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.

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