Apartheid didn’t die in South Africa

The racist theory of “separate development” has followed a line that runs from De Beers’s earliest monopolies to Marikana today. It is inspired by a global order of “free markets” upheld by force.

Striking mine workers
Striking mine workers. Photograph: Getty Images

The murder of 34 miners by the South African police, most of them shot in the back, puts paid to the illusion of post-apartheid democracy and illuminates the new, worldwide apartheid of which South Africa is both a historic and contemporary model.

In 1894, long before the infamous Afrikaans word foretold “separate development” for the majority people of South Africa, an Englishman, Cecil John Rhodes, oversaw the Glen Grey Act in what was then the Cape Colony. This was designed to force blacks from agriculture into an army of cheap labour, principally for the mining of newly discovered gold and other precious minerals. As a result of this social Darwinism, Rhodes’s De Beers companyquickly developed into a world monopoly, making him fabulously rich. In keeping with liberalism in Britain and the United States, he was celebrated as a philanthropist supporting high-minded causes.

Today, the Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University is prized among liberal elites. Successful Rhodes scholars must demonstrate “moral force of character” and “sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship”. The former president Bill Clinton is one; General Wesley Clark, who led the Nato attack on Yugoslavia, is another. The wall known as apartheid was built for the benefit of the few, not least the most ambitious of the bourgeoisie.

Transmission line

This was something of a taboo during the years of racial apartheid. South Africans of British descent could indulge their contempt for the Boers, while providing the façades behind which an inhumane system guaranteed privileges based on race and, more importantly, on class.

The new black elite in South Africa, whose numbers and influence had been growing steadily during the latter racial apartheid years, understood the part they would play following “liberation”. The “historic mission” of such elites, wrote Frantz Fanon in The Wretch ed of the Earth, “has nothing to do with transforming the nation; it consists, prosaically, of being the transmission line between the nation and a capitalism rampant though camouflaged”.

This applied to leading figures in the African National Congress (ANC), such as Cyril Rama - phosa, head of the National Union of Mine - workers, now a corporate multimillionaire, who negotiated a power-sharing “deal” with the regime of F W de Klerk and Nelson Mandela himself, whose devotion to a “historic compromise” ensured that freedom for the majority from poverty and inequity was a freedom too far. This became clear as early as 1985, when a group of South African industrialists led by Gavin Relly, chairman of the Anglo American mining company, met prominent ANC officials in Zambia and both sides agreed, in effect, that racial apartheid would be replaced by economic apartheid, known as the “free market”.

Secret meetings subsequently took place in a stately home in England, Mells Park House, at which a future president of liberated South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, supped malt whisky with the heads of corporations that had shored up racial apartheid. The British giant Consolidated Gold Fields supplied the venue and the whisky. The aim was to divide the “moderates” – the likes of Mbeki and Mandela – from an increasingly revolutionary multitude in the townships who evoked memories of uprisings following the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 and at Soweto in 1976, without ANC help.

Once Mandela was released from prison in 1990, the ANC’s “unbreakable promise” to take over monopoly capital was seldom heard again. On his triumphant tour of the US that summer, Mandela said in New York: “The ANC will reintroduce the market to South Africa.” When I interviewed Mandela in 1997 – he was then president – and reminded him of the unbreakable promise, I was told in no uncertain terms: “The policy of the ANC is privatisation.”

Enveloped in the hot air of corporate-speak, the Mandela and Mbeki governments took their cues from the World Bank and the IMF. While the gap between the majority living beneath tin roofs without running water and the newly wealthy black elite in their gated estates became a chasm, the finance minister Trevor Manuel was lauded in Washington for his “macroeconomic achievements”. South Africa, noted George Soros in 2001, had been delivered into “the hands of international capital”.

Shortly before the recent massacre of miners employed for a pittance in a dangerous, UKregistered platinum mine, the erosion of South Africa’s economic independence was demonstrated when the ANC government of Jacob Zuma stopped importing 42 per cent of its oil from Iran under intense pressure from the US. The price of petrol has already risen sharply, further impoverishing people.

Lesser evil

This economic apartheid is now replicated across the world as poor countries comply with the demands of western “interests” as opposed to their own. The arrival of China as a contender for the resources of Africa, though without the economic and military threats of the US, has provided further excuse for US military expansion and the possibility of world war, as demonstrated by Barack Obama’s recent arms and military budget of $737.5bn. The first African- American president of the land of slavery presides over a perpetual war economy, mass unemployment and abandoned civil liberties: a system that has no objection to black or brown people as long as they serve the right class. Those who do not comply are likely to be incarcerated.

This is the South African and American way, of which Obama, son of Africa, is the embodiment. Liberal hysteria that the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, is more extreme than Obama is no more than a familiar promotion of “lesser evilism” and changes nothing. Ironically, the election of Romney to the White House is likely to reawaken mass dissent in the US, whose demise is Obama’s singular achievement.

Although Mandela and Obama cannot be compared – one is a figure of personal strength and courage, the other a pseudo-political creation – the illusion that both beckoned a new world of social justice is similar. It belongs to a grand illusion that relegates all human endeavour to a material value and confuses media with information and military conquest with humanitarian purpose. Only when we surrender these fantasies shall we begin to end apartheid across the world.

John Pilger’s 1998 film, “Apartheid Did Not Die”, is available at johnpilger.com.