Is apartheid really dead?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Feb 1 10:19:10 MST 2001


Published by H-SAfrica at (December 2000)

Julian Kunnie. _Is Apartheid Really Dead? Pan Africanist Working-Class
Cultural Critical Perspectives_. Boulder, Col. and Oxford: Westview Press,
2000. xv + 272 pp. Map, notes and index. $35.00 paper, ISBN 0-8133-3758-5.

Reviewed for H-SAfrica by Alan Cobley (cobley at ), Department
of History, University of the West Indies, Cave Hill campus, Barbados.

It's the Same Old Story in the New South Africa

In the international media and in the popular perception world-wide, the
negotiated settlement which brought apartheid in South Africa officially to
an end in the early 1990s was portrayed and celebrated as a triumph of the
human spirit over evil, a perception sanctified by the award of the Nobel
Peace Prize to Nelson Mandela and F.W. De Klerk - the men generally
acknowledged to be the key figures in the process. This perception was also
evident in the avalanche of books published in the immediate aftermath of
the transition to black majority rule in 1994, almost all of which praised,
in varying degrees, the manner in which the transition had been effected.
The titles of some of these works are indicative of the general tone:
_Tomorrow is Another Country: The Inside Story of South Africa's Negotiated
Revolution_; _The Small Miracle: South Africa's Negotiated Settlement_;
_1990-1994:The Miracle of a Freed Nation_; _Anatomy of a Miracle: The End
of Apartheid and the Birth of the New South Africa_.[1] While it was
possible to detect some notes of caution or disquiet in this literature
about such issues as continuing ethnic division and the severe social and
economic imbalances which remained to be addressed in the country, all in
all the international and scholarly consensus in the mid-1990s was that we
should feel hopeful for the future of 'the New South Africa'.

Since that time, however, the notes of caution and disquiet have been
sounding increasingly loudly and the hopeful mood has begun to dissipate.
Examples of growing concern about the direction in which South Africa is
headed include the growing scholarly debate on the work of the Truth and
Reconciliation Commission [2], the widespread concerns voiced in the local
and international media about the Government's handling of the HIV/AIDS
epidemic, and the anguished discussions about the implications for South
Africa of the crisis over ownership of land in neighbouring Zimbabwe. For
those who have not heard these critical voices, and who still bask in the
sunny optimism of the mid-1990s, Julian Kunnie's book may serve as a

The book is divided into six chapters, bracketed by a short Preface and an
'Epilogue'. In the first chapter, modestly titled 'A Comprehensive History
of the South African Struggle', Kunnie, using an argument borrowed largely
from Magubane, seeks to outline the means by which European invasion and
conquest led to the establishment of a system of settler colonialism in
South Africa, and how this was then refined and perpetuated from the late
nineteenth century as a form of racial capitalism. Critical to his argument
from a moral standpoint is the unbroken history of black resistance to this
imposition, a discussion of which forms the central part of the chapter.
Despite its title, this chapter focuses largely on the apartheid era, and
its main purpose is to show an essential continuity between this period and
earlier phases of black struggle against white settler power. In a brief
concluding section the argument set out in the next chapter (and in much of
the rest of the book) is telegraphed by the inclusion of a brief discussion
of the ending of apartheid and the post-apartheid era up to the year 2000 -
or what the author calls 'the 1990s Counterrevolution by Capitalist and
Neocolonialist Forces'.

The second chapter, entitled, 'Why Apartheid Changed Character in 1990',
elaborates on the case outlined in Chapter One that there is an essential
continuity between apartheid and the 'post-apartheid' era South Africa:
"...the changes that have occurred since 1990 ... were not geared toward
empowerment of the black working class majority. Rather, they were designed
to maintain the hegemony of capital and white ownership of the land and
economy of South Africa"(p.84). He seeks to substantiate this case through
what he terms a 'Black Consciousness Critique' of the transition process in
the late 1980s and 1990s.

In the third chapter the author develops his case through a discussion of
what he describes as the 'Neocolonial Political Economy' of the 'new' South
Africa. He focuses especially on the role of big business, and the ways in
which he feels the black elite has been coopted and incorporated into the
capitalist economy in order to legitimate that role. Individuals such as
the former ANC General Secretary Cyril Ramaphosa, former COSATU leaders Jay
Naidoo and Sam Shilowa, among other members of the 'Black nouveau
riche'(p.103) are singled out for special condemnation. Against this
background Kunnie denounces the Government's Growth, Employment and
Redistribution Programme (GEAR) as 'a ruse', which, he says, is "encouraged
by global capital because it protects the interests of the conglomerates
and wealthy whites, while conveying the specious impression to the world
that the new South African government is committed to the grassroots Black
working class"(p.121).

Chapter Four is an attempt to place South Africa in a wider African
perspective. This the author does, firstly, by asserting the essential
congruence of South Africa's historical experiences with those of other
African countries. Secondly, country by country and region by region, he
argues that all African countries - "with the possible exception of
Libya"(p.168) - are locked into the same neo-colonialist cycle of
impoverishment and dependency, and that the notion of independence from
European colonial rule in Africa has been largely a sham.

The last two chapters in the book take something of a philosophical leap as
the author, having identified (to his own satisfaction, at least) the roots
causes of the problems facing Africa in general and South Africa in
particular, seeks to lay out a Black radical agenda for the future. In
Chapter Five, he argues that a pivotal role must be played by
"revolutionary Pan-Africanism"in the struggle against colonialism and
neocolonialism on the African continent: "The principal solution and weapon
of defense against this colonial legacy is the establishment of a
Pan-African working class-based form of government that discards the
strictures and divisions of the colonial boundaries that have perforated
Africa"(p.179). He also argues that a "united Black front" involving
Africans of the diaspora as well as those resident in the continent is
required in the struggle "to arrest the course of underdevelopment" and "to
combat Black oppression worldwide". In the course of this discussion Nelson
Mandela is among those African leaders who are condemned for "egotistical
inclinations", the other named examples being Sekou Toure and Laurent Kabila.

Finally, in Chapter Six, Kunnie returns to the case of South Africa to
consider 'Black Union Praxis and Worker Culture: Revolutionary Prospects
and Limitations'. Whilst conceding that both in South Africa and globally,
the prevailing climate is hostile to the development of radical movements,
and that "there is no quick road to socialism in Azania" he argues that "we
radicals" should commit themselves to a long-term strategy involving "the
cultivation of the revolutionary process"(p. 228) The revolutionary
movement must be built in South Africa, he declares (echoing Archie
Mafeje), through a process of "conscientizing"the rural peasantry and of
"reconscientizing"the Black working class. This can be done either by using
"the putative 'democratic space' created by the post-apartheid
dispensation", or by "an underground strategy" to ensure that the actions
and purposes of "the revolutionary Black movement in Azania ... are hidden
from the bourgeoisie" (p. 219). In these scenarios Kunnie accords a special
role to the trade unions, to "indigenous working-class culture" and to
"indigenous African womanist" (as opposed to "Eurofeminist") struggle. The
ultimate objective of this strategy is "a liberated Socialist Republic of
Azania and a unified and integrated socialist Africa" (pp. 251-252).

In the 'Epilogue' he concludes portentously:

"The global capitalist system prevails, certainly today and perhaps for a
short time tomorrow. We continue to live in what Cornel West refers to as
'the age of Europe'. Will the new millennium become an 'age of the
indigenous people?'. We certainly hope so. No singular continent or people
can dominate our beautiful but strife-torn world for ever. The question,
though, is: When? Only time will tell"(p. 261).

The weakest section of this book is undoubtedly the first chapter. Kunnie
is not an historian (both his first degree and his doctorate are in
theology)  and he has relied exclusively on a limited range of (mostly
rather elderly)  secondary sources to compile his over-simplified and
error-strewn "Comprehensive History". Here are a few examples: the complex
circumstances surrounding the 'Great Trek' are reduced to the following
bald (and inaccurate) statement: "In the Cape, the Dutch invaders were
followed by the British colonizers, who formally annexed the Cape in 1806.
The Dutch subsequently left the Cape in 1836 to penetrate the Southern
African hinterland ..." (p.6); A.B. Xuma (not A.P. Xuma as written here) is
wrongly identified as a founder of the South African Native National
Congress in 1912 (p.12); there was no "Bantu Self-Government Act of 1953
[which] created the Bantustan programme" (p.19) - presumably this is a
reference to the Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act of 1959. Only
ignorance can explain the most glaring errors, such as this astounding
statement about African resistance to the Masters and Servants Act of 1856:
"Saul Solomon was one such working-class resister who campaigned vigorously
for the defense of Black workers' rights..." (p.5). A quick check of the
reference, which is to Jack and Ray Simons classic book, _Class and Colour
in South Africa 1850-1950_ reveals that the author, evidently with no
background knowledge to guide him, has simply misunderstood their statement
that Solomon "championed the workers' cause in the assembly" (p.30).[3] Far
from being an African working-class hero, Saul Solomon, was, in fact, a
leading white liberal member of the Cape Parliament and sometime owner of
the _Cape Argus_ newspaper. (He was later bought out by Cecil Rhodes.)
Aside from such overt errors, it is remarkable that the author could have
relied on the third edition of T.R.H. Davenport's _Modern History of South
Africa_ as his main source on the history of the ICU, or that much of his
information on Black working-class women's struggle comes from venerable
books by Ernest Harsch and Mary Benson rather than the more recent and much
more pertinent work of Julia Wells or Cheryl Walker.[4] It is worthy of
note that both here and in subsequent chapters, the author - although he is
himself South African - repeatedly draws on examples from the United States
to support many of his point about white racism, the oppression of
indigenous peoples, and the nature of the Black radical struggle. This may
be seen as an attempt to make his argument more accessible to an
African-American audience, or might, less charitably, be seen as an
indication of the context in which he is most comfortable.

There may be those who feel it is perhaps unkind to haul Kunnie over the
coals for displaying his limited knowledge of South African history. This
is not, after all, intended primarily to be a history book. However,
consider the following comment contained in an endnote to Chapter Two, in
which the author refers to the work of at least a dozen (White) historians
of South Africa (ranging from Davenport and Thompson to Bozzoli, Bundy and
O'Meara):  "A second problem is the peculiarly Eurocentric character of
many of these texts, in which Black sources are either seldom mentioned or
nonexistent, presuming somehow that the essence of intellectual reflection
on South Africa derives from white scholars, a flagrant contradiction
considering that Africans cannot be marginalized in any discussion of the
future of Africa !"(note 10, p. 85). I would suggest that the author cannot
afford to be quite so self-righteous, given his dependence on the work of
these same scholars for his own historical perspective.

The strongest sections of the book are in Chapters Two and Three, in which
Kunnie writes with obvious and often compelling passion about the period of
the 1990s. The negotiations leading to the elections of 1994 are portrayed
both as a betrayal and a bitter defeat for the majority of Black South
Africans, a characterisation which appears increasingly sustainable as the
author details the policy failures of the ANC-led government since 1994.
His central charge, that "for most of the Black masses in South Africa,
life is not getting better"(p. 55), is difficult to refute. The cost of
living _has_ continued to rise steadily, while wages have failed to keep
pace; unemployment _does_ remain unacceptably high; land redistribution
_has_ been painfully slow and limited in effect; the prosperity enjoyed by
the Black middle class has not been felt by the Black majority. While
relatively little has been done to roll back white privilege, there are a
growing number of tales of corruption among government officials, and of
members of the Black political directorate living the high life at the
taxpayers' expense. On the other hand, the government can claim some
limited success in areas such as the entrenchment of workers rights, the
restructuring of the education system, in house building, in the provision
of primary health care, and in the extension of basic amenities such as
sanitation and clean water supply.  As the 1999 elections showed, there
remains a broad consensus in South Africa that there is no credible
alternative to the ANC government, but there is a growing sense of
impatience among many of its rank and filesupporters with its failure to
deliver in key areas.

By contrast, the latter section of the book, with its long discourse on the
development of a revolutionary strategy and its rather forlorn-sounding
exhortation to the Black left to concentrate its efforts on "preparation
for the consummation of the Azanian socialist revolution, even if it takes
the next half century to achieve"(p. 226) has an almost romantic,
anachronistic feel about it. This is not helped by the examples of
socialist societies Africans are exhorted to emulate - Maoist China, Cuba
and Libya. Kunnie seems to have had a slight sense of this himself,
although he tries to nip any such unrevolutionary thinking in the bud: "The
Black left needs to stand firmly by these principles notwithstanding their
'unpopularity' or seeming anachronistic irrelevance _now_ , so that the
truth of these solid principles may be borne out in the future" (p. 226).
No doubt the Arizona desert (Kunnie is Acting Director of Africana Studies
at the University of Arizona) is a good vantage point from which to
contemplate such questions of revolutionary purity.

For me the most glaring omission in this book is the absence of any
discussion of HIV/AIDS, surely one of the most vital issues facing South
Africa today. With the infection rate already said to exceed 4.5 million
people in the country, many economists are predicting catastrophic effects
on the country's development in the 21st century. It would be interesting
to hear how this issue would be tackled as part of a 'Black revolutionary
strategy', but sadly Kunnie is silent on the point. The disease is
mentioned only once, in parenthesis, as a women's health issue, along with
reproductive rights and teenage pregnancy (p. 239). It is curious that the
issue of HIV/AIDS is almost a taboo among radical Pan-Africanists, perhaps
because there is concern that discussions of African cultural and sexual
practices as they pertain to the spread of HIV/AIDS carry racist overtones,
or because there is a feeling that the whole issue is part of wider Western
capitalist plot to marginalize Africa. For whatever the reason, the issue
which is rapidly becoming the central social, economic and political fact
impacting on South Africa's plans for development is not mentioned here.

One other critical note: there are times when the discussion in this book
is overburdened with rhetorical flourishes. My particular favourite comes
from Chapter Two: "Nevertheless, the hand of history was shaking the
corridors of the apartheid machine," (p.62).

Overall, it is evident that I consider this to be a deeply flawed book.
Nevertheless it will be of use to all those who wish to go beyond the cosy
media consensus to seek to understand the social, economic and political
dynamics which are shaping the 'new South Africa.' In particular, as the
euphoria of the first 'non-racial' election of 1994 fades and the
rose-tinted spectacles of 'reconciliation' are set aside, it is clear that
many intractable problems remain to be tackled. The central message of this
book is that all those who care about the future of South Africa must
direct their attention to these problems urgently. I doubt if many
observers would agree with Kunnie's view that the 'new' South Africa is
essentially no better than the old; yet it cannot be denied that South
Africans still has a very long way to go in the struggle to establish a
truly equitable society.


[1] Allistair Sparks, _Tomorrow is Another Country: The Inside Story of
South Africa's Negotiated Revolution_ (Wynburg; Sandton: Struik Books,
1994); S. Friedman and D. Atkinson (eds), _South African Review 7: The
Small Miracle: South Africa's Negotiated Settlement_ (Johannesburg: Ravan
Press, 1994) ; The Sunday Times _1990-1994:The Miracle of a Freed Nation_
(Capetown: Don Nelson and Sunday Times, 1994); Pattie Waldmeir, _Anatomy of
a Miracle: The End of Apartheid and the Birth of the New South Africa_ (New
York and London: W.W.Norton and Co., 1997).

[2] See for example Anthea Jeffrey, _The Truth about the Truth Commission_
(Johannesburg: South African Institute of Race Relations, 1999).

[3] Jack and Ray Simons, _Class and Colour in South Africa 1850-1950_
(London: International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa, 1983), p.30.

[4] Julia Wells, _We Now Demand ! The History of Women's Resistance to Pass
Laws in South Africa_ (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1993);
 Cheryl Walker, _Women and Resistance in South Africa_ (London: Onyx Press,

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Louis Proyect
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