Debate: a radical magazine from South Africa

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Apr 22 09:29:57 MDT 2001

I was pleasantly surprised to find a sample copy of the revamped version of
"Debate" in my mailbox yesterday. The last time I saw "Debate" was when it
was a rather dry looking journal--although the content was hard-hitting.
Now "Debate" has the same kind of leading-edge commentary in a highly
attractive magazine format accompanied by first-rate photos.
Congratulations are in order to the folks who put the magazine out. They
are all comrades of our Patrick Bond, stalwart of this and other
progressive mailing lists. Subscription information on "Debate" can be
obtained from debatsa at Here is a sample article:


The Legacy of the Oppenheimer Empire

by Oupa Lehulere

J B Marks is a hero and icon of the National Union of Mineworkers. One
wonders how he would respond if he were to hear the praise that Harry 0
received from the leaders of black mineworkers. After all, JB Marks’ memory
of the kind of industry Harry 0 helped to build was that it drove 100 000
black miners down the shafts at point of bayonets. That was a long time
ago, in 1946, and since then South Africa has become a strange place indeed.

The leaders of black mineworkers are however not alone in this strange
land. Among many cultures, and in particular among Africans, it is
customary that one does not speak badly of the dead. It might explain why
the President now asks South Africans to praise the work he [Harry O]
bequeathed to South Africa~ The leadership of the liberation movement has
praised Harry O for precisely those of his activities that still cast a
dark shadow over our new democracy: his business activities. Should we be
proud of this legacy?

Apartheid The Anglo American Company (AAC) was formed in 1917, seven years
after the formation of the Union of South Africa, and four years after the
1913 Land Act. These two events, the Act of Union and the Land Act, became
synonymous with the rise of the AAC to economic and political dominance in
South Africa.

The AAC was formed with the blessing of the new, whites’ only, Union of
South Africa government. One of the important directors of the new company
was one FC Hull, the Finance Minister of the first Union government. The
founder of the company, Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, was himself an MP in the
Union parliament. Later on, the son Harry O also became an MP. Both Hull
and Sir Oppenheimer used their connections with the South African state to
good effect in building up the AAC diamonds empire. Backroom deals with the
state and legal interventions in parliament ensured the early domination of
the diamond industry by the AAC.

The AAC’s— and De Beers’ — close relationship with the apartheid state,
established in these early years, was to continue for the entire century.
Today, this continuing closeness can be seen in the tears shed by the new
ruling elite on the occasion of Harry Os death. There is now a new legend
that portrays Harry O as being an anti-apartheid campaigner. Nothing could
be further from the truth. Besides the fact that Oppenheimer companies grew
by leaps and bounds under apartheid, Harry O and his father were active
collaborators with the apartheid state. They were instrumental in setting
up the state-owned National Finance Corporation in [1949 and they propped
up the South African economy when it was faced with capital flight after
the Sharpville massacre in 1960. As a trustee of the South African
Foundation during the Verwoed government, Harry O had the task of promoting
and polishing the image of apartheid. If there is still any doubt about
Harry Os attitude to apartheid, then the AAC statement settles it:
according to the statement Harry O ‘would never have acted
unconstitutionally.' And apartheid was after all the constitution~ It all
sounds very familiar, doesn’t it?

This, however, could not be otherwise. The Union of South Africa itself
owed its birth to the interest of gold mining. As South Africans celebrate,
or mourn, the Anglo-Boer War, few seemed to remember that behind the ‘Boer’
and ‘Brit’ struggle, and the Africans caught in the crossfire, there was
the fundamental struggle for the control of the gold mines of the
Witwatersrand. Thus, the formation of the Union in 1910 was nothing but the
victory of mine-owners over the old Boer republics.

In the same vein, the discovery of gold and diamonds ensured that the
process of land dispossession lost its piecemeal and, so to speak,
accidental character. It is therefore no accident that one of the first
important legal initiatives of the new Union government was the Lend Act in
1913. This act created the economic pressure necessary to force Africans to
go and work on the mines w slave labourers.

Slave labour The entire mining industry in South Africa, of which the C was
the leading company, is unthinkable without heap, migrant, black labour.
This was true yesterday as tis true today. In order to maintain and ensure
the continuing supply of cheap black labour the mining industry also needed
an instrument of coercion. The apartheid state was such an instrument. Key
moments in the evolution of the AAC’s dominance of mining — and
manufacturing — coincide with major defeats of the South African working
class, both black and white. These landmark dates are the 1920 black
miners’ strike and the 1922 Rand Revolt, the 1946 (black) mineworkers
strike, and the banning of the liberation movements in 1960. One
illustration will suffice here. Speaking in 1925 after the defeat of the
Rand Revolt, Sir Ernest Oppenheimer remarked that the profitability of the
mining industry could not have been restored ‘without the reorganisation of
underground work dating from the 1922 strike’. The Oppenheimer dynasty was
not an ‘unfortunate’ victim and unwilling beneficiary of apartheid. On the
contrary, with sometimes striking foresight, it understood the long-term
gains of being loyal to apartheid, of not acting ‘unconstitutionally.

After all, apartheid did not produce the mining industry and its
institutions of repression: the mining industry and its institutions
produced apartheid. All the trappings of apartheid — pass laws, migrant
labour, compound housing, the colour bar, the reserves, violent repression,
low wages — were pioneered in the mining industry. After more than a 100
years of the gold mining industry, it has become impossible to distinguish
the colour of gold from the colour of mineworkers blood. For every ton of
gold mined by Harry O and his friends over these 100 years, there is an
unmarked tomb for the unknown worker in the bowels of the earth.

Anglo and the ANC in power In one of the many obituaries for Harry O, Chris
Barron remarked that he ‘lived most of his life surrounded by sycophancy’.
Most of the new ruling elite was for a long time denied the opportunity to
share in this sycophancy. One has to admit, however, that the new ruling
elite has made up the time lost. The outpouring of grief and a sense of
loss for Harry O show how far this group has travelled from its stance of
nationalising the commanding heights of the economy. More than 150 years
ago Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote that ‘the Executive of the modern
state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole

The collapse of Stalinist socialism notwithstanding, one has to admit that
those two old subversives have again got it right: the ANC in power has
become but a committee to manage the common affairs of the whole capitalist
class. As a party in power, the ANC has shown a remarkable subservience to
the direct and immediate interests of the most powerful sections of the
capitalist class.

Should we then be proud of the legacy of Anglo and Harry O? Well, it
depends on which side one’s bread is buttered these days. For the millions
of working people in South and Southern Africa, there is very little to be
proud of. 

Louis Proyect
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