a revolution any time. How can these white people know when the revolution will take place? It is no good planning like a white man, you have to understand the black mind. Whites think they can strategise it all, but the black man acts on instinct, which outwits all this strategising. Only a black man can understand that, can know that instinct, can understand other blacks. The whites haven’t any idea what their workers are thinking. They could be taken by surprise at any moment: an incident could break out because a black child is run over, a riot will start – there’s no strategising for that. Whites must realise they are no longer the rising star and that the rising star is the black man now.’

I asked Precious if anyone had put him on their board of directors. ‘Not yet,’ he said, somewhat sourly, ‘but it will happen. Definitely.’ He spoke of his contacts with various white captains of industry – mentioning them all by their first names – and then spoke with particular feeling about what was for him the central issue, Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). He and some of his friends, he told me, had a scheme to take over the distribution of the major South African brands of beer to African townships – a mega-contract if ever there was one. But why, I asked, should the breweries hand over such a flourishing business to them? At this Precious pounded the table and said that it really was time for all these white businessmen who said they wanted to help blacks to prosper to put their money where their months were. It was some time before he mentioned what I had rather suspected: that word had been dropped to the breweries that if they didn’t hand over the contract they might find their delivery lorries being set on fire when they went into the townships. (The important word there was ‘might’ – there is room for doubt as to how far people like Precious can control what goes on in townships or squatter camps.)

Finally, we came to the inevitable question of sanctions – responses to which serve as recognition signals between the contending factions of the South African opposition. The African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) favour sanctions, which means that many of the community organisations affiliated to the United Democratic Front (UDF), which has acted as a loosely-structured ANC internal wing, also favour them. Chief Buthelezi’s Inkatha movement is against sanctions, as are virtually all whites and a majority of both Asians and Coloureds. But while the inheritors of the old Pan-Africanist Congress and Unity Movement traditions (i.e. those opposed to the ANC’s Congress Alliance), which today means organisations such as AZAPO and the National Forum, generally try to outbid the ANC and UDF in theoretical (Marxist) radicalism, the sanctions issue is sometimes different. The point is that the trade unions have strong, if seldom-voiced doubts about sanctions: hence the ‘workerist’ critique of UDF ‘populism’, the sharp end of which is the suggestion that bourgeois groups within the UDF wish to use the sanctions weapon to defeat, not only the Government, but the power of organised labour too, making the ultimate triumph of a black middle class all the more certain. The most radical workerists, such as the National Forum’s Neville Alexander, argue that a. the South African revolution must be won by the black working class, b. that sanctions inevitably inflict large-scale unemployment, weakening the black working class, so c. sanctions are bad. This inevitably leads on to the question of whether the South African revolution is supposed to be a one or two-stage affair: that is, whether the working class and socialism are going to win right away (one-stage) or later (two-stage). Thus to ask someone whether they are for or against sanctions is less a matter of suggesting that they might have some influence on the international movement towards sanctions (which seems to have a life of its own) than of requiring them to situate themselves within a fairly dense organisational and theoretical context. I had, accordingly, decided to ask Precious this question last.

‘Well, it is a matter which takes much discussion, much discussion,’ he said. ‘You know, we have these children, the comrades, in the townships. They are ignorant, they know nothing – they all went on school strikes and boycotts in 1984, saying: “Revolution Now, Education Later.” Now they have no education, no jobs, nothing. They commit any crime and call it a protest. It is terrifying to live among people like them, but that is what apartheid means – that I have to. They say any black businessman is a sell-out and they want to necklace you if you say you’re against sanctions. I have to explain that I am in favour of some sanctions, against others. Indeed, I am going to Canada to suggest they only carry out sanctions against companies here which don’t have black directors on their boards.’

I couldn’t help liking Precious, with his remarkable entrepreneurial drive to turn everything – township trouble, sanctions, the fear of revolution and the colour of his skin – to financial account. He’d done well enough, too, to have his children at an expensive private school in a white suburb, and saw no contradiction in this: it was helping his children to get ahead and they were black, so the whole thing was ‘ideologically positive’, he explained. The Black Consciousness he espouses is, of course, perfectly constructed to act as the ideology of the burgeoning black middle class. I was quite surprised that Precious could keep a straight face as he made the claim that he somehow had an instinctive insight into the minds of the Xhosa peasant, the Zulu factory worker, the Pedi shack-dweller, the Tswana miner and so on, simply because he was black. Indeed, BC only makes sense as an ideology in a white-dominated society, as a way of uniting blacks against whites, of putting oneself forward as a privileged intermediary between blacks and whites, and as a symbolic representative of all blacks. In a society where blacks start with few resources, it is an attempt to make the possession of a black skin a resource in itself.

Precious’s political hero was Desmond Tutu: ‘I can definitely see a rising star rising in the body of that man,’ as he put it. This was despite, or perhaps partly because of, the fact that Tutu is a politician in a classically African – that is to say, extravagant – mould: a headline-seeker, a man who makes wild, unsubstantiated and inconsistent charges, goes out of his way to infuriate and inflame even moderate white opinion, and is an egomaniac of historic proportions. Universally remembered is his famous threat to leave South Africa if violence did not stop, as if the fear of losing him would be sufficient to stop the country’s evolution in its tracks. The violence went on, Tutu stayed put and more recently has been grabbing headlines with his demands that the Church should not necessarily condemn violence. His antics during the Pope’s recent visit to Southern Africa are difficult to explain as anything other than pique at being over-shadowed as chief religious ‘personality’ in the region.

That none of these things can in the slightest shake the widespread black admiration for Tutu is due to two factors. With almost every black leader of significance prevented from playing a public role, attention focuses on the two whose position makes them immune from government harassment, Chief Buthelezi and Tutu. Since Buthelezi is widely written off as a conservative traditionalist leading an essentially tribal party, Inkatha, this leaves just Tutu, and Tutu has taken the gap. His advocacy of sanctions is a way of signalling that he is anti-Inkatha, and most of his pronouncements are best understood as a careful balancing act between the UDF/ANC, on the one hand, and Black Consciousness movements, on the other. Rather like a bantam cock, he struts and preens, then darts in for a quick attack on the Government – a deliberate personification of the ‘cheeky kaffir’. The next moment he has darted back and is the serene but slightly mischievous churchman, invoking God with a smile, and the moment after that he is off on yet another whirlwind foreign tour. Hence the second source of Tutu’s popularity with blacks: he is seen as the ultimately successful entrepreneur, who, like any black who makes it, has done so against the system. With his tele-fame here and abroad, his Nobel Prize and other awards, his international jet-set existence, the accoutrements of wealth and immune political status as well, it is no wonder Precious sees Tutu as a role model. As head of the Anglican Church in South Africa, Tutu has what Precious wants so much – a seat on the board: indeed, he’s actually chairman of the damn thing, a living example of the delights that Black Economic (well, religious) Empowerment can bring.

The tendency to write off Buthelezi is a mistake. True, the terrible fighting between Inkatha and the UDF in the townships and squatter camps around Pietermaritzburg and Durban has lost Buthelezi the sympathy of many liberal whites, who have been appalled at the disciplined savagery of the Inkatha impis and local Inkatha warlords (or ‘community leaders’, as Inkatha calls them). Similarly, the rejection of Buthelezi by black students on the Natal campus where I’m working has hardened into a passionate and understandable hatred – for some have had homes burnt down and families hacked to death with pangas in the township fighting, which has claimed well over a thousand dead to date. It is also true that Buthelezi’s claim to non-Zulu black support is thinner than it was. But, as Buthelezi pointed out at the Shaka Day celebrations I recently attended, nearly one South African in four is a Zulu and no group in the country is bigger. Inkatha (strictly, Inkatha ye Nkululeko ye Sizwe, or National Cultural Liberation Movement) claims over one million members. (Its dues-paying membership is probably only 250,000, but this is still many times what any other black political organisation in South Africa has ever achieved.) Whatever goes on in the townships, nobody disputes that Inkatha has the rural masses of Zululand locked up solid – and the large numbers of Zulu workers on the gold reef make Inkatha a force there too. Buthelezi somewhat disingenuously claims that one can’t have black unity without first having Zulu unity and points out that the Zulu tradition is one of incorporation, so that anyone who accepts Zulu tradition and culture can become a Zulu – there are even precedents for white men becoming Zulu chiefs.

When Buthelezi launched Inkatha in 1975 the ANC, the victim of more than a decade of ruthless repression, had little grass-roots support inside South Africa and existed mainly in the shape of its External Mission – the exile group in London led by Oliver Tambo. Buthelezi had been an ANC supporter in his youth and was, at least at first, keen to stay on side with the ANC, securing their blessing, for example, before he accepted the position of chief minister of the KwaZulu Bantustan. It seems likely that Buthelezi hoped Inkatha would fill the vacuum, that it might even become the effective – and autonomous – internal wing of the ANC. The ANC’s colours, flag and anthem were deliberately taken on by Inkatha, who spoke of the ANC as ‘great black patriots’ and tended to depict Buthelezi as the natural successor to Albert Luthuli, the last really well-known ANC leader and a Zulu chief. In addition, the movement adoped the philosophy of Ubuntu-botho (humanism), the official doctrine of the ANC when it was founded in 1912. At this stage it did not appear to worry either side that Buthelezi was an outspoken proponent of both non-violent tactics and a capitalist solution, while the ANC tended to be socialist and was, via its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, committed to the armed struggle. But whatever hopes the ANC may have entertained of building a patron-client relationship with Buthelezi could not have lasted long: it soon became clear that he was building a wholly independent power base.

The Soweto uprising of 1976 caught the ANC badly off-guard. The events owed nothing to them and the Soweto students were quoting, not Mandela or Tambo, but the Black Consciousness writings of Steve Biko: it seemed – nightmarishly – that the situation within South Africa was simply escaping them. Moreover, the new generation of black radicals within South Africa reviled Buthelezi as a collaborator with apartheid and found a ready audience for their denunciations. There is no doubt that the ANC viewed Biko and his BC colleagues as threatening rivals – Biko’s repeated attempts to set up meetings with Tambo (of the sort Buthelezi and his representatives frequently had) were always turned down. But while the emergence of the Biko group saw the ANC gravely embarrassed by its links with Buthelezi, it also meant that, if the ANC wished to resist BC on the ground, it needed the Buthelezi alliance more than ever. Today Inkatha will tell you that the ANC heaved an immense sigh of relief when Biko was murdered in September 1977, and that this left the ANC free to confront Inkatha. (The ANC, of course, dismisses this as a gross libel.) The ANC’s relations with Buthelezi had never been easy: Buthelezi wanted to build his own power base and saw himself as a future president of South Africa, while the ANC felt that Buthelezi was free-riding on the ANC’s historic legitimacy and had to prove himself a disciplined (i.e. subordinate) part of the liberation struggle. Buthelezi was happy enough to call himself part of the liberation struggle, but took orders from nobody: he is, after all, the great-grandson of Cetshwayo, who humbled the British Empire at Rorke’s Drift and Isandhlwana, and the great-great-grandson of Dingaan, who massacred the first Boers to venture into Natal. Buthelezi’s invocation of that formidable history annoys the UDF, partly because the UDF would like to claim Shaka, Dingaan and Cetshwayo as national figures of resistance to white rule.

In 1979 Buthelezi attempted, unsuccessfully, to get the ANC to adopt his ‘multiple strategy’ – you do your thing, and I’ll do mine – and in 1980 the relationship broke down entirely when Buthelezi refused the ANC’s demand that he prove once and for all his bona fides in the liberation struggle by allowing KwaZulu to be used as a guerrilla base for Umkhonto infiltrators from Mozambique. In fact, Buthelezi had already given shelter to some such guerrillas and the Pretoria Government had remonstrated furiously with him when it found Umkhonto arms caches in KwaZulu. It was perfectly clear that to accept the ANC’s demand would lead to the South African Army (the SADF) running riot all over KwaZulu and the complete destruction of Buthelezi’s power base, perhaps even of Buthelezi himself – an event which might cause the ANC to cry only crocodile tears. Buthelezi, who in 1980 was running better than 2:1 ahead of Mandela in opinion polls among blacks, felt he had far too much to lose and said no.

From 1980 on, Buthelezi was in a state of cold war with the ANC and must have watched with some chagrin the remarkable popular rediscovery and hero-worship of Mandela. But the formation of the UDF in 1983 raised the stakes very considerably. In one sense, the UDF, an unco-ordinated federation of hundreds of community and student organisations, with 12 presidents, no visible constitution and no individual membership, was hard to take seriously. While it followed the ANC line on most things, it was both more and less than the ANC: it enjoyed the support of many associations which had had nothing to do with the ANC, but it lacked any sort of coherent structure. In Natal, where it had to confront Buthelezi, it enjoyed the additional disadvantage of being dominated by the minority Asian community. The UDF did, though, have several things going for it: it was genuinely multi-racial and genuinely national in its reach and its base in a way that Inkatha could never be; it had the implicit support of the biggest trade-union confederation, COSATU; and there was a clear public understanding that it was the legitimate inheritor of the Congress tradition. The strength of that tradition is such that it is impossible to believe that any black movement can succeed outside it – that is, after all, why even Buthelezi tries to situate himself within it.

The attempt to set up UDF organisations in the great African townships and squatter camps in the Durban-Pietermaritzburg strip was a frontal challenge to Buthelezi and Inkatha. If they allowed the UDF to capture these, the most dynamic and fastest-growing areas of Zulu settlement, Inkatha would be confined to a shrinking and ‘backward’ rural world. Buthelezi almost certainly saw this as the ANC’s riposte: if he would not become a subordinate he would simply be displaced. The result has been a ferocious battle for political control of these areas, with the fighting quickly taking on a momentum of its own and incorporating battles over land, the looting of possessions and the settling of blood feuds. A typical conflict will involve squatters on the lower slopes fighting those with superior sites on the upper slopes and taking their land and possessions if they can – perhaps the most elemental form of class conflict imaginable.

The inevitable product of this long period of bloodshed has been warlordism, with each area living in terror of its own petty feudal lord, who (often in cahoots with the Police) runs a small private army, guarantees protection to those who obey him, and drives out all intruders – whether political or just new would-be squatters. The very fact of black-on-black conflict, let alone the savagery of the fighting, gravely embarrassed the exiled ANC, but it was only in September that COSATU (acting for the banned UDF) finally signed a peace pact with Inkatha at Pieter-maritzburg, Inkatha taking care to ensure the 39 local Inkatha warlords also signed.

Buthelezi has enormous support among the white middle class, has indeed a far broader racial base than any other black leader, but he has, as they say, very few friends on campus; the students here in Durban won’t allow Inkatha speakers onto the campus, and the (white) National Union of South African Students is a formal UDF affiliate. UDF radicals – and they are, as it were, my people, my friends – tell you that Inkatha has lost enormous ground in the townships and that the UDF is still gaining. My impression is that Inkatha – far better organised than the UDF and perhaps (it’s a fine judgment) more ruthless too – has won the battle for turf. Not only has it not been dislodged from its previous redoubts but Inkatha membership, which always increases in the wake of trouble, is now rising. Much of this membership will doubtless be only semi-voluntary – the average township-dweller is far more frightened of the Inkatha impis than he is of the white police. (Even the SADF can seem a welcome presence to the township-dwellers at the end of their tether – there are many cases of SADF troops playing cheerful soccer matches with the township youths who are their once and future enemy.) But Inkatha is also the law and order party and the longer trouble goes on, the more attractive it seems to many.

Inkatha is condemned by a broad band of ‘progressive’ opinion as being primarily responsible for the terrible bloodshed in Natal. It is certainly true that Inkatha inflicted far more casualties on the UDF than vice versa, but that may just be because it’s a better fighting machine. It’s worth pointing out that down in the Eastern Cape (where Inkatha does not exist) the UDF used similarly brutal tactics to smash AZAPO’s hold on the townships. Black political culture is often a very violent one – a knife culture, as it were. You can see this even in the rarefied air of university campuses. On the Natal campus, from which I write, an argument between a white student and some of his black peers not long ago resulted in the white being rescued in the nick of time from a necklacing. Inkatha has no monopoly on the use of violence. It also enjoys the support of my old friend, Rowley Arenstein, by far the most senior Communist living in the country – he was CP Parliamentary candidate as long ago as 1943. I remember only too well standing guard against the Ku Klux Klan night after night outside Rowley’s house. In fact, that’s how I spent my 19th birthday; and the moment when the Klan finally came remains, happily, the only time I’ve ever been shot at. Rowley had just been expelled by the Party for his Maoism then and would preach Lenin at us while we were on guard. It is weird hearing him arguing for Inkatha now.

Inkatha is also condemned by both BC and UDF for being irredeemably capitalist and bourgeois, an assessment with which it can’t really quarrel. COSATU is, of course, strongly socialist, as are large sections of the UDF, while the various BC movements and the National Forum attack the UDF for being insufficiently radical in its socialism, or anything else. All these movements, however (even, to some extent, the unions), are led by middle-class élites. In particular, one notes that lawyers and clergymen are taking the same leadership roles in black nationalist politics that their Afrikaner counterparts took in Afrikaner nationalist politics fifty years ago. Those Afrikaner nationalist ideologues and their children have by now grown into very fat cats, proving that radical nationalist politics are very good for you if you can only get on the right side of them. The black middle-class élites have taken note.

That black middle class is growing apace and so is the world of black business. The most prominent example at the moment are the black taxi-drivers, a whole class of bustling entrepreneurs created by bus deregulation, and now organised by SABTA – the South African Black Taxi-Drivers’ Association. It’s not an uncommon sight to see hundreds of black taxis lined up at bus or train stations, and stealing their clientele wholesale: it’s cheaper and far quicker to go by black taxi than it is to travel third-class on the train, even on the 400-mile Jo’burg-Durban run. The only real competition to black taxis comes from other black taxis, which is why every taxi has a bouncer who fights any rival who tries to steal his business or parking spot.

It is quite symptomatic that SABTA, at its recent conference, should have announced that it wished to be considered as ‘part of the liberation struggle’. For everybody can see that the day of black majority rule is coming. SABTA, for the sake of what one might euphemistically call the enhancement of their business environment, want a seat on the platform with the political bigwigs when that day dawns and will no doubt make handsome political contributions to that end. Happily for them, there will be plenty of people on those political platforms like my friend, Precious Tshabalala, only too happy to accommodate them via some mutually beneficial arrangement.

There is no doubt that the pickings will be terribly good for some, come the Big Change-over. After all these years of being spectators at the feast of white privilege, there should be no doubting the black élite’s enormous appetite for immediate enrichment, nor the frustration it feels that the said Changeover can’t happen right away. I have a bad feeling that the élite will find a way to feather its nest whoever comes to power. As Precious would say, you cannot stop a rising star from definitely rising.