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Mandela & the Masses

Following De Klerk's announcement of February 2 1990 unbanning the ANC and other opposition groups and advising the intention to free Nelson Mandela

"ordinary black people were jubilant. Thousands poured into the streets that day and in the days that followed. In every township and every suburb thousands marched, toyi-toyied and sang freedom songs under the green, black and gold banner of the ANC. Black policemen began giving the ANC salute . . . This spontaneous response reached into most factories, shops and mines. In many factories workers stopped work to celebrate." 1

Mandela's release after 28 years' gaol on February 11 1990 brought scenes of mass celebration:

"Hundreds of thousands gathered on the Parade . . . the jubilation continued as workers took over train coaches, and sang the songs and waved the banners of the ANC, SACP and COSATU. In Johannesburg workers negotiated for time off to attend Mandela's homecoming rally . . . Over 120,000 crammed into the stadium - an unprecedented crowd for an unplanned and unadvertised rally held at mid-day during the middle of the week . . . Strikes, marches and demonstrations rocked Ciskei, Venda, Gazankulu and Bophuthatswana. Workers' demands ranged from a living wage and union recognition to calls for the resignation of homeland leaders." 2

"Cars hooted along the old Potchefstroom Road as drivers and pedestrians greeted each other with clenched fists . . . The main song . . . was 'Thina Iomhlaba sowuphendula" - we will transform this land. Some people thought their wages would be increased because Mandela was released . . . others expected rent would be scrapped in Soweto."3

The Western Cape Traders Association provided free taxis, and local businessmen opened their factories at 3 a.m. to provide free calico when the Reception Committee needed banners.4 The response was widespread, with blacks in East London townships rallying spontaneously, Benz workers marching across the Buffalo Bridge into the city, and workers at Johnson and Johnson, and Federale Volksbeleggings granted an unpaid day holiday. Thousands rallied in Queenstown, at Grahamstown's Joza township, in Port Elizabeth townships, at eZibeleni. 5,000 massed in Seshego, Lebowa, student demonstrations caused businesses to close in Thohoyandou, capital of Venda, and 10,000 students took to the streets of Mdantsane. "Workers at Uitenhage's major factories popped into work yesterday morning, then streamed out of the factory gates singing and toyi-toying to continue the party." Many did not return for a week, according to a University of Port Elizabeth survey which showed that 11 of 12 factories surveyed were involved.5 Television was a conduit of mass action. Minutes after Mandela was shown walking free, an estimated 200,000 people rallied in the streets of Katlehong on the East Rand, buoyed by masses of toyi-toying commuters on trains, whilst 20,000 massed in Vosloorns. Stoppages also took place in Durban. The welcome extended to squatter leaders such as Christopher Toise, spokesperson of 6,000 squatters at Brown's Farm, Phillipi, who declared that "we in the squatter comununity are happy that sanity has prevailed and our leader has been released."6

Even allowing for exaggerations, there seems no doubt that the black worker response to Mandela was overwhelming, and if much of this could be ascribed to his heroic image, a great deal of the response was articulated through the medium of support for the ANC. Support for African nationalism/liberation was being expressed - by workers: "workers are celebrating not just the release of their leader, but also their coming liberation . . . Workers have become strengthened and want their grievances redressed." Trade unionist Geoff Schreiner noted that "in a short space of time, political developments have outstripped developments in the labour field."7 East London automobile workers worked unpaid overtime to present Mandela with a red Mercedes. Moses Mayekiso, earlier touted by some critics as the darling of the anti-ANC ultra-left, but who would soon emerge as a leader of the SACP, stated that

" 'We look to comrade Mandela to initiate a process of political settlement which will incorporate the needs and aspirations of workers' . . . Cynics noted . . . Mandela would be driving a luxury car . . . Others saw in it a sign of workers' expectations . . . After all the workers had insisted that Mandela's car be painted not black, but red."8

The response was not uniform. Bantustan police repressed rallies in kwaZulu and kwaNdebele. Townships with a more Africanist following, such as Khayelitsha, did not record so vast rallies.9

Further images of Mandela occur, such as striding around the stadium at the SACP's inaugural legal rally, or his public humiliation of de Klerk at CODESA in December 1991 - the image of a Black publicly rebuking the State President live on TV led to car horns hooting for hours. But to explain the impact of these images on black workers requires an appreciation of ANC history that is sensitive to both ideological and cultural influences.

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African Nationalism & Workers : Old Myths & New Misconceptions

The choice of beginning with images of Mandela's release amongst workers is related to the fact that this paper is partly about images - the image of the ANC and other groups in Southern Africa amongst ordinary people. Misconceptions about historic relationships between organised workers and the ANC, and differing conceptions of nationalism in South Africa, as I have noted elsewhere, have meant that the ANC has often been viewed in western "modular" or pre-packaged terms: fitting it into preconceived moulds. The conclusions of some writers appear to have been influenced by a somewhat one-dimensional definition in which nationalism is simply counter-posed to workers and the ANC - which is always assumed to signify only leaders - portrayed as "elitist."10 The growth of nationalism and black worker organisation has been well chronicled by André Odendaal, Peter Waishe, Philip Bonner, Helen Bradford, and others, but frequently the relationship of one to the other has been over-simplified, and definitions ill-defined. The impact of nationa}ist ideas on workers, and vice versa, are important themes at times obscured in South African historiography due to a tendency to polarize the two forces. Tom Lodge, often credited with transforming studies on African nationalism by locating them more within community and class struggles, has tended to adopt this polarising approach. At the other pole are ANC-linked historians such as the late Francis Meli and Jack and Ray Simons, accused by Lodge of "sanitising&#" Congress history.11 It is not my intention to argue that either is 34;wrong,34; but rather so show the value of a more comprehensive approach.

Nationalisms have rarely emerged without both elites and masses. Indeed John Lonsdale in 1968 demonstrated the dialectical relationship between the two in a study of the role of "ordinary [rural] Africans in the emergence of national movement," noting elites need ordinary support and may only co-ordinate and not always initiate change.12 The ideas of Eric Hobsbawm and Benedict Anderson on the impact on nationalism "from below" by subaltern classes also have relevance.13 It is not suggested the ANC has not had, or continues to have, its share of elitists, but that there is a symbiotic relationship between elite and masses in the manufacture of nationalism. Nationalism operates at both intellectual/literary, and popular/social levels, and is intimately linked to class. Paul James, invoking Tom Nairn's metaphor of a Janus-like approach common in nationalist theories - of looking either to the remote past or to recent times - notes the dominant tendency in both Marxist and non-Marxist theorizing on nationalism, "emphasizing the modernity of the nation-state and the self-consciousness of its invented traditions can lead to a politics cast only at the level of asking what are the institutional requirements of an alternative political practice, and how are the oppressive, homogenizing directions of the contemporary bureaucratic state to be mitigated."14 Thus much debate on the ANC today revolves around themes such as bureaucracy and alliances, but emphasis on past and continuing worker-nationalist links can help to explain this riddle, as it forces a close consideration of individual lives whilst encompassing worker/nationalist ideologies and lending to an appreciation of cultural, ideological and structural influences.

The emergence of early African nationalism in South Africa has been traced to various origins, such as land conflict between Xhosa and whites, influences of Christianity, and social class, the latter notably by Norman Etherington in his analysis of kholwa in Natal.15 But how was this emergent nationalism articulated amongst Africans? How was the nexus of leader/constituency built and sustained? William Beinart perceived that in the case of the anonymous migrant worker "M," "nationalism was not an exclusive position," and M's complexity of rural-urban, class-national ideas "proved most useful to the Congress movement." Recent research has traced the role of kin or ethnic-based networks amongst workers, some of which relates to nationalism.16 Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido refer to a single South African nationalism retarded by regionalism and racism, and an African nationalism moulded by complex ethno-linguistic traditions, permeated with Africanist popular ideas and liberal multi-racial values, the resonance of these strands accounting for its appeal. Yet there is a certain squeezing of exogenous categories into this complex geopolitical situation. The intelligentsia is said to constitute the ANC, without reference to the precise nature of its membership or support, merely to its peak leadership. "Nationalism" is chosen without regard to the actual constitution of African political movements, although we shall continue to use it here for convenience. The ANC exuded an objectively anti-colonial variety of nationalism, due to the colonial-like position of blacks, if one tempered by demands for incorporation into public life. Colonial-settler capitalism imparted such an orientation to all black, subordinated classes, and middle strata were forced to return again and again to the need for cross-class unity to survive. Marks and Trapido are not unaware of this: "in a colonial situation a group's class position offers no certain guidance to its political affiliation."17

Also appreciative of the complex interlocking of social strata and ideologies is Nick Cope's work on Inkatha of the 1920's, analysing a rudimentary Black Consciousness that had uneven worker links, and asserting there was then no cohesive black middle class, though he tends to view "middle classes" as monolithic, without segmentation, as an elite. But this elite was not a power elite, deciding the fate of workers. It could reach a higher standard of living, and a few could move right out of the middle class if they accumulated enough capital to become employers, such as John Dube, but state restrictions on black landholding and credit made even these "black bourgeoisie" small fish in South African settler capitalism. Alan Cobley does perceptively analyse the internal stratification of African middle strata, but concentrates largely on the more prosperous and financially active, and is less concerned with worker-middle class interactions.18

A more cultural approach has been signalled by Ari Sitas, who notes that the complex interlocking of class-national-ethnic influences amongst black workers in Natal indicates "active appropriations of tradition by ordinary people" whilst the passion of non/semi-literates for models of nation initiated from above cannot be explained by scripted signs as

"these solidarities are constructed by 'sounds' . . . movements generate collectivities by appropriating this popular culture from 'below' . . . 'Zulu-ness' was extruded through a double-sided historical press-mill: on top, the rulers ideology; nearer the bottom, black petty bourgeois strivings, . . . a negotiated identity between ordinary people's attempts to create effective and reciprocal social bonds . . . out of their social and material conditions of life and political ideologies that seek to mobilize them in non-class ways . . . "19

There has always been a complexity of ideologies in the ANC making clear prognosis about this or that ANC "line" difficult, from liberalism of Xuma to radical/Marxism of Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu, and more recendy Pallo Jordan and Meli.20 Writers linked to the ANC and SACP have stressed the need for unity of workers and nationalists, and whilst this has focussed attention on the relationship, at times it has been at the expense of a critical approach. One group of radicals were expelled largely due to differences over the "pure class" versus the nationalist-worker unity approach. Thus David Hemson criticised both liberals and the ANC/SACP for allegedly "equating" nationalism and socialism. Their resonance of this "school" with black nationalist studies is less clear than their undoubted contributions to labour history. Indeed, William Worger accuses them of condescension towards, and inability to communicate with, black nationalists, elevating class over race.21 More recently an argument has been advanced for a new "school" of black historians synthesizing all these approaches.22

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