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par John PILGER
On my wall in London is my favourite photograph from South Africa. Always thrilling to behold, it is Paul Weinberg’s image of a lone woman standing between two armoured vehicles, the infamous “hippos”, as they rolled into Soweto. Her arms are raised, fists clenched, her thin body both beckoning and defiant of the enemy. It was May Day 1985 ; the last great uprising against apartheid had begun.
Twelve years later, with my thirty-year banning from South Africa lifted, there was a pinch-me moment as I flew into Jan Smuts and handed my passport to a black immigration officer. “Welcome to our country”, she said. I quickly discovered that much of the spirit of resistance embodied in the courageous woman in Soweto had survived, together with a vibrant ubuntu that drew together African humanity, generosity and political ingenuity —for example, in the dignified resolve of those I watched form a human wall around the house of a widow threatened with disconnection of her electricity, and in people’s rejection of demeaning “RDP houses” they called “kennels” ; and in the pulsating mass demonstrations of social movements that are among the most sophisticated and dynamic in the world.
On the twentieth anniversary of the first democratic vote on 27 April 1994, it is this resistance, this force for justice and real democratic progress, that should be celebrated, while its betrayal and squandering should be understood and acted upon. On 11 February, 1990, Nelson Mandela stepped out on the balcony of Cape Town City Hall with the miners’ leader Cyril Ramaphosa supporting him. Free at last, he spoke to millions in South Africa and around the world. This was the moment, an historic split-second as rare and potent as any in the universal struggle for freedom. Moral power and the power for justice could triumph over anything, any orthodoxy, it seemed. “Now is the time to intensify the struggle”, said Mandela in a proud and angry speech, perhaps his best, or the last of his best. The next day he appeared to correct himself. Majority rule would not make blacks “dominant”. The retreat quickened. There would be no public ownership of the mines, banks and rapacious monopoly industries, no economic democracy, as he had pledged with the words : “a change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable”. Reassuring the white establishment and its foreign business allies —the very orthodoxy and cronyism that had built, maintained and reinforced fascist apartheid— became the political agenda of the “new” South Africa.
Secret deals facilitated this. In 1985, apartheid had suffered two disasters : the Johannesburg stock market crashed and the regime defaulted on its mounting foreign debt. In September that year, a group led by Gavin Relly, chairman of the Anglo-American Corporation, met Oliver Tambo, the ANC president, and other liberation officials in Mfuwe, Zambia. The Relly message was that a “transition” from apartheid to a black-governed electoral democracy was possible only if “order” and “stability” were guaranteed. These was liberal code for a capitalist state in which social and economic democracy would never be a priority. The aim was to split the ANC between the “moderates” they could “do business with” (Tambo, Mandela and Thabo Mbeki) and the majority who made up the United Democratic Front and were fighting in the streets.